Interview with Jaime Wyatt

Jaime Wyatt is a Los Angeles based artist who Rolling Stone magazine has described as having ‘The twang of Buck Owens, mixed with the freewheeling sounds of The Byrds or Rick Nelson’s later Decca recordings. Sprinkle in a dash of the eternal cool factor of Linda Ronstadt’. Having featured Jaime Wyatt recently on the site, it was great to catch up and ask her all about her recent album release and her career in general.
We featured you on Belles and Gals for the first time last month with the brilliant ‘Giving Back The Best Of Me’, a track we described as ‘absolutely gorgeous’. Can you give us an insight about how this song came about?
I was doing some recording at my house and my friend Matthew Szlachetka stopped by. we had written a few songs together over The Years so he sat down and started picking this really beautiful progression. It had so much longing and lovesick sentiment in the melody. So I started singing what we call now the pre-chorus. So we made an iPhone demo and then went our separate ways touring around the country. After a couple months, I finally called him up and was “hey I got an idea for the story and a couple solid lines, let’s get together. we got together and filtered through the lyrics and Matthew lent his lyrics and before we knew it we had a chorus and a song!
That track features on your ‘Felony Blues’ album, which is released in the UK at the end of June. The title of the album tells a story about a stint in prison and a couple of the songs, in ‘Stone Hotel’ and ‘Wasco’ relate directly to this time. How has that time shaped you as an artist?
My time in jail was stressful, depressing but I had some time to hide from the world, read and wrote poetry. It was more than likely a necessary time out from a life I couldn’t manage, though avoiding fighting and drugs was just as prevalent. It felt oppressive and most the guards were not kind, probably as a means to protect themselves. strip searches every time I returned from court and keeping your hands visible can really start to wear on your self esteem. Showers and food of your liking are not a god given right and my family was charged a ridiculous sum to provide money for phone calls. So “Stone Hotel” was definitely written about how to keep your head up. 
The title of the album Felony blues is both about my time in jail and my time after, as a felon. Trying to get a job is nearly impossible with a charge like mine. Or rather, one that pays what the cost of living really demands. Because I would not be able to acquire a high paying job, with this felony, I  became very discouraged. However this also motivated me to play more to make any money. I had to go out and play nearly every night in bars. And really establish relationships with folks since I had no trust fund, reliable savings or back up plan. Thank god my folks taught me how to hustle and be creative earners. Lol
You’ve stated that ‘I’m hoping that the theme of the record will raise awareness about the judicial system in America, since I’ve been branded with a felony, I know first hand how the system will keep you down.’ Could you expand on this?

Well my time in jail was around nine years ago. I fought a court case, which included two counts of home invasion, which were later reduced to one 211 strong arm robbery, if i agreed to take this Felony strike, 6 months residential treatment and 3 years probation. For some time in California, the justice department has used a 3 strike rule, which results in a life sentence if you commit three strike-worthy crimes. This could be residential burglary, petty theft and other non violent crimes. And we wonder why our prisons are overcrowded. The judicial system brands you for life, puts you a place where rehabilitation is nearly impossible and you are literally marinating in a cesspool of further criminal education.   

The branding part relates to a Merle Haggard song “Branded Man” written in 1967 referring to his own stint in prison as a young adult, where he was sentenced with a felony burglary and served his time in San Quentin. Just the fact that I have to explain the transgressions of my past and youth to every potential employer I meet, keeps me in feelings of shame and regret. Ive had one employer make an exception to hire me at a minimum wage, instead of the starting rate for non-felons. Then, when I made top sales and was a valued member of the staff, they wanted to promote me to a management position, which was quickly shot down, due to the felony. I’ve been researching expungement of my record, which does not erase the charge, but makes it visible to only some, but four different attorneys have declined the case after signing on, or quoted me an outrageous retainer price I could not afford.
I hope that I can educate folks from my little Americana/country soup box and the universal language of music, on the injustice of our criminal justice system here in America.
Going back to the very start of your career, what was it that made you want to become an artist in the first place – was there a ‘wow’ moment, or has it always been that you’ve wanted to sing?
I grew up with singer/songwriter parents, who took us to concerts as early as infants. I was born in LA and lived there till I was 5, but one of my earliest memories is seeing Bonnie Raitt perform and meeting her backstage. she was beautiful, yet commanding on both guitar and vocals and wore cowboy boots like me, so I suppose that was my calling. Then my rocky family life inspired many stories, so i wrote lyrics till i was capable of translating them to guitar at 11 or 12.
Which artists have influenced you, in both the long term and in recent years?
When I was young I really liked Garth Brookes, Shania Twain, the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakum, Lucinda Williams, Otis Redding, Tupac and Jeff Buckly. But there are so many influences at different points in my life. These days its Waylon, Sturgill Simpson and Father John Misty.

I’m always intrigued to know how an artist goes about the song writing process. Do you have a set way of writing – or can it vary from song to song?

I usually write melodies in my head and write down the lyrics then let them roll around in my head till i have a vocal song idea, to transfer to guitar. other times someone else plays guitar casually while i’m texting, then I look over and go “hey play that again” and sing something I write or a melody idea.

Looking back over the whole of your singing career, is there a particular highlight you could pick out?

I opened two shows for Shooter Jennings last weekend, of whom I deeply admire and it was one of the most humbling experiences, since he and his wife are probably the nicest, most down to earth people on the planet. Plus we use a few of the same band members and I just adore them and love to see them play. 

And if you could choose a dream gig, where would it be and which artist would you like to join you on stage?

I would choose to play the Grand Ole Opry with David Rawlings or Don Rich on guitar and vocals, Mick Fleetwood on drums, Jon McVie on bass, Ian McClogin on keys and Ralph Mooney on steel.

We’re a website based in the UK. Have you ever been to the UK, or had thoughts of coming to these shores to play?

I love the U.K. I’ve Been there once! I have friends in New Haven, Brighton and Hackney! 

To finish, tell us about your plans over the summer and where we’ll be able to purchase your album when it comes out in the UK and Europe on the 30th June?

The album came out June 30th all across the U.K. and Europe on Forty Below Records and people can get it at their favorite record store or on-line at iTunes, Amazon, etc.
Interview conducted by Nick Cantwell
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