Getting to Know Jesse Terry

I first got to hear Jesse Terry at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) two years ago.  I was captivated by his songs and he had such a nice, easy rapport with his audience that it was impossible to ignore his presence at a conference full of hundreds of other singer-songwriters  One listen wasn’t enough  Two listens wasn’t enough.  You get the drift.  He’s a real troubadour—crisscrossing the country with his wife and dog—and making new fans and friends at every stop.  It’s easy to see why Dave Dirks, the host of the #1 Acoustic podcast on iTunes, Acoustic Long Island  said this: “At the core of itall, his personality—sunny naivety meets gritty wisdom—is what sets Jesse Terry apart.”

Jesse Terry is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.  The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

You can learn a lot more about Jesse by visiting his website.

Check out this video of Jesse singing “Empty Seat on a Plane.”

As a traveling musician, give us the real skinny about the pros and cons of life on the road.

Wow, that’s a big question. I’d say there are many more pros than cons, but that’s coming from an eternal optimist! I like to think of the road as an adventure and we really do enjoy the journey (and if we do have an epic disaster on the road, it always makes for a great campfire story later on). If we have time to route our tour through Yellowstone we do exactly that. If we have a couple of days off I try to find a cool place to explore, instead of just finding the nearest motel next to the interstate. In June we rented a tiny little cabin in the California Redwoods on our days off. It was magic. I know I’ll remember that trip for the rest of my life.. And oh yeah, playing music was a blast too!!


Making music, adventures, meeting new and fascinating people, making great new friends, seeing the world, having no real boss, finding good hotels/motels/camp-sites, connecting with perfect strangers, camping, hiking, campfires, national parks, great shows, natural wonders, having the ability to make a lot of dough in one night, signing cds, feeling like you’re doing something positive and peaceful in this world, the feel of the open road.


Homesickness, road food, bad motels, sketchy parking lots, subway and really all fast food, that really lame gig, that really lame gig that also pays really bad, bad coffee, powdered creamer, ugly stretches of highway that seem to last forever, depressing towns, finding the time to workout and write songs, uncomfortable beds, pet fees at motels, no steady paycheck, high gas prices and fueling up twice a day, doing laundry, car maintenance, oil changes.

I love that story about you and your wife meeting in the South Pacific and now working together as a team.  What were you both doing in the South Pacific?  And how perfect is it that you’re the Jess and Jesse team?

You know I didn’t have a ton of luck with love before I met Jess, but I must admit, our love story is straight out of a Hollywood movie script. I couldn’t have written it any better if I tried. It really is perfect working together and having our little trio out on the road (we also travel with our Border Collie mix “Jackson Browne”). I’m so lucky that Jess loves being a huge part of the family business. She also has her own full-time mobile job so she works really hard. Actually, we both work really hard but it’s generally joyful work. And we’re both extremely grateful that we can be together and make a living doing what we love. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her. We tried being apart for long stretches of time and it didn’t work for either one of us. We lived from the car and toured non-stop for a while until we could make enough dough to afford an apartment and have a home base. And wow, I’m so freakin’ grateful for our apartment now!

I took an Australian cruise ship gig in 2010 after my Nashville publishing company closed its doors. I was finding my way in music, I hadn’t started touring yet and I had no idea on how I was going to make a living in the music business. I signed this publishing deal right out of college so I had just spent 5 years getting paid every month to write songs. It was a deceptively easy introduction to the music business:) Anyhow, it was terrifying not having a paycheck and I was a dreadful waiter. So the cruise ship gig was a huge blessing and the most amazing experience for me. My wife Jess was working as a photographer on the ship and I was part of an acoustic duo. My duo played four sets of cover songs EVERY day and night over the course of five months (actually we had two days off and I was severely sea-sick for one day, so we performed almost every day). Even though I was performing mostly cover songs, it was the perfect gig for me at the time. I really started to get comfortable in front of audiences out there and it taught me a ton about performing. I booked our first US tour from the crew Internet cafe on the ship. It was so bizarre, booking some gig in Montana or Florida while I was cruising around somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific.

Do you have any memorable gigs in any memorable towns or do they all blur together?

There are too many memorable gigs and memorable towns to list here. I remember almost every show but some shows inspire me for many years and become something like musical soul food to me. I recently had a concert like that in Portland, Oregon at The Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon is one of my favorite states and Portland may be my favorite city in America, maybe because it doesn’t feel like a city. That night at The Alberta Rose was just special.. Great crowd, great family in town, great sound, great co-billers. It was a milestone of sorts for me. It was the first time I was able to fill up a world-class theatre as a co-biller and not just as an opener. So that was a big night for me. My first packed show at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage Two was a big moment for me. I worked really hard for that and it felt amazing when everybody showed up! I love my NYC fans and band-mates. It’s such a sweet community.

