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Courtney Jaye is a young singer-songwriter with a voice and heart full of love, joy, pain, and tears—in short, all the ingredients for great music. In fact, her first experience with songwriting came with the great personal pain of losing a close friend. The experience of writing and performing that song inspired her to pursue music as a career. Between that time and the release of her Island Records debut album, Traveling Light, Courtney has developed her considerable musical talents into skills that shine on all twelve tracks. The album title is indicative of Jaye's personal philosophy and experience. Born in Pittsburgh, she has rambled across the entire country, even living in Hawaii for a while. Often camping, she has moved freely and frequently: living, loving, playing, and writing along the way. Her American roots, rock, and pop influences serve her well in crafting songs that are as genuine as they are catchy. She sings with a voice that is warm, natural, and expressive, much like her personality. Read on to find out how she made the jump from traveling troubadour to major-label songstress.
Musician's Friend: What turned you on to making music? Did a single event get you interested in writing and playing, or did you know all along that you would be doing this?
Courtney: I really believe that I have innately known—since I was very young—this is what I was going to do with my life. But I don't think it all came together for me until I was in high school and I wrote a song about a friend of mine who died in a plane crash. I had just started playing the guitar and only knew about 3 chords. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I wrote a song and played it at his funeral. With all of the reactions I got from his family and the way I felt, it was a beautiful moment for me. It was beautiful to be able to express my sadness through the song. And at that moment, it was like, "Umm, yeah, I don't think I'm gonna go to college." I needed to try and work this out.
MF: That's awesome. It's bittersweet sort of...
CJ: It is. Exactly. I always say when I talk to his family—his name was Ray—and I always tell them I feel like Ray's an angel to me. I feel that he's up there saying, "Keep doing it."
MF: What's the name of that song?
CJ: "Shine On." I still know it to this day and it's really not a bad song. But I had no idea what I was doing. [laughing]
MF: How did you get hooked up with Island Records?
CJ: I hooked up with a girlfriend of mine from high school who I hadn't spoken to in a long time. She had moved to L.A. and become a designer, and a mutual friend of ours told me I should call her. So the first time I saw her I gave her a copy of my demo and she called me a couple of weeks later and told me she loved my music, and that she knew L.A. Reid and asked if she could send my demo to him.
I didn't have any expectations and said, "Sure, go for it." So she sent the demos to him and a meeting was set up, but it never happened and I just kind of forgot about it. A year later I moved out to San Diego and five days after I got out there my friend called me up and she said, "Are you sitting down right now? L.A. Reid is in L.A. and he wants you to come up tomorrow on the train and play for him."
So, I did. I played a three-song acoustic performance and I got signed the next day.
MF [laughing]: That's amazing. Did it blow your mind?
CJ: It was insane. [general laughter] But after that little showcase I walked out feeling that no matter how it all turned out, I knew that I had just kicked ass. I felt really good about it. I went into it feeling like I was going to make this happen; that there was no other way this was going to turn out, other than positively.
MF: And here you are now. That level of determination is important.
CJ: It is. At the showcase I felt like I had to just have a silent determination. I didn't call my manager—I didn't call my family. I didn't tell anybody because I didn't want to hype it up, you know? If it went really well, I'd have something to tell them. As opposed to getting everybody hyped up and putting more pressure onto myself. I just kept it to myself and said, "Let's just do it."
MF: Your debut album came off beautifully. It's really strong.
CJ: Thank you so much. That means so much to me. Thank you.
MF: It seems like your manager and label really got behind you to help you make the best album you could.
CJ: Well, I credit Island Records, and I especially credit L.A. Reid. This record I made, it was all about freedom. L.A. basically gave me his blessing and instilled me with his trust, saying "I know you're gonna make a great record—go do what you do." That's the vibe that I got, and I just went into it knowing I wanted to make a great pop record. I wanted it to be a little bit eclectic and different, but very real sounding. To have a label allow that to happen is pretty amazing—in today's world especially.
MF: They didn't try to fit you into a box that was already created.
CJ: Not at all. No way. L.A. had heard my songs but I don't even think I necessarily spoke to him about what direction I wanted to take it. I sat down with [producer] Peter Collins and told him, "I want this to be very real sounding. I don't want it to be overly produced, but I want it to be lush because it's a pop record." And we did the record and I feel like L.A. was very happy. I wasn't even thinking of trying to please anybody. I knew what I was trying to do and they let me do it.
MF: How did you go about putting together players for the record? You brought in some really talented musicians and songwriters to work on it with you.
CJ: All the players and guest artists—down to the engineers and the producer—are all people that I had dreamed of working with over the years. And they all kind of came together under one roof, and it was so exciting for me. So it was players that I love, like Jerry Marotta. He is, in my opinion, one of the best drummers out there. It was just a kind of combination and mix of different people from all over the place. With Rusty Anderson I knew that he, as a guitar player, has such a great pop sensibility with a cool style.
MF: How was it working with songwriter and Jayhawks member Gary Louris on "Can't Behave?"
