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There's a big sound coming from the bluesy-rock duo of Jesse Ray and the Carolina Catfish

Jesse Ray and Paul Jensen
Jesse Ray and the Carolina Catfish play Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Saturday, Jan. 21.

Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Jesse Ray and the Carolina Catfish bring their big bluesy-rock sound to Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Jan. 21. But you might be surprised that that big sound comes from just two band members: Jesse Ray on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and Brando Hopp on drums.

Jesse Ray spoke with WGLT's Jon Norton.

WGLT: How did you decide on being just a duo?

Ray: It was kind of a thing out of necessity because I didn't really know anybody that played bass. And I had such a weird schedule. When I first started out, my drummer at the time worked at the same place. So, we had the same schedule and could jam, and gig. We had a bass player for a minute, but it just didn't work out because the writing and everything was centered around two dudes essentially. I don't know, it's really fun to just kind of gel with one other person on stage. There are some people that say that we're lacking on the low end, most of those guys are bass players. ( laughter )

I was mentioning off the air that I was surprised that you were a duo because you have such a big sound. How do you get that big sound out of two guys on stage?

Yeah, I don't know, I do write a little bit. With that in mind, I do a lot of finger-picking on low notes and a lot of strumming on the lower strings. Maybe that has something to do with it. But I think that if you just feel good, and you like what you're playing, then it'll sound however it needs to sound.

Yeah, I think it's really cool that it sounds like there's at least three or four instruments in the band. I suppose there are three with the harmonica going. But still, it sounds much bigger than what you would guess. Let's segue to the new album, the latest album comes from 2022. It's a self-titled album, and it came out of the pandemic. In a previous interview, you said of this album, “It's the most honest and musical record that we have to date.” Can you expand on that?

I actually quit drinking over the pandemic, I wrote, I sprinkled some of that into the record. I was just thinking about what I was going through … how I felt some of it was a kind of pre-pandemic, before I stopped playing, you know, touring and stuff like that, instead of just trying to write something that's clever that I don't have a connection with, I tried to write more about myself … my life and what I was going through, I think that I translated it pretty well. While I was working in the studio with our producer Addison, I came up with a couple of ideas. And I thought to myself, “I can't sing this, I can't record this.” And he said, “Just be yourself, man. Just go for it.” So that's what I did. And that's what we got.

That's an interesting idea that you were writing a little bit more personal stuff. What was holding you back before?

I'm a pretty private guy. I guess I'd never really wanted to open up. And music has been my way of opening up. In addition to being able to do what I love.

I think what you just said is fascinating, because never having spoken with you before, and listening to your music, watching your videos … on stage, you are dynamic, you're intense. When talking with you, you're kind of quiet and you said you're kind of a private guy. How do you work that up on stage to be sort of a different guy that I'm talking to right now?

I don't know. You know, maybe it's the kind of guy that I want to be. Maybe it's who I am. But I don't show it often. My wife is really funny. She used to be a bartender. Her patrons would tell her, “I went to see Jesse Ray. And then I met him.” And she was like, “Yeah, did he sound like Mickey Mouse?” (laughter) And she was like, “Yeah, he sounds like a cartoon character.” I don't know what I do to work myself up. I just love playing. I love seeing people enjoying music.

You mentioned that (this album) was a little more personal and you let your hair down, so to speak, or opened a little bit.


Can you give me a song example or two that might fit that description of what you just said, from this new album?

I'd have to say “Parade Song.” It's the second to last track on the record. I was in a parade. And I was playing this song on acoustic. And you can't really start or stop a song when you're on a parade float. So, I had to keep this song going for two hours while we did our route. Well, needless to say, I got pretty good at that. That little guitar part and the harmonica part. But I kind of sang about what I was going through … what had happened to me over the last three years … sort of a how it was versus how it's going. I'd say that I put a lot of myself lyrically into that track.

So, having done a little bit of that on this new album, how does that affect you now? Either on stage or moving forward with new songs that you might be writing?

Yeah, I've kind of have one foot in and one foot out. I guess I just don't think about it anymore. The way that I used to think to myself (was) that I can't say this or that. If I'm being honest, not everybody listens to every word that you sing anyway. So, I tried to come up with something clever. I don't like to be too cryptic. I just like to have fun and if it sounds, you know goofy, so be it. Or if it's detrimental then that's just what we're gonna go with. I think that people are really valuing honesty these days and if I can be more honest and open up … then why not?

Jesse Ray and the Carolina Catfish play Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Saturday, Jan. 21.

Corrected: January 14, 2023 at 5:44 AM CST
The date of the concert has been corrected.
Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.