I love so many of the towns, concert series and venues that I get to visit and re-visit. After a little while it feels like I’m just driving around and visiting old friends. I also love to go back to a town and find that great coffee shop we discovered. It makes the town feel like another home. I try to buy a fridge magnet and a sticker for my guitar case every time we visit a memorable place. That way when I look at my fridge and my guitar case, all of those great memories, feelings and shows come rushing back to my mind. Nerdy I know, but that makes me happy:)

How do you find time to write when you’re on the road so much?  Do you compose “in your head” while in the car?  Do you have to make occasional creative pit stops and pull out the guitar and get the song going so you won’t lose it?  

At the moment I’m not writing too much. Time is a real issue for me. We’ve got seventeen shows in July and I don’t have a driver, so there really isn’t ample time to write when you’re traveling and performing that much (I know that so many of my fellow artists can relate – the topic usually comes up when I’m catching up with a touring bud). There isn’t really even enough time to book shows, return emails, or update websites, but it all happens somehow:) Like I said, it’s a joyful job, or else I wouldn’t have the energy to keep it all going. I do record song ideas on my phone and write down any song ideas that come into my head. When I have a break from the road I know I’ll head home, go into la-la land and write like crazy. That’s how I’m balancing it these days. I’m a big believer in following the lead of the universe and keeping my eyes open. This is obviously a season for me to tour, meet folks and perform a ton. I have enough albums and songs where I can do that and feel good about what I’m sharing with the world. I’m sure I’ll have a season soon where I’m writing/recording a lot more and touring less.

I have a strong feeling that I’ll have a great musical team around me soon. That will free up more time for me to write and spend more time being creative. Management and booking help will make a huge difference at some point. It seems like those things usually happen organically and when the time is right (and seem to come as a result of relentless touring, releasing albums, booking and doing everything yourself – artists are expected to wear a lot of hats these days and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing – we learn about every aspect of the business and build so many great relationships). Right now, I’m just always focused on getting better and moving forward.

Here’s the obligatory question: which songwriters have you been inspired by the most?  And which guitarists blow you away?

So many… But I’m going to narrow it down to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, The Beatles and Paul Simon. Those are the artists that I could listen to all day long on repeat. Those are the artists that have written lyrics and melodies that I could never tire of. That really is an amazing feat if you think about it. A Joni Mitchell record still sounds fresh and perfect after over forty years. James Taylor and Joni blow me away as guitar players because at the time, they played the guitar in a totally new and innovative way. The same is true with Jimi Hendrix. It’s like they were all from outer space. Who did they emulate? I love Neil Young as a guitar player because his playing is so emotional. It seems to me that Neil is much more concerned with emotion than perfection. And often that emotion makes a “perfect” record. It’s like that slightly out of tune slide guitar that Duane Allman plays at the end of “Layla”.. It’s just so perfect, passionate and emotional. It sounds like that guitar is literally crying.

Do you have any guilty musical pleasures?  Do you a favorite band that no one would ever suspect?

Hmmmmm Whitney Houston? But Whitney had one of the greatest voices of all time so that can’t count! I love listening to over-produced R&B and Pop at times.. Luther Vandross, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Andrea Bocelli etc.. That stuff is a far cry from Neil Young but it’s so well done, so well recorded and so pristine. I listen to Christmas music all year long. LOVE it. I love rocking the Hall & Oates, Toto, Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.. such great records and legendary players on those recordings. Amazing that it was all recorded to tape.. No fixes, comping or tuning, just flawless performances and productions.

Some of my favorite bands that I grew up with:

Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against The Machine and 311.. I always listened to my singer/songwriter heroes but I also used to crank up my Jane’s Addiction in high school and mosh in the backyard with my friends. And I absolutely attended the very first Lollapalooza. I was a wild child.

You’ve played in so many places but I’m intrigued by your gig playing before US and NATO troops in Greenland.  What was that like?  (I didn’t even know we had troops in Greenland!)

Yes, we most definitely have wonderful US and NATO troops up in Greenland! Thule Air Force Base doesn’t have any planes though.. We have military radar facilities all over the globe and the Thule base has one of the largest radar stations in the world. That’s why we’re still up there. It was a major base during the Cold War. The government tracks every object in the atmosphere (we track objects as small as tennis balls) and is always alert in case of a sneak missile attack.

Performing for the troops up in Greenland was a great honor and a highlight of my career. It’s like another planet up there. We were only about 900 miles south of the North Pole and the terrain was Mars-like (or what I imagine Mars would look like). It was so beautiful, un-touched and rugged in Greenland. I was there in the summer so it never got dark.. We would play the “Top Of The World Club” and emerge at 3am to a blazing sun.. It was just wild. I had the chance to hike to the polar ice sheet and take a boat ride around icebergs. I visited nuclear missile silos and control rooms that have been filled with solid ice. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

I highly recommend performing for the troops if any artist has the opportunity. Our service men and women were all so incredibly grateful and welcoming to my band and myself. Just don’t try and keep up with them in a drinking game. Please take my word on that one.

After studying at Berklee, you entered into a publishing deal in Nashville.  Non-Nashville people like myself hear these stories about musicians being put into a room with another musician and they’re expected to create…to mate and birth a song.  Was that your experience?

