When we last spoke with Jesse Lafser, she had just released Land in Sight, an incredible collection of songs that evoked Gillian Welch and Patsy Cline. Two years later, the comparison still holds with some subtle, but important, changes.
Her new album, Raised on the Plains, is broader, while feeling just as intimate as the most personal songs she’s ever written. It is an exploration of the world from eyes that are increasingly active. It is a spacious reflection of the roots that have formed her life. She has an awareness of herself that is as deep as a canyon and as wide as the West.
NYMM: Raised on the Plains is a great follow up to Land in Sight, but it feels different as well. Does it feel different to you, as well?
JL: It’s very different. I think I’ve evolved as a writer in a lot of ways. This one has more of the blues-infused elements that come from my childhood in St. Louis. It’s a sound that is more prominent on this record. I’ve also been trying to write more simply.
I think simplicity is a form of genius, and I’m always trying to strip down the elements of a song to only what needs to be there. I’m always trying to say what I need to in as few words as possible. That’s one thing I focused on heavily for this project.
NYMM: How else has your songwriting changed?
JL: When I was younger, the songs used to just fly out, and they would be finished in 20-30 minutes. That still happens, but it’s rare now. I used to be afraid to work too much on a song. If it didn’t come out quickly, I’d just toss it. Now I’m learning to work and edit and build songs more. It’s a more thoughtful and refined process than what I used to have.
I also think that the older you get, the less inspiration has a tendency to just fly out of you like that. You have to adapt and learn how to work when it changes.
NYMM: Many of the songs from Land in Sight are personal and come from immediate experience. This one seems to have more of a storytelling element. Is that accurate?
JL: I think the new songs definitely have more storytelling. I still relate to them in a very deep way, it’s just less of the emotional outpouring of my early twenties. It’s less a catalog of heartbreaks and more of a way to explore what I observe empathetically.
NYMM: What has changed about you personally in the meantime?
JL: I hit a point where I realized that I was just expecting things to come to me. I realized that that was not going to happen unless I made it happen. The responsibility is all on me. I decided that I was going to go for this full-on whether people wanted to help me or not. That’s when I booked my own tour out West for two and a half weeks. I did the whole thing alone in my Jeep and it was great.
JL: It was a really great trip for me. I was alone, out in the American West. I met so many people and saw so many incredible things. I took some great back roads and there was one place where there were no cars, no cell service, nothing but wilderness, and it was truly life-altering for me. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful that it was almost a spiritual thing. It was like time slowed down and I could see everything. Most of the songs on this record came out after that trip. They came out in a matter of months, and I realized that I had a full album on my hands and I had to record it.
NYMM: Did you know at that point what you wanted the album to sound like?
JL: Well, I had far more songs than we were able to record. That gave me the opportunity to pick the best ones and fit them all strategically as a collection. It was hard to choose, though.
I thought about doing an “A” side and a “B” side, because there’s a polarity within the album itself. About half of the tracks are light-hearted, whimsical, and playful blues songs, and the other half are more intricate and melancholy-roots songs.
It was hard to figure out how to fit the two together. They are both important sides of myself. I decided to just put them together and let it work on its own. I feel great about the way it turned out.
NYMM: What keeps you going?
JL: I have decided that this is what I want to do. It’s a settled thing. I think when you make that kind of decision, the universe sort of meets you halfway. It’s hard, but at the end of the day, I’m a writer through and through and I just can’t do anything else. There have been moments where I think I can’t do it anymore, but I can’t give it up.
Images by Jon Karr
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