Last week Jimmy Gnecco hit the road again as part of his pre-album release tour for his much anticipated first solo album, The Heart. Before his show in McPherson, Kansas on Wednesday (May 12), he took the time to speak over the phone with Music Vice writer Laura Antonelli. Jimmy discussed The Heart in-depth, how it does not scare him to do it alone, and why ‘real fans’ are going to be upset.
So you’re on tour right now as support with Greg Laswell, correct?
How’s that going?
It’s going well. We’ve only done four shows so far, but the crowds have been great.
Your first solo album, The Heart, is set to be released July 20 on Bright Antenna. I’ve heard the album and, I have to say, it’s gorgeous.
You’ve been making music for almost two decades, why do you feel like now is the right time to release an album under your own name instead of your band, Ours?
To tell you the truth, these are a group of songs I have that I didn’t really hear anybody else being a part of them. There are some songs I write that make me think, “Oh, wow! Once we put the drums on this, it’s going to be great! Once we put the electric guitar on this, it’s going to be great. Once we put the bass…” These are songs I felt for the most part I could do everything myself. I have so many, so it felt like a good time to start recording them. There wasn’t any reason as far as the band goes to not play music together.
So when you’re writing a song are you thinking, “This is going to be a Jimmy Gnecco song. This is going to be an Ours song.” How do you differentiate?
It usually seems clear to me. There were a couple in question I had written for this record that the band was really excited about doing. I was thinking of saving them because they were so enthusiastic to play them. So I tried not to put too many songs on this record the guys felt that way about. It consists more of songs that are really personal to me. I think they all recognized that too. There’s just such a support and mutual respect in the band and for the process of song writing. Ultimately, we serve the songs. Sometimes the song dictates what is right for it without getting too involved emotionally as to why someone can’t be a part of it.
This is your first album with Bright Antenna which is an Indie label. You’ve spoken about your misfortune and struggles with major labels in the past. Why did you finally leave and is it for good?
I can’t say it’s for good because I’ve learned to never-say-never.
Not in the music business, right?
Even in life, too. So many times I’m selling a motorcycle and I’ll say, “I’m never riding again!” And then the next thing I know I’m walking into a motorcycle shop. Or, “I’ll never eat this again!” Life constantly changes. Everything around us is changing all of the time, so once you think you have something figured out, it changes and you have to adjust. I don’t think I would say never again, who knows, maybe it will change and it’ll work at some point. But it wasn’t working for me right now. So I had Rick [Rubin] at Columbia [Records] let me go. Rick was great about it. I love him very much. He understood where I was coming from. There was no hold-up or struggle. He made the phone call, got back to me quickly, and told me I was free to leave.
You self-produced the album and played every instrument. How did it feel to have complete creative control? I imagine it must have felt liberating.
There definitely wasn’t that nervous knot in my stomach. We had a great deal of creative control on Mercy as well. Even though we were doing it with Rick, he supported that complete freedom, so he let us make the record on our own. So we do have experience in that aspect. The first two records were not like that, I had to fight to get my point of view across. This just felt so natural and right. For once it was just one of those times I thought, “Wow, this is so easy!” and it was actually working. Sometimes in the past I would do things on my own and it didn’t necessarily work. In those moments, collaborations really help to elevate something. At this particular time it just felt right. Even down to a song on the album called “Gravity” which we tried recording many times. We tried to record it on our album Precious. We tried to record it again on Mercy. And that was with producers, band members, and it just wasn’t working. This time, I just went in and played exactly what I thought was right in that particular moment and got the song. With this album I feel like all the songs just clicked.
So with “Gravity” there was no specific reason why you decided to record it now? It just sounded right to you finally?
I almost wasn’t going to include it. Then I played it for the engineer I was working with and asked him what he thought of the song. It’s been the subject of a lot of debate, actually.
People have said to you “It’s money in your pocket!” Is that why you were hesitant with putting it on the record?
Yeah, former managers and even other people have said, “That’s your song!” I just felt like I didn’t know whether that was true. I wanted it to feel honest whenever the time came to release it. I didn’t want any of those other reasons to cloud the process. That kind of pressure on something can really mess it up.
The fact you’ve done this album completely on your own, does it add more pressure on you for it to be successful? Do you even think about that at this point in your career?
