Interview with Americana singer/songwriter Jill Sissel

Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective. As I told ‘The Tennessean’ in 2008, “since moving to Nashville twenty-five years ago, I have met people whose lives do not remotely reflect the caricature of what many outside our city presume to be a ‘Nashvillian’ or the Nashville experience.” “Underground Nashville” thus explores the soul of the city, not its surface—offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew

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Middle Tennessee was devastated in May from flooding from which it will take months—in some cases, years—to recover. Please join the recovery effort by contacting Hands on Nashville at Hon.org or by calling (in Nashville) 211. Otherwise, please call 800-318-9355. You can also support The Salvation Army’s relief efforts by going to Salarmy-Nashville.org of calling 800-725-2769.  Thank you.
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Interview with Americana singer/songwriter Jill Sissel

by Dave Carew

I first met Jill Sissel nearly a decade ago, when she opened for Chakra Bleu, the Fleetwood Mac-esque band I was helping to publicize at the time.  I remember Jill’s heartfelt, passionate Americana music touching me whenever I heard it, and I made a point of buying both CD’s she was selling at her shows back then.

Underground Nashville recently received an e-mail blast from Jill, promoting her latest album, Haunted Highway, and her two upcoming shows, which will at the Franklin (Tennessee) Farmer’s Market on Saturday, December 11 from 9 -12 p.m., and at the Purple House (854 Bradford Ave, Nashville, TN.) on New Year’s Eve, with the show starting at 9:30 pm.  Because I hadn’t heard about Jill in a while, I thought it would be fun and valuable for our readers to catch up with her and ask her how her life and music have been these past few years. Here’s how our interview with her went:

UNDERGROUND NASHVILLE:  If you had to identify your musical / artistic vision and/or influences, what would you say they are?

JILL SISSEL: I first heard the term Americana in the late 90’s while attending a songwriters workshop. Someone told me my music was Americana. I believe the influences of country/rock music took hold of my imagination, as far as how I write melodies and song structure.  From the beginnings of lyric writing, I was strongly influenced by John Denver and the way he described the unity of all things in nature.  Other groups like Bread and the Eagles gave rise to how relationships and love influences a writer’s lyrics.  As a child, my mother and dad would play country songs by Lynn Anderson and Conway Twitty. The “story” behind a good song, country or rock,  has always captured my imagination and if, I allow the melody to flow, the lyrics will usually follow.

UN: In a note to me, you mentioned that your new album Haunted Highway (which Underground Nashville will review soon) is distinct because of the contribution of New Jersey songwriter Mike Kuhl.  What was Mike’s specific influence on the songs?  How did that help make them distinct from the songs on your previous five albums?

JS: Mike Kuhl is a colorful and prolific lyricist who I met through a mutual friend, Joni Ward. My first experience writing with Mike was on a three-way telephone call. He had an idea for a song called “My Girl Loves Merle.”  Being that I had never written with someone whom I could not see, it was extremely liberating.  We wrote a whole year before finally meeting in the same room.  On the phone, he would tell me an idea or hook he had, and I would pick up the guitar and write a melody to go with it.  Sometimes I couldn’t get to the instrument and he’d send me an email with the lyrics; after that I’d write the tune and send him my melody.  I wrote his ideas for a long time, then I began to introduce my ideas to him and he was right there with the help I needed, never straying from my vision. “Haunted Highway,” the first song on the album, was his idea.  “Thinkin bout Home” (Lita Music ASCAP) was mine.  “The Bottle or the Bible” was his, as well as “Time Machine.”  Our writing relationship continues to grow and is very gratifying.   His style is different than mine in that I usually write the melody first.  Mike always has the lyrics.

UN:  What has been your greatest thrill as an artist so far?  Why?

JS: My greatest thrill so far as an artist is the duet with Walter Egan on “Texas Moon,” the sixth cut on the CD.  Because Walter is such an easy going, very talented artist; I am so lucky to have had his voice on the song.

My first round in Nashville at the Broken Spoke back in ’98, I met Walter.  I finished my round and he approached me and said if I wanted to put together a round he would play.  I took him up on that, and the next time I sang there, he and Irene Kelly were my guests.  From there, we have been friends.  It’s a thrill because as a kid I used to hear his song, “Magnet and Steel” ALL the time.  To become associates with someone as successful as Walter Egan and then to have him come over to your house and work up a song he just learned and sing it right there, was a night to remember!

UN:  If you could play any venue or “room” in the world (that you have not yet played), what would it be, and why?

JS: I would love to play the Ryman Auditorium. Not only does the room bear quite a remarkable acoustic quality, but the great artists and musicians who have graced the stage have left an indelible impression and created memorable performances there.  Given the historical and prestigious values the building represents, I will hold on to the vision of performing there at some point.

For more information, please visit JillSissel.com.

David M. (Dave) Carew is editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter.” He also is a freelance book editor, publicist, and copywriter.

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