RAVE ON “I’m always secretly waiting for some backlash and some rotten tomatoes to be thrown my way.”
“Townes Van Zandt was with me on a flight to Boston once,” says singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes on the phone as she relaxes in her Seattle apartment and looks forward to returning to town to play Great Scott next Thursday with her backing band, the Sweet Hereafter. The late, great Van Zandt wasn’t actually sitting next to her on that plane, but his folk blues was in her head as she dealt with an extreme fear of flying.
“Nowadays you can’t listen to music when you take off, but back in the day I’d have my little Walkman, and I’d put on the song I was going to die to — because in my mind the plane was definitely going to crash — and it would protect me. People always say, ‘What music would you want to have on a desert island?’ And for me it’s like, ‘What would you want to crash and burn to?’ Music is truly the one thing that makes me not afraid of death.”
Far from being morose, Sykes is witty, sharp, and charmingly self-depreciating after each of her lengthy musings on life, energy, and the universe. (“I’m sorry, is this hippie crap making any sense at all?”) Averse to computers, cellphones, and most technology, she prefers to spend her days deep in the nearby woods, walking her dog Ruby with bandmate Phil Wandscher, the former Whiskeytown guitarist who began playing with her a decade ago after the pair bonded at a Seattle dive bar.
But where her music is concerned, often there’s a palpable darkness and an awareness of mortality, unsettling shadows that creep over the beauty and vitality in her songs. That mood is evident on the Sweet Hereafter’s most recent full-length, Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul (Barsuk). In a husky, arresting voice that approaches the haunted croak of Marianne Faithfull and the midnight dolor of Mark Lanegan, Sykes meditates on love crumbled and dreams dissolved, hope materializing only in her weary resolve to carry on. Meanwhile, Wandscher and company use their twangy, reverbed electric guitars, acoustic strumming, lonesome harmonica, piano, strings, and horns to provide a noirish bed on which her worries can rest, though it doesn’t always provide easy melodic comfort.
For years, that sound has won raves in Seattle. “I feel extremely blessed, we’ve gotten beyond our due. I’m always secretly waiting for some backlash and some rotten tomatoes to be thrown my way. But the only downside — and I think any band goes through this in their home town — is that they tend to keep you in a box. I feel like elsewhere people are aware of the growth that’s happened, and here in Seattle they still refer to us as — and I even hate using this term — ‘alt-country.’ ”
Sykes has resolved to change that perception. On Altar, the collaborative 2006 album between doom-metal bands Sunn O))) and Boris, she sang on the “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep),” and that brought her to the attention of heavy-music aficionados who’ve been drawn to her own emotional heaviness. The experience may rub off on the material she’s writing for her next album. “It’s the most exciting, cool thing to see this transformation happen with a new fan base coming into the fold — it’s magical.”