Jessie Payo - Performance Review by Harriet Kaplan
Jessie Payo has what it takes to be a star. The diminutive singer/songwriter from Burbank, CA looks like a cross between Demi Lovato and Lisa Marie Presley. Payo has been compared vocally to Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge and Nikki Costa. Though she never over sings and delivers just enough genuine emotion and feeling without becoming a parody of herself detracting from the numbers themselves allowing the stories to take center stage.
Payo is a true original independent artist that writes Americana/country material in a mature and distinctive voice. It's rare to hear songs just once where they stay in your mind and linger in your memory. Jessie Payo is that artist. Poignant, moving, introspective, analytical and self critical, Payo's material covers the spectrum of emotions delving into the human psyche. Time-worn, universal themes (love and life, in general) have been mined by several artists to great effect. Some with more substance, originality and creativity than others. Payo is up there with some of the best. Her poetic wordplay and unique lyrical metaphors were showcased live at a recent show at Hotel Cafe. Every of one the 11 songs she performed was great. Only two were covers. One was a blues rendition of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and the other was Gillian Welsh's "Caleb Meyer," which were standouts as well.
Payo, along with a solid, tasteful country-accented accompaniment that at times had a cinematic quality to it straight out of western movie or was quietly mournful, was provided by JD Carrera on pedal steel; Christian Wunderlich on lead guitar; Frank Abraham on bass and Rob Humphreys on drums.
Payo and her band took the audience with her on a personal odyssey/journey with "I Will Die Alone," "Goodbye Yesterday," and "Your Love Don't Look Like Mine." On the lighter side of the songwriting spectrum, Payo performed "Dance Real Close"," a semi-autobiographical number about an imaginary lover based on brief encounter on the dating website, Tinder. The sassy and sultry performer also has the gift of gab, was very natural and at ease talking to the receptive, enthusiastic crowd as if they were sitting in her own living room. Payo has a quirky, twisted sense of humor and is not afraid to laugh or made fun of herself. Being of Filipino/Irish ancestry, Payo joked she looked like a leprechaun in her green party dress. Then, when on to say, at the end of the rainbow, you'll will find a bucket of whiskey. But all jokes aside, Jessie Payo's gifts shone bright like a pot of gold.
PR. What do you prefer drinking whiskey or champagne? I noticed you talked in between songs at your show about drinking. Do you think lyrics centered around drinking in country song can sound like a cliche?
JP: Tough question because I love both equally but if I had to chose I guess I’m a whiskey girl. I’ve got a little whiskey wear in my voice. I wrote my first song after a night of whiskey and tears. I was in a place where I didn’t know where to go musically, I was broke and so afraid my boyfriend at the time was going to leave me. Now that I know I can fully express my shortcomings through music, I don’t need to lean on the alcohol factor as much.
PR. I think you're very funny. I liked the in-between song banter it was clever and sassy. Where do you think you get your sense of humor?
JP: I grew up with two very creative and funny parents. Also, my brother is probably the funniest person I know. I’ve always been a fan of comedy. I used to be deathly afraid of talking to the audience in between songs in fear that I might bore them. Then I saw and worked with artists that make a point to add humor in their shows and it only adds to the experience.
PR. Are most of your songs autobiographical or do you take a lot of creative license with your lyrics? What topics inspire you and why? Do you read a lot and does it spark you to write poetically?
JP: Most of my songs are inspired by real life events in my life and those close to me. I mix and match stories, moments, lovers and such. I’m naturally a lonely person looking for love and have had my heart broken time and time again...a part of me feels like I do that for the sake of a good song, (laughs). I guess I like to romanticize heartache through song...oh boy I guess it’s time to write a happy song for the sake of the challenge, (laughs)...
PR. Being a country artist, can you relate to someone like Buck Owens who was also from California. He called his music "American Music." Also someone like Dwight Yoakim who tried to make it in Nashville and didn't and then came to California and found recognition and success. I ask because I heard you went to Nashville and what was your experience? You seem like a traditional country artist but yet alternative. Do you feel or see it that way? Also I read one of the artists you respect is Gillian Welsh. She is from New York originally but gravitated to country music because she heard The Stanley Brothers, Carter Brothers, etc? What pointed you toward country music?
JP: I thought very seriously about moving to Nashville given the music that I’ve been writing. I did my record out there at Starstruck Studios. I went there this past May in hopes of finding a place to live and making a new home for myself. Turns out it wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I fit in very well and wasn’t inspired. It broke my heart because a lot of the music that has influenced me came from there. I realized how much I loved Los Angeles and the community. After that trip I fell in love with my hometown all over again. To my surprise, there’s quite a little country scene in Los Angeles popping up.
-I listened to Gillian Welch growing up. I’ve listened to all of her records and she’s the one that really pointed me into the americana direction. The songwriting is brilliant, dark and haunting. Her record “Revelator” has been on the top of my list for years. I never thought to write within that realm. I was just a fan. I also only sang blues and soul for so many years that country/americana never crossed my mind. So when I tried it on for size when I wrote “Heaven Help Me”, it came so naturally and I couldn’t help but stick with it. It was like finding the perfect pair of jeans. It just fit, just right.
PR. A friend of mine told me she saw you in your teens when Cozy's was in business and you were performing blues music. Have you changed musical directions a lot over the course of your career and why?
JP: It’s taken me a very long time to find my sound. I never quite understood the importance of having a distinct “sound”. I just loved singing...and singing everything. I started off with the blues, then went to neo-soul, then dance pop, then southern rock...now americana. I feel most at home with what I’m writing and singing now. I’m really proud of my songs and where I’ve come as an artist. It’s taken a long time to get to that place.
PR. How did you get into licensing music for TV shows? What songs were used on what shows and was the genre of music?
JP: Most of my songs that were licensed are from my previous band Jupiter Rising. We were signed to Chime entertainment and they were able to get our songs placed in shows like “Criminal Minds”, “So You Think You Can Dance”, “The Hills”, and “My Super Sweet 16”. Most recently, my song “Heaven Help Me” was featured in Discovery Channel’s “Bering Sea Gold”. I gained a lot of fan from that episode.
PR. Can you tell me about your recent Facebook post you titled "Gratitude and Lifesavers"? You seem disappointed and/frustrated about how your career is going. Were you having a bad day when you wrote it and is this a culmination of things not happening the way you hoped or thought they would take place?
JP: Music is a hard road and it’s all I’ve known for the past 15 years. I’ve thought a lot about giving up on it, finding a new career path. This past year was a rough one and I came to a point of complete defeat. I was spinning in circles and couldn’t see the end or the point. So I went ahead and seriously contemplated what life would be like without music...could I actually walk away from it and be happy? A few days of pondering these questions only brought me to realize that I’m always going to be creating because I simply can’t help myself. It’s what moves me and I will only create what serves me...not cater to what will work for others. Some might say that’s an even harder road.