"It was the most difficult record I have ever been a part of..." - The Jayhawks talk shaking things up on new album Xoxo
It's been a while since we've had something new from much-loved Minneapolis alt-rockers The Jayhawks.
Their last album, 2018's Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a collection of songs they'd helped write for other artists, like The Chicks and Jakob Dylan, re-recorded by the band.
Their new effort, Xoxo, the band have switched up how things were put together, songwriting duties were split evenly and each individual member of the band recorded their own lead vocals.
What results is an eclectic collection, but one steeped in the band's classic mixture of pop-rock and Americana.
We spoke to the band about this change in direction and why, ultimately, they think it's made for a better record...
It’s a very strange time to be releasing a record, have you managed to enjoy the process at all?
Karen (Grotberg, keyboards, backing vocals): "In spite of these strange times, it’s exciting to have a new album coming out. I do wish we could be touring, but we did have a couple of satisfying opportunities. We recorded three songs for the CBS Morning Show, and we also created a virtual in-store presentation for a record store."
It's your first album of new material since Paging Mr. Proust, what did you want to do differently on this record?
Gary (Louris, guitars, lead vocals): "I wanted to showcase what I think we do best, which is vocal harmonies and songwriting. And, of course, the emphasis this time on more collaboration on the songwriting front. It was the right time for this. Each record becomes its own living breathing thing. You can plan and plan, but it grows on its own."
You’ve changed your process this time, with each band member doing lead vocals on tracks they’ve written, how did that decision come about?
Gary: "Multiple factors and timing drove the decision to shake up the usual format. I had just completed a solo record and had not been writing specifically for the Jayhawks as I typically would. I was living in North Carolina and being away from the band gave me less opportunity to try new material out with them in advance."
"But, most importantly, I had for some time been unhappy with the disbursement of lead vocal duties in the course of a typical concert and instead of writing songs for other band members or doing covers. I thought this was the time they had a chance to showcase what they could write."
Does that inevitably mean the songs are all very different from each other? Especially in terms of lyrics...
Gary: "Yes and no. Whoever was the primary songwriter was essentially the producer of that track. My role was more of an executive producer. It’s a fancy title, but it is the equivalent of being the manager at a restaurant. I had to make sure everything got done and organised all the sessions so we were on track and knew what was next."
"It was a bit of a thankless job, but someone has to do it. Really, at the end of the day, what we had was four producers. That meant four cooks in the kitchen so it was the most difficult record I have ever been a part of with the Jayhawks."
"On the other hand, it might have been the most rewarding as a group. There was less grumbling by band members about being bored and more camaraderie. To be honest, I was quite nervous that the record would hold together as one piece of work until we finally had the right sequence. Then it did sound like a Jayhawks record."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
Marc (Perlman: bass, backing vocals): "Maybe 'Illuminate'. That's just based the number of distinct parts and dynamic changes. And the vocal arrangement. But since we work under a schedule we try not to devote too much time to one song at the expense of others."
And which came together most quickly?
Marc: "'Bitter Pill', Living In A Bubble' and 'Homecoming' all fall into that category. Only because the arrangements and basic instrumentation were fairly set before tracking."
When did you decide on XOXO for the album title? Were any other titles in contention?
Marc: "At the deadline, as usual. Gary named the record. Karen and Tim (O'Reagan, drums) had good ideas also. I’m incapable of suggesting album or song title ideas. Or band names. Gary also suggested for the cover we use something from his friend the artist Duncan Hannah."
I was already familiar with his work and suggested The British Invasion. So maybe I wasn’t totally useless. And it was cool to be able to meet Duncan and that he was into us using that painting."
Have you been able to make any live plans? Or is everything simply on hold at the moment?
Marc: "We’ve done some live video recording and are discussing a live streaming show. Our rule is if one person isn’t comfortable in any live or touring situation none of us are. At some point, we’ll have to discuss the rescheduled shows. How can we resume normal activities without a vaccine?"
When you do get back to touring, have you any sense of what set you’ll be playing? You’ve got 11 records now...
Karen: "We do indeed have 11 records to date. When we get back to touring we will do as we usually do and vary the setlists to make sure we offer some songs from most of our discography and plenty of fan favourites."