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How Jaime Wyatt looked within to create Neon Cross

Hear the California country singer’s stellar new album ahead of its release tomorrow.

Photographer Magdalena Wosinska
May 28, 2020
How Jaime Wyatt looked within to create <i>Neon Cross</i>

One of country music’s biggest selling points is its supposed relatability — only here, the lore says, will you find real stories, the ones about death and loss and drinking too much, about fucking up your life and finding a way to live with the decisions you made. It’s all about honesty. These stories are told and retold hundreds of times, but rarely with the perspective that Jaime Wyatt brings to hers.

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When she first appeared on the scene in 2017 with Felony Blues, Wyatt established herself as a “true” outlaw. To be an outlaw in country music has historically meant being a man who smokes weed and blends blues, rock, and country sounds. To be an “outlaw” artist is to be one who doesn’t make the mass-marketable, family-friendly version of country music you hear in big box stores. Wyatt, by writing songs about life in jail, drug addiction, and depression while being a woman, becomes more of an outlaw than some of the other outlaw artists will ever be.

You can’t write a better origin story for a country artist than Jaime Wyatt’s. After a record deal fell through when she was 17, Wyatt began using drugs with such an enthusiasm that she ended up in jail for robbing her dealer. She got out and got sober and made Felony Blues, her debut album that chronicled the experience. Neon Cross, the artist’s second album out May 29, chronicles her journey through reckoning with her sexuality, the loss of her father and close friend, relapsing, and finding her way through the mess. “Some country fans don't like it at all and they feel it's an agenda, so that's been interesting to observe,” Wyatt said about coming out as lesbian. “It hurt my feelings, but then I was like, ‘Oh wait, this is exactly why it is important to say what my sexual identity is.’ Because here's the thing, if the majority of the world's heterosexual, everyone's going to assume on the internet that I want to be admired by men. It's a compliment either way, but everybody assumes I'm heterosexual. Everyone assumes everyone else is heterosexual. That's why coming out is important, or how about for the young kids who have struggled not knowing.”

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The FADER: Tell me a little bit about this record. How does it feel to have it coming out? I know in the middle of a pandemic it's probably not ideal, but you're doing it anyway.

Jaime Wyatt: I'm so excited and ready to share the songs with people and it just was such a cool process. I feel really proud of it. It's imperfect and beautiful and spontaneous. And it's really passionate, kind of raw in some ways, in my opinion. I feel really good about some of the songs I was able to get out and able to write. And then capturing it with Shooter was so fun and so rad and so creative.

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What was it like to work with him? How involved is he versus how much of it is your vision, that kind of thing?

Oh, yeah. I feel like it's really collaborative because we're buds, but there are times where I'm just absolutely like, "We're going with your vision, Shooter." Because he's really good [at] thinking about drumming and the kick patterns and what's the rhythm section and what the feel should be underneath the song. He also helped with song selection and making sure that the songs that were included on this album all fit together as far as songwriting and vibe. I'd say in general he's a fantastic vibe curator. He started out as a drummer but he's also somewhat of a musicologist in that he's a total nerd and we get to nerd out all the time on the road.

Our relationship started on tour in his bus, playing records back and forth of what music we loved and how cool arrangements were, what arrangements we loved. He was very involved in song selection and there were songs that I was like, "Man, I don't know if I can finish that one and I don't know if it even should make the album." And he was like, "No, it's important. It's really important." And I took his word and I finished the song. I'm so glad that I listened to him on that stuff. He also savored more raw vocal takes at times, where I'd be like, "Oh no, I can do it better. I can perfect it," this, that. He was very much for the raw emotion that came off spontaneously. There's a lot of first and second vocal takes [on the record].

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How many songs did you end up writing for this album?

Not a crazy amount. I had a lot of ideas that I didn’t finish because first I'll just pitch the idea and I would put it in a DropBox for Shooter. So I didn't write a crazy amount, maybe like 20, but that I had probably 30 or 40 ideas. I would listen to them and then decide which ones were solid, which lyrical hooks were the strongest, and which melodies were the strongest to pursue finishing.

How Jaime Wyatt looked within to create <i>Neon Cross</i>

How did your collaboration with Jessi Colter happen?

