Austin [Texas] was where I began listening to mainstream pop radio, and I started to develop this love for writing pop songs for melody and hooks. I'd come from the jam-band world, where songs go on forever, and I loved the idea that a song could get to me in less than one minute.
Which brings us to Courtney Jaye, the 20-something singer-songwriter whose debut album, Traveling Light, released June 7 on Island Records, embodies all the surprising and enthralling qualities of pop music that grab you in an instant and stay with you forever. (The fact that she's drop-dead gorgeous, sharp as a tack and comes equipped with a magnetic personality is just icing on the cake.) Jaye writes recognizably real-life stories from the inside out stories that anybody who's ever been young and in love will relate to, and she delivers them in a beguilingly natural voice.
Working with the estimable producer Peter Collins (Indigo Girls, Jewel, Elton John) and a studio band of handpicked musicians, including drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, John Mayer) and guitarist Rusty Anderson (Ednaswap, Paul McCartney), Jaye fearlessly swings for the fences throughout her first at-bat, and she consistently connects. That's because this confident young artist is stepping up to the plate with a fistful of memorable songs she's fashioned with, among others, Matthew Sweet, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, Butch Walker and former Veruca Salt co-leader Nina Gordon, all skilled songsmiths who share her belief in the enduring expressive potential of the verse, chorus and bridge.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jaye spent her formative years in Atlanta, morphing from preppy to hippie chick during high school after falling under the spell of the Grateful Dead; it was then that she came to identify freedom with music. A friend's death inspired her to write her first song, and she surprised herself by tapping so spontaneously into a skill she hadn't previously known she possessed. Jaye knew then what she wanted to do with her life, and she couldn't wait to get rolling. "I was this wide-eyed kid wanting to see everything and do everything," she says. But Russell Carter, who befriended her then and now serves as her manager, urged her to be patient, learn her craft and live her life so that, among other things, she'd have something meaningful to write about. Evidencing the level-headedness that would serve her well along the way, the youngster took Carter's counsel to heart.
Soon after graduation, she began her travels, heading first to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she worked with an acupuncturist by day and gigged in her first band by night. In Arizona she fell under the spell of Ani DiFranco. "I even shaved my head I did the whole deal," she says, laughing at her youthful impetuosity. "I admired her balls, but she also got me started in the direction of writing from a personal standpoint and realizing that I can't write songs that aren't true to me."
One day Jaye decided to buy a one-way ticket to Kauai, trusting her resourcefulness and expecting to camp for a month or two. She stayed for a year, surfing and writing songs, having fallen under the sway of the island's liquid rhythms rhythms that obviously stayed with her, because they flow through the album before heading back to the mainland in order to keep on her career path. She wandered to Athens, Georgia, where she discovered Ween, marveling at the duo's refusal to be bound by any stylistic parameters. In Athens she fell in love, and the couple moved to Austin, where Jaye slid right into the city's roots-music scene, playing the Cactus Café and studying the elevated songcraft of artisans like Patty Griffin. When the relationship ended, Jaye suddenly found herself with a great deal of life experience to work through in her writing.
By this time, three years ago, Jaye had become adept at her craft, and one day in L.A., she sat down with fellow writer Gala for her first co-writing session; the result of the experiment was a song called "Lose My Head." Over the years she'd sent demos of her songs to Carter, who'd continually frustrated her by saying, "You're getting better Courtney, but you're not there yet." After hearing "Lose My Head," though, Carter simply said, "Okay, let's do it." That breakthrough song "Lose My Head" holds the pole position on Traveling Light led to hookups with other collaborators, some of them quite fruitful. "It seems to me that the most positive experiences I've had as a co-writer are with partners who honor me as a voice, who allow me to bring my experiences into these songs. I learned so much from every one of those experiences. I feel very fortunate to have had access to those artists."
With Butch Walker, Jaye came up with the heart-wrenching "Can You Sleep," which in its final form is burnished by her multitracked harmonies, conjuring a celestial choir during a rough patch in eternity. Courtney and Kristen Hall teamed up on the yearning "Mental" and the cathartic "Time for Goodbye," which examine the frayed ends of a doomed relationship. The Gary Louris pairing resulted in "Can't Behave," the first single that sports a buoyant groove inspired in part by Stealers Wheel's '70s hit "Stuck in the Middle With You." Jaye and Matthew Sweet co-wrote the gorgeous "Love Me," which features Tift Merritt and closes this romantic song cycle about the stages of a romance on a fittingly poignant note.
But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Last June, a mutual friend arranged for Jaye to play some of her songs for A&R executives at Island Def Jam Music Group, where she was signed on the spot and immediately put to work in the studio. "I knew what kind of record I wanted to make," she says. "I was ready."
Along with authenticity and killer hooks, Jaye exudes a star quality that seems wholly organic (to use her favorite word). She's just got it, whatever "it" is. And she's living proof that good things come to those who wait.
--- from the official Courtney Jaye website