Scrolling through Jess Nolan’s Instagram, an ornamentation of warm-hued flowers and striking poses fill the page of this old-soul poet, painter, and musician. Holding her fans near and dear as one would a friend, Nolan uses her vulnerability as a superpower. A candid selfie of the songstress here and footage of her soulful vocals there are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Nolan’s creative expression. Whether collaborating with fellow Nashville writers or fine-tuning her brushwork, it’s clear that Nolan is devoted to capturing the complexities behind the human experience.
Like the distant chirps of a songbird on a dewy spring morning, or that one sweater that never fails to embrace you in its soft wool, Nolan’s lyrics and vocal timbre are refreshingly evocative.
Embodying the classic feminist valor of Joni Mitchell, tinted with a lyrical palette synonymous to that of Carole King’s, Nolan is infusing Music City with her newest song off her upcoming debut LP, From Blue to Gold, called “Balance.”
We had the opportunity to talk to Nolan about all of this and more.
Music Mecca: I see you’re from New Jersey. What made you want to pursue a music career in Nashville versus say NYC or another big music market town?
Jess Nolan: Growing up, I always pictured myself living in New York, and I think most people from that area have a similar idea. I ended up going to college at the University of Miami, in Florida, and was all set to move to New York. I went and lived there for three months between my junior and senior year of college and absolutely hated it (laughs). Because it was nothing like my trips to NYC from high school! It just felt really overwhelming. Then I took a trip to Nashville on a whim, and I fell in love with the size of the city and the sense of community here. I thought “You know what? Let’s just see what happens,” and it’s been five years now.
MM: You’ve got your newest single, “Balance,” from your upcoming album From Blue to Gold, set for release January 24th. What’s the primary inspiration and influence behind this particular song?
JN: This song is actually my first joyful song that I’ve ever put out. (laughs). My last few singles and my EP were coming from a different place in my life, honestly. I was in an angry place. My grandma passed away a few years ago, and she was the only other artist in my family. When she passed away, it was a catalyst for me to start my artist career. I spent the last few years doing a lot of self-reflection, and this record is the product of that self-reflection. This first single is about the fact that I don’t have it all figured out on my own, and we need other people to find balance in our lives. It’s a nice shift in perspective, for sure.
MM: And what’s the overall vision or theme for the whole upcoming album?
JN: I think the record is my self-actualization in not having it all figured out and surrendering to that. The imagery of From Blue to Gold is about that shift. It chronicles romantic relationships that I’ve had in the last few years. There’s this shift into a song focusing in on what it means to be a woman in this day and age, and in the industry today. Then the last half of the record is looking inward for answers.
MM: From Blue and Gold has quite the dream team consisting of Joe Costa (mixed for Ben Folds), and players like Derek Wells, Calvin Knowles, Maureen Murphy, and so on. How did this group come together?
JN: A lot of the people on this record have been supporters of my music since the beginning. Joe Costa is an incredible engineer here in town and he took a chance with me with my last few singles and I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and same with Derek. We met at one of the YEP [Young Entertainment Professionals] Nashville nights. [Derek Wells] was the musical director for the band and I was one of the artists sitting in. He also keeps an open-mind with working with up-and-coming musicians, and people that he believes in, and I feel really honored to be one of those artists.A lot of people on this record are dear friends of mine who have helped this record come to life.
MM: What’s your songwriting process like for you? Do you have a routine or atmosphere conducive to writing, or does it come more sporadically?
JN: So half the songs on the record (I wrote by myself) definitely were lightning bolts of inspiration; you can’t really plan for that stuff. The first song I wrote for the record, “Circles,” which is tribute to my grandmother, and that one came out of nowhere. I wrote it in 30 minutes.A few songs were co-writes, and you have to do a certain amount of planning for those kinds of writes. But they were all coming from the place of, “This is the vision for the record- I want to talk about gaining perspective,” and I did a lot of poetry writing in the last three years. I’d say three or four of the songs on the record started as poems that I had written with really clear intentions in the words, and they blossomed into songs when I brought them into the room.
MM: And I see the upcoming album was fully funded by your fans on Kickstarter. Did it exceed your expectations, and did it add to your level of confidence and assurance in what you’re doing?
JN: Totally. When we launched the Kickstarter, I was only going to do an EP. We were actually going to do 4-5 songs. In the studio we said “Alright, we’ll demo 12 songs then see if we have 4 or 5 that we like,” and ended up having 11 that I was just super proud of! It’s been awesome to create this relationship with the Kickstarter-backers over the last few years, and I’ve been keeping them [Nolan’s Kickstarter supporters] up to date. It’s a communal feel and it doesn’t feel like it’s just my record anymore…It feels like my ideas and my stories are brought to life by all these people; not only musicians, photographers, and artists, but the fans as well.
MM: Aside from music, you ‘re also involved in poetry and painting. Which creative outlet came first, and which if any is your primary focus? And no pun intended, but do you have a routine in how you “balance” them out?
JN: (Laughs). I would say I first was really interested in visual art; my grandmother was a water painter. I have vivid memories of making art with her in the basement. That was one of my favorite things to do when I was younger. Then I started journaling when I was eight or nine years old, and those writings turned into short-stories and poetry. I remember being in choir and doing musicals with my elementary school and it all really converged into songwriting around 12 or 13.
So, I can’t really answer ‘what’s first’…(laughs). They all informed each other in the beginning and I think they still inform each other. I think it’s easy to pigeon-hole ourselves and think that we’re only good at one thing, but I think expanding our interests into other fields that can relate to each other and inspire each other, through painting and writing.
Life is taking breaks and finding that balance (no pun intended) between, “Okay, what do I need today? Maybe I don’t need to write songs today, maybe I just need to sketch, journal my thoughts, or have a free-write of what’s outside of my window that morning.”
MM: Are you involved with any writing or art collectives in town, and if so which ones?
JN: I’m not, yet. I’ve been very private so far about my poetry and my artwork. (sheepishly laughs). I know about The Porch in town, they’re a literary collective, and I’ve been wanting to get involved with them. That’s definitely a goal of mine this year. I’ve been wanting to branch out and step forward as more than a musician and just own all the parts of my creativity.
MM: Is there any aspect in songwriting that you feel vocalizes an idea or emotion any better than you could through poetry or painting?
JN: I would say music is a place where they can all come together. A big part of this process has been working with photographers and artists in town that inspire me, then finding the artwork and imagery that matches the feeling of the song. The fact that a lot of these songs were ideas and writings first- it’s definitely a place where they can all come together and join.
MM: Who are your top three artists going into 2020?
JN: Oh man. I am a big fan of Bre Kennedy here in town. She’s one of my favorites! I’m always rooting for her.
Joni Mitchell. I know that she’s not creating music anymore, but I just look forward to discovering more of her catalog.
The third…Kyshona Armstrong! She’s another local. But I am really excited for her full-length record that’s supposed to be coming out this year.
MM: If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
JN: I think Carole King and I would write great songs (laughs). I love her, and I’ve gotten compared to her a bunch, which is a huge honor. I would love to be in a room with her, and I think – based on what I know in her story – she would be a great collaborator and it would be so much fun to write with her.
MM: If you weren’t making music, what might you focus your time on instead?
JN: Definitely painting or writing. One of the two. I have dreams of writing books someday, so maybe an author. Writing or visual arts.