It wasn't that long ago that Jessy Wilson and Maya de Vitry's musical reputations were inextricable from the groups they had helped build. Wilson brought vital charisma to Muddy Magnolias — an interracial, throwback roots rock duo with theatrical, sometimes gospelly, southern flourishes — while de Vitry played fiddle in the coed string trio the Stray Birds and supplied the full-bodied center of its folk-schooled vocal blend. But now that they're no longer pouring all of their time and creative energy into those collective endeavors, they're each defining who they are on their own, through their debut solo albums. Wilson's Phase is a strutting, strong-willed, rhythmically canny work of bohemian rock and R&B; de Vitry's Adaptations is a singer-songwriter set full of ruminative sensuality, and subtly jazzy expanses.
World Cafe invited the two artists, who'd never crossed paths before, to convene at an East Nashville tea shop and compare their perspectives on what it's been like forging stand-alone identities.
World Cafe: What did you learn from your time in those groups about the limits of compromise and collaboration? How easy was it to separate out what you wanted for yourselves artistically?
Jessy Wilson: ...The first lyrics I ever wrote were with someone else, so being in a duo and sharing that creative space was really seamless for me. I've come to understand that in collaborating, in making music — probably anything artistic — when you're working with anyone, if there isn't a rub ... if there isn't some sort of tension that exists in the creative process, then you're not really collaborating.
You weren't just writing songs together. You were also making all sorts of decisions about the image and narrative of Muddy Magnolias.
JW: We were an interracial duo from two different regions, not just where we were raised but two different types of parents. Kallie [North] was brought up in a very religious home and I was not brought up in a religious home at all. She was brought up in the south, the Bible belt region, and I'm from Brooklyn. ...The narrative, we had to figure out how we were going to massage that so that both of us felt comfortable. I'm a really overtly honest, blunt person. I think just the nature of being in an interracial duo, there are things that I'm way more comfortable expressing as it pertains to my identity that I don't feel the need to sugarcoat versus someone that doesn't have the same skin that I do. ... So figuring out how to exist and for both of us to feel like we were telling out truth, that was something that we had to work through.
Maya, how did you find your artistic aims aligning and conflicting with your band mates'?
Maya de Vitry: I was about 20 when we started the Stray Birds. I had just started to solidify my desire to be a songwriter. It was the first avenue to doing that. They were people who wanted to tour all the time. I think the biggest compromise, looking back, was time. It was a really demanding, focused situation.
You got swept up in the band at a really formative age.
MD: I didn't realize how much I was compromising my own time and my own voice for a long time. ... Singing together was really easy, and that's what people responded to and loved about the band, the physical three-part harmonies. ... But I didn't want to be a harmony singer — I wanted to be a songwriter primarily. ... I didn't get into songwriting because I wanted to perform. I grew up as a classical violinist and liked being in a sea of 30 violins, in a sea of a big orchestra. To stand there with a guitar and sing a song, but be surrounded all the time by two people really closely singing into one mic, was super comfortable in that way, for an introvert to begin writing. ... The solo artist that I'm discovering in myself today, it was just like a flicker.
In running a band and taking on the management of the interpersonal things, it was an unbelievable amount of emotional labor that I, and everyone in the band, was in some way carrying some of that. ... One of the shocking things for me in the aftermath of the band was this resounding quiet around me from so much that I had been dealing with on a daily basis. ... The Stray Birds took up so much space that it was not possible for the Stray Birds and me to exist at the same time.
Jessy, you have a very different origin story. By your teens, you'd already zeroed in on performing and were already working on Broadway and in clubs. What difference did that make to the dynamics of the duo?
JW: The duo was a means to be on stage, period. ... I have to sing. I must perform more than I must write. Even writing is a means to get to the stage.
But I really relate to the emotional strain that being in a group can cause. ... Talking about the resounding quiet you felt when the band was no more, I felt something — it was more like a relief or release, even a little bit of anger, too. Music is the most important thing to me, and I realized that I was in a situation with multiple people [for] who[m] music was not their life.
... I do not regret Muddy Magnolias at all. It was an amazing entry into the Nashville music scene. ...I came from New York. I had always worked on music in some form, always wanted to be a recording artist. Started trying to get a record deal when I was, like, 14 years old. For whatever reasons, the dots just never really connected. Then I move to Nashville and I get with this girl from Mississippi and we're doing the harmony thing and people go wild over it. All of a sudden the doors just swung open. It was all the buzz around Nashville. That was great, but after that was done and I had to sort of put things back together, minus this whole entity, the fear of what that void would be like, "Will people still accept me if I'm not standing next to this person?" Because you've got the black thing and the white thing and everybody [was] like, "Peace, love, yeah! We live in a post-racist society! This is so great!"
When your performing partner quit, how did you find your sonic solo identity?
JW: In my mind, I was already moving forward. ... All I knew was that I wanted to work with Patrick Carney [as producer]. I knew that that was the gateway. ... I really liked the way that the Black Keys' drums sounded. I loved that their music had a heaviness; it was a swagger that I could relate to, being where I'm from. ... Their music really hit me more in a guttural place, and I knew that that was a person that would be able to relate to the type of music that I wanted to make.
Maya, you wrote the songs for your album as a then-undefined solo outlet while you were still focused on the band. How did you develop a clear sense of what you were after?
MD: ... My path was that I knew I wanted to work with Dan Knobler, who's a producer here in town. I had worked with him on one occasion. The way that he spoke to me in the studio, the way that we communicated, I felt really heard as a singer for the first time. He got my voice and my timing and phrasing. ...I reached out and said, "Hey Dan, I'm working on some songs that are not for the Stray Birds. I'd love for you to hear them." ... I went in and played songs for him and he said, "Let's put some dates on the calendar and let's put a band together. It'll be like demos." The session went really well. ... So basically I felt like I effortlessly had a record by the end of that summer.
