INTERVIEW: Jesse Terry & Alex Wong

Pic by Jess Terry

Terry and Wong are longtime collaborators, each boasting an impressive discography of albums that stretch the fibers of the Americana genre. The creative alchemy between the New England and Nashville artists results in some of their finest work yet – heartfelt, atmospheric songs that fit alongside those of folk-rock stalwarts Josh Ritter and Damien Jurado. The acoustic-forward arrangements, built around two voices and two guitars, are uncluttered yet cinematic in sweep, sonic gems that conjure images of northern stars and unfamiliar city lights.

The project – prompted by a set of news articles on climate change refugees –foregrounds the narrative of villagers compelled to relocate inland, parting with ancestral lands and ways of life. These vignettes of home and departure are particularly powerful because they draw on themes that are both universal and intensely personal. Indeed, Wong explains that he felt compelled to examine the villagers’ stories because, growing up in California, he’d been warned of this very scenario even as a kid. “When Jesse and I first read about the people of Kivalina, we saw our own friends and families in their stories,” he relates. “It’s hard to imagine how I would cope with my homeland disappearing beneath my feet and what it would do to my relationships, my sense of history, and my thoughts of the future.”

The end of the Kivalina story is yet unwritten, but the songs – the competing tensions in “Fight or Flight,” reckoning with the inevitable in “Landfall,” the quiet defiance of “Nowhere” – are poignant and urgent, focusing our gaze on a turning point in human history. And while the narratives here convey a sense of fragility, the end result is a set of beautifully luminous songs that underscore the tension between a desire to protect the past and the necessity of moving forward.

Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Cool, how are you?  Jesse here, keeping busy and happy. Always grateful to be making music for a living and releasing music that I’m passionate about.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Nowhere”?  Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

Every song on this album was inspired by the villagers of Kivalina, Alaska and their powerful stories. The title “Nowhere” came from an interview with a Kivalina native. He remarked that being transplanted to a more developed and so called “civilized” area in Alaska, such as Anchorage, would feel like moving to nowhere. I connected with that thought, loved the title and did my best to relate to those emotions. For many of the villagers of Kivalina, moving to Anchorage would be similar to my family moving to the arctic. It’s a whole other world and  different way of life.

The single comes off your new album Kivalina – tell us more about the record!  Climate change is a big theme on the album.  It’s such a huge concept, and one that is sometimes hard to get your head around when you think about the global implications.  How did you narrow in on motivation for the EP relative to the topic, given how massive it is?

I’m so pumped to be releasing this album with my dear friend Alex Wong. I’m really proud of the songs, the collaboration and the whole album. It was a different kind of album for me and a first on many levels: my first full collaborative project, first concept album and first album with harmonies and two vocals present on every track. Trying new things in the studio and pushing myself musically is always exciting. It makes me want to dig deep and write new songs. I truly hope that this music makes an impact and is part of some positive change in this world.

And yes, climate change is a huge, complicated and heartbreaking issue for sure. In my opinion, it’s the most important issue of our time, because it can be truly life or death.  Writing about the villagers of Kivalina helped me focus in on the songs, the emotions and really connect on a deeply human level. Often we’re hearing about climate change without fully grasping the repercussions; how does this change affect a family or affect a culture or affect future generations? When you hear the stories of four hundred villagers and hear about what is happening to them RIGHT NOW, it makes everything seem more tangible, relatable and dire.

My wife and I had our first child in August of 2018 and that amplified everything for me. It made me see the world through a different lens, because now I’m thinking so much about how climate change will affect my little girl as she grows up.

So even though Kivalina is just one village in northern Alaska, to me it’s a microcosm of the whole climate crisis.  The planet is one symbiotic organism. And the emotions and stories of the villagers of Kivalina are just a reminder of how serious this global crisis is.

Writing and recording an album is always about human connection, passion and healing. Beyond that, the motivation behind this album is change. I think it’s incredibly sad that climate change has become a political issue. I feel it’s purely a scientific issue based on facts. Kivalina is not the only place in the world that is being deeply affected by rapidly changing climate. Not even close. So it makes you wonder… If a village being swallowed up by the sea is not enough, what will need to happen before people band together and do what’s truly necessary to solve this crisis. I think most people in the world have the feeling that we’re running out of time.

How was the recording and writing process?

I’ve known and admired Alex for many years, but this was our first project together and our first time writing together as well. I enjoyed both aspects immensely. Alex is a brilliant and creative human being. He’s always looking for a slightly different way to say something or play something or produce something. So it was really exciting to create this music from start to finish with him. Alex also did such a wonderful job with the mixing. You always want to work with people that inspire you and make you better, and I believe Alex did that for me.

How did you get to blend both of your own different influences and marrying into one?

Luckily, I’m just a big fan of Alex’s taste and production! I think both of us enjoy the challenge of making different kind of records and writing different kinds of songs. “Kivalina” is a different kind of album for both of us. I had never thought of creating sounds on an upright bass by hitting the strings with drum mallets.

And even though we’re different artists, we share a lot of influences. From a production standpoint I definitely had input, but I’ve always believed in letting a great producer steer the ship, so it made sense to trust Alex with the production of these songs. He helped create an album unlike anything else I’ve ever done in my career. At the same time, it feels very true, natural and authentic to me.

Do you tend to take a different approach in terms of songwriting when collaborating with someone else rather than working on your own?

During the collaborative process you’re bound to take a different approach and hopefully be inspired by your co-writer. There has to be a great level of trust, vulnerability and openness to make it work. Hopefully that expands your writing and gives you the potential to write some songs that you wouldn’t write on your own. Being close friends with Alex for so many years really helped me open up and trust him in the writing room. Plus, the man makes a MEAN coffee, the other main ingredient to inspired songwriting!

Any plans to hit the road?

We’ve been talking about that and I’d love to. We performed together recently in NYC and Berkeley, CA and both shows were a blast. There’s a lot of chemistry on stage with Alex and it’s fun to get out of my solo troubadour world and be part of a duo act. I love singing harmonies and hearing Alex sing the harmonies on my lead songs. I’m sure more shows are on the horizon for us.

What is happening next in both of your worlds?

Well I know both of us are totally crazed with music, which is a great thing.  I’m writing like crazy for my next album and singles, which will be recorded totally live (and completely solo-written I believe, which has it’s own vibe and benefits). A truly live album is something I’ve never done before, so it will be exciting to really go for that. I’m all about capturing the emotion and the magic in the room. I don’t want to over-think things once the songs are ready to record. Between music, touring, my family and my pup, my plate is always full and every day is overflowing. But I do love it and I really couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Next month Alex will be heading to Europe for some solo shows with Amber Rubarth.  They will be testing out some songs from their new original musical, The Paper Raincoat.  He’s also releasing the first single from his solo album, The Elephant and the Seahorse, on Aug 16 (full album released Feb 2020).  In the fall he will be producing a double album for Delta Rae, as well as new music with Megan Slankard and Seth Glier. 

Thanks again for supporting the songs and message from the Kivalina EP!  It means the world to us!

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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