Scared Weird Little Guys
Finally A Use For Spam!

Jesse Younan: Making the Soul Audible and Expressing Pain and the Dirtiness of Life
(Or: ‘I used to be a postmodernist, but now I’m not Saussure!’)

Someone I used to work with told me that he was starting a label called ‘Bone Daddy Records’, and handed me a couple of EPs. One of them contained elaborate finger-picking accompanying soulful singing in a rich, deep voice. The artist was someone called Jesse Younan, and his EP was entitled Palimpsest. I figured I wanted to interview Jesse, and when I did, the funny thing was that despite his rich, deep voice, Jesse was extremely soft-spoken. He played his cards pretty close to his chest, preferring to let his music speak for itself rather than give anything away. Which is fine – unless you go and call your EP something like ‘Palimpsest’; then you’ve got a little bit of explaining to do.

Not to me, of course. Having been part of the great academic con of the early 90s, I’m well versed in ‘PoMo’ (postmodern) theory, whose lexicon of jargon includes the term ‘palimpsest’. Literally, a palimpsest is a manuscript, usually written on parchment or papyrus, that contains several writings on it – not just the most recent, but remnants of past writings that haven’t quite been erased, bleeding through. In PoMo theory, a ‘text’ (ie writing) is made up of many ‘signs and signifiers’ (ie words) which contain several meanings, not just the one that the author thinks he or she has written, but also those others that the author inadvertently also presents unconsciously, and the additional ones that readers give rise to by bringing whatever baggage they have with them when they sit down to read it. The multitude of meanings bleeding through may be metaphorically termed a ‘palimpsest’. If I haven’t got this explanation quite right, do me a favour, don’t tell me about it; life’s too short.

According to Jesse, who by now is sick and tired of having to talk about what he meant by ‘Palimpsest’, he hadn’t put much thought into the relevance of the title. “It was just a word that I liked, and I really didn’t think that I was going to be asked so much about it,” he says. “I still don’t think that there’s much relevance other than the idea that most of the songs on the CD are old.” The fact that the EP contains, in some instances, ten year-old songs that Jesse is still playing and trying to make relevant to himself once again is, he says, the reason why he chose the title Palimpsest.

Greater than his reluctance to talk about the title of the EP is Jesse’s reluctance to talk about the meaning behind the songs contained therein, or to talk about himself to any great degree. For example, he doesn’t wish to be more specific regarding his cultural and racial origins than to say that his parents were from ‘the Middle East’. In fact, he is a bit uneasy about admitting even that.

“I just prefer what I do to be seen as what it is rather than where it comes from and what it means,” he says, acknowledging that he has ‘issues’ – what with “being called a wog at school” all his life. “I guess what I’ve noticed, especially with this sort of music where there’s no evidence of my background in it, because of how I look or whatever, there’s a question of ‘where are you from?’ If I was blonde and blue-eyed, there wouldn’t be a question of that.”

Where a thing comes from and what it means is implicitly bound in what it is, I would have thought. And how it is interpreted by listeners, as opposed to how Jesse meant it in the first place, is prime PoMo theory at work. By this stage, calling the first EP Palimpsest is making more and more sense – particularly when Jesse’s ‘Middle Eastern’ background is taken into account. The fact that I can ascribe a meaning to the title that Jesse can’t or won’t, once again, is an example of that loathsome postmodernism. His Palimpsest has itself become a palimpsest – a site of multiple overlapping texts within which more can be read than Jesse actually wrote, or intended to write, or is willing to acknowledge that he is ‘writing’, not just by the information he presents, but also that which he witholds. However, knowing all of this won’t necessarily enable you to enjoy Jesse’s music to any greater degree. Nor should it cause you to enjoy it any less. Only, as life is far too short, you should spend more time listening to great music than theorising about it in a completely self-indulgent way – particularly when someone else is willing to do the self-indulgent theorising for you.

