Kiwi-born, US-raised Jess Chambers lays it bare in her songwriting, with a soft spot for the music of her childhood home, writes Lydia Jenkin.
There can't be many a Kiwi songstress with such a whimsical background as Jess Chambers. Born in New Zealand, Chambers moved to the US at four, and grew up in the Californian desert town of Quartz Hill, not far from Edwards Airforce Base - best known as the landing ground for the Space Shuttle, which she frequently saw growing up. It was her mum's interest in pentecostal religion which led her to singing.
"It's this kind of happy clappy religion, and really full on singing, so in America I was always in the choir, they had a choir of about 200 people. "And people were all just singing their hearts out, so I guess I've been interested in singing ever since."
Though the interest in singing stayed, the "happy clappy" vibe has fortunately been superceded by a penchant for musical storytelling, often simple, raw and melancholy.
"Around 15 one of my friends started writing songs, and that really set me off. I thought, 'if you're going to do it, I'll do it too'.
"I think my first song had about two chords, and was some sad love song. I'm still doing that really," she laughs.
She moved back to NZ at the age of 12 and moved around the country before settling in Wellington eight years ago. Then she began making a name for herself in two fairly distinct realms of music - as a vocalist for electronic acts like Rhian Sheehan, Module and The UpBeats, and as a solo artist renowned for dreamy and delicate Americana-tinged folk.
Electronica and ambient soundscapes seem a long way from her roots, but her foray happened almost without thinking.
"I guess I had the whole thing of going to dance parties, not loads of them, but I'd meet DJs and producers there, and they'd become friends, and when they found out I was a singer they'd ask me to sing on tracks."
Chambers found herself saying yes and was drawn to the freedom she saw in electronic music, though she didn't see herself as a producer.
"I like all kinds of music, but I'm not kidding myself that I'm a hip-hop artist or drum'n' bass producer. I don't think I have the patience or drive to nut all that out, whereas writing songs on my guitar really excites me."
She was still writing her own burning, lovelorn songs at the same time, and released her debut Jess Chambers and the Firefly Orchestra in 2008, to critical acclaim. In 2009 early single Island was nominated for an Apra Silver Scroll, and her catchy poignant song Stringing Me Along (written as part of the collaborative Woolshed Sessions) was awarded the Apra Best NZ Country Song.
With her soon-to-be-released, self-produced sophomore album Desire, Chambers wanted a slightly more robust sound.
"Some of the songs on my debut were really so delicate, if anyone spoke while they were being performed it ruined the whole thing."
Though there is a more strident quality to the songs on Desire, they remain stripped-back and reasonably sparse in their arrangements, letting the strength of Chambers' vocal and storytelling abilities shine through.
"I really love the way that Neil Young approaches his recordings, and I'm really inspired by his ideas.
"He says you should put in whatever you need to get the song going, just enough to make the song move forward, but nothing more, don't over-produce it. Over-producing can be fun as well, but I'm really inspired by that notion of only adding what you need to."
There's a beautiful vulnerability in Chambers' songs - in order to be genuine they must deal with personal subject matter, draw on scenes or stories from her life, snapshots of emotion she has experienced. "If I think about it, I get scared or intimidated about revealing that stuff or writing those kind of songs, but luckily it doesn't really occur to me that a whole bunch of people are going to listen to it and interpret it and judge it. I get that feeling of being by myself when I write, the songs are for myself, or for someone else specific."
She wrote Full Of Fire for a friend dealing with depression. "That was a call out to her, I wanted to comfort her. So it's not really about an audience at that point, and there's a kind of buffer to stop me from worrying."
Chambers' songs have a rare quality of being able to address the well-trodden issues of dashed hopes and troubled hearts with vulnerability and freshness. However her alt-country/folk approach stems from more than just admiration of other artists. She maintains strong ties with the US and plans to return there later this year on a semi-permanent basis.
"It feels like home to me. Because I'm half-American, there's sort of a pull towards that. But I think it's also the authenticity of the music, it's not necessarily about being an entertainer, or being entertaining, it's about being an artist, and a soulful, heartfelt communication of how you view the world. And I love the simplicity. Some people might think country music is a little bit hokey, or kinda dumb, but there's a lot of intricacies and depth when the lyrical ideas and the music come together."
Who: Jess Chambers
What: Soulful alt-folk songstress with American leanings
When & where: Tonight at the Wine Cellar, St Kevin's Arcade, K Rd
New album: Desire, out Monday
- TimeOutBy Lydia Jenkin