Jehsea Wells is a small town kid. He grew up in Ozark, Arkansas, a town that’s just a little south of middle America with a population that hovers a couple hundred people or so below four thousand. If you grew up in a backwoods town like this, the throaty deadhead desperation of his debut single “Are You Feeling Like Me” will feel oddly familiar even on your first listen. Are you feeling like me? Are you blue as can be? he sings. Before I even know my answer is yes, I hit repeat several times. This gritty, mournful rock song targeted my heart’s sore spots and then dug underneath them.
“Are You Feeling Like Me” has all the hallmarks of a great American rock classic; that lonely soaring wind at the beginning, his initially acoustic, slow-building intro, and finally, the hit of a sparkling psychedelic crest at the first climax about 47 seconds in when a bluesy Aerosmith-style guitar lick hijacks the whole thing.
A great rock song needs guitars, of course, but this track wings by on Welles’ compelling, shapeshifting voice. The easy comparison to Kurt Cobain is there, reach for it if you want, but Jehsea is no knock off. He’s a 22-year-old who just moved to Nashville to pursue music more seriously, and refers to his own voice as “burnt toast.” That’s actually a genius description for it — dark and half-ruined, ashes on top of sustenance.
“I write from honest places,” Wells said of his work. “I’m so captured in the moment of watching yourself aging. That horrifies me and that compels me to write some scary shit… Reality, at times is pretty sour. There’s no sense in making something just for darkness’ sake. I like everything to have a curve on it.”
Listen to the other half of the premiere, his B-side “Into Ashes,” to fully experience Wells the songwriter. Here, his voice is an expert, virtuosic bleat and the guitars cut like dull knives, bludgeoning guilt and shame into a tortured rock anthem. In the last couple years Wells has undergone immense growth, a fact that becomes more clear after listening to some older versions of his songs.
Before he decided to officially launch as Welles, Jehsea was releasing music under his own name. Those older songs include a no-brainer cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” as part of a covers compilation of the band’s most notable songs that Pigeons & Planes put together in 2015 to honor Kurt Cobain’s birthday.
And even though his tire-grip voice is just as compelling on “Xmas ’97” and “Summer,” his two new songs benefit from a delicately vicious production that pierces the heart of an artistic confidence these early demos only gesture toward. A version of “Summer,” at least, will appear on Welles’ debut album, which arrives this summer.
Though he’s a brand new artist, Welles has already earned slots performing at marquee festivals like Bonnaroo and Governor’s Ball based off the strength of his early work. The 22-year-old’s debut album will be out this June, and if you’re at SXSW this year be sure to look out for him there. Clearly, 2017 is just the beginning for Welles, a young artist with his heart on his sleeve and a smoldering fury that never tilts into the finality of bitterness.