We're used to seeing Darren Jessee behind a drum kit, with Ben Folds Five, Sharon Van Etten, Hiss Golden Messenger, the War on Drugs and others. But his band Hotel Lights brought him out front, and with his upcoming first solo album The Jane Room 217, Jessee moves into another musical adventure.
The quiet, stripped-down set — whose "All But A Dream" premieres below a performance video, the first three weekly clips from Jessee — features Jessee and his acoustic guitar backed by piano and a string section arranged by Spacebomb's Trey Pollard. "We did four albums with Hotel Lights, and I just felt really strongly that I wanted to start working on a solo career," Jessee says. "I've always had a certain inclination for a type song; Some my favorite album companions in life were sparse singer-songwriter records. Those are the ones I could always go to and sort hit the reset button, and I've just always liked that kind music. I like the idea those artful records that are still sort pop music, but deconstructed.
"I wanted to stay away from any sort genre, like rock band or indie band or anything. I just wanted pure songwriting ideas."
Jessee calls The Jane Room 217 –– named after the New York hotel — "an interesting combination some home recordings and some gorgeous string arrangements." The nine songs were written over a year and a half period, mostly in Jessee's apartment. Pollard, meanwhile, is a longtime friend who Jessee recruited to give the project a specific character. "Trey is a brilliant arranger, and we talked about writing string parts that were very specific moments, so that became the sound (the album), really," Jessee says. "We would talk about things like Tom Waits' Foreign Affairs, certainly Leonard Cohen songs and the way the arrangements work on this.
"The main thing I would talk to Trey about is I didn't want to cover the whole record with strings. I wanted to find the real emotional moment the arrangements needed and hit those. So Trey did these really great arrangements, and I was keeping an eye on it so they were basically where they needed to be."
Jessee considers The Jane Room 217 "the most authentic version myself" he's released yet. But he also acknowledges that it's a "unique" kind album, and he's prepared to work for it to find its place and its audience. "It's a very quiet record," he says, "so I just have to figure out how to get out there with it around all the noise that's happening. I'm really excited about these songs, and I want them to be heard." That will include three performance videos, which Billboard will premiere the next three Mondays, and some live shows. He also views this as the first step in a solo career that he predicts will take more twists and turns as he goes along.
"I have a lot stuff in process, trying to stay head things," he says. "I have a lot things I'd be excited to try to do, but I think the content I come up with will sort declare what the form is, so I'll have to be patient and wait. I would like to try to make a record that leans a little more pop one day, but I just want the song to be really meaningful and for people to really feel them."