Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jesse Hughey of Jack Ruby Presents

When I got a beer in Seattle with Jesse Hughey, the impossibly smooth-sounding guitarist, singer, and songwriter for Jack Ruby Presents, he didn't know the war that was going on inside me.

On the one hand, I always love interviewing talented artists.

On the other, enjoying Jesse's music meant doing something I've been actively fighting against since I was fourteen: Admitting that my boarding school roommate, Karen, actually has pretty great taste in music.

Dammit, Karen.

Jesse Hughey
Jack Ruby Presents started in McMinnville, Oregon and consists of Jesse, Chris Hernandez who plays lead guitar and sings, Melissa Davaz, keyboardist and singer, drummer Aaron Owens, and bassist Derek Puhlmann. The group has been together for  six years, and their new album, Pale Road, debuts tonight at Laurelthirst in Portland.

So for Jack Ruby Presents, you play guitar, you sing, and you write. Busy man! How did you get your start in music?

I actually think of myself as mainly a writer. I'm not a very good singer or guitar player.

You might be the first musician I've ever heard say that.

Hah! I grew up as a jazz drummer, and I thought I was hot shit at sixteen, but I picked up a guitar eight years ago. I feel like my real voice comes as a writer, So for Jack Ruby Presents, I wrote a record. My hope was to write a complete album, something meant to be taken in as a whole, with more focus on the lyric content than anything else.

I know the band got started in Portland, and you're based out of Seattle now, but you've toured a lot too. What have been some of your favorite spots to hit?

The most fun for me was Sitka, Alaska, where I grew up. We've played the Homeskillet Fest, and we got to play with Langhorne Slim and Macklemore, which was kinda cool, to play with people we wouldn't ever meet in a normal bar setting. Pendleton, Oregon had the sweetest people in the world. We played at Great Pacific Coffee. They couldn't pay us, but they gave us dinner, beers, and breakfast, which was great. They're really supportive of art there, supportive of what we do. 
Jack Ruby Presents

That's really important, isn't it, having people who believe in what you do, not just as art, but as a livelihood?

No lie. It's a weird thing. I buy as much music as I can afford, but I can't even begin to afford all the music that's influenced me. And I think piracy in general is good for music. It keeps us honest, and potentially rewards art on merit outside of commerce. What hurts me is the implication that music should be free, that there's no investment required on the part of the person interacting with the music. If you want music to keep happening, then you have to keep investing in it. I get that not everyone can buy three records a week, but perhaps you can go to a show or two, or wait a bit and buy the best local album of the month. It's not an easy market for artists. The last song I recorded I did between the hours of seven p.m. and three a.m. because that was the studio time I could afford on a deal. 

I was at a store here in Seattle the other day, and I mentioned your band to the guy behind the counter. He asked me if I'd heard your cover of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," and he said he loved it. Why that song?

We came to it in a weird way. We're all Billie Holiday fans and Murder by Death is one of the only bands that the whole JRP crew digs. We were teaching Three Men Hanging to Melissa because we had half a set and were trying to fill it out with covers, and Melissa was like, "You know, this has the same chords as Strange Fruit," and she started singing it and we were all like "...fuck." We let her take it and arrange it. We all got chills. It didn't take much debate, "Hmm, guess this should go on the set list!" 

And the thing about that song is that we're a bunch of white kids, and I've never lived in the South, so there are times when I've felt like it wasn't my story to tell. But it's a beautiful song, and an important song, and I feel it should be reintroduced. If it takes a bunch of Northwestern white kids to introduce someone to Billie Holiday, then I'm really glad they're getting to know Billie Holiday, you know?

So what next, hot stuff?

I'm excited about Pale Road, our new record! Of course, as soon as you put out anything you poke holes in it, but I feel really good about the writing. It's cohesive and succinct. I wrote the songs in a short period of time in a specific mental space.

Their new album, Pale Road, is released tonight!

To keep me sane since I've moved to Seattle, I've started working on my own stuff. As the primary writer for the band, there were subjects I didn't want to approach. But for myself, I can write from the gut. Childhood stuff, mental, emotional, spiritual... I didn't want to make the band say those things for me. It's more personal in a way that playing with a band just isn't.

Maybe by next spring I'll have a solo album put together.