CJ: Can you believe it? It's a single! Gary is incredible; the guy is incredible. He's so classy. It's important to me to write with somebody that I respect and that has great skill at this craft. I feel very, very blessed to have had access to him and I've learned a lot from him.
MF: Did you know him before writing with him for the record?
CJ: Yeah, I did. I met Gary about three years ago. We wrote a song together when we were both just starting to co-write, so we were both very new at it and we ended up writing a song together. It didn't make the record but we kept in touch and I let him know when I got signed. Then I told my producer, "I really want to try and make this happen. Can we fly Gary to LA?" It was like a week or two before we were starting to make the record. And we set it up and he came to my hotel and we wrote "Can't Behave" and the next day we went up to Matthew Sweet's house and all three of us wrote a song together, so it was pretty amazing.
What I love about Gary and his sensibility is that it's very fun. I can be in a room with him and I can just go off melodically, and there's such a freedom there. That's really what I love about writing with him. He's so great.
MF: What's your favorite collaboration so far?
CJ: I think working with Taj Mahal. I might say that that is the highlight.
MF: That would be killer.
CJ: Yeah, he's on one of the songs on my record, "Hanalei Road." It's a song about Kauai, where both he and I have lived. It just worked out when he was down in Kauai this past winter and I was over there and I really felt like I wanted him on the song. We got in touch with him and made it happen. So I might say Taj is the highlight.
MF: Are you surprised by the amount of work you have to do to promote the album?
CJ: Not really. I knew what I signed up for. I've seen it through friends in my life who are in bands. This is exactly what I wanted, as far as having a label that really believes in my record and wants me to get out there. I give Island a lot of credit for putting me out there for a two-month promo tour. That's a pretty big promo tour, and it says a lot on their end. So, you know, I love it and the moments I find myself wanting to complain, I just stop myself and say, "You know what, you shouldn't do that." [general laughter] I just think of the days I was cocktail waitressing and bartending and I feel very blessed and very grateful.
MF: Who was behind your song "Can You Sleep" being on "One Tree Hill"?
CJ: Island. I had gone to the WB offices to do an acoustic performance and I think that might have been the beginning. There are a lot of songs on the record that fit that kind of stuff, and I'm stoked about it. It's cool. I got to hear my song "Permanent" in the final episode of this show called "Starting Over" which is about women who are in therapy together. I've only seen the show a couple of times, but my song was the last song in the season finale. The women were leaving the house they had been living in together for a couple of months. It really touched me hearing the song mixed in among these women and their experiences. I just started bawling. I don't even watch this show, but it was powerful.
MF: You moved yourself.
CJ: I did. It was pretty bizarre, but you need things like that. Music is very important in films and TV. When I'm watching something and I hear a good song come on in a certain scene, it just makes it all the more memorable. It's just another way of connecting with people.
MF: You also get a lot of exposure through your MySpace page and your website. What's your take on the role of the Internet with music and spreading the word?
CJ: Oh my God, I think it's so important. I feel like it's really been an amazing outlet for me and my music. I heard today that Yahoo! has played my song on their website 500,000 times. I was just like, "Are you kidding me?" To me, that is a huge number. So I think people are starting to understand how important it is.
MF: Who's in the band that you're touring with?
CJ: The cutest guys in the world. [general laughter] I found a band down in Nashville, Tennessee, and I've been rehearsing with them for the past three weeks. They're young guys from Nashville and they're really good friends that have grown up together so they're very tight. They're super positive and they're excited to be doing what we're doing. We just did a showcase here last night for the company and the press, and they were so excited to be here. It's important for me that I'm working with people that truly want to be doing this. I'm getting up onstage every night and I want to know that the person who is playing with me is feeling some of the same emotions that I am.
MF: Hopefully they'll help inspire you, too.
CJ: Absolutely. They have already. I walked into the studio—the rehearsal space in Nashville—and heard them playing my song as I was walking up and I was, like, "This is so weird." But I walked in and we went through the whole entire record that first night and the vibe was so on. I'm so excited to play with them.
MF: You're playing a Taylor guitar. How did you pick it as your instrument?
CJ: From a guitar player that I played with last summer. Something had happened to my pickup on my old Yamaha and he let me borrow his Taylor for this gig and I just fell in love with it. I just thought to myself, "I just got signed and I want something new." So, that's how it came to be. I ended up going to Taylor and getting a tour of the whole factory and had a ball. They've been really helpful.
MF: Yeah, Taylors are pretty sweet guitars.
CJ: They're great, they really are.
MF: It sounds so good it makes you want to play.
CJ: Definitely. I didn't realize how much a difference it makes until I got the Taylor. I took it into a writing session and I was just, like, "Oh my God! This tone is amazing! We don't know what we're writing now, but it sounds good."
MF: It's true. Especially in the right environment, a good acoustic can bring a lot to the musical palette.
CJ: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MF: Well, Courtney, thanks so much for talking to us today. Good luck with your tour, and hopefully we'll get to see you perform.
CJ: Thank you so much, this has been really fun. Aloha, have a great day.