Jamie N Commons fell for the blues as a teenager after watching the music video for Moby’s Natural Blues on MTV. A mainstream electro track might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for a budding musician who mixes blues, rock, and folk, but the haunting sample of American singer Vera Hall stuck with the young musician and led to a career-defining obsession with the moody sound.
Born in Britain, Commons moved to Chicago with his family at the age of six. After spending years trying and failing to imitate his idols, he finally found his own beautifully raw sound and moved back to London at 18 to study music at Goldsmiths University. While hitting the open mic circuit, alongside a still unknown Mumford & Sons, Commons hooked up with British super producer Alex Da Kid and was promptly signed to Interscope Records.
After the release of EPs The Baron and Rumble and Sway, Jamie N Commons has been busy cementing his status as the modern-day blues man. We caught up with our MarkMaker in London to find out what inspires his music, and what the future holds.
Timberland: What attracts you to the blues?
Jamie: I love that the blues focuses on the emotion in the music beyond any other element. I think what makes a song stand the test of time is a real humanistic truth - whether that means it talks about something that all people can relate to or creates a performance that has a really strong emotional core to it. The blues has an almost animalistic conveyance of what you’re trying to achieve.
T: What song are you most proud of?
J: Always the last one I wrote. You always feel each song is the best one you’ve done for a few hours or days after you’ve finished it. Then reality sets in and it’s back to the grindstone.
T: You’ve got some pretty famous fans, including Elvis Costello. What musicians do you admire?
J: Jack White is a really inspiring character. A lot of people would have taken the money he earned during The White Stripes and retired, but Jack is still busy doing things like attempting to bring back vinyl - which seems to be working. He’s obviously extremely passionate about music, not just his own but other peoples as well. He’s one of the few people whose actions speak louder than words.
T: Other than music, where do you take inspiration from?
J: I’m inspired by loads of things. Location definitely affects my writing. If I’m in a rural setting I tend to write slower music, but in the city it’s more exciting stuff. Different cities also affect the music. In LA it’s really sunny and peaceful, whereas when I’m in New York or London I tend to write things that are more upbeat. I take a lot of influence from early Delta Blues and American Folk in general, which mainly stems from my father’s record collection. I’m also a big fan of the writer Paul Thomas Anderson. Everything he does seems to affect my storytelling.
T: Having spent time in Chicago as a kid, you moved to London when you were 18. How did that influence your music?
J: Moving to London played a really big part in my musical development. When I first moved here I used to draw graphs and plot where the open mic nights were and then pester all the bookers to let me play. Sometimes no one turned up, but it didn’t really matter. I just wanted to play or go to a show every night. I still do that now, because you’re always learning. You can always be better.
T: What do you do when you arrive in a town you don’t know?
J: In the US I try and find a roadside diner-type place near the hotel so I can get steak and eggs in the morning. As far as I’m concerned, that dish is probably one of the greatest inventions to come out of America.
T: What does playing in front of an audience feel like?
J: Playing live is the culmination of what you’ve been working up to. Learning an instrument, writing a song, recording it, and then people wanting to hear it live. It’s always a special moment. Although I do get more nervous when I play to small crowds. It’s more personal than the bigger shows, and also kind of humbling. In your bedroom you’re Jimi Hendrix, but when you go on stage at a small gig it’s a lot harder to let go. The mistakes are the fun bits though, something that the audience remembers. A lot of the time wrong is right if you can spin it that way.
T: What’s your favorite onstage outfit?
J: Anything dark and mysterious.
T: If you could play anywhere in London, where would you choose?
J: The Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The space has very strange acoustics - you can hear someone whispering like they’re next to you even if they’re 30 foot away, and when you clap it echoes four times. It would be interesting to see what my music sounds like up there.
T: What’s been your most memorable gig?
J: A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to support Bruce Springsteen, which was mind-blowing. I learned so much just watching him, so many tiny tricks and subtle moves to keep the show up there. He’s a true master craftsman. While on tour we got to play in a few cities during the World Cup. One of the shows was in Berlin before the quarterfinal, and we performed just before the match started to over a million soccer fans. You couldn’t even see the back of the crowd. It was just an endless sea of people. That was pretty good.
T: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
J: Learn an instrument. Whether it’s singing, guitar or piano, it’s a skill that’s so important if you want to make music that’s from the heart. And just do the complete opposite of what everyone is doing. If you’ve got
skills that no one else has, then you’re playing your own game.
T: What does The Modern Trail mean to you?
J: To me, The Modern Trail is adapting to whatever situation you might find yourself in, then just to keep moving forward.