The Siren’s Song
By Massimo D'Angelo
in the NAMM Show (Anaheim, California) is always an emotional occasion. And for
a European it is even more so. To the fascination of the innovative musical
instruments, is added an almost uncontrollable curiosity to discover new sounds
and voices, which do not always reach the other side of the ocean.
In fact, during the fair, each exhibitor offers a kind of continuous show by trying to make their instruments sound perfect, in the best hands.
For those who come from the old continent, with modest means and a small team, like ours, it is practically impossible to attend all the events. For this reason, it is often the case or luck that leads to a discovery, a report, an article or a simple video.
Camera in hand, passing in front of the Godin Guitars stand, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a twelve-string acoustic guitar, and we began recording it even before entering the Canadian guitar-maker’s space. The guitar accompanied a voice. But not just any voice. It was the song of a siren. And, as if lost in an epic Greek poem, it was impossible to resist: we could not do anything but stay there, motionless, enjoying the four songs we were lucky to hear, enchanted by the voice, and enchanted by the smile, which never stopped shining.
The siren is called Caroline Jones. Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Caroline was born in New York on June 30, 1990 to an American father, from Memphis, and an Australian mother. Her music has pop-country roots. At the age of 28, she has already co-produced her first album, Bare Feet, which is now around one year old. She hosts a radio show on Sirius XM entitled Art & Soul, and in the last two years she has shared the stage with legends such as Jimmy Buffet, Eagles, Vince Gill, Zac Brown Band and Kenny Chesney, among others.
Guitars Exchange interviews Caroline Jones at her residence in Florida, where she is preparing to fly to Europe to the Country to Country festival that annually brings together the best of American country music in a concert marathon between Ireland and the United Kingdom. (London, Dublin, Glasgow, from 8 to 10 March 2019). We thank the lovely Caroline for her warmth and generosity: it was a real pleasure to chat with her about country music, her past experiences, her future plans and, of course, her favorite guitars!
GE: Can you tell us something about your first NAMM experience?
CJ: It was really enjoyable. I had heard so much about NAMM from my guitar tech, engineers and band members. It was so inspiring to see so much innovation in one place in our field, especially in 2019, as there are so many technological aspects in the music industry that come into play in production and live performance now. As someone who loves that, I was really inspired with the creativity and innovation. You can be there for the whole four days and never really get to the bottom of it.
GE: This week you are coming to Europe; will this be your first time?
CJ: It will be my first as a performer. I have been to Europe as a tourist but apart from Canada these are my first shows overseas. I am very excited, because I have heard that European audiences really appreciate musicianship and authenticity and love the story-telling aspect of Country music, so I can’t wait to connect with those people.
GE: In 2014 Dierks Bentley covered Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and it really was a special moment. Are you working on a surprise for the European audience; a tribute, for example?
CJ: Yes, we have a couple planned. If you have heard some of the covers I have done in the last six months some may be included, but I don’t want to give too much more away for now! [Laughs]
GE: You have played with the Zac Brown Band, Mac McAnally, Jimmy Buffett and one of our greatest guitar heroes to date, Steve Cropper…Which song and artist would you love to sing and play with in the future?
CJ: That is so tough. I have crossed many off my bucket list. I just played with Vince Gill who is one of my biggest heroes as a guitar player and song writer. I am a huge Keith Urban fan - he would be at the top of my list - and Ed Sheeran.
GE: You will be touring soon with Kenny Chesney; how did that come about?
CJ: I met Kenny at a benefit concert that Jimmy [Buffett] asked me to open and Kenny was playing; that was about 18 months ago. And then Jimmy put us back in contact a few months ago and suggested we tour together. I couldn’t be more grateful to Jimmy; he has been such a huge supporter of mine.
GE: Do you have a favourite Kenny Chesney song?
CJ: Yes, I have a bunch of them; I love his music. My favourite is You and Tequila, which is such a special song, and then I also love All The Pretty Girls, off his most recent record.
