The 11th Hour: CRIS JACOBS, THE INTERVIEW

Singer, songwriter, guitarist– Cris Jacobs has led the life of the rock n’ roll road warrior. Following a decade long run with his Baltimore-based band The Bridge, Cris found a renewed energy and began releasing music on his own beginning with 2012’s Songs for Cats and Dogs. In 2016, the critically acclaimed Dust to Goldfound Cris digging into a bluesy mix of styles that showcased his songwriter’s palette as well as his considerable skill with the guitar. On April 12th Cris Jacobs will release his latest effort, Color Where You Are— a mature, balanced expression of songs that finds Cris making sense of his new role as a father, the wider spectrum of issues that blessing presents, and his continued evolution as an artist. 

AI- You’ve got this brand new record coming out, Color Where You Are… You’ve had some major changes in your life since the last record, Dust To Gold… How’d you get from there to here?

CJ- Well… Since we put out Dust To Gold, I’ve had a daughter and been working real hard with the band. We went in with Dust To Gold, and the band was sort of brand new. We were discovering ourselves in the studio when we made that record. And since then, we put in a lot of miles together, done a lot of shows, and really started to gel. And then like I say, I have a two-year-old daughter as well. Between touring really heavily and being home and being a dad, I managed to squeeze some new songs out as best I could. We went into the studio with some very, very brand new song ideas. I’ve had such great chemistry and confidence in the band these days that we kind of fleshed it all out right then and there.

You guys decided to produce this whole thing yourselves– and you say you’ve been working hard. Is that what led to that decision or was there something deeper behind it?

I certainly had full confidence in us to do it. We have a really good rapport as a band. Sometimes producers are called on to be, more or less, babysitters with certain groups. I mean, usually, they’re more than that– but at times you just need somebody to be the clear leader and to be the clear voice of direction. But with us, we’re pretty self-sufficient, and we all kind of trust each other to know what to do and not be told what to do. So I had full faith that we’d be able to pull it off because it’s not easy to self-produce. Which isn’t to say that… We certainly would love to work with producers in the future. Just the way this one came together, it was like, “Oh s–t, it’s time for a new record!” You know? Like I said, just the head was down so much just working and being busy at home– and then I was like, “Man, we better get started!” It wasn’t a thing where like, “Hey guys, I have like 25 new songs that I’ve written that are just sitting around.” It was more like, “All right, time to get to work!” And I just started writing and booked the studio time before all the songs were written. I put a gun to my head and said, “Alright, I need to have these songs! I need to have ’em ready ’cause we’re workin’ here, and now you gotta put out a new record!” And so it was like that this time around, rather than just sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike and making a record when I felt like making a record. It was like, if we’re doing this, if we’re working, we gotta make one– which is sort of a theme throughout the whole thing, a renewed focus at this stage in my life that I’ve never really had to be aware of. Before I was a father and in years past, you scheduled things when you feel like scheduling them, wake up when you feel like waking up, and write a song when you feel like writin’ a song. And now it’s like, “No”, you know? I gotta support a family and a band and a career. There’s never enough time for anything– so just put your head down and get to work! And that’s what we did with these songs and these sessions.

I think our daughters– I have a daughter– were born right around the same time, and so I know how much that affected my writing and what was going on. How has that dynamic changed? Did you write on the road before? Do you write more on the road now? Is she helping you write?

I can’t say that she helps me write yet– other than just helping with the subject matter and the love in my heart these days, you know? But other than that, I’ve never been a huge writer on the road. I’ve done it sometimes in years past, but I do my best work when I’m able to focus at home. The dynamic changed just because it’s like, “Okay, I’m scheduling time to write today, tomorrow, Wednesday, these hours of the day…” That’s my time that I have to write, and so I sit down in the chair and get to work, which is definitely something new for me. It’s turning professional and being an adult about it– and not just kinda, “Maybe I’ll, you know, go to the park and get stoned, and maybe I’ll have a song fall into my lap or something.” You know what I mean? (Laughs)

I think a lot of songwriters find the family dynamic challenge the time that it takes to sit down and write a song. Do you feel like your subject matter… Maybe not the subject matter but your perception of things has shifted?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I feel like the stakes are higher and that things mean more to me due to the family dynamics and due to things that are going on in the world, the political dynamics. It feels like a very intense time, feels like a very heavy time and the need for focus on what is important to me… I’m really trying to preserve and hold onto and bring forward my art and have a body of work to show for it one day rather than maybe in years past not having so much pressure… Pressure might not be the right word– but just having so much at stake, maybe? When you’re young and only care about yourself, it’s a lot different than when you’re a father and there’s all kinds of craziness going on in the world. It’s just a very different focus. I guess the difference for me is really feeling like I need to make the songs count and not being so offhanded with what I’m trying to say, but really figuring out what it is that I’m trying to say.

How important was it to you with this new album to address, as you say, some of the craziness going on in the world, particularly in the political landscape?

