Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Tree Leaving for Kentucky!!!
""As soon as I moved out of my parents’ house, I joined a rock band. And I started screaming. And that’s what I did until about three or four years ago.”
Tree Jackson, with short dark hair and a quick smile, is recounting her musical history on her roof at Wayne Street and Jersey Avenue in Downtown Jersey City. (“Tree” is a high school nickname that stuck to the 34-year-old; her birth certificate reads “Melissa.”) It’s a gorgeous late summer afternoon and the sun is setting, reflecting sunlight off the office buildings along both sides of the Hudson River.
Tree has lived in Jersey City for 10 years, but she’s Kentuckian by birth, which you can hear every time she talks about still guitars instead of steel. She’s going to be moving back to Lexington in just a few weeks, and is in a reminiscing mood befitting the occasion. As to the influence her home state has had on her character, and her music, she’s hesitant to draw any definitive conclusions. But since she switched her main performance genre back to country a few years ago — “though I ran from it at first, you always go back to your roots” — you don’t have to listen very hard at one of her shows to know that the country and bluegrass she’s singing is as dyed-in-the-wool as it comes.
There’s a palpable current of authenticity that runs through her music. It comes from a certain disciplined musical honesty that reflects Tree’s conviction that a song should be an actual expression of actual feelings that you’re having or have had — and if she’s performing it, she wrote it. Tree has only ever performed covers in public once, and that was when her band Any Day Parade performed as Creedence Clearwater Revival, so there was no mistaking the songs’ authorship.
“It’s very important for me to present myself and to present whatever I do as just the way it is. Maybe that’s because I’m from Kentucky,” she says. It makes sense that her biggest beef with contemporary country music isn’t the sound but that, with a few exceptions, “none of them write their own music.”
Like most musicians, Tree has been in and out of a variety of groups over the years. She originally came to the area after her Lexington band Delicious Trip Attendants, feeling the classic big-fish/small-pond effect, sat down and decided it was time to move either to L.A. or New York. Tree said, “anywhere but New York,” the drummer said, “I won’t go anywhere but New York,” and as she describes it, “as happens often in bands, the drummer won.”
She was bowled over by New York and picked a great time to come — it was October 2000, when the Mets and Yankees were battling for the World Series trophy (she loves baseball).
“It was Subway Series, and slices of pizza, all these beautiful women and dudes, and music. I was like a pig in shit,” she says. “It was everything you could dream of.”
Still, with all four bandmates splitting a two-bedroom in Hoboken and adjusting to their new surroundings, all while making a push for recognition in the much larger pond, tensions quickly rose.
“We just had a lot of friction in the house,” she says. “There’s two bedrooms, there’s four of us, the drummer who would only move here sleeping on the couch, we’re all struggling, none of us are really making other friends, so we’re really kind of in each others’ faces.”
That living arrangement lasted for a few months, and then the band broke up on the stage of CBGB after their first (and last) show there.
Tree was working as an office manager at an architecture firm in Hoboken at the time, and along with some of the architects there and a few other partners, she opened a coffee shop on Jersey Avenue. Ground occupied the storefront now home to Made with Love and was an early magnet for Jersey City’s fledgling arts scene.
“Out of the woodwork, all of these people with similar ideas and tons of optimism and … energy and passion” started coming together at the shop, Tree says. It was this same group, she thinks, that has matured and grown into the arts scene as it exists today in Jersey City.
Despite Ground’s closing, and the demolition of the arts scene’s other leading light of that era, 111 1st Street, Tree says the growth in Jersey City – measured in cultural value, not developments rising – has been profound.
“Somehow the scene still survived. And it grew, and grew, and grew. And I’ve watched it all,” she says. “To see that it’s still going on now, and … there’s more galleries, and Groove on Grove, and all the bands and all the artists and the writers. It’s pretty cool to have seen it from when I came and it was really … there was nothin’.”
Successfully sustaining music as a vocation eludes all but the luckiest performers. And while she’s been asked many times at parties what she “does,” she admits she’s never been comfortable with the question.
“What does it matter what I do? I’m here, let’s talk,” she says. “You wanna talk about baseball, music, it’s like, what does it matter what I do?”
Tree thinks the “what do you do” question is less common in Jersey City than in New York, because people in the Jersey City arts community share the understanding that others’ day jobs may (or even likely) have no bearing at all on their passion.
“I am not a dog walker,” as she puts it. “I am a musician who dog-walks.”
One of Tree’s Jersey City bands, The Outside, came close to bill-paying commercial success. They got flown out to L.A., played festivals, and were well on their way when a classic dispute between the business and the art of music came up.
“I was young and cocky, and very set in my ways. In retrospect, I see that a lot of the opportunities that we had, they were contingent on compromise. And being 27, 28, and thinking you know everything, is not the best position to have,” she says, chiding herself for decisions she might make differently today. “When you stand up in a room and say you don’t hate your day job enough to change something, and you walk outside, and your three other bandmates walk out behind you, it’s hard to see at that moment that you’re probably wrong.”
The Outside had been like family, and Tree remembers her son asking her, after they broke up in 2008: “What are we going to do on holidays?”
Any Day Parade formed in 2007 and it marked Tree’s decision to return to her country roots. The band, while short-lived, was touted by many observers as one of the best in Jersey City, and they gigged relentlessly, both in town and out-of-town.
“We really tackled it pretty hard, pretty heavy for a couple of years,” she says. “And then life just kind of got in the way. I think we’re getting older, our values are kind of changing.”
The Old Glorys followed, playing what Tree calls “good, wholesome, honest songs about heartache. And drinkin’. And hangovers. And doin’ wrong and being done wrong and all that stuff.” The sound is rich, with trombone, fiddle, guitars, bass, banjo, and even some harmonica cropping up. And the songs fit Tree’s bill exactly: a plea for a lover to return, an ode to the bittersweet understanding that age brings, yearning for the heavenly reward without all that hard work here on Earth.
Although Tree is quick to downplay her upcoming move back to Kentucky (“I’m just … changing ZIP codes, I guess”), it’s clear the decision wasn’t an easy one to make.
“Jersey City’s kind of a neighborhood. It’s almost become a family to me,” she says, before later offering these simple last words on her adopted home: “I’m gonna miss Jersey City. A lot. That’s it.”
The Old Glorys will remain “full steam ahead” when Tree leaves town, and she’ll be back to lead them on November 27 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken to promote the release of their album. Catch their last local show until the November date this Saturday, September 25 at 4:30 pm, at the Hamilton Park BBQ Festival."