I had met her with Shooter several times. And during this time I had studied a lot of her music and really came to appreciate what she did besides being Waylon's wife and Shooter's mom. I came to appreciate her musicality and her own musical genius. When I wrote the song [“Just A Woman”], it felt like, for lack of a better word, "Man, this is kind of a like a feminist song." When I was writing it, I was trying to channel a lot of Tammy Wynette and then I thought to make it that much more powerful, it could really use somebody who is older and from the generation that really had to pave the way for women in music. We had thrown out a few names, and then I was just like, "Well, Shooter, you think your mom would do this?" And he was like, "Absolutely." I was like, "Are you sure? Let's hire your mom. No worries if she feels like it's just too much." He's like, "She'll do it." I know that she had heard our duet. Shooter and I had cut a duet of an unreleased Waylon song a few years back and I remember him telling me that she thought our duet was the best and her favorite on the record.

Oh my god.

Yeah. He had just told me, "She loves your voice so much."

Wow. That must've been wild.

Well, especially at a time where for me, I felt — there was a time in the last few years where I felt like the lowest of lows and sort of lacking any self-esteem and any self-confidence. Things like that began to build me up again to have the courage to trust what I was doing was worth it. Those were super affirming statements to hear from people I respected and I respect.

These last few years have probably been very tough for you.

Yeah. And it's not anything more than I think that people go through periods of their life, and I'm not the only one. I feel like, in so many ways the rug was sort of pulled out from under me. I felt like I had no stability for a while there. That's why there's a darker tone to this album. There's a lot more heartache in there.

I feel like those are very normal, real emotions and feelings to have when that kind of stuff happens, too.

Yeah, yeah. Thank you. I agree. I definitely can't go back and change anything. I hope that now I could go through some of these life events with a little more grace, but in order to become who I've become today, it's just through my life's been a lot of trial and error and a lot of just making mistakes. But now I'm learning it's okay to make mistakes. I always think about, is this going to actually harm someone, because I don't want to harm anyone. But even artistically to take gambles and make mistakes or to just follow my gut and be doubting myself, I know that the doubt is normal. But if I have a gut intuition, I've got to follow that now. That's what I've learned through all this process, all the pain and sorrow.

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like your song, L-I-V-I-N, is a really good encapsulation of that.

Yeah, absolutely. I tried to make that cheeky and funny, performed in kind of a peppy melody because it's like sometimes things are so tragic that they are hilarious and that has been a coping mechanism or just how to keep moving through utter depression and shame and self-doubt. It's like, I'm still trying to acknowledge feelings that I'm having while learning how to move forward. For the longest time it was like I had been so many dark places environmentally and so many dark places emotionally that yeah, it was like I am more comfortable failing and I'm more comfortable not living than I am with succeeding, accepting love, and living life to its fullest.

How did you work yourself out of that really dark place?

After seven years clean, I relapsed and had to really hit a bottom with drugs and alcohol. And then realized that it was a lot harder to get clean than I thought it would be. Some friends were trying to help me get clean. I had to go to a few rehabs. Then when I started over, it was like yeah, it was some intense therapy. It was treatment and it was intense therapy. Then the songwriting was how I was sifting through all the feelings. Because when I was sober, I came to and realized that I had not dealt with the grief with my dad passing and my dear friend, Tony, and all the terrible things that happened in addiction both to me and to others. I had to come to terms with that.

How Jaime Wyatt looked within to create <i>Neon Cross</i>

Nice. I love that song, “Just a Woman.” I feel like in country music so many times for women, people are just like, "Well, you're amazing, wonderful, creative powerhouses. You're so talented." Basically, treating them as incredibly capable but not being willing to help them out. I love “Just a Woman” because it was like, at the end of the day I'm also just a human being and a person who exists.

Yeah. It's interesting, I've always felt like we've had, and maybe this relates to what you're saying, we expect so much of women to not only be all-knowing, mothering our children, but also going to work and being super intelligent. But also having their emotions completely under control at all times and then being super beautiful and dress accordingly and have their shit together every single day. It's impossible. But then when it comes to listening to women in politics, we don't have a lot. We're getting more, but historically, hey, we've never had a female president. That's interesting. We also don't have, and like you said, a big part of this was that the data is showing that the ratio from male to female both on the radio and both on festivals is considerably imbalanced and it's considerably male dominated. It's just odd to me. It's just odd because it's not a question of talent. It's just clearly like, is it because both music and politics, they're already male dominated, so they've got a monopoly on this thing. What I was trying to say in the song, if you're a man and you're going to participate in misogyny, is that how you would've treated your own mother?

How Jaime Wyatt looked within to create Neon Cross