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Jackson Jay Kidder Sees Making Music As An Eternal Evolution

Written by on May 31, 2023

Photo above by Grace E. Pisula, courtesy of Jackson Jay Kidder.

For multi-instrumentalist Jackson Jay Kidder, the core of musical expression is shared experience. After playing in bands including New Context (featured in HBO’s South Side) and FURY, Kidder has ventured into solo work with hopes to candidly share his introspective music.

Jackson Jay Kidder by LaRob K. Rafael, courtesy of the artist.

In the decade following his move to Chicago from Saint Paul, Minnesota, musician Jackson Jay Kidder has taken every opportunity to soak up the city’s energetic atmosphere and embrace its close-knit arts community.

Long before his move to the city, Kidder’s multi-instrumental journey began with violin when he was 8 years old — though his true fascination has always laid with the bass. He recalls singing church songs’ bass melodies while his father acted as parish music minister, and started playing the instrument at 11 years old when an electric bass was donated to the church. Since then, Kidder has dedicated himself to mastering it.

“That literally changed my life,” he recalled of the donated instrument.

While Kidder has accumulated 19 years of experience writing and playing electric bass and 15 years on upright bass since he first picked up the instrument, it wasn’t until a few years ago that he took the leap into singing. Encouraged by performing on live streams with his roommate, keyboardist Doug Ferdinand, throughout the summer of 2020, Kidder ventured into the studio to lay down vocal tracks which led to the release of his 2021 debut single “Those Things.” The following year, he dropped his debut EP, Standing By.

Kidder uses his music as an outlet for honest emotional expression, whether positive or negative, and hopes to foster shared moments between listeners and himself. His most recent single, April’s “Time Enough” — featured on Vocalo’s “Poised To Break Through” playlist — reflects these core aspirations. The song, which he began recording in summer 2020, touches on the darker emotions Kidder was feeling at the time, balanced by more uplifting lyrics written in the years following.

“The main point of music, to me, is shared experience,” he said. “I’ve often thought, if I feel something, chances are someone else feels similar. Shared moments are hard to come by when we’re protective of our honesty.” 

In a virtual conversation with Vocalo, Jackson Jay Kidder delved into the essence of his sound, his primary artistic influences, a Christmas album in the works and much more. 

Jackson Jay Kidder by Sebastian Buffa, courtesy of the artist.

Are you originally from Chicago?

I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, but I have lived in Chicago for the last 12 years!

What’s something you love about the city’s music scene?

I love how the music scene in Chicago really echoes a larger vibe of the city as a whole — it feels both big and small. Even after living here for 10+ years, there is always something new to see: artists, venues, etc. Yet when checking out something new, it is almost guaranteed I’m going to know someone there. I think that is really cool, and just points to how community based the music scene is.

We know you’re a classically trained bassist, so could you tell us about your journey? How long have you been playing the bass, and what led you to start? 

In total, I’ve been playing upright bass for about 15 years, and electric bass for 19. I always wanted to play bass, but my parents made me start on violin when I was 8. I thought bass looked cool, but I also genuinely enjoyed its role in music. I remember from an early age being able to sing the bass parts by ear to the songs in church. I was so curious as to why those parts seemed just as important as the melody. Someone donated an electric bass to the church my family attended when I was 11, and that literally changed my life. My dad was the music minister, so naturally I was playing every Sunday. Fast forward a few more years and I saw an opportunity to pivot in my high school orchestra from violin to upright bass. I started studying classical music at that point, and was lucky to be able to study bass at DePaul after high school. 

In terms of bass-playing, what style do you prefer, and are there any specific bassists who have influenced your personal style?

A big part of bass-playing is locking into the main groove of a song, while finding spots to change it up in the moment. I enjoy using this approach in jazz settings, hip-hop settings, and many more. I have a lot of bass influences, but a few that are sticking out for me right now — Ray Brown, Andy Randazzo, Mason Cormie and Gordon Walters. 

Widely renowned as a pioneer and jazz bass great, Ray Brown has been a huge inspiration for me. He was the first person I ever heard play with such a high degree of clarity, intention and technique. Andy Randazzo is a much more recent bass hero. I’ve been loving his playing with Butcher Brown from afar for a few years now. I really admire the way that whole band locks in, but still keeps it spontaneous. The variety of sounds he gets out of a bass amazes me. 

Mason and Gordon are both bassists I have had the great fortune to cross paths with here in Chicago. I first met Mason in the bass studio at DePaul, and later wound up taking his place with local band Bassel & the Supernaturals after he passed away suddenly in 2016. I can honestly say that learning his lines has been just as influential on my bass playing as the big-name guys. Gordon is a bass player I’ve accidentally wound up following around the last few years, ha. I’ve found myself playing with multiple local groups (FURY, New Context) right after he has. Similar to Mason, I’ve listened to Gordon’s playing so much that it has become a real influence on my own playing. This whirlpool of influence that we all have on each other, as peers and elders, is something I love about music in general.

RELATED: New Context Hits The Court With “Hurricane”

What inspired you to delve into songwriting and singing alongside your bass playing?

I’ve been writing songs ever since I was a kid, but playing bass while singing is something that honestly scared me for years. I spent so much time in college trying to marry the voice in my head to the sound coming through my fingers on the bass. Then, when I would try to sing a melody while playing a bass line, I felt like I was divorcing this thing I had tried so hard to connect. I had the opportunity to face my fears in 2020, all my gigs were canceled and I had a lot of time on my hands. My roommate at the time (Doug Ferdinand, keyboards) and I would just play for fun all the time, and we wound up doing a series of live streams that summer which really propelled me forward with playing and singing at the same time. 

