Jesse Witney is a Sydney-based musician originally from QLD, making heart-felt folk and roots music with passion, ingenuity and conviction. Witney is about to embark on a national tour for the release of his highly-anticipated EP ‘Be It’, so we decided to grab him for a quick chat to learn more about his inspirations, experiences and future aspirations. He also had some great tips to share with emerging folk and roots artists.
Tell us a little about yourself and how your songwriting journey began?
I started a punk band with some mates when I was 13 in backwater Sunshine Coast, ‘Gympie’. I had a cruddy green bass guitar and I was about four feet tall fronting the lead vocal role. It must have looked a site because the other guitarists were both around 6 foot, one shy introvert with a black metal guitar and one redhead extravert super excited about everything. I recall the first song I wrote ‘Seeker’ being about an attention seeking girl. I don’t think it had much significance, probably like my stature at the time.
Your music is inspired by a variety of genres such as Folk, Brazilian Soul and Australian Roots…what draws you to these sounds?
My parents are folk musicians. I feel super lucky in that regard. I was taken to all the folk clubs, music festivals and camping weekends to watch them perform and jam. They weren’t your Bob Dylan folkies, my Dad plays Clawhammer banjo and enjoys ‘Old time’, a genre of North American Folk Music. Both Mum and Dad are also pretty into Country Blues and Jazz Swing. There was generally ‘Luke Kelly’ (The Dubliners), ‘Emmy Lou Harris’, ‘Red Clay City Ramblers’, ‘Mary Black’ or the ‘New Lost City Ramblers’ being played on car trips. I didn’t really have a choice to like or dislike this music. It happened by osmosis.
Brazilian music is something that I stumbled upon during my first year studying a ‘Guitar Performance Music Degree’ at Southern Cross University. I had a to perform a Brazilian guitar piece accompanying a vocalist. I was also greatly inspired by Carl Cleves who taught a subject on World Music at the University. I bought my first Brazilian CD ‘Lo Borges Clube Da Esquina’ by Milton Nascimento. I was so fascinated by the sweetness and fervour of Brazilian music, I decided I had to go there.
You originate from Gympie QLD and are now based in Sydney. How did you break out of regional QLD and start reaching Sydney metro audiences?
I moved around a lot before settling in Sydney. Previous digs included, Brisbane, Lismore, Byron Bay, Bristol (England), Florianópolis (Brazil), Rio De Janeiro, Melbourne before moving to Sydney in early 2013. It’s been a slow yet steady progression of making friends and followers and releasing music.
You have performed at numerous venues around the country, but tell us about your experiences touring in Brazil and Europe…any tips you would share to other musicians hoping to break into an international market?
I visited Brazil on two occasions and did a lot of travel, learning Brazilian songs, the language and culture. I managed to sustain myself at one point in time for a few months by playing in the ‘Barzinhos’ (small Brazilian bars). This was when I decided I wanted to travel and had pretty much run out of funds. The only way to do it was to pull out the finger and approach different venues. Must have seemed pretty weird, a guy with a strange accent asking for a gig in your venue. But nevertheless the people over there are pretty open minded and I managed to make enough to eat, sleep and keep on travelling.
I met some great musicians in Bristol England and did a few little recordings over there. One of my songs ‘Paradise’ off my first EP was initially tracked by ‘Christian de Juan’ and ‘Ivan Moreno’ in 2007. They were beautiful people and great musicians to work with.
I haven’t cracked international markets. That being said, I do know people in Brazil. It’s definitely something I’m aiming for. I think that being unique is always a great drawcard for any artist. I look forward to returning to Brazil and touring there over the next 2-3 years.
You have played at Woodford Folk Festival, National Folk Festival and the Melbourne Jazz Festival. What are the benefits of performing at big-scale music festivals?
People are there for the music. They are in great spirit and ready to have a good time. It’s good for your reputation as an artist and for developing contacts.
Your new EP ‘Be It’ features performances by some of Australia’s best musicians, including a collaboration with producer Phil Stack (Thirsty Merc, James Morrison). How important is collaboration to you?
You can learn so much doing collaborations. I’m generally pretty happy songwriting on my own. However I have written songs with other people and for some reason they seem to flow a little easier. Two minds are better than one.
What was it like working with Phil Stack?
I learnt so much working with Phil. He is an incredible musician and has amazing ears. He had a really laid back approach to capturing moments, and for someone so esteemed, he was really humble.
What is your proudest moment so far as an artist?
The ‘Be It’ EP launch at Batch Brewery.
Based on your experiences so far as an artist, what advice do you have to emerging musicians trying to break into the music industry?
Music and the Music Industry are completely different things. In my opinion you don’t have to be that great a musician to break into the music industry. There’s a lot of bad music out there that does pretty well. It seems you need more money than talent if that is what you want to do. However being a musician is totally separate from the industry. If you want to be a good musician, practice.
What is on the cards for the rest of 2015?
An east coast tour. The ‘Be It’ EP distributed to community radio through AMRAP. Singing lessons. More songwriting and recording for a double EP I plan on releasing next year.
How can we find out more about you?
Come to a gig.