No, I don’t really worry about it as much as I did before. Ultimately, for the most part, I got the results that I wanted on each [Ours] record, even though it was a different process of getting it. Sometimes it was a fight and a struggle, but in the end it always felt like my work, so this feels the same too. I miss the guys, without a doubt, I really do. In that aspect, it feels a little bit lonely. This time around I’ll share the successes and failures with no one. [Laughs] I do have a team: label, management, and a road crew, so either way I’m surrounded by people. But it’s different when you’re standing on stage playing songs the four or five of you created together and it works. Now I’m up there all alone. I guess it might feel like a sense of accomplishment when pulling it off. Like you were saying, when it’s just me, it all relies on me. It doesn’t bother or freak me out, though.
The title of the record is The Heart which is the fourth song. The cover of the album is a picture of you standing up against a wall, shirtless. All your tattoos are visible. Just from what the cover and the title are I feel like you’re saying, “This album represents who I am.” Maybe more than any other album you’ve done? Just by how exposed you are on the cover. So why did you name it The Heart and choose that picture?
I think you just figured it out. [Pause] I could say more but you’ve really just nailed the essence of it, so I won’t.
You experienced personal struggle during the recording process. It was announced on your website, Facebook and MySpace pages that your mother was ill and passed away from cancer. There is a theme of death in these songs like, “Rest Your Soul”, “Light on the Grave”, “Darling”, and you specifically said you wrote “Bring You Home” for her. Now that the album is completed, has it brought you closure?
I have to say [long pause] I don’t think fully yet. I’m still going through it. But it definitely helps me deal with it.
Is it a healing experience?
Definitely. I think it’s a real blessing to have the ability to write and sing songs that express how I feel and to get it out on a daily basis. Some people don’t have that. They have to hold it all in and it comes out in other ways, or it just eats away at them. I think that playing music and singing is a great outlet to deal with any kind of emotion. It’s helping me, but I don’t think I’m fully through it yet.
Is it difficult for you to sing these songs every night?
It does get pretty tough. I didn’t think it was going to be this rough, but they get me. And I think that’s a good thing. There’s no acting, I’m not trying to channel anything either. I’m just singing the songs, and it’s really how I feel at this moment. It’s an odd thing for me because in the past I’ve written songs and they weren’t completed for awhile. Sometimes we would go out and play the record and those feelings would be resolved, so then I would have to re-dig them up to play the songs live. At least that was the case on the first two albums. Mercy was a more universal, over-all feeling for me. We were playing those songs and toured for a long time before the record came out, but night after night, I always felt completely connected to them. I think I’m tapped into a good thing that is casino working well for me right now. I think I’m just writing better songs, actually.
The music you create with Ours is quite layered. It’s great music to listen to with headphones to hear every single detail. With this new album you’ve really brought it back to the basics. A lot of the tracks feature just your voice and an acoustic guitar. Not every track, there are other instruments, but a fair share. I also noticed the incorporation of hand-clapping in songs. Tell me about bringing it back. Was that the idea?
I had a thought that with this record a part of performing it would be the experience of the audience participating in it with me. It would just be a bunch of people sitting around a small room clapping along. That was a major idea for a handful of songs. The feeling I wanted to create was that people had the desire to be a part of the live experience, rather than just witnessing it. I thought it would be fun. And instead of it being about a drummer or a band, I could just go out with my guitar and experience it musically with the people in attendance that night.
I noticed with your voice on this album, you really toned down the screaming. The only song you include a signature Gnecco howl is “The Heart.” Was this done on purpose?
Woah, you did your homework. I gotta tell ya, you’re really getting it.
I don’t like to scream for the sake of screaming. I don’t want it to be something I have to do. I want it to have a purpose. At first I often felt it which was why I would do it. Then I started to get tired of hearing it myself. I wanted to make sure it was genuine when it was happening and not just becoming a parody. To tell you the truth, I even thought a lot about that on Mercy. Particularly on “Black” I was really going for it. And in mixing with the engineer I said, “Do me a favour, bury that down? I don’t want it to be about me screaming, just use it as a texture.” Sometimes it’s just overbearing. If I wasn’t creating a context for it, then it was starting to sound overdone to me. I think it’s kind of like anything. It’s almost become, not a novelty, but –
Like people expect you to do it?
Yeah, it’s like doing just one trick. I wanted to try to get people to feel that deep emotion without having to scream. It was a challenge for me to see if I could do that. And “The Heart” just felt right for me to include it. I was holding back a little at first, but then I decided to do a take where I really go for it.
