Country star Jaime Wyatt on the road to new album ‘Neon Cross’: “I’m lucky to be alive at this point”
Jaime Wyatt has seen some shit in her time. From a failed record deal as a teenager to a stint in jail after robbing her heroin dealer in her early twenties, the LA-born, Washington-raised, Nashville-based country singer has lived a life that would make most country songs blush. Her heavy duty brush with the law was the subject of 2017’s eye-opening ‘Felony Blues’ but her long overdue breakthrough is finally here in the shape of her flawless new album ‘Neon Cross’.
A triumph of shimmering and heroically catchy 1970s-style country that pays its dues to Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette and David Allan Coe, it’s produced by Shooter Jennings – son of OG outlaw Waylon Jennings – and deals with grief, heartache and how to turn your life around. We called her at home to discuss escaping LA, getting sober – again – and being a queer country artist in 2020.
‘Neon Cross’ seems like a very LA record…
“Absolutely. I wrote the record before I moved to Nashville. It’s my ode to the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles, but in my sarcastic, cheeky tone. I’m sober now, but I wasn’t sober when I started writing this record and then I had to get sober again, which was incredibly difficult. I relapsed around the time of ‘Felony Blues’ and I’m very much lucky to be alive at this point.”
What made you want to get clean?
“I would see this neon cross on the hill over the Hollywood Freeway and it was a reminder of ‘What are we doing here? When do we get out? How do we get out?’ There was a lot of encouragement [to get sober] from Shooter and his wife. To have one of my heroes really, really believe in me definitely sent a message, but I really had to experience the bottom. I go out now still, but I’m playing pool and drinking Coca-Cola!”
How long have you been living in Nashville now?
“I was in LA for 12 years, but I moved in August. I live on another planet in my mind, so it doesn’t matter where I am, but logistically and financially it was a good decision. It’s a city but there are hills and trees and I grew up in a really rural area with horses and worked at the neighbours barn, so I like that. My sisters were really good horseback riders, but I got into skateboarding and there was no pavement where I grew up, so I dreamed of going back to California – I was like, ‘Man, where’s the concrete!’”
But you got your wish when you were 17, right?
“When I was still in high school I signed a recording agreement and that took me back to California and I started making demos. It was the same kind of music that I’m making now; there was just no pedal steel because I didn’t know any pedal steel players! But then the music industry drastically changed. By the time we made an album, file-sharing and Napster took off and no-one knew what to do, so everything came to a halt.”
Who was your gateway to country music?
“Bonnie Raitt was the first concert I remember. That really moved me because she was a woman playing guitar and singing so well. 1990s country was the first country music I remember; Garth Brooks, The Judds and George Strait. Great stuff that I still love to this day. My mum and dad listened to a lot of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams and I remember thinking ‘this feels like me’. It felt like the soundtrack to my life.”
The video for the song ‘Neon Cross’ was shot at LA institution, the bikini bar Jumbo’s Clown Room…
“It’s such a cool, historic LA landmark. I’d been going there for years and I knew a couple of the dancers. I tried to do it a few years ago, but because I wasn’t sober I wasn’t able to pull it together, so [the video] was a dream come true. I consider myself a feminist, but there’s real art to exotic dancing; the athleticism and grace. A lot of them come from modern dance and ballet backgrounds. This isn’t the only thing they can do – that belief system should be shattered. Jumbo’s is female-owned as well. It’s the best.”
You deal with dark subjects on the album, but it also seems quite hopeful. How do you balance the two?
“There’s hope in there because I’m sober now and I’ve come out of the closet and I also use a lot of major chords! If we go by the country music stereotype of your dog dying, your pick-up truck breaking down and your woman leaving you, they’re all done to major chords too. I’ve kept that tradition up. I was also able to make fun of myself and of the bad luck. As a survivor I have learned that things that are really tragic are also hilarious.”
You are Orville Peck are flying the flag for queer country right now. Do you think country music and its fans are becoming more accepting of diversity or is it still a hard place to be different?
“My experience thus far is that it’s still hard. I was surprised that in 2020 I would still be getting tonnes of homophobia on Facebook. I get questions like, ‘Why’s [it] important [to broadcast your sexuality]?’ Well, because everyone else is straight and because you guys are always asking where the songs come from and because there are kids out there who are getting into drugs and running away from home and committing suicide because they don’t feel accepted. So that’s why it’s important. But there has been so much support too, with people saying, ‘That’s totally my experience too’.”
You own some amazing old-school Western clothes…
“I don’t own any Nudie suits – my bank account doesn’t allow for those purchases yet! Most of my stuff is more blue-collar rodeo parade suits and my mum and I have designed suits from scratch; we custom-make them with a really amazing seamstress. I’m still getting a lot of wear out of this white suit that we made with rattlesnakes on the legs. And there’s a gold suit you’ll see in the ‘Neon Cross’ video that was modelled after a suit Elvis Presley wore.”
You have a complicated relationship with your mum. How much of an influence is she?
“When we’re together we sing classic songs we love and she’ll send me songs she’s working on. On the last album she helped write the song ‘Wishing Well’ – she’s a great songwriter. My dad was a singer-songwriter but he was always in the spotlight; my mother had three children to raise so wasn’t. She became a single mum when I was 10. Part of my living [thanks to sobriety] amends for doing many things to her – including throwing a brick through her front window for no good reason – and I’ve been finding ways to bond with her. I’m so blessed that I get to do that with her through creating music and fashion. We don’t sing on stage together yet. I’m trying to get her confidence up, but hopefully one day it’ll happen.”
How do you plan on getting the album out to people now that live music is basically cancelled for the foreseeable?
“It’s a lot of livestreams and it’s going to be people really listening to the actual recording of the album. I feel very blessed there’s the internet – I will get out and perform it eventually, but it’ll have to be all online in the meanwhile.”
– Jaime Wyatt’s ‘Neon’ Cross’ is out now