Although I undertook an interview with Jesse some weeks ago, I publish it here now in order to let you know that Jesse Younan is supporting Josh Rouse at the Annandale Hotel, Tuesday 25 May. There is a ‘narrative’ version of essentially the same interview that follows the transcript of the broadcast version. Don’t read both unless, when you come to the second one, your only other choice is a textbook on functional grammar or some other loathesome compendium of PoMo theory.


Music:Walkin’ off the Blues’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Jesse, at what point in your life did you realize that you needed to be a singer/songwriter?

JESSE YOUNAN: I’ve never really reached a point where I decided I needed to be, I just have always done it, basically. I started when I was six, playing guitar, and it just seemed natural to progress to writing my own once I felt I was at a certain point where I could compose my own music rather than play other peoples’.

Demetrius Romeo: At what point did you start composing your own songs?

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess we’re talking early teenage years. And the way I learnt to play was to improvise, so in a sense I was always composing, because I was basically making it up as I went along anyway. So I guess it was really the late teens when I actually started putting it down on paper or tape.

Music:Walkin’ off the Blues’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: I hear shades of Nick Drake in your music. Who or what were you listening to that influenced you early on?

JESSE YOUNAN: Nick Drake isn’t an influence. I’ve only recently came across him, maybe five or maybe eight years ago. The first song I learnt to play was ‘Annie’s Song’ by John Denver. A lot of the melodies maybe come from that kind of stuff. I’ve always found it hard to talk about influences because I really don’t know.

Music: ‘Annie’s Song’ – Jesse Younan, as yet unreleased

Demetrius Romeo: Did your parents play a lot of music in the house when you were young?

JESSE YOUNAN: No. Not what I do. Cultural stuff. More in the ‘middle eastern’ kind of tones. It does relate, more in the way I may vocalize. The way I approach music has to do with my background and maybe the blues, and so the music from the culture, to me, is closely related to the blues because it’s basically blues, just worlds apart as far as styles and subject matter.

Music: ‘Annie’s Song’ – Jesse Younan, as yet unreleased

Demetrius Romeo: If it’s worlds apart in style and worlds apart in subject matter, how is it close to the blues? I would have thought that the thing that marks the blues is its style and subject matter.

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess I’m talking more on the technical side, where it’s worlds apart. Where it’s similar is the root of it. I guess it’s just basically the honesty and rawness; everything being stripped back to that. And the idea of making the soul audible and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life and stuff like that, that I like. Any kid who picks up the guitar, the first riff they learn tends to be a blues riff that’s been played over and over again. It was always going to happen for me. I just like it and it speaks to me.

Music:Forever’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Tell me about the song ‘Forever’.

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess it’s just a basic break-up song, really. I guess you could call it ‘blues-based’. I don’t know. I don’t necessarily like to come out and say ‘blues’, that I ‘play the blues’ because I don’t feel that I do play the blues as well as someone who has been playing blues. I just play the way I play and that’s just how I go about it. I don’t pay too much attention to what is going on around me. It’s all just coming out of me.

Music:Black Dog’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: I’d also like to know about the song ‘Black Dog’.

JESSE YOUNAN: All the songs that I write come about in the same way: at low points in one’s life. To me, every song I’ve written could basically be one body of work, one song. That’s how the songs are to me. They’re not individual songs. I guess Black Dog has been used as a reference to depression.

Music:Black Dog’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Is your music about taking the low points in your life and creating something more out of it?

JESSE YOUNAN: Not necessarily. I don’t really have any say in it. It’s become just a habit. I might be feeling low and that’s basically what will inspire a song. I’ve got a large body of work, which may suggest that I feel low often. Like I say, there’s no motive behind it; it just comes out that way, and I don’t have much say in it.

Music: ‘Always a Glasgow Boy’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Always a Glasgow Boy. What’s that song about?

