Having shown almost precocious musical talent as a schoolboy, Jesse Sheehan is now aged 21 and is coming into his own. More than competent on any stage, he has his own live band and now a second EP, ‘How The Light Gets In’ to promote. Equally at home on his Fender Telecaster or Gibson 135, he tells Silke Hartung that his most precious guitar is a Martin D12 acoustic his dad originally bought some 40 years ago.
In a musical sense, at least, Jesse Sheehan has had to grow up in public. Representing Wellington College, he won the national final of the Smokefreerockquest back in 2009, playing three of his own songs alone on the big stage of Auckland’s Powerstation. It was a performance marked by remarkable passion, confidence in his songs and that wild red afro of his. He was 17 at the time.
A year later he moved to Auckland to join the North Shore wunderkinds, Electric Confectionaires, on the guitar. After that band broke up he stuck around Auckland to work his way up in the music scene, producing a debut EP called ‘A Crack In Everything’ in 2011. While it might not have gained him any mainstream success, songs from that self-released 6-track EP made the top 20 lists for the APRA Silver Scroll award in 2011 (Grandma’s Cookies) and 2012 (By Your Side).
Managing himself in the period of that first EP Jesse faced a situation many musicians will be familiar with.
“In terms of creating the EP, I worked really, really, hard at it, you know? The arrangements were all very much my own. When it was finally released, I didn’t work much at pushing it. I’m just not very good at that. The EP hadn’t got much traction at all, so for it to have two songs in the Silver Scrolls was a bit of a confidence boost for me.
“In the first few years of your career, without having a following or a radio hit, you need some kind of edging on. ‘You are actually doing something that’s not shit.’ Most people in the industry fall off because it’s so hard. The Silver Scrolls led me to staying and persevering.”
After releasing Grandma’s Cookies in 2011 he started working with manager Rodney Hewson. While he still takes care of a lot of things himself, Jesse says there is clearly in a benefit in having the former Sony NZ employee Hewson, with his wealth of experience in the local music industry, on board.
“He sees my career as a long term situation, with us being strategic about what we do and don’t do. I’m slowly starting to see that it’s paying off now, which is great. I think it’s the best to have a manager who really understands what it is you’re trying to do and doesn’t want to compromise your music.”
Jesse says he is learning a lot about what he himself wants long term by playing with other musicians, observing and learning from their careers. He currently describes his goals as building a strong following of committed fans who know and like his music , and gaining credibility with other musicians.
“Having a number one [on commercial radio] is not what we want. We want to have music that resonates with people.
The ’fro is gone in 2013, but the personal belief remains, and Jesse Sheehan is back with a new EP entitled ‘How The Light Gets In’. (Note the continued lyrical homage.) Jesse says he demo’ed about 40 songs, some written years ago, that were strenuously whittled down to six.
“Shortlist after shortlist after shortlist!” he laughs.
The next step was to talk with producer Wayne Bell about how to arrange the songs.
“I was really pleased that Wayne was keen to do it how I wanted to do it. On the last EP the producer was quite ambivalent to not do it with a click track, but on this EP pretty much everything you hear was recorded live.
“When you start adding click tracks and layers, and record everything separately, you lose a lot that feel you get when playing live. For this EP we traded a few mistakes but what we have is some real energy and great players! There are things that happen live that you very rarely catch on recordings and sometimes they’re the bits that make it magical.
“In Little Machines when it goes into the 4/4 section after the instrumental, that’s my favourite moment. For one the band got it perfectly, but I could also never do that vocal take again. It’s one of those amazing times when you go, this vocal take is such a fluke and for some reason we managed to record it in the right take. I’ll never be able to perform that live, but I like it because it makes me look better than I am.
Ranging from cocksure and edgy rock band (the eight-minute long Little Machines) to contemplative lounge combo (Old Man), to the sensitive solo acoustic lament of How I Have Lost, all are lyrically forthright. In combination the widely various tracks showcase an impressive breadth of songwriter skills (Ryan Adams and, on Little Machines, Jeff Buckley seem apparent influences), but evidence an uncertainty of where to focus his own sound. Next time, Jesse agrees, he’d like to write an EP that is conceptually more coherent.
“They are six of my best songs, but my criticism on the EP would be, that they’re not necessarily related.”
Working at The Lab in Auckland, Olly Harmer recorded most of the EP and Jol Mulholland mostly looked after the mixing. As cream on top, they recorded some backing vocals by Lisa Crawley and Anika Moa. With a big smile Jesse admits he’s been a fan of Moa’s since he was 15.
“I couldn’t believe it that she said yes to it! The moment she walked into the studio I was just a little fangirl.”