Petite, blue-eyed, red-haired singer Jessi Phillips sat outside Arbor Cafe in Oakland last Wednesday, furtively sipping a glass of beer and clutching a hardbound copy of Crazy Heart, the Thomas Cobb cowboy novel that, she said, is not nearly as good as the movie. Phillips’ dog, Sylvia, knelt listlessly below the table, watching as the late-afternoon sun cast a smeary orange glow over Telegraph Avenue. Phillips looked equally sluggish, perhaps from the reading material or a long day of work — she’s currently preparing for the academic year to start at a Palo Alto high school where she teaches English and drama. Phillips is actually somewhat of a renaissance woman: She studied theater and journalism, earned an MFA in creative writing, and decided, in her adult life, to become a country singer. Her new album, cut under the moniker Eight Belles, betrays the singer’s ambling sensibility but not the restless work ethic that comes with it.
In fact, Eight Belles is firmly rooted in an older tradition of country music: The songs are doleful, arid, and lonely, buoyed by Phillips’ drawling soprano and Henry Nagle’s pedal steel or acoustic guitar, often with no other adornments. Aesthetically, they’re a reflection of Phillips’ autobiography. She grew up on a small farm in Lawton, Michigan, a town with 1,500 people and no stoplights. It’s managed to stay frozen in time, she said, owing partly to geography and partly to a meth epidemic that’s stultified much of the population. Still, Phillips’ dream is to go back there, live on the farm, run some kind of organic nonprofit, and play music in her spare time. At 31, she’s spent a good chunk of her life in the inner city, but the idea of a rural homeland still pervades her art. It resonates at the core of Eight Belles’ debut album, Girls Underground, which could easily be a paean to older, simpler times.
That makes Phillips an anomaly in modern music, and a viable presence in Oakland, where the artist community has formed its own folksy idyll to contrast San Francisco’s tech boom. The creative class here largely consists of refugees who came in search of affordable real estate and a leaner, slower way of life. Like Phillips, they cling to a pastoral mentality. Oakland’s new bohemians like to stage house concerts and pickle things in jars; they grow vegetable patches, wear flannel shirts, and render their garages into blacksmithing studios. Their tastes are antithetical to the fast-paced, electronic party music that proliferates in San Francisco — here, “lo-fi” and “low-tech” are the new normal, and country music is enjoying a quiet renaissance.
And Phillips fits right in. The daughter of a social worker and an erstwhile folk musician who later became a teacher, she grew up listening to folk music but not having the discipline to play it. “My dad got me a guitar when I was a kid, but I was too into riding my horse and shooting my bow and arrow,” she recalled, explaining that her dad didn’t cotton to the idea of playing music casually — he seldom gigs anymore, but still practices about four hours a night. Eventually, though, she taught herself how to strum chord changes and sing in a sweet, warbly tone, mostly by listening to old country chanteuses like Bobbie Gentry. After graduating with a liberal arts degree from Michigan State University, she moved to Brooklyn and joined a Sixties-influenced pop band called The Bowling Green. “There’s no record of our existence,” Phillips laughed, insisting it was a crackerjack group, nonetheless.
She moved to West Oakland in 2010, began performing at house concerts, and met the members of her current band — Nagle, bassist Christian Carpenter, and drummer Shaun Lowecki, a slew of string players, and a couple backup vocalists. Phillips quickly ensconced herself in a folk scene that had grown out of an industrial environment, where the shells of old factories became pop-up music venues, and most artists operated out of garages or converted warehouses. Yet her music remained nostalgic for a place far away, where people till farmland and drive rusted cars and listen to terrestrial radio. The opener, “Buried Child,” is a lament for another woman whose man has gone, and whose mother stands sentry at the porch, with a cigarette and a gun. The stories conveyed in these lyrics have the grim tint of old folk tales, with characters all bereft, impoverished, or empty-handed. Happiness is a song playing on the radio; change is dyeing your hair.
That’s the world from which Phillips emerged, and the one to which she’ll eventually return. She wrote and squirreled away a whole compendium of songs throughout her twenties, while teaching in the Bronx, finishing an MFA, mopping floors at a hotel in the Grand Canyon, serving pizza at Lanesplitter, and ultimately establishing herself in West Oakland. A few months ago she and Nagle began recording Girls Underground at 25th Street Recording, a studio birthed from an old auto shop in Oakland’s Uptown arts corridor. They laid down the vocal and guitar parts first, then layered in the other instruments: violin by Carey Lamprecht, cello by Madeline Nagle, upright bass by Tim Sarter, and organ by Julie Bruins. John Courage and Inés Beltranena sang backup choruses on four tracks. Phillips decided to start off with “Buried Child” to give the album a little more gravitas. She thought that non-country fans wouldn’t give Girls Underground the benefit of the doubt if it began with a barn burner.
Thus, the tone of the album is melancholy — the title draws from a lyric about girls going underground to a dimly lit bar, to escape the sweltering afternoon heat — while the atmosphere is richly detailed. The characters of these songs are familiar, filched from old stories or Texas noir films, or from Phillips’ childhood in rural Michigan. And the sentiments ring true, too. Phillips longs for the past, but she also offers hope of a leaner future in light of a sagging economy. Oh the trigger of time it tricks you, Phillips sings in a cover of a Richard Hawley song, “Tonight the Streets Are Ours.” A nice piece of alliteration, it’s also a poetic way to encapsulate one of the dominant themes of the album — that we move forward by looking toward the past.
Phillips hews to that idea in real life, too. Ascetic by nature, she eschews television and seldom goes to the movies, opting instead to read voraciously and play her guitar. In Oakland, she appears to be in good company. Despite — or more likely, because of — its dearth of nightlife infrastructure, the city has become an incubator for garage venues and low-key bars that lend themselves to folk music. Phillips has performed in places like The Stork Club, Bar 355, and The Starry Plough in Berkeley (where she’ll appear again next week, as part of Mission Creek Arts & Music Festival), and aligned herself with similar folk bands like B. Hamilton and Rin Tin Tiger. She says it’s the kind of tight-knit community where you can walk to a neighborhood cafe and run into people you know. “Oakland really does have the feel of a small town,” Phillips said, adding that in some ways, it’s not so unlike Lawton. Perhaps it will form the backdrop for her next spate of country songs.