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Interview with Jeremy Lee Given

February 14, 2011

The Best Musician You Haven’t Heard That You Have to Hear

And he’s from Knoxville…

In the internet age, music hunters have only to switch on their computers to scour the multitudes of emerging content; a plethora of unsigned artists and rogue musicians alien to any corporate marketing scheme or catalog. A natural music offering as free as that of a street performer. Even locally, many sizable markets, such as Knoxville’s, are scattered with talented musicians and songwriters, who largely go unnoticed, plucking away in home studios, basements and taverns to the fortunate ears of so few.

Surrounding yourself with bare rooms and an obscure painting of Native Americans will legitimize even a grassroots indie photo shoot. Just another reason why this man knows what he's doing.

One of those artists is Jeremy Lee Given. Or should I say was? Now a staple in the Boston music scene, Given migrated North to attend the Berklee College of Music, while continuing to write and produce music ensembles with the Boston rock foursome Rodeo Church. To divide his life even further you would uncover his solo work; namely his debut album Old Flames. The nine-track record, built from scrappy tracks written across the years, has created waves across the blogosphere that have reached Great Britain, Amsterdam and Mexico. Given is a testament to the independent music; when doing it yourself really meant doing it yourself. Prime example: Given arranged for his grassroots outfit to perform at Momo’s, a respectable Austin, Texas venue that will, unfortunately, not be an official venue of the famed South by Southwest Music Festival this March. “Just the exposure, a walk-in crowd, will be tremendous,” he quips. Given’s short catalog could be labeled “walk-in.” Old Flames is available for donation-based download or stream on Bandcamp.com and SoundCloud. The liberation is paying off. Given took some time to share his local charm with us in an interview about his musical aspirations as a young man in Knoxville, his albums artwork (done by a friend of course) and the possibility of one day being Paul McCartney…

How has Knoxville influenced you musically?

“I went to Boston after high school, but I go home there during the summers. Actually, my record started in Knoxville, recording at my dad’s house over in Fountain City. That’s definitely where I got my start. You sort of see, the back half, B-sides of my record was more fitting of the aesthetic of Knoxville, whereas the front half was more of what I was doing in Boston. So I went at it backwards, but that’s why the B-sides are more, countryish I guess.”

Did your move from the South to the Northeast change your musical production?

“I’m going to Berklee (College of Music) up here in Boston and I’m involved in film school there too. That sort of taught me all these different applications, writing for orchestra, string quartets, things like that. It definitely changed me as a songwriter, the way I arrange things. You can definitely see how the city reflected itself in my music. Also, I started playing with a rock band up here, which kind of turned my style around. I was writing in the direction of what I thought they would want to hear and I started using stuff in my album and my context. The man that produced, mixed and mastered my albums, Bill Lakritz, really got me into doing things analog, writing things to tape. We were trying to cut costs and make it really D-I-Y; I think that’s why people have responded to it so well, it’s definitely a home effort.”

With it being so expensive to professionally record, you are still delivering your music online for pay-as- you-please rates. When does it become acceptable for an indie artist to charge for their art? What’s the breaking point?

“I think that there’s the right place for it. It makes sense for people that are really D-I-Y and doing their thing at a low cost to just solicit donations. I’ve actually been surprised that there are a lot of people out there who are into the whole philanthropy of it and actually will donate. I do hope there’s a point in my career when I can sell my album for a low cost and get returns on it, but that would probably coincide with working in a studio environment where I’m actually paying money. Free music is very appreciated by a lot of people, especially if you put a lot of heart in it.”

The internet has become this double-edged sword for artists, as the ultimate promotional tool which simultaneously overshadows so many great artists by the overwhelming selection. Do you ever wish you marketed your music in the pre-Information Age?

“I’m absolutely happy with the way things are now. The availability of all this music on the internet, if anything, just drives the quality of songwriting and production. People are not really being told what to listen to anymore. They get on the internet and make their own judgments. I love the blog culture of music now, which has helped me. I’ve actually been getting good radio play in Mexico right now, with donations. Without the internet, there would be no way that I would make this album and literally within days, be international with it. Days after my album came out, I got a review on a blog in London.”

Your album cover for Old Flames is stylish in that it isn’t plastered with your face. (No offense) Is there something important to you about covering your album in enigmatic art that stands closer to the music than yourself?

”There’s this very storied, majestic kind of artist named Luke Blbine. He went to music school and now he’s just living in Alston, where all of Boston-based rock culture exists. His muse usually is he goes to a thrift store and buys a bunch of albums bulk-rate, cut up the albums, divide them by color and use them to make art. I had my own plan for what I wanted to do for the record, but he sort of chose me. I went into it completely blind, finished my album and went over there and he showed it to me the night after it was done. He actually did my album artwork all at once, it took him about 15 hours and he listened to my album on repeat as he did it. I do think album art has greatly improved over the years. Before it was kind of like a way of showing what the people in the band looked like, but now there’s these really cool fads of artwork making things architectural and using different artists.”

You play as a member of Rodeo Church, yet your solo material is titled under Jeremy Lee Given. Did you ever debate between using your given name and replacing it with a shadowy pseudonym?

“I absolutely thought about it. One of my favorite artists and tremendous influences is Bon Iver, who does that exact thing. I think going by my given name, it worked for me. All these songs were written over an extended period of time, kind of a telling history as to how I grew into songwriting. Lyrically, you can tell it’s personal. If my name ever gets huge with a band, or myself, you’ll be able to look back at my history and see that my name is immediately connected and I really like the idea of that.”

What is most wrong about the music industry these days?

“It’s hard to point fingers, because I’ve never really known anybody personally who was wronged by the industry. What I feel is wrong, honestly, is what goes on the radio. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great independent radio stations; 90.3 the Rock in Knoxville has always been extremely kind to Viacon-Panthers music. I’m not going to be completely happy with the radio business until major radio stations support and have the means to play independent music and what’s popular online. It’s money, it’s big business.”

What artists made you realize that music would become so central to you?

“From an early age, absolutely, what your parents listen to. That was Neil Young and Bob Dylan for me. As I grew up and started to discover artists in my own scene, The Royal Bangs, from Knoxville, completely blew my mind with what they did with music. It took a couple shows to convince me that I wanted to be an independent artist and tour and make my own music, because they were so amazing live and they had great energy. It was everything that I wanted music to be, in that band. Nowadays, I try to keep up with what’s big in independent music. I’ve been really into the latest Twin Shadow record; a guy who did it all by himself too. From an influential standpoint for my record, Bon Iver and Wilco were both huge for me. I could go down the list, but…”

I discovered through a rouge tweet that you could be involved in a Beatles coverband?

(laughs) “Yeah that’s a good friend, TJ Petreka, from Boston. He’s an unbelievable artist and marketer, who always does really creative ideas and solutions.”

So which Beatle are you?

(laughs) “I really, really hope that I would find my way into being Paul McCartney, because that’s my girlfriend’s favorite Beatle.”

Does anyone ever want to be Ringo?

“I don’t know. I guess if you’re the drummer going into a Beatles cover band, you’d probably be like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to be Ringo, because I’m the drummer in a Beatles cover band.’ He’s always gotten the short end of the stick, but he got the short end of the stick being in one of the greatest bands of all time. So I think he gets enough credit.”

Interview conducted for Blank Newspaper in January 2011.

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