JESSE YOUNAN: That’s the easiest one to explain and the only one I will explain. That was basically written for a father of a friend who is from Glasgow. He made a joke one night and said that he was going to commission me to write a song, and he left it at that. But he had no idea that I would end up writing a song based on that line and a slight insight into who he is and where he’s from. I didn’t have an intention to write the song, but that’s just how it happens, for some reason: he’s mentioned it and a song came out a few weeks later and he was really surprised and chuffed.

Music: ‘Always a Glasgow Boy’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest


And now, the ‘alternative’ version (ie the alternative to reading PoMo theory).


Jesse Younan: Making the soul audible, and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life

Jesse Younan has a great big singing voice, so it takes you by surprise to discover how soft-spoken he is when you meet him face-to-face. In addition to his quiet nature, Jesse is reluctant to talk about his art – he’d rather that his music spoke for itself. Yet, when pressed, he does offer some insight into how the self-taught musician got to be so proficient a singer/songwriter.

“I started playing guitar when I was six,” Jesse explains. “If I was a bricklayer for the same amount of time, I’d be a pretty good bricklayer.”

Since Jesse basically learnt to play the guitar by improvising, he was pretty much always composing – making it up as he went along. However, he says, it seemed like a natural progression to start writing his own songs once he’d reached the point where he could compose his own music rather than playing other people’s songs. “It was in my late teens, really, that I started putting it down on paper or tape”.

Jesse never jammed with mates at school – music wasn’t even offered as a subject at the school he attended. Apart from playing music with his brothers, Jesse never jammed with anyone until he was in his early 20s, and even though playing music with anyone is always “a good idea” – he likens it to “having a conversation” – Jesse found that the level of playing was rarely balanced. “I’ve been playing since I was six, and I would be playing with people who may have only been playing for a couple of years, so I always ended up in the position where I was the one who knew what he was doing. It was never a nice balance.”

At times, Jesse’s deep, booming voice, distinctive finger picking style and lyrical candour is reminiscent of Nick Drake. But Jesse insists that Drake, whom he’d only encountered about five years ago, isn’t an influence. “I’ve always found it hard to talk about influences, because I don’t know,” he’ll admit, before declaring that the first song he ever learnt to play was John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’. “A lot of the melodies maybe come from that kind of stuff,” he says – although Denver’s influence is harder to spot in Jesse’s original compositions.

Another influence is the music Jesse’s parents would play in the house when he was young and, although there is once again a reluctance to talk about it, Jesse describes their music as “Middle Eastern sort of tones”. He suggests that the Middle Eastern music he was hearing as a child influences the way he sings. That music, and the blues of the legendary Robert Johnson, are his key influences.

“Where we can always say ‘the blues’ starts and ends is Robert Johnson,” Jesse explains. “I don’t sound like Robert Johnson, but the way I approach music has to do with my background and the blues. The music from my culture, to me, is basically the blues, only it’s worlds apart as far as styles and subject matter.”

On the surface this sounds like a contradiction, that indigenous Middle Eastern music is essentially ‘the blues’ except for its style and subject matter; for most people the blues is defined by style and subject matter. But Jesse has it sussed: “where it’s similar is at the root of it: the honesty and rawness. Making the soul audible and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life… I’m not exactly an authority on the blues, but any kid who picks up the guitar, the first thing he learns is a blues riff that’s been played over and over again.”

As a songwriter, Jesse admits that all of the songs he writes come to him at the low points of his life. “I don’t really have any say in it. It’s become just a habit. I might be feeling low and that’s basically what will inspire a song.” As a result, Jesse feels that every song he has written basically constitutes one body of work, one song. That he can take a low feeling and write a jaunty, rollicking song is not contrived. “There’s no motive behind it,” he maintains. “It just comes out that way, and I don’t have much say in it. I just play the way I play and that’s just how I go about it. I don’t pay too much attention to what is going on around me, it’s all just coming out of me.”

© Demetrius Romeo 2004

comments powered by Disqus