With her recent album, Such a Long Way, she was “aiming for a sweet spot somewhere between Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris.”
If you’ve been faithfully watching the NBC show Songland, you might remember Jess Jocoy, who pitched her song to Kelsea Ballerini. She’s come such a long way from performing karaoke in the bars of her home state of Washington to committing to music full time to moving to Nashville to auditioning an original tune on primetime-TV.
“That whole experience feels like a dream,” says Jocoy, who released her debut album, aptly titled Such a Long Way, in April. “I found out about the show by following Shane McAnally on Instagram. He’d posted something about it, and I thought, What the heck! I submitted a song from my 2018 EP called “Easy” and kind of forgot about it. A couple of months later, the producers started reaching out.”
The next thing she knew, she was flying to L.A. for the first time to shoot a TV show. “Everyone was really kind — from the producers and crew to the other artists. It was all kind of a whirlwind. When I finally got to meet the “Producers” — a k a the judges — and Kelsea, it was to pitch my song, and I was so nervous! I think it was halfway through the pitch it occurred to me: This is going to be on national television.
Despite not being picked to move on, she still felt like a winner. “I had a lot of people reach out afterward through social media saying how much even that small snippet of song meant to them.”
We talked to Jocoy about her most recent record and her musical journey.
Cowboys & Indians: For people who are not familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself and your music.
Jess Jocoy: A few times I’ve been called an old soul. I grew up in the North but live in the South. I’m addicted to coffee but am not a connoisseur. I love to travel, and I live for music. At the crux of it: I’m a singer-songwriter. My music is really just an ongoing endeavor to write better stories, so with that, it falls under the Americana genre. My roots are in country music, but I think, sonically, I’m in flux. With my debut record, Such a Long Way, I was aiming for a sweet spot somewhere between Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris, but there’s a lot of sounds out there I’m eager to chase down.
C&I: Your music has a melancholy feel to it, in the best possible way. What made you want to explore that sonic landscape? Did it just come naturally, or did you have to work to find "your sound”?
Jocoy: When I was 19, I lost my dad to cancer. Before then, my songs were more lighthearted contemporary country songs. I was influenced by artists like Miranda Lambert and Faith Hill. Losing him definitely altered my sound. I started exploring darker writing subjects, and, with that, I often found myself dwelling in those minor-chord structures. But I found that there was space within that landscape to tell poignant stories. It allowed for some bolder word choices. The songs on Such a Long Way are kind of an extension of that grieving period, I suppose. I think I’m still working to find “my sound,” though. Life is all about balance — for the artist and the listener. I want to be the writer who can make you feel both joy and pain, but I definitely understand when they say it’s easier to write sad songs.
C&I: Who are your biggest musical influences and why are they important to you or favorites of yours?
Jocoy: Hands down, one of my favorite artists and biggest influences is Jason Isbell — Southeastern easily being one of the best records ever made (in my humble opinion). I just think he has such a unique ability to tell a story, dancing on the line between poetic and conversational. He does melancholy really well, both musically and in his writing. He puts you in a scene, which is what I look for when listening to a song — like little movies. I’ve also really been exploring Gregory Alan Isakov over the last few months. I’d heard a few songs of his here and there and was a fan, but I took a deep dive at the start of COVID-19, and now I cannot get enough. Evening Machines is probably one of the best albums I’ve ever listened to. I’m also obsessed with his earlier works. That style of country-folk is something I’d really like to explore going forward. My dad raised me on artists like Alan Jackson, and my mom gave me an appreciation for classic rock, but I didn’t really get into the more classic styles of music until I was older. I also love old country — ’50s through '70s, especially — and would like for some works down the road to feature more of those roots.
C&I: How about the influence of place? What’s your hometown, both growing up and where you’re living now?
Jocoy: I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, about two hours south of Seattle. I used to joke that I’d grown up under the blue hue of a Northwest raincloud, which I didn’t realize was so true until I made the move to Nashville in 2014. My hometown is kind of a conglomeration of a few different towns: I lived in one town, went to school in another, worked in another. But, they were all close enough that it was like one giant small hometown. I didn’t really have musical friends, maybe one or two, but during those years I was solely focused on singing, which in my mind was more of a “solo sport,” if you will. As an only child, I spent a lot of time with my cousins and my parents, and I’m really grateful to say we’re so close. My parents would graciously drive me around the state to go to singing competitions. They’ve always been so supportive. Nashville was always the goal. When I got here, it was a lot different than I thought it’d be. A new age of country music was coming around, and it was so much different from what I was expecting, and, honestly, aspiring for. I had to recalibrate what my goals and intentions were for my music, and it’s been a journey of self-discovery ever since.
C&I: Tell us about your latest album, Such a Long Way. What inspired it and how did it come together? Is there a common thread running through the songs?
Jocoy: I’d known I wanted to make a full album for some time. I’d been gathering songs but hadn’t found the one song that could tie them all together. That was until I wrote what turned out to be the title track, “Hope (Such a Long Way).” I’ve always struggled with my confidence. After I moved to Nashville, going through the culture shock of coming from my little world where not a lot of people I knew did music, to a town where everyone does music and they do it really well, I was really questioning my ability to keep up. A couple of times, I’d tried to convince myself that I wasn’t meant to be a songwriter; that I should settle for something else in the music industry. It was always me talking down to myself, never really anyone else, but it was to a point that I was really having a hard time staying focused.
