Jessie Baylin's Little Spark — out Jan. 17 via Nashville-based indie Thirty Tigers — feels like the debut of a brand-new voice. With trad-pop vocal melodies and arrangements steeped in subtle, timeless instrumentation, Spark is the sort of record by which, after about a half a listen, you may find yourself gob-smacked. From the gracefully sleepy nostalgia of "Yuma" to the string-ensconced baroque pop of "Holiday," Spark is poised to be among the finest Nashville-based releases of 2012. Or, at the very least, January's album to beat.
But Baylin isn't exactly a music-industry newcomer. She recorded 2007's You with Grammy winner Jesse Harris and 2008's major label debut Firesight (released via Verve Forecast) with noted Nashvillian producer Roger Moutenot, touring regularly all the while. After marrying the following year, Baylin settled here in Nashville with her husband, himself something of a music industry vet — I'd probably be remiss not to mention that Mr. Baylin is none other than Kings of Leon skin-pounder and exhaustively certified rock star Nathan Followill.
And while You and Firesight display Baylin's intrinsic knack for vocal melody and her confidence as a pop performer, they lack not only the idiosyncrasies of Spark but also, frankly, the songwriting. The reason for the drastic evolution? Too many cooks in the kitchen, it seems, or at least a cook who didn't feel free to choose her own ingredients.
"Honestly, I wanted to make an album I would listen to," says Baylin when asked about the progression of her sound. "Previously, as much as I was involved in the album, there were so many other people that were in there tinkering around on the business side when I was at a major label that it just made it really hard for me to even understand what was even going on, and I'm thankful for that. I've learned what I need and what is good for me, you know? Now I know how I want to make records."
And enlisting a stable of wildly talented, revered industry vets, it seems, is part of Baylin's recipe. Little Spark features the talents of producer Kevin Augunas, session guitarist Waddy Wachtel, session drummer Jim Keltner, string arranger Jimmie Haskell, vocal duo The Watson Twins and more — who, between all of them, have contributed to work by Simon & Garfunkel, Bobbie Gentry, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, George Harrison, Iggy Pop, Jackson Browne, Jenny Lewis and countless more.
But at the center of it all is singer-songwriter and, as of 2011, member of indie-rock outfit The Shins, Richard Swift, who served as arranger, multi-instrumentalist and musical spirit guide on Little Spark. The Swift-Baylin pairing is somewhat ideal, really, when you consider the '60s and '70s AM-pop influences Baylin is prone to citing — Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra — and the fact that Swift's solo catalog features some of the finest baroque pop you'll find on this side of Pet Sounds (think The Walkmen covering Harry Nilsson ... and yes, I know that The Walkmen covered Nilsson's Pussy Cats, but that's not exactly what I mean).
"It was this effortless moment as soon as Richard and I got in the room together — it really was magic," says Baylin. She goes on to explain that, while Swift co-wrote only one Spark track with her — the stellar "Holiday" — his arrangements of her songs were absolutely essential. "The songs I brought were just really rough demos, and he kind of took my little arrangements and made them better. Yeah, that's kind of how we would work: We'd pick the song, just build it up, and he would put his special Swift Sauce on it."
And Baylin isn't through slathering on the aforementioned sauce. Partially on a whim and partially because Little Spark languished unreleased for so long, Baylin and Swift released a recently recorded EP called Pleasure Center in December. An eclectic five-song collection recorded in one day at Baylin's house and featuring covers of Sonic Youth, Thin Lizzy, Fleetwood Mac and more, Pleasure Center is available for free download via jessiebaylin.com. And she says it hints at what's to come.
"Almost two years ago we started recording [Little Spark]," says Baylin. "So I've grown a lot. What I'm into right now is more of that Pleasure Center, a bit more lo-fi sound. So I think maybe the next record will kind of attach those two sounds a little bit."