You already spoke about “Gravity” and there are two other old songs on the album as well, “I Heard You Singing” and “Darling.” Songs you often played in your acoustic shows like “I See Them Go” which is one of your oldest songs, “I Was In The Garden”, “Whore”, “Parasites” aren’t on the album –
God, Laura, you’re really – this is unbelievable. I was just sitting down yesterday playing a bunch of these songs saying real fans are going to start to become upset with me and they’re going to be like, “Jimmy! What is your problem? Why have you not recorded these songs?”
[Laughs] I was going to ask you if they’re going to make it onto future albums.
Yeah, I’ll have to choose them later to do a record.
I think you do. They’re just too good not to be on an album.
I actually have [I Was In The] Garden recorded. I’ve had it since 1997.
You just don’t want to release it to the world yet?
I tried, but DreamWorks [Gnecco’s label at the time] hated it so they put it on the back-burner. Like you just mentioned, I have so many songs: “Whore”, “Parasites”, “I See Them Go”. I have another song called “The Drowning”, “Hurt Like A Tattoo”. I had enough for this record to do three albums when I started. As I began recording the songs, I tried to narrow it down. Once I did that, I ended up writing a bunch more. So it really just came down to what songs fit together. That’s what it always comes down to in the end.
The copy of the album that was sent to me includes 15 songs. There’s a track list being posted around the web that only has 13. And one of the songs excluded is “Days.” Is that song actually on the disc?
We like to confuse people [laughs]. I wasn’t going to put “Days” on the record.
Really? That’s my favourite song right now.
Favourite song, amazing, that’s great to hear. To me I felt “Days” wasn’t ready. I wrote it very quickly. I have a bunch of songs that were written like that. “Dizzy” is one of them. I wrote it in 30 seconds, it just came out and was immediately done. “God Only Wants You” is another. For “Days”, I walked over to the piano, hit those four notes and had the song. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out the arrangement of the ending to somehow work for me, so I was going to leave it off. Then in the 11 hour [laughs] I basically figured out the whole ending. Originally this ending wasn’t there [sings] “Can you open your heart…” So that was the final change for me. Once I figured that out I thought, “Wow. Without a doubt this is the center piece of the record. This is the entire feeling of the album in one song.” Exactly how I thought “Sometimes” was that on Distorted Lullabies. I felt it was the one song that embodied the whole record. And I think “Days” is that song for this one.
That’s why I find it shocking you weren’t going to include it.
I know, it’s wild, it just wasn’t done yet. Then I finished it and was telling everybody we needed to add it on to the album. The label was fine with it but my manager said, “No! No! We don’t need any more songs!” And I was like, “You have to understand though, the record isn’t complete without it. I know that might sound crazy but…” so it made it onto the album.
I definitely think the record would have been missing out without that song.
I’m happy you like it.
This isn’t actually in regards to the new album, but you’ve played Roy Orbison’s song “Crying” in recent shows. It’s a song you often cover live. Do you have any intentions of recording your version and releasing it?
[Laughs] Laura, you’re killing me! I just said that exact same thing three days ago. I said how everybody is going to think I’m out of my mind if I don’t record this song because I’ve recorded other covers as bonus tracks. I’ve done a Lionel Richie song, an Information Society song. There are many covers that I do: “Crying”, “Unchained Melody”, “Take On Me”. I’ve done Cure songs, a bunch of Lennon songs. [Pause] I’m going to record it in a few weeks.
Are you actually going to release it, though?
Now everything we record, as soon as I feel I love it, we’re going to release it. That’s the whole idea with this new label [Bright Antenna]. There’s a possibility I’ll release the version of [I Was In The] Garden I have very soon as well. I have versions of songs from Distorted Lullabies that were my mixes that I want to release soon too.
I know you had problems with releasing Mercy in Canada. So is The Heart going to be released here?
The Heart is going to be released worldwide. Believe it or not, that was the final straw [in leaving Columbia Records]. They wouldn’t release Mercy in Canada. I asked, “Why not?” I called them myself and they told me, “You don’t even have a tour booked here!” I just couldn’t believe it, “So you’re telling me if I book a tour then you’ll release the record?” They replied yes, so I said, “Okay, I’ll see you within the week.” I booked an entire tour around all of Canada with Lukas Rossi [Stars Down] and they still didn’t release it. Along with a couple of other things that happened within that same week: they wouldn’t release the video for “The Worst Things Beautiful” to the video networks, they wouldn’t go to radio with the song. It’s tough. I don’t like to be negative about it or point a finger at them because they tried to help in other ways. I just think they didn’t know how to help. And I think they gave up with certain things regarding promotion.
So what are your plans for the future? Ours is working on a new album, right? And are you going to continue making solo albums?