But I tend to be the kind of person who hits a brick wall — an ultimatum kind of gal. I finally reached a point where I told myself I was either going to pony up and do what I came here to do, or I was going to have to move back to Washington — a place that no longer felt like home. That’s what “Hope” is about: the idea that you’ve come such a long way, and you recognize there’s still such a long way to go, but rather than being scared or intimidated by what’s to come, you choose to find excitement in the endless possibilities. That ended up being the thread that tied the 11 songs on the record together. Each song holds a little piece of my truth that speaks to that idea in some way or another.
C&I: What do you feel are the high points on the album, and why do they stand out? What’s the meaning in the standout songs for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from them?
Jocoy: There are a couple songs on the record that I think stand out amongst the others. The opening track, “Existential Crossroads,” and “Castles Made of Sand” are the two that come to mind. It’s hard because I could tell you how each song came about, and specific lines within each song that, to me, hold more weight than others, but this would be a much longer-winded answer than what you’re hoping for! Those songs, though, hold weight. “Existential Crossroads” was the result of the first time I questioned my morality when it came to songwriting. I’d written a song that used a certain somewhat common word that I was raised to never use, based on personal beliefs. But I wanted to be edgy. When I played it for my confidante, I knew I’d crossed that line for the sake of a song, and I was convicted for it. “Existential Crossroads” was the result of struggling with the idea of how far is too far.
With “Castles Made of Sand,” I was looking to challenge myself. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like you don’t often find songs where a female writer is writing from a male perspective. You have the vice versa in songs like John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” [and] I wanted to try something like that. I also wanted to write a story where the main character — the son — wasn’t necessarily the good guy; where we couldn’t justify his reasoning simply because the song is from his perspective. The story itself follows the tumultuous relationship between a son and his father and the son’s inability to recognize his father’s best intentions, and therefore we see his rebellion and the fallout that comes with it. I’d say it’s easily one of the heaviest songs on the record but one of my favorites to play.
C&I: Tell us about the recording process. How did the album come together in the studio?
Jocoy: When I first moved to Nashville, I met Mike Rinne, who ended up being one of the co-producers on the record. Sometime last year, we’d reconnected, and I’d told him of my plans to make a record, hoping he could help wrangle a band for this project. He connected me with Dylan Alldredge, who owns Skinny Elephant Recording, and together they helped bring in the musicians and we set out putting Such a Long Way into motion. I was working a 9-to-5 job at a record label at the time and had already used up my leave for the year, so we only had three days to record the 11 songs. To say the stars aligned when it came to this band is an understatement. We ended up doing live takes for most of the songs, which was my first time experiencing that. All in all, I can’t say enough about the process. I’m so proud of the work all of those folks did — truly, they’re the best of the best.
C&I: What have you been doing during lockdown?
Lockdown has been weird! Actually, it’s been another forced avenue of self-discovery. Back in March, when we were all wondering if this was really happening, I was kind of nonchalant about it all. I was gearing up for album release, I’d spent literally hundreds of hours self-booking a few months of touring that I’d start the day after release, and I was too focused on the rollout to take anything else seriously. When lockdown became real, I had a hard time. After the shock of having to cancel or postpone my tour, I tried to focus on writing and doing livestreams. Writing has been tougher than I’d hoped, so I started seeking out other things that might bring me joy. Up till then, music was it: Eat, sleep, breathe music. I needed something to curb that anxiety and, honestly, the depression that I was realizing I suffered from. I delved into discovering yoga, which I really enjoy — not just the poses, which I’m not great at, but the breathing and meditation aspect of the practice. It’s done wonders for my overall well-being. And vegan baking: I’ve got a blueberry cinnamon roll recipe I’m dying to try out.
C&I: So besides yoga and vegan baking, generally speaking, what inspires you? How do you “refill the well” of creativity?
Jocoy: For better or worse, I’ve always found that my mind runs wild when I’m driving. The well refills best when I’m behind the wheel. The majority of space on my phone is voice memos because of it!
C&I: What’s something people might be surprised to find out about you?
Jocoy: I have a not-so-secret passion for collecting pottery, namely Fiestaware and Polish Pottery. My mom and I will go antiquing and it’s the best. My grandmother had been collecting Fiesta forever, and every summer my family would visit on vacation, and I loved setting the table and doing the dishes. The colors of Fiesta and the patterns of Polish Pottery just make for a happy kitchen. Am I a good cook? No. Is this collection bordering on hoarding? Yes. But it’s cool. Oh! And I’ve recently determined I’m a “half-vegan.” I can’t seem to fully commit — sorry, true vegans, keep up the good fight — but I’ve been working to take steps toward better sustainability and less waste so that the children of tomorrow won’t have to live on the moon if they don’t want to.
Jess Jocoy’s Feel Good Playlist
“Easy Rider” — Eddie Berman
“Caves” — Gregory Alan Isakov
“Somebody Somewhere” — Jess Jocoy
“Can’t Cut Loose” — Erin Rae
“I Believe in You” — Don Williams
“El Búho” — Blanco White
“Relatively Easy” — Jason Isbell
“If We Have Each Other” — Alec Benjamin
“‘Cross the Brazos at Waco” — Billy Walker
“Hallelujah” — Jess Jocoy
“Unholy Ghosts” — David Keenan
“Comfortably Numb” — Pink Floyd
“Dirty Old Town” — The Pogues
“El Paso” — Marty Robbins
Photography: Images courtesy Patrick Sheehan