At interview time, singer-songwriter Jaye Bartell — a former Xpress editor, now based in Brooklyn — was driving to Minneapolis. He got a driver’s license (for the first time ever) only six months ago, specifically for this tour, a full month as the opener for Kevin Morby (the bassist for Woods and a singer-songwriter in his own right). He had his first real driving experiences in LA. All of that would be harrowing for most people, but Bartell says, “I do love tour. I feel like I’m given to it. It’s something I wanted to do so much of my life [and] now that I’m finally here, I feel the most natural. … I can be honest as myself and with other people.”
Bartell’s sets are in support of his recent release, Light Enough, on Sinderlyn. The label also re-released Bartell’s previous record, Loyalty, which he wrote and recorded in Asheville. Its songs recount many situations and circumstances that took place in this town. The re-release includes photos of Bartell’s “beautiful, beloved, deeply missed apartment on Kimberly Avenue,” by local photographer Max Cooper, and illustrations by local artist Nathanael Roney. The band for that album is also a local lineup: Shane Parish, Courtney Chapel, Jaye Seeger and Emily Easterly.
While Bartell’s previous recordings, like Loyalty, evolved out of a city he moved to and a community of artists he found there, Light Enough came about differently. “It’s centered on new friendships, a new relationship to myself,” he says. Crafted in his bedroom in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he moved in 2013 after leaving Asheville, it’s “much more solitary, but at the same time feeling much more enfranchised and feeling much closer to people.”
Most of the music was written alone, arranged by engineer Ezra Tenenbaum, and recorded on Tenenbaum’s Tascam tape console, with Bartell playing most instruments and Tenenbaum adding 12-string guitar parts. Parish also contributed guitar to the song “The Worm,” which he and Bartell wrote when Bartell lived with Parish and Chappell in Asheville.
“The recordings are kind of a means of locating myself in a place, and among people, as with my poetry writing,” says Bartell. “The subject of the song ‘Light Enough’ is [about] the process of locating myself in my place, and in the end that’s achieved. It expresses the thing that it does.”
The album’s specificity is of emotional topography as much as geography. The dusky lead track, “G & Me,” wends its way from dark imagery (“You were born buried in the ground … when you spend your life digging out, your bury yourself again”) to the lifting cool breeze from the windows of a borrowed car speeding out of town. “Wake On the Way Down” is built on interesting time signature changes and ironic turns of phrase that feel more poetic than sarcastic (“What didn’t you do to the bed to make it hate me?”). Bartell’s vocal is unique — low, meticulous, notes shifting and taking on the form that makes sense for the delivery. There are certain parallels to Leonard Cohen; there’s a timelessness that feels more fresh than antiquated.
“The album was record a year ago, which means a lot of the songs were written leading up to that,” says Bartell. “So they’ve changed a lot.” He finds he’s playing some of the vocal arrangements differently on this tour, and his relationship to the songs changes depending on the people in the room.
“I find I favor some songs over others … and I think that will change on the next tour,” he says. The tracks he likes best right now are those that he knows best, through muscle memory, which makes them most familiar onstage. A new song, he says, pulls him away from the audience. “I want to be in the song, with the people there, not wondering which fret is next.”
Then he quips, “Luckily, my songs only involve three frets.” If that’s true, Bartell makes the most of that small piece of sonic real estate — his music is expansive and startling, at turns aching and warm.
But back to Minneapolis. Bartell and Morby played 7TH ST Entry, an annex of First Avenue, the club where Prince’s 1994 film Purple Rain was filmed. When asked if he had a Prince tribute planned, Bartell said, “I have a Prince cover, but it’s a Will Oldham cover of a Prince song.“ That’s apt considering Bartell formerly toured with Angel Olsen, a musician currently based in Asheville, who spent time as a backing singer for Oldham, aka Bonny “Prince” Billy. Of that particular royal personage Bartell says, “He’s still alive, thank God.”
WHO: Jaye Bartell with Nathanael Roney
WHERE: The Mothlight
WHEN: Tuesday, June 28, 9 p.m. Free