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“God, do I owe you money?”
In the flurry that is album release week, Jaime Wyatt forgot the exact timing of our phone interview — so when I called she wasn’t sure who was on the line. In her typical off-the-cuff style she joked about worrying the call was from a debt collector, and not a journalist eager to discuss Neon Cross, her spectacular full-length debut, released late last month via the Nashville-based label New West Records. Warm and charming, Wyatt is about as blunt as they come when she talks about the stories behind her new songs, the landmarks in LA that inspired some of them, and the personal transformation that spurred her to a whole new level as an artist and a person.
In some ways, Neon Cross feels like Wyatt’s true debut, though it follows up an initial EP, Felony Blues, a seven-track project released in 2017 that more formally introduced her to the indie country scene. Though Felony Blues was instantly beloved by those who heard it, few did. Wyatt didn’t achieve mainstream acclaim for the release — and she also hadn’t been fully honest with herself. As a recovering addict, and at that time, a closeted queer woman, Wyatt relapsed shortly before the release, partially because she was continuing to struggle with and hide her true identity.
“My journey has included relapse, right around the release of Felony Blues,” Wyatt told me over the phone, as we began to dig into her backstory. “My downfall was with drugs, so I thought I didn’t have a problem with alcohol… but for me, it’s all the same. After that, it was more about getting to the root of why I drank and used — and that, for me, was just really, really discovering myself and my sexual identity. The shame and fear around coming out were directly linked to my relapse. That’s what I discovered, and I also discovered it was part of the reason why I felt so different and sad growing up — not knowing enough about myself and not feeling safe in being myself.”
Though she was born in LA, Wyatt grew up in the tiny enclave of Fox Island, Washington — near the larger cities of Gig Harbor and Tacoma — to musician parents with a taste for artists like Neil Young, The Grateful Dead (Bob Weir was a friend of her father), and alt-country icons like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Her family had horses and an affinity for “Americana culture,” and she remembers seeing Bonnie Raitt perform live at just five-years-old, the whole experience cementing her own determination to be a musician. Wyatt’s parents bought her a guitar shortly after and she began experimenting with writing songs even as a kid.
Gigging at bars in her early teens, Wyatt eventually gained attention for her striking, scratchy alto and advanced songwriting, and scored a hit of sorts when her song “Light Switch” appeared on the soundtrack for the 2004 film Wicker Park when she was just 17. Signed to an early record deal with Lakeshore Records through that sync, Wyatt moved from Seattle to live with her sister in San Francisco, where she could better manage the drive down to the label in Los Angeles. But when she finally transitioned fully to Los Angeles, things took a turn for the worse.
Falling into a cycle of drug use and addiction, Wyatt was eventually arrested for robbing her heroin dealer — a felony — and served eight months in LA County jail for the crime, before being released, and fighting the cycle of addiction, rehab, and relapse all over again. Though she managed to release her first EP in the meantime, and reclaim the title of felon, Wyatt didn’t really get free from her addiction until after that project came out. Dealing with the death of her estranged father and a close friend in tandem, Wyatt recommitted to getting clean. And she finally stopped repressing her queerness, coming out first to her family, and then realizing she wanted to be open about her identity in her career, too.
Particularly in a historically conservative genre like country, Wyatt knew being open about her status as a gay woman might actually lose her some fans. But she was determined to do it anyway. “I’ve gotten a lot of support coming out, but I’ve also gotten those negative comments on the internet,” she said. “Which hurt my feelings, of course, but it’s all the more important to me that I do continue to talk about my journey, and coming out, because saying that people are still homophobic and offended by that, it therefore highlights the need to talk about it.”
Linking up with Shooter Jennings, and eventually forming a deep friendship with him and his wife, Misty Swain, Wyatt began piecing together the songs for Neon Cross, which were heavily influenced by her time spent in LA right before she finally committed to sobriety.
“There’s a neon cross on a big hill off the 101 freeway in Los Angeles,” she remembered. “I could see that driving back to the valley where I was staying, after partying and drinking in the bars in Hollywood and Echo Park, and it was like, reminding me that my life was in shambles. On this record, I wanted to reclaim the symbol of the cross for myself.”
