What happens when we realize our monsters are human? When we can’t dehumanize them, even if they’ve done just that to us? These are the types of questions that Jacksonville singer-songwriter Jessica Pounds explores beautifully and hauntingly in a new suite of songs.
“I wanted my monster to have fangs,” she sings, “Cloven hooves, claws and horns, / I wanted him to breathe fire / So that I could be justified.”
The songs will ultimately comprise a new album in 2020, but first Pounds hopes fans will be part of their evolution by hearing her perform them live and engaging the music dialogically. “There’s an interdependence between artist and audience,” she tells Folio Weekly.
The new material is dark, which is nothing new. Pounds’ music has always explored somber motifs. In 2015, her band Canary in the Coalmine asked, “Who fears the Devil?” Five years later, she sings of how monsters should be identifiable as such, not blend in with the rest of us. But Pounds is not afraid of the Devil. The world has enough real monsters. She conquers them by showing that world who and what they really are. The music is lyrical and lilting. If it’s sad, it’s triumphantly so. It strings ukulele through steel guitar. There’s something both earthy and ethereal about it. As there is about Pounds herself.
We’re sitting at an old wooden picnic table behind Community Loaves in Murray Hill. The last of the fall’s Dutchman’s Pipe Vine flowers shrivel purple above us like bruises.
This new music, Pounds says, is about owning your vulnerability: “Everything in society tells us that vulnerability and revealing your weakest points is ugly and shameful. That’s where art comes in. You can wield that vulnerability as a power. You make it beautiful.”
With her hair cut short these days, her earrings and skirts long, there’s something poetically elfin about her. If she’d been born of a W.B. Yeats poem, it wouldn’t be surprising.
Pounds grew up west of town, in the rural area called Whitehouse. Hopefully one day she’ll name a song, if not an album, “Velvet Drive,” after the street where she grew up. She didn’t attend an art school. Since the household environment was steeply Baptist, Pounds had to rebel. She started an all-girl Christian punk band while still a teenager. I’m frequently surprised by how many artists from Northeast Florida grew up, as Pounds says, “staying awake at night, wondering how if you die, you can know you’re not going to hell.”
In 2009, Pounds met fellow singer-songwriter Sandra Wicker while the two were busking in Asheville, North Carolina. The duo added more strings—bassist Pete Mosely, who’d played with Yellowcard, violinist Philip Pan of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and legendary guitarist Arvid Smith—and Canary in the Coalmine was born. In 2013, Pounds described the band’s music to Folio Weekly’s Shelton Hull as Americana with “a weird, eerily hopeful darkness to it.”
That “hopeful darkness” permeates Pounds’ new music, and in place of childhood Bible-Belt fears, hell now is here, but the Devil’s neither supernatural nor invincible.
“And he was right that I’d be quiet,” she sings. “He was right I’d be afraid. / But not today. / This is his name. / This is where he lives. / This is his face.”
Indeed the song echoes Jessica’s outing her rapist two years ago. “I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t out him,” she says. “There’s other people he’s hurt. I wanted to stop this cycle of abuse.”
“Now take it in,” she sings. “This, this, this, / This is how we take them down.”
The new music represents both new and familiar collaborations. About Arvid Smith, Pounds says, “Though he’s a legend, he’s so kind and gracious, and we have such a musical history together.” Meanwhile, the new album will be co-produced by musician Andrew Carter, whose self-titled album rose to number 36 on the Americana charts in 2017.
The new album will be the first Jacksonville production of Dog Song Records, which Carter founded three years ago in Nashville. Dog Song, Pounds says, “will have a wide reach outside the region, but also be immersed and active in the Jacksonville community.” Dog Song’s residency program will bring outside musicians to Jacksonville to host and record them.