By ERIC SCHELKOPF
When Chicago singer-songwriter Will Mackie-Jenkins isn't musing about a frozen Chicago, he might be singing about springtime in his native Virginia.
He does both on his debut EP, the beautiful yet haunting "Cherries in Bloom," released in December. To promote the EP, he will be performing a free show on Jan. 16 at The Store, 2002 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
All The Wine and Elk Walking also are on the bill. Doors open at 9 p.m.
I had the chance to talk to Mackie-Jenkins about the new EP.
Q - Great talking to you. In sitting down to make the EP, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?
Nice talking with you as well, Eric. Well, first I should probably specify there wasn’t much sitting down involved at all. During the process of making my EP, "Cherries in Bloom," I always seemed to be standing.
I was standing, notebook full of scribbles on my tall kitchen counter, as I wrote the songs over months of late-night toil, I always stood when I performed and vetted the songs before dozens of crowds, and I stood up and sang/played simultaneously when I recorded every track on the album.
So, in a way, standing was vital to the EP’s creation. And I think a lot of other artists can relate to that.
While I was making the thing, I was working tough maintenance and construction jobs around the city, and it was damn tiring to be on my feet all day and night, whether it was writing, recording, or performing after a day of hauling tile and sanding drywall.
But standing is how I create my best work, and maybe that says something about commitment. I'd go through the same experience ten times over if it meant getting to make something I'm proud of. Seems easy now.
But, to the important question: I knew I wanted to put in the highest level of care and craft possible to make the most challenging, beautiful, and bluntly elegiac EP I could. Whatever it took to make such a record, I did, or tried to do.
There’s an immense level of hurt and personal confession in the songs. I didn’t want to hide anything from the listener.
That doesn’t mean it’s an exact literal narrative of the grief and hard loving I’ve experienced – rather, I set out to find a way to give the listener the true sensation of an individual's times of hardship, through a sort of collage in the form of songs.
So I suppose you could say my goals lied in creating something authentically personal, unique to my experience, made with slow care – which I suppose would be aligned with the tradition of many folk songwriters I admire.
In the songs on “Cherries in Bloom,” I emphasized lyricism and attention to literary detail. Lyrics are half the song, after all, and they're something I really pay attention to when I listen to music.
I tried to write lyrics that could stand on their own, as both song lyrics and stand-alone pieces of writing. I always wrote the lyrics concurrently with the melodies, rhythms, and structures of the songs though, because everything had to fit together into a singular "shape."
It's a hard thing to do, songwriting. But the six tracks on the album lived up to my expectations, and made a singular work that's perhaps even a bit more cohesive than I'd expected.
Q - I know you formerly lived in the Appalachian mountains in Virginia. What made you want to move to Chicago?
That’s right. I was raised on a cattle farm at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. Every day I’d wake up and see these enormous blue piles of earth through the western-facing windows of my childhood home.
The vastness of the world affected me at a young age. I spent four years living in the mountains themselves, from age 18 to 22. That’s when I moved to Chicago.
I’m 25 now, and I came to the city out of an interest in poetry, oddly enough, though I don’t suppose making music is all that different from making poetry. I came here to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, which has most certainly impacted the way I approach lyric writing.
And of course, the secret plan all along was to flee the mountains like floodwater and learn how to make the musical dream happen. Chicago happened to be the place the water settled.
It’s been a messy process, and I’ve certainly gone about making my dream happen in a different way than most, but I have a hard time seeing “different” as anything but good.
Q - How do you think your life in Virginia has impacted your music? Has moving to Chicago changed your musical outlook at all?
Living in Virginia shaped the fundamentals of my music-making. Bluegrass and old-time fiddle tunes were everywhere in my home town, which was full of mountain culture.
Though I must admit I didn’t take much liking to that kind of music until I was 19 or 20, after I’d already been (trying) to play music for four or five years. I’d always thought of bluegrass tunes as sounding nearly identical to one another, and I hadn’t paid much attention to the twangy treble.