Landing a publishing deal was a dream come true in 2004 and I think of those years with such fondness. It was a special and exciting time.

And yes, when you’re a staff songwriter on Music Row in Nashville, 99% of the time you are co-writing and often they are musical blind dates. Like a blind date, the co-writes have the potential to be really painful, really average or really great! Songwriting chemistry is a really difficult thing to predict or quantify. After a lot of musical blind dates you usually find your crew and wind up writing with your buds on most days.

It was a bit like birthing a song on command in those writing rooms. The level of song-craft is so high that professional staff writers can churn the songs out, even when it’s not a particularly great song day. I suppose I had a love/hate relationship with the co-writing process there. In fact, I took a break from co-writing for almost four years after I left Nashville. Co-writing with so many different kinds of writers made me feel a bit like a chameleon. I really wanted to find my own voice and figure out who I was as an artist. There was a lot of pressure to write a big ole hit song, which would have been great, but I didn’t like how the pressure affected my creative process. That’s just me. It was crushing at the time, but in hindsight I’m so grateful that the publishing company closed and I lost my job/paycheck. I discovered that my true love was touring, performing and making my own records.

I did learn a lot about craft and the importance of work down there. Painters must paint and writers must write. I loved the fact that songwriters went to work every day. Often I would wake up and not feel like writing, but if I had a co-writing appointment I would have to show up. And some of those uninspired days were the days where I wrote the best songs. Sometimes the song became the inspiration and it just took over. I’ve adopted that same practice when I’m in my writing mode now. I wake up, brew my coffee and go to work. Sometimes a lack of “inspiration” is just another word for procrastination. It’s the hardest thing to stare at a blank canvas. There is a great book about the creative process written by Steven Pressfield that I swear by, “The War Of Art”. So so good.

Here are a few quotes from the Steven Pressfield book that I have on my fridge and try to always remember:

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

You’ve released three albums in the past five years.  How would you categorize and compare them?

At one point, when I was writing songs professionally in Nashville, one of my biggest fans/supporters (and a freakin’ Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter) told me that I had lost my musical way; essentially that I was not following my personal truth and that I was letting too much outside interference wreak havoc with my creative process. Really she was simply saying that my music was sucking because of one thing: I was not speaking my truth. I think the world has a great BS meter when it comes to music.

That conversation has stuck with me and has become a bit of a mantra for me. I vowed to never stray again from truth and authenticity. It doesn’t mean everything I record or write will be great, but at least it will be authentic. It will have the potential to be great and filled with honest emotion.

All three of my records are really different. They are snap-shots and I made them exactly how I wanted to at the time. And I’m really proud of that. They all have elements of Americana, Folk, Pop, Country and Rock and Roll within them. The Runner was my first record and I made it when I was so green, which was super exciting and liberating. I was going through a huge Jackson Browne/Ryan Adams phase so it has more of an Americana/Alt-Country feel to it. Lots of pedal steel and slide guitar on the record.

My second record Empty Seat On A Plane  was intentionally stripped down. I wrote every song on the record by myself and I wanted the tracks to feel more sparse and open. I think of it as a troubadour inspired record.

My latest record Stay Here With Me is my most live record to date. I wanted it to have a really organic full band sound and be more raw than my previous efforts. I wanted folks to sing and play together as much as possible. I think we finished 90% of the record in the first four days and that felt really good. We recorded all of the harmonies together around one mic, ala CSNY. I love that vocal sound and I don’t think you can replicate it by stacking harmonies. It’s almost too flawless when you stack them.

Categories and genres are so difficult these days huh? In the seventies James Taylor and Jackson Browne were platinum selling Pop superstars. Now they are probably categorized as Americana or Folk artists. And that’s totally cool – we’re in the same genres now!

I think with my music and so much music, a lot of the genre classification comes down to instrumentation and production. A pedal steel on a song can instantly slide it into an Americana/Alt-Country genre. I tour so much solo acoustic but when I play with my band in NYC it changes everything instantly. I’d like to think that my music is organic, honest and timeless Americana music. That’s what I’m striving for. I think it’s wonderful that the Americana and Folk genres have opened the doors for so many artists that don’t fit into the current Top 40 world. I’ve found Folk Alliance and The Americana Music Association to be extremely open-minded with different kinds of music and genres. I love traditional folk music but you certainly will find a lot more than traditional folk music at Folk Alliance, Falcon Ridge, NERFA etc. I think that musical diversity is wonderful. And I love Folk/Americana/AAA radio too. How awesome that these DJ’s are still spinning the records that THEY want to play? I know a lot of folks are all gloom and doom about the music business but I think it’s a really exciting time to be making music and finding a unique path.

I can’t wait to make my next records. I just want to keep growing and trying different things … writing different kinds of songs and digging deeper and deeper. I started making records in 2009 and started touring in late 2010. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.

Top photo of Jesse by Eric Gerard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s