Jackie Greene’s Basement Tapes
On an early fall evening in New York City, a day before the release of his new EP The Modern Lives Vol. 1, Jackie Greene is conducting a Q&A for a small crowd at The Cutting Room. Eventually, and inevitably, the conversation turns to his tenure in a certain Southern rock band. “When I heard that you were going to be in The Black Crowes, I thought, ‘That’s kinda weird’ because I didn’t think of you in that way,” the moderator says. Greene flashes a knowing smile and responds, “You thought I had no chops, man!”
Indeed, Greene has worn many hats over the years, from moonlighting in bands like the Crowes and Phil Lesh & Friends to a stint in the supergroup Trigger Hippy. After releasing his acclaimed 2002 debut record Gone Wanderin’, he was hailed as an acoustic laureate at the tender age of 21, eliciting comparisons to Bob Dylan. Later, while bolstering his prolific solo career, he opened for legendary guitarists like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, and also toured with Bob Weir’s RatDog. All of these different roles (in tandem with his keen songwriting abilities and California-country vibe) have granted Greene the ability to cross genre lines and connect with fans from all walks of life. Eight studio records and countless tours later, he landed in Brooklyn in 2015 faced with yet another challenge. Used to California’s wide-open spaces, the singer had to adjust to the noisy confines of New York City.
“I have a love-hate relationship with New York, as I think all New Yorkers do,” Greene admits a few weeks after his Cutting Room show. Melding together country sounds with urban laments—as only a Californian-turned-New Yorker could—his new EP The Modern Lives Vol. 1 wastes no time equating Times Square with a graveyard, and billboards with headstones, on opening track “Modern Lives.”
“The Modern Lives project is basically my documentation of my New York years,” Greene says, adding that volume two is already in the works. Recorded and produced last winter through spring, The Modern Lives Vol. 1 was a kind of independent study for Greene. Its liner notes are singular, just the singer and whatever equipment he managed to haul from the West Coast. “I wanted to make something that felt, quite frankly, homemade.” he says. “I did everything myself in my basement in Brooklyn. I played all the instruments myself.”
And while it was a rewarding experience, Greene acknowledges that taking on all of that responsibility was a leap of faith. “It’s a little bit scary to go into a project knowing you have to do everything yourself,” he says. “But it’s kind of like the pride you get when you build something in woodshop class.”
Despite his previous experiences with home studios, his Brooklyn setup was particularly primitive—The Modern Lives Vol. 1 was birthed next to a washer-dryer and storage space. “Professional is not a word I would use to describe it at all,” he chuckles. In an extreme “exercise in patience,” Greene spent his days writing and recording, hoping that the incessant clamor of New York City wouldn’t pour through the subterranean room’s small, street-facing window. “You could be doing a take and, in the last 10 seconds, someone’s car alarm goes off outside. It’s not ideal,” he recalls.
For Greene, writing is recording; and the songs on The Modern Lives Vol. 1 were documented every step of the way. If something didn’t sound right at first pass, Greene would start over, trying out a different instrument or adding a bridge before proceeding to record it all over again. In the end, he says, tinkering with these musical “prototypes” allowed the final product to emerge.
“What ends up happening is there are four or five different versions of any given song. Because, over the course of writing it, I’ve recorded it several different ways,” he says. For instance, he can trace the growth of one song, “Tupelo,” quite easily. The sparse, country-blues number went through revision after revision, evolving from a standard
Eventually, after distorting the drums through his guitar fuzz pedals and overdubbing some piano, Greene landed on the banjitar-driven number you hear on The Modern Lives Vol. 1. “It was dirtier and nastier [than the first take],” he explains. “That’s all I’m looking for. I don’t need a recording to be pristine or anything like that, I just need it to be emotional in some way, or to have a vibe of some sort.” And knowing how to play multiple instruments makes the process even easier. “I’m carving away at the marble,” he says.
Greene describes himself as a tactile learner, with plenty of hands-on experience in the recording studio as well as in front of an audience. He credits his musical growth and wide-spanning career with his willingness to accept every challenge that comes his way. “I’ve learned so many things from Phil & Friends that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else, and I’ve learned so many things from The Black Crowes that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. And the same with playing with Levon Helm, Trigger Hippy or any of these other things I’ve been involved with,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I don’t have a hard time being inspired. I feel inspired quite often, and I think it might be because I’m always saying ‘yes’ to all these different things.”
His relationship with Lesh is particularly telling. Before he was enlisted as one of the bassist’s Friends, Greene was unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead songbook and daunted by the idea of improvising on the spot. Joining up with Lesh, venturing outside of his comfort zone and diving into the jam world opened Greene up to new musical possibilities and christened him into the extended Grateful Dead family. (Lesh even officiated his wedding at Terrapin Crossroads in March.)
“I didn’t know you could be that free onstage and take all those chances until I met Phil and started playing with him,” Greene admits. “At first, I was very reluctant. ‘What
if things go bad? What if it doesn’t work?’ And Phil’s attitude is, ‘Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t work, but you have to keep trying.’…I can’t tell you how profound that is. That is a profound awakening. And I think I’m better for having that awakening.”
And, as The Modern Lives Vol. 1 hits, Greene is already finishing up the second volume, a more bluegrass, country-influenced set, as compared with the first EP’s more bluesy sound. So far, he’s pleased with his new partnership with Blue Rose Music, which enables him to churn out music faster than ever before—writing, recording and releasing EPs in a matter of months. “The closer I can get to having the music released with my current mindset, the happier I will be,” he says. Then, he pauses, adding, “I think. I don’t know. That’s what I’m going for.”
Greene is taking it one step at a time. For now, The Modern Lives project is alive and well, but the impending arrival of his first child with wife Kyle means he’ll probably be leaving the metro New York area in favor of more kid-friendly climes. Looking ahead, Greene has an open mind, using his past experiences to inform the future. Unfazed by the industry’s desire to define him by a single genre, his only goal is to make songs that speak his truth.
“I don’t see a reason that I need to be just one thing. I’ve never agreed with that. I think it’s OK to be a singer-songwriter and to make country songs or folk songs or blues songs or rock-and-roll songs, and then perform it in the context of a jamband,” he says. “That’s what the Grateful Dead are to me. It’s a bunch of great songs by themselves, performed in a way that is nonstandard. I think that’s part of the magic.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.