... I had done so much work with the writing and the singing and the phrasing and delivery of it — that's the time that I felt like in the Stray Birds was never acknowledged. ... I just feel so at peace with the process where there's a longer period of writing and going deep and really knowing the soul of the songs. And the studio is just like the forming of them in the physical world or something. The studio feels so different to me now.
The albums titles that the two of you chose, Phase and Adaptations, suggest that you're looking at where you are not as final destinations, but stops along your artistic journeys.
JW: Absolutely. ... I've realized that I had never gotten the opportunity in life as an artist to tap into, "Why am I doing this?" ... My personality and my voice had never had the opportunity to combine. There's a certain thing that matters to me more than anything, and it's a very deep penetrating connection with people. ... I wrote the album with my fiancé [Jim McFarlin] and Pat [Carney]. ... It was over the course of three months we worked really intensely. It was really intense because I was [emotionally] excavating the whole time. It was quiet in there. I would pace. I chain smoked for the entire record. I would come home and work more and pull more, which was the beauty of writing the record with my fiancé.
My album was never about the songs — it was more about connecting, being felt as Jessy on record. ... One thing I know will always be my guiding force will be, "How can I transfer who I am right now onto record like a time capsule?" .... When I was in Muddy Magnolias I was "performing" all the time. I was being the black girl with the big voice, and we were being the interracial duo.
That was the persona, which doesn't mean it was necessarily inauthentic.
JW: It wasn't. But the persona itself is a living breathing thing that you have to feed and keep up. Even on days when we weren't really feeling it, we'd still have to get up there. ... I wanted to not have to try. And now when I get on stage, it's just, "What you see is what you get," and I needed that.
MD: With the Stray Birds, the ambition was to feed and grow the persona, which is an external thing. ... My ambition now is to create a body of work that reflects who I am. There's so much less pressure of, "How's the record doing [critically and commercially]? Has everyone discovered it yet?" ... I just have never experienced that before, maybe since writing a term paper in high school or whatever: "This is my writing, I'm turning it in and I know that it's good." Not good in a competitive sense, but good in a sense of true. ... Ultimately it's like, if I don't make this body of work and really be the songwriter I want to be, I'm letting myself down, and I don't wanna live that way. It's not that I don't care what Stray Birds fans think. It's just that I'm not making it for anybody. ... If I need to make my own circles, then that's what I want to do.
Jessy's no longer conjuring downhome settings and Maya's gotten pretty far away from what would be considered old-time music. What kinds of reinvention did you do with your sounds?
JW: ... When I would see people always gravitating to what I brought to the table [with Muddy Magnolias], because it was the thing that was really in your face, I [felt like I had] to compromise because of that, in other creative aspects. If we leaned toward an Americana sound, it's not that I disliked that. I like that. My grandmother's from Plains, Georgia. I grew up going to the rural south every year. So it's not like that was a complete disconnect for me. But when I get in my car or when I'm in my house, what I'm listening to is not that. ... My compromises were, "Because on record and on stage [Kallie] feel[s] unheard, we're gonna make sure that sonically it really does reflect who [Kallie is], and then I'll exist on top of that because I just like to sing everything." ... But there were certain songs that we would take in a more R&B direction. It wasn't the type of R&B that I wanted, but it was a nice compromise.
So when I went to make my album, I was like, "I don't want not one twangy guitar. ... I want drums!" That's why I wanted to work with Patrick, because I knew that he could play the drums the way I needed to hear them. ...It's actually a really scary place to sit in as a black woman living in the South who chooses to describe her music as alternative rock. Choosing to stand right there is a scary position, especially when you are very determined also to speak from the position of being black.
MD: So much of the Stray Birds was rooted in traditional music, like old-time and bluegrass. We started as a string band singing into one mic. ... It was a really big decision to move into playing electric, to play with drums. ... I actually said no fiddle on this album. I'm not playing fiddle; nobody's playing fiddle. ... It's just a whole different sound landscape than what the Stray Birds were doing. ... I think that that's the great freedom in it; to have the songs and myself at the center and build around that is really freeing.
This might initially sound like a silly question, but I feel like it might be relevant to how you've fashioned new identities for yourself as performers. In older footage and photos, you're both wearing your hair longer, but that hair disappeared as you went solo. Was that part of casting off your old selves?
MD: I cut my hair off basically a month before ending the band. ... It was something I could physically do to feel lighter. ... It was something deep in the physical world that was some way to have control when I felt like everything else was like [beyond my control]. It definitely wasn't a style choice. I think, oddly, it was a survival choice. It was like, "If I can look in the mirror and recognize myself as different from the girl who completely and exclusively inhabited this band, I think that helps."
JW: I think my identity was just so wrapped up into what I did with my hair. I mean wigs, weaves. ... Something about taking it off, putting it on, it started to feel ridiculous to me. ... Looking in the mirror, I felt covered up. So I cut my hair, but I kept wearing the wigs because I was afraid. There's all these stigmas: When a women cuts her hair she looks older. She doesn't' look as slim. Body image things, ageism things, what people see as attractive. ... It was a rebellion against all of those things, because I just didn't want to be confined anymore. I remember the day. We were in Asheville and I was like, "I really wanna perform without my wig, but I'm so afraid." This was actually Kallie's last performance with Muddy Magnolias. ... The whole band rallied. They pumped me up they were so supportive. ... Afterwards I had so many women coming to me crying, because they couldn't have their hair anymore or they could really relate to feeling trapped by society's standards of what beauty is. They really felt connected to how much courage it took to get up there. After that, it was a wrap for me, because I've never felt so free.