When I was home one summer from college – I was 19, I believe – I worked at a local music store called Drum & Strum, and there’d always be these legendary bluegrass and old-time musicians hanging around the shop, playing together. When I started to really listen to the intricacies and subtle differences to the patterns they’d play – and how much a specific, authentic old-time tone could so simplistically convey so much hurt, love, and passion – I began to fall in love with the sound.
Eventually, I got to pick a few tunes with them, and the rhythms, melodies, and style stuck with me. There’s definitely bluegrass and old-time influences in the guitar playing and lyric scenery on the EP, which is almost entirely due to those past-closing-time playing sessions. The influence is more subtle in some places than others, but it's there.
Moving to Chicago has absolutely changed my musical outlook. Every once in a while you’ll see someone pacing around Logan Square trying to clawhammer a four-string banjo, but other than that, there's not an overflow of people who share the same influences.
It's not really been a problem, though. If the music is good, people will want to listen. I’ve seen a lot of experimental, psych rock, shoegaze, garage rock, hip hop, country punk, funk, jam, black metal, cover and folk rock bands making ripples out in the community.
One thing is for sure though: when you're trying to play music in a big city, you've got to be innovative to get heard. This shouldn’t be news to the musicians out there, and it wasn’t really a surprise to me when I moved here.
But I knew I didn’t want to lose the influence of the uniquely beautiful music from my past life in Virginia, and I didn't want to make a carbon copy of some other songwriter's album, so I sent out to record an EP that would sound new, old-tempered, and distinctive.
Timelessness is a mark of so many great musicians I admire, and I wanted to do my best to defy genre and expectation in "Cherries in Bloom." There’s bluegrass and country influence, but the EP certainly doesn’t fit neatly within either genre.
The lyrics sound contemporary in their phrasing, diction, and subject matter, I think, but they’re thematically appropriate to any era of the temporal human experience. That’s what I intended, at least.
You’ll have to listen and see if you agree.
Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you think you fit into it?
The Chicago music scene is absolutely beautiful. The innumerable DIY performance venues around the city play host to incredible local and touring acts every week.
If you’re interested in hearing new and exciting music, do yourself a favor and check out some of the DIY spots. So many positive experiences around the community.
A lot of people at the DIY spots seem to favor punk, shoegaze, math rock, and the like, but there’s something for everyone. So far, I’ve found that the people who've gone to the trouble to seek out my shows – or have happened to be there to listen – have all been fantastic to play for, whether it's at a DIY house or a more "established" venue.
People who want to listen to a slightly quieter, more acoustic-centric singer-songwriter like myself are people who truly love to listen. And I love these people, because they're the ones who are most directly supportive.
Seeing someone in the audience truly connect to your music is a wonderfully validating and euphoric experience. I've been lucky enough to encounter a good number of audiophiles as I've played around Chicago, and these people have proved to be wonderful encouragement to keep making and performing music.
Seems like a good time to mention there are also plenty of great “established” venues throughout the city, such as The Store (2002 N. Halsted), where I’ll be playing on Jan. 16 at 9 pm.
Q - What are your short-term, long-term goals?
For the short-term, I’ve been focused on pushing the EP, which means doing press for various blogs that I’m pleased to be associated with and playing shows (visit my website for more information) around town. I’ve also been spending as much time as possible working on new material, so that the songs from the EP don’t begin to feel too stale, which they luckily haven’t (yet).
But I tend to be a bit like a shark when it comes to creativity, in that if I’m not constantly working on something new, or moving forward, I die. Not literally, of course.
But I’ve written a few tunes I’m quite happy with since releasing the EP in December.I plan to step into the studio again this summer to begin recording my first full-length album.
One of my major goals is more diversity in instrumentation and a slightly more robust sound with further collaboration. On “Cherries in Bloom,” I played acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, organ, and I sang all the songs, but I’d like to widen that range even further. I’ve written a few tunes on piano and one on banjo that I foresee making the cut for my first full-length, and hopefully there will be some mandolin in there somewhere–we'll have to see.