GE: Let me ask you about your album. ‘Bare Feet’ is now one year old; how has it been received?
CJ: It has been received beautifully and I am really pleased, because it really grew into itself on the road. Doing the ‘meet and greets’ and performing on these big stages has allowed probably hundreds of thousands of people to hear the music at this point, and I am so grateful because it really has found its home in the hearts of new fans that I have been able to make over the past few years. It has been a beautiful journey and we are going to be starting ‘chapter two’ here in a month or so.
GE: Do you have a favourite track from your album?
CJ: I think probably The Difference. I have always loved and been proud of the production on the song and we have just put out a video and it is doing really well, so I think that is my favourite song right now. It is a song about real trust and real love and those themes are close to my heart.
GE: Your most successful video, “Tough Guys”, had more than 1 million views in 2 years. Your latest one, “The Difference”, had more than half a million views in just one week… How can you explain that?
CJ: I can explain it in two parts. First of all I have a lot more fans and a lot more visibility than I had when I did Tough Guys, and secondly, we are doing a big campaign around it. We have had the support of sites like Taste of Country so we have been pushing it. I am so happy with how it has been received.
GE: In which ways do videos help the music in your opinion?
CJ: You could ask 100 artists and get 100 different answers, because it is about your individual brand and artistry and what you are trying to portray. There are artists nowadays who are super-successful who aren’t very visual at all. One example would be Chris Stapleton who doesn’t put too much emphasis on visual branding, and then there are artists like Beyoncé whose visual aspect is just as much a part of their artistry as the production of the music. For me the video is just another expression of the meaning of the song. Obviously the music comes first but I actually like video as a visual medium more than photography, because the dynamics of the video can really add to the production of the song.
But I do think in this day and age you can make a video with a huge budget and you can make a video in your room that can go viral and it really comes down to the quality and the artistry portrayed in the video. That is a beautiful thing because production has been ‘evened’ by modern technology. It is really about the content of the video and what is being expressed, rather the pyros, the lights, the costumes and the choreography.
GE: Which song from the album was the most difficult to write or record?
CJ: Probably The Difference because I wrote it on a five-string banjo and it was just a continuous loop. Also it is not a short song, it is over five minutes, so we had to find a way to make that production exciting with a blend of pop and country; we needed to make it fresh and interesting. It was a real journey; so that was the most challenging one.
GE: Do you have an established song writing process?
CJ: It depends. I just wait until I can’t not write the song. You can sit down and you write a little here and there, but then you have moments as a songwriter where you are struck by lightning and the song flows out of you, and those are the moments that you just wait for. You need to be ready for those moments. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve just lived for that creative high.
GE: After hearing you at NAMM I started to investigate…Caroline Jones-Country Music-Country girl – Zac Brown – Kenny Chesney, etc. Then we heard your album and we found that Country and Pop were blended together in most of the songs… Ric Wake, your co-producer, worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion…Gustavo Celis, the recording engineer, worked with Beyoncé, Shakira, Ricky Martin… Is your pop influence due to your production environment?
CJ: I would say a combination, but I can almost hear Ric laughing at me, because Ric is more on the country side than I am. But you are right our team is the reason we have that blend. Gus is inspired by sonic quality and computerised pieces like programmed beats, processed vocals and synthesizers, while Ric brings to the table such an important perspective on the way that different parts work together, and the footprint of a record and a mix. He is just so good at knowing how many elements can fit. I love country songwriting and authenticity but I love modern pop production; it fascinates me when I hear new sounds that computers can make, because they can make me feel something. I love blending those worlds.
GE: Going back to your childhood, when did you first start to play guitar? Do you still have your first guitar?
CJ: I started to play when I was 17. I actually have it right here; it is a Taylor T5 guitar.
GE: You have a huge collection of guitars; but if you could only save one from a burning building, which one would you save?