Wyatt isn’t religious, but getting deeper into sobriety, she’s had the kind of spiritual experiences that give the cross personal meaning as a symbol for her own recovery. However, her relationship to it isn’t necessarily what you’d expect — the title track is no sweet and sad hymnal. Instead, an insistent, driving backbeat carries the song’s triumphant kiss-off: “You don’t love me / Why don’t you nail me to a neon cross?”
“In a lot of ways, country music and music saved my life,” she said. “Like, giving me the will to live — even without drugs and alcohol — and the will to surrender and be able to stop using. The process of getting clean and sober, and coming out, and getting to the heart of my own truth felt very much like a rebirth that the cross is very symbolic of.”
That honky-tonk defiance sets the tone for Neon Cross much more than the slower-paced songs, though the album’s two features — Shooter himself, and his mother, Jessi Colter, (wife of the late Waylon Jennings, for those who don’t know) — both come in on more downtempo tracks. On “Hurt So Bad,” Jennings sings harmony on Wyatt’s epic ode to life’s tragedies, and since decrying terrible circumstances is a classic muse in the country tradition, this song could slot right next to any of the old ‘60s and ‘70s country tunes that are deified now.
And though there are plenty of moments on this album that fix Wyatt firmly in the outlaw country tradition — one she has literal claim to on account of her own record — her duet with Colter, (wife of the late Waylon Jennings, for those who don’t know) evokes the genre’s female country stars like Tammy Wynette. Over a twanging, blissed-out guitar line, Wyatt advocates for her place in the world, despite being “just a woman,” while Colter backs her up on harmonies. The song is both a testament to how little the world has changed for women in country music, and a sendup of the mainstream’s bro-centric ideals wrapped up as an old school ballad.
“I think being a woman has directly impacted my success and support in country,” Wyatt said. “Because it’s a male-dominant dominated industry and, and then country music and pop country is very much controlled by the good old boys. They want a woman who wants to be… the way they want a woman to be. I’m not that.” Which is more clear than ever on another standout, “L I V I N,” where Wyatt imagines heaven as a place where she’s hellbent on not breaking anything, or there’s the opener, “Sweet Mess,” a piano-driven, sweetly despairing reflection on a relationship that’s doomed to end in loneliness. There’s no pronouns used in the song, but the implicit queerness of it remains.
Truthfully, every song on Neon Cross sounds like it would be the crowning track for a lesser artist, and it’s the kind of album that plays through like a miracle, seamlessly, with no skips. No matter what Wyatt turns her attention to, her insights are funny, poignant, and poetic, and age-old subjects like mercy and demons feel new when she sings about them; the record’s ghostly closer, “Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain,” is the best approximation of addiction I’ve heard in years, with brimstone fiddle and a bluesy smolder that lingers long after the song ends.
And though Wyatt recently relocated to Nashville, the influence of Los Angeles on the album is another important piece for Neon Cross. “This is my LA country record, and to me it really embodies the grittiness of Los Angeles,” she explained toward the end of our call. “I lived in LA for twelve years, I love LA and I love the people in LA and the ideas and the food and the progressiveness of that. But Nashville is growing in that way as well, and it’s become a really lovely artists community.”
In speaking about community, and the story of the record, it would be remiss not to mention Neal Casal, who contributed guitar, harmonica, and wurlitzer throughout. Casal passed away in August of last year, taking his own life, and Neon Cross is dedicated to him. At its core, this record is designed for the misfits and the outcasts. It’s a record by a recovering addict who is a queer woman and a felon. But even with that context, the most striking feature about Wyatt is that she’s a damn good songwriter.
Neon Cross doesn’t fit squarely with much of the country music being released today, but it never feels retroactive or vintage, it’s never try-hard or cookie cutter. It’s just Jaime’s feelings, and the story of her life. And that makes it inherently valuable. For the mainstream audiences and listeners in America who tend to only accept one or two country records into their hearts per year, Neon Cross absolutely deserves to be in that rarefied company for 2020.
Neon Cross is out now via New West Records. Get it here.