I had started writing the majority of my first album before this, but I was able to hone in and finish these songs then, too, going into the studio to record Standing By in October of 2020. 

Can you share some insights into your creative process when it comes to making your own music?

I’m a spiritual person, and writing music is a way I connect. Most of the time, I will start writing a song with a short melody or hook that just kind of comes to me. At that point, I often have one line of lyrics. Sometimes it may take years to realize what the verses are, etc. Other times it can spiral quickly into a full song. A couple examples: on my first EP Standing By there is a song called “Trip Around the Sun.” I wrote the chorus to this song in February of 2018. I didn’t come up with the verses and song structure until summer 2020. On that same album the final track is called “Sanctus,” I woke up one morning and the entire song was there. I spoke the lyrics into a voice memo on my phone. Then I played the string arrangement on guitar within a few days. I write best when I allow myself to be open, almost like a conduit. “Sanctus” is one of those songs that I almost don’t feel like I wrote. It was given to me, and I just needed to share. The whole point of music, to me, is shared experience.

We’re curious about the inspiration behind your featured single, “Time Enough.” What motivated you to create that particular piece?

“Time Enough” is a song that took me a few years to write! I started writing it in summer of 2020. I was feeling depressed, and the chorus, “Time enough to wish you didn’t have time,” came pretty quick. The verse one lyrics are dark, and that’s just how I was feeling at the time. I was not seeing any light. I think it is important to be present in those moments, and document them in my artistry. Verse two, and the final chorus with more uplifting lyrics came a couple years later, and I was grateful. I was learning that it all can be true; you can have “time enough to wish you didn’t have time, time enough to sit around and cry, time enough to be smiling wide, time enough to be locking eyes, time enough to change your mind.”

Do you have a favorite song from your repertoire that you particularly enjoy performing?

My favorite song to perform is “Those Things.” I like playing it later in a set, as an opportunity to invite people into a moment of reflection. I sing, “I can be so mean, when I try not to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of the things I can’t change.” I encourage folks to think about what those things may be for them. We’ve all got some things.

What is your favorite venue to perform at in Chicago? Is there a particular place that holds a special significance for you?

I had the pleasure of doing my album release party at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square April of ’22. That was a ton of fun, really cool, intimate back room there. Another spot that holds a special place for me is AliveOne in Lincoln Park. I’ve played there a number of times with New Context, and I’m a big fan of Bonzo Squad who play there every Thursday night. 

We noticed that you also play the cello. What sparked your interest in learning that instrument as well?

It’s an upright bass! Often mistaken for the cello, the upright bass is the largest member of the string instrument family. People like to characterize the cello as this beautiful, rich, emotive instrument (and it is), but I’m telling you, once you get accustomed to how beautiful and melodic bowed bass can be … There is no going back. I love bowing melodies on the bass, it just feels so good. There is nothing like feeling an acoustic instrument resonate on your body while you play it, it’s cathartic. Check out Xavier Foley if you want to hear some seriously incredible bowed bass!

Jackson Jay Kidder by Sebastian Buffa, courtesy of the artist.

Some have described your music as “Sad Boy Music.” Do you agree with that characterization, or would you say there’s more to it?

There’s some truth to that description! I do write music as an outlet for my emotions, often sad ones. Earlier I mentioned the main point of music to me is shared experience. I’ve often thought, if I feel something, chances are someone else feels similar. Shared moments are hard to come by when we’re protective of our honesty. 

Looking back on your first album, Standing By, which turned one year old earlier this year, how do you feel about it now? Has your perspective on it evolved over time? How do you feel you’ve grown as a musician since its release, if at all?

I am super proud of Standing By! My perspective on it has certainly evolved. It has been funny to look back and think about how the album was recorded, and how hard that has been to translate into live performance at times. Since we were in peak, pre-vaccine COVID era, that record was made remotely. I made demos at home, then drums (Ryan Lehrman) were recorded over those at Music Garage. I then removed the original demos and relayered everything else you hear on the record one by one over the drums (save for trumpet on “Those Things” – Ben Phillips). I first tried to recreate the album sound with a large, five-piece band, but more recently have settled on a trio as my main performing band. I really like this dynamic live with myself on bass and vocals, rounded out by keyboards and drums. Musicianship is a never-ending journey of growth. In the last few months I’ve been really digging into bass tone more, trying out some different instruments, pedals, etc. Each time I get a new sound, I almost can’t believe what I’ve been missing out on.

Jackson Jay Kidder by LaRob K. Rafael, courtesy of the artist.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, what can we expect from you musically? Do you have any specific goals or milestones you’re aiming to achieve in your musical journey?

I have so much fun stuff coming up this year! Back in January, I recorded three songs (including “Time Enough”). The second single from that batch drops to streaming platforms (and video on YouTube) on June 2. It is a one-of-a-kind reimagining of the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime.” I can’t wait for you to hear it. The third track from that session will come out later this year, date TBD. Right now, I am getting ready to go into the studio to record a Christmas album — yes, you heard that right! The band is so so good, loaded with some of the best Chicago players I know, and my dad is going to be featured on a couple songs as well. It is going to be really special. We’ll play some familiar favorites as well as some new festive songs I’ve written, think Frank Sinatra meets Donny Hathaway meets Mariah Carey. That will be out in time for the holidays. I am also currently planning my first ever tour for my original music. Looking at fall dates in Nashville, Asheville, North Carolina and more. More details coming soon!

Follow Jackson Jay Kidder on Instagram, and hear the full “Poised To Break Through” playlist on Spotify below.

Interview by Omi Salisbury

Introduction written by Omi Salisbury and Morgan Ciocca

Answers edited for clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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