CJ: My producer Ric has a 1963 Hardtail Strat, and it is just heavenly and special, and even though it is not technically mine, we share it, and that is the one I would save.
GE: There are lot of examples of ‘famous’ guitars…from Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” to the “Old Black” of Neil Young or Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” or BB King’s “Lucille”. Do you have a special one in your collection linked to a particular moment of your life, or perhaps one you wrote a special song with?
CJ: Yes I have a bunch of them, but if I had to choose it would be my Paul Beard guitar that I had custom made for me. On my single Tough Guys we doubled the lead riff on a National Resophonic Resorocket and with a Gibson Les Paul 1980 Artist Series so I was going on a radio tour and I was just trying to work out how I could play that song by myself so it would sound good sonically, so that’s when we reached out to Beard, and they designed an acoustic electric guitar that has piezo pickups. It is basically an electric resonator but it has acoustic pickup that sounds like an acoustic resonator. And then it has a gold foil pickup in the bridge that gives you that Les Paul sound. When you blend them it sounds exactly like the sound on Tough Guys. I hope we can share it with other guitar players in the future, because it is a really unique sound.
GE: If you had to choose three key points in your career, which would you choose?
CJ: My first would be making the decision to write and produce my own records because early on everyone had a different idea of how I should be and what kind of artist I should be; so I scrapped the whole thing and started writing and producing the records myself. And that was a huge moment in terms of making me the artist that I am. The second would be when Zac Brown took me on tour for the first time because that was a huge opportunity for me and I will be forever grateful. He gave me my first touring opportunity on a big stage in front of thousands of people. And then the mentorship of Jimmy Buffet; I am just so grateful for the platform that he has given me through his record label and the distribution deal that we have with them. You are talking about millions of dedicated die hard fans. I am just really grateful to work with people who I look up to as artists.
GE: Brad Paisley released “This Is Country Music” album few years ago. How would you explain country music to European people?
CJ: I don’t feel qualified to explain it like Brad Paisley, because he grew up in West Virginia and he is a staple of what country means in modern times. So I can only explain what it means to me. When I was 17, I went to a show, and I had never seen a singer-songwriter just with a guitar and a vocal capture the hearts and minds and attention of every person in the room; but it really is about those values, humanity and the heart.
GE: From Merle Haggard to Brad Paisley, from George Jones to Darius Rucker, from Hank Williams to Kenny Chesney, from Dolly Parton to Miranda Lambert …or Caroline Jones... How has country music changed over the years?
CJ: I think the biggest thing is that the songwriting and the production is constantly evolving and changing shape. We have these labels for types of music that used to be based on geography - so country used to be the music came out of the American south east, out of Nashville, and blues came out of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, so it used to be based on geographic location, but then globalisation happened and everyone started listening to everything, and there has been an identity crisis in several genres of music and lines have been blurred. We all know the classic artists, but in terms of what country music means today it really is so subjective. I don’t consider myself traditional country by any stretch, but others might say ‘this is country’ [Laughs] so it is a journey and a lot of artists have the opportunity today to blend these worlds stylistically, and I think that is a good thing for art.
GE: If you had to choose three country music albums from three different artists to deeply understand what Country Music is, including compilations or greatest hits, what would they be?
CJ: Any of Hank Williams records - if you can get a compilation, get one! I would also choose Red Headed Stranger by Willy Nelson and My Tennesee Mountain Home by Dolly Parton. In terms of American country music, if you want to see where it came from, and what it is at the core, I would choose those.
GE: Last question; where does Caroline Jones see herself in five years time?
CJ: Playing, writing songs, releasing records and touring; hopefully on bigger and bigger stages to more and more ears and hearts.
The interview closes with Guitars Exchange thanking Caroline Jones for her time.
Whether it's at the next edition of the NAMM Show, next to a huge stage, or in a Nashville gambling den, we hope to see and hear the siren song again, very soon, live.