As of now, what my heart and head are telling me is that as long as we have the time to do it, I will keep making records. Collaborating with other people, whether it be with Ours or called something else, and I’ll keep making them on my own. I have enough songs to do a good amount of each kind of album. There are other things I’d like to do as well, some other projects.
What kind of projects?
It’s hard to say, all sorts of different things. I’ve been trying to find the time to do music with my buddy Daniel Victor [Neverending White Lights] from up there, as well with my friend Paul Savoy from a-ha, and with the guys from Plain Jane Automobile. Also with April [Bauer] who works with us. She has songs I help her with, but we haven’t had the time to record and produce them. We’re just trying to find a place for everything right now. There’s so much music. I have a couple hundred songs written that I want to try to get recorded, and also just work with other people. I just produced a record for Jay Sparrow too.
He’s Canadian, right?
He’s from Edmonton but he’s in Toronto now. I just did like seven songs with him that came out great. I was really pleased with them.
So you want to do more producing then?
Yeah, I want to do more of that. And I’ve been asked by a couple of bands over the years to do some things.
You’ve been approached by Slash, haven’t you?
I was asked by Velvet Revolver to try that out. And after Layne [Staley] from Alice in Chains died, I was asked to give that a shot as well. I actually would love to put together a real group of musicians from different bands to collaborate on something. Maybe another record with Rick [Rubin], who knows, maybe we’ll get Slash, who knows.
But you want to do your own music? You don’t just want to replace someone else, right?
Exactly. There are some things I think should just be left alone. Before INXS did the T.V. show, I was working on some songs with one of the guys from the group. I was interested in pursuing it but I didn’t want to replace Michael, he’s irreplaceable. I don’t want to do something like that. I’m open to anything else, if anybody that was in a great band and is not involved with it anymore wants to try something different. That’s more what I’m looking forward to doing. I don’t know exactly what it would be, but I’m definitely open to it now. In the past I didn’t really have the time because we were always on the road.
So this is the last question. I have to ask because this interview is for MusicVice.com. If you don’t mind sharing, besides music, what are your other vices? And I know you mentioned motorcycles.
Yeah, I don’t ride motorcycles anymore. I exercise a lot. I love coffee, but I’ve cut back. My children, nieces and nephews. When I’m not playing music, that’s how I love to spend my time, being with the kids. Any spare moment I can spend with them or my own siblings. There are six of us and because I work so much these days, the enjoyment is very simple for me – just spending time with them, sitting around, catching up, talking, dancing, and singing karaoke. I don’t do much else. I don’t have any other real hobbies that I like to do.
Well, thank you very much. I’ll see you in Toronto on the 17. It’ll be good to have you back. It’s been awhile since you last came.
I know. I love Toronto. I really wish I could get back there more often. I did it more when it was up to me and I was kind of on my own schedule between records.
You’re performing at the Horseshoe on Monday. I read an old article, I’m not sure if you’ll even remember, but was that the first venue you performed at in Toronto back in 1997?
Yeah, it was November of ’97. I remember that show crystal clear. I remember what I was wearing. I remember standing at the back of the place freezing, but just being so happy to be there. Toronto to me has always been like a mini-Europe. I always felt like our music would be well-accepted there. Or more easily accepted in places like Europe, Toronto, Vancouver. I always believed I needed to play Toronto, so I’m just really happy whenever I can get up there.
Well, we’re happy to have you back, Jimmy. Thank you again and congratulations on a wonderful album.
Thank you. I’m happy that you like it. And thanks for the great questions. You really did your work and that made it enjoyable for me.
© Laura Antonelli, Music Vice
Remaining Tour Dates:
May 15 Empty Bottle Chicago, IL
May 17 The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern Toronto, Canada
May 19 Blind Pig Ann Arbor, MI
May 20 Cambridge Room @ House of Blues Cleveland, OH
May 21 Rumba Cafe Columbus, OH
May 22 Tin Angel Philadelphia, PA
May 24 The Rock and Roll Hotel Washington, DC
May 25 Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
May 26 Tin Angel Philadelphia, PA
May 27 Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA
May 30 The Evening Muse Charlotte, NC
June 1 Vinyl Atlanta, GA
June 2 WorkPlay Theatre Birmingham, AL
June 4 The Prophet Bar Dallas, TX
June 5 Stubb’s Austin, TX
June 8 Rhythm Room Phoenix, AZ
June 10 Cafe Du Nord San Francisco, CA
June 21 Mexicali Live Teaneck, NJ