I think it’s very important to just be aware of it and to make your own assertions from it and to build your own foundations from it. That’s as far as I’ve really tried to go. I mean, I shy away from getting too preachy or soap-boxy with music because I’m not gonna tell anybody what to think. I’m not really trying to do that. I’m not really trying to sway anybody’s political opinion just because there’s enough of that already going on. It’s more of like… deeply processing the things that are going on– and how does that affect me? How does that affect my family? What’s the next step? Yeah, we’re angry or dissatisfied with what’s going on. Well, anybody can be that. Anybody can just lash out and say, “Oh, I f—-n’ hate Donald Trump,” or you love Donald Trump– but that’s not really what I was interested in doing because that’s just boring and trite and overdone– and nobody wants to hear that! But what’s the next step? How do you take it beyond that? What are those feelings that are conjured up from the political climate? What is important for you to express? What lessons can we learn moving forward to process it all and be better people? That’s really more of what it did to me, rather than just trying to lash out or you know, making a “po-litical” record. It’s more trying to go the next step of like, okay, we know this, we know what’s going on here, it’s crazy. There’s chaos, confusion, but what are the lessons we can learn from that– and then how can we move forward that can be better?

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I want to go back and ask you specifically about the Neville Jacobs collaboration. That was fun. That was a funky thang… How did you meet Ivan and what put that album in motion?

I was in a band called The Bridge from like 2001 to 2011. We used to do some shows, festivals where we’d cross paths with Dumpstaphunk, [Ivan’s] band, so that was like when we first were acquainted. Then I was in New Orleans where I had my first Jazz Fest experience down there, and as I’ve been known to do during some downtime here and there, I walked into the casino and sat myself down at the poker table because it was about 100 degrees outside, and it’s nice and air conditioned in there. So I sat down at the table to play some cards and Ivan, coincidentally, sat right next to me. He’s also a poker player. It was like, “Oh, hey man, yeah!” We recognized each other and laughed about the fact that we were both sittin’ there gamblin’ on our downtime! We actually ended up sitting there for a few hours, playin’ some cards, chattin’ it up… We kinda saw each other a few more times and then as it would have it, the next time I was down in New Orleans, I walked into the casino, and he was literally the first person I saw! I was like, “Man, let’s just exchange numbers!” So we played a little bit more and that’s when we were like, “You know what? We should do something, man. Yeah.” I mean he would always kind of have me sit in every now and again with Dumpstaphunk– and he actually sat in with The Bridge the first time we played in New Orleans. He showed up and just hopped up on stage! Yeah, so the musical respect was there and we said, “Let’s try to do something one day. Okay, cool.” And then the stars aligned where we had some downtime… He was up in Baltimore and able to spend a day or two with me in the studio. There were no expectations. We didn’t have to make a record. It was sorta like, “Yeah, man, let’s go get some lunch, let’s go play some cards. And then we’ll go hang out in the studio for a little while.” That’s what we did and sort of messed around with some raw ideas to see if there was any spark there. And that’s really how it started. So it was a very natural, organic friendship and musical collaboration.

I want to know some of the guitar players that you admire because you’ve got… You are what I like to refer to as a deliberate guitar player. Every note you play, everywhere you go, it feels like you know exactly where you’re going at all times.

(Laughs) Well, that’s good! I gotcha all fooled then! Man, you know, there’s so many guitar players that I admire and that I’ve been inspired by. I mean, I could go through the general list right off the top of my head… Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Clarence White, Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, Freddie King, BB King, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Danny Gatton. I mean. Ry Cooder, Les Montgomery… But there’s all that and there’s all the concrete shedding that I’ve done on a lot of those guys. I make a conscious decision to serve the song no matter what, whether that requires a couple notes are a lot of notes. And that’s really my approach at this point– not to like try to fit in my Tony Rice lick or something like that. But it’s more like… to really hear it all out in the moment and serve whatever song I’m playing. I’ve never tried to be a “blues guitarist” or a “bluegrass guitarist” or “rock guitarist”. I’ve never tried to pigeon hole myself. As I do with writing songs and playing guitar, it’s all just sort of like… Let it all swirl around into a little melting pot and come out as natural as possible to whatever song I’m playing. That’s the approach that I take after having absorbed all of that. So maybe that’s what you mean? And I hope that’s what you mean!

That is what I mean!

That’s what I intend– to not show off and be like that kind of player, but more of a player that seems like he’s really in the song and just serving the music. That’s my goal.

Whenever somebody mentions Cris Jacobs, usually in the same breath, the cigar box guitar comes up, and you’ve got an excellent touch with that particular instrument. Do you actually write on it or does it make its way into the mix later on?

I write on it. If I’m gonna do a tune on it, usually, it’s because I wrote it on it. Because it’s such a funky instrument that only kind of does what it does. The main one I play has three strings, and so the range on it is what it is. And it’s sort of just got this vibe. Most of the stuff that I’ve done on it is a result of just sitting down and playing it and songs coming out.

Who introduced you to the cigar box?

Well, I’d always messed around on dobros and lap steels, and I was out in Eugene, Oregon and a buddy of mine– an artist, a craftsman– he was like, “Hey, check this thing out that I made.” And he’s not even a player… His name is Braxton Nagle, and he gave me this cigar box guitar. I was like, “Oh, cool. Yeah, whatever,” you know? You see those things and you kind of think… Myself, I didn’t really expect it to be something that I was going to play to be quite honest. And then I plugged it in. I was like, “Holy s–t, awesome!” So he’s made me two more since then. He’s got his company up and running now. He makes a bunch of ’em. It’s called Brax-Tone Guitars, and he makes all kinds. I’ve got two others from him that are four string, but something about the little raw, three-stringer that he made me… It was one of the first ones he ever made. It just has so much mojo to it. That’s the one I favor.

Don’t miss Cris Jacobs LIVE on The Creek Stage @ The Rookery Saturday, March 2nd! Purchase tickets in person at The Rookery or online at hargraycapitoltheatre.com!