A lot of today’s music is like a fireworks display – it’s loud and dazzling and it makes you go “ooh” and “ahh.” However, the instant it is over, you forget about it and move on. But that’s not Jessi Robertson. Not at all. Her music is a faint scent, a shadowed image, a whispered suggestion that is thoroughly intriguing. The more you listen, the deeper you want to go, and the more you need to hear. When you’re away, you find yourself thinking about her poetry, pondering its meanings, and longing for the sweet intoxication her melodies offer. Robertson’s songs become your obsession.
Her latest single is a powerful, hypnotic track about the beautiful perfection of flaws. It is called “Retold by Machines.” Jessi will be releasing the song on September 30, but you don’t need to wait because today you can hear it first, right here, on AXS.
Originally, “Retold by Machines” was to be part of Robertson’s critically acclaimed I Came from the War. However, there was something special about the song that made it need to be released on its own.
“This song means a lot to me and it was a hard choice to cut it off the record, but once we got through tracking everything and trying to figure out what would fit on vinyl while keeping with the theme of the album, it didn’t quite work,” Jessi told AXS. “But I think it’s better this way because releasing it as a single, it gets to have full attention instead of just being another track on the album.”
The song came to Robertson second verse first.
I don’t want to parcel out my heart.
Don’t want to scan it or examine it
or sell it for spare parts.
“I was traveling a lot at the time,” Jessi explained. “I was constantly flying and constantly packing everything into a suitcase and bags. Then I’d have to get everything run through all these machines to have it scanned knowing someone was making a judgment about what I was carrying. That just kept turning around in my mind, how I felt that way as a musician. People always want to take me apart and put me back together and tell me what they think I am and what I am not.”
“That idea evolved into something a little different over the time that I wrote it,” she continued. “I was thinking about how much everything now is filtered through all of these different machines that are in our life – whether it's your computer, your mobile device, those airport machines, or anything else. You have an opportunity to create a narrative and whatever you want that narrative to be, it can be. It may not even be reality. I don’t want to lose myself in the machinery that is the music industry, creating this persona or this packaged idea of who I can be. I want to remain authentic to myself. That’s a lot of what I was trying to express in this song.”
Jessi has been an artist for nearly 20 years. In the beginning, she had a lot of people trying to tell her who she should be. “So many people had ideas about how they could skyrocket me to the next level, but it always involved something I was uncomfortable with. I’ve had people tell me to use autotune, I’ve had people tell me I need to audition for ‘American Idol,’ I’ve have people tell me I should change how I look, or if I just change my personality a little bit, that will be all I need to get to whatever that next level is. There is something really wonderful about the humanity of making a recording and not glossing over it with autotune or editing or using all these different tricks that we have in the studio. Those things that happen in the moment, those things we do… that’s what makes us who we are.”
Don't want the wrinkles ironed out,
don't want the smudges laundered clean.
“Once I start writing a song, I tend to write everything in one go. I’m the type of person who constantly has those wheels going in the back of my mind – even if I’m not always thinking about what I’m going to write, there’s always little ideas floating around in there. Once I sit down and I put a pen and paper in front of myself or I’m sitting at a keyboard and I actually start writing, all of that subconscious thought coalesces into a song.”
“It’s hard to say where it all comes from,” she added. “It just feels like things are boiling over. When it finally gets to the point where I can’t hold it in anymore, then it just comes out in a quick burst. But before that, I think it’s been in there churning for a long time.”
But all those thoughts don’t just tumble out in a chaotic mess, Robertson has a gift for using potent words that engage your senses and create vivid pictures in your mind.
Don't want to be somebody's doll
dressed up and blinking on command.
And, she uses words that you don’t often find in lyrics.
I’ll be holy, I’ll be obscene,
but I'll never be bottled and retold by machines.
When asked how she became such a skilled writer, Jessi replied, “I read a lot, so I think that’s helped. Maybe I use words that aren’t as common in songwriting because I’ve spent so many hours reading? I always enjoy reading people who use language in interesting ways – they kind of paint with their words – so I think that definitely has influenced me as a songwriter.”
“Retold by Machines” (available for pre-order now, out on Sept. 30) is Robertson at her best, breathing her words to life with an irresistible dark and haunting artistry, which brings to mind a work that Andrew Wyeth (“Christina’s World”) might have created if he had been influenced by the vision of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou (“Metropolis”).
“Retold by Machines” was produced by Omer Leibovitz; recorded by Aaron Nevezie at The Bunker Studio, Brooklyn, NY; mixed by Omer Leibovitz, assisted by Gary O'Keefe, at Bird Wire Studios, Brooklyn, NY; and mastered by Joe Lambert at JLM Sound, Jersey City, NJ. Photo: Jean Sweep.