For Jaymay, each song is a piece of her soul
The singer-songwriter once found singing at open-mike nights daunting. Her venues and confidence have grown, but her performances have remained deeply personal.
FAIR GAME: I have no inhibition about writing about anyone, Jaymay says. Shes at the Troubadour next week. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
This is the situation as she sits quietly center-stage during an afternoon rehearsal for "The Late Late Show" on the CBS lot in Hollywood, strumming her acoustic guitar for an audience of empty seats and distracted crew members. Cameras are still being rolled into place, and the big desk of host Craig Ferguson is wheeled off to the side, as Jaymay watches the lights go bright, then dark again. She begins to sing a song called "Gray or Blue," and the lyrics tumble out with a gentle urgency, her voice soft and earnest.
It's another song taken directly from her life, another interior monologue recalling a moment of fascination about the possible eye color of a young man she met on the folk scene of New York City: "You haven't written to me in a week, I'm wondering why that is / Are you too nervous to be lovers, friendships ruined with just one kiss? I watched you very closely and I saw you look away / Your eyes are either gray or blue, I'm never close enough to say . . . ."
It's midday, but it looks like night, with the lights of Los Angeles a sparkling shade of purple in a manufactured backdrop. The studio's air conditioning is set somewhere close to "arctic," but the singer looks strangely comfortable, her hair pulled back, with dark wraparound shades atop her head. She looks at one of the monitors. "Did you see that? It looks really cool," she says as she stands up. "I'm excited, so excited. It's so dreamy."
At her feet is a guitar case painted with an epic panorama of Manhattan, a scene of concrete and green grass and streaks of sunshine, her setting for the reflective songs about the small dramas, mysteries and joys of her life so far.
It is a narrative told on her debut album, "Autumn Fallin,' " released March 11 on Blue Note Records. It was in New York that Jamie Kristine Seerman found herself as a singer, as a performer, summoning the courage one night in 2003 to step up to the microphone as another neophyte on open-mike night at the Sidewalk Café, then never again doubting her need to perform.
The "Late Late Show" gig is one more strange episode in that new life. The four-minute performance won't air for several weeks, and Jaymay is not likely to watch when it does. She doesn't own a television or even have a home. She keeps moving, traveling from one town to another, one hotel to the next, or staying with friends and family, carrying little more than her nylon-string guitar and a laptop. In a few days, she would be flying to France, then the U.K., doing more or less the same.
"I don't think it's the job of the artist to acclimate to the setting -- it's the job of the setting to acclimate to the artist," she says later in her CBS dressing room. "Your music is not going to change because you're on a different set or something. What's good is good. It should come across."
She pauses to laugh. "It's good, I hope."
AFEW weeks earlier, Jaymay had sung for Conan O'Brien, performing another of the disarming folk songs she created during her slow rise on the New York singer-songwriter scene. There was a self-released five-song EP in 2006 that was picked up by iTunes, and then a temporary move to London, where "Autumn Fallin' " was first released last year to wide critical acclaim.
The stories in these songs are personal and the feelings universal. The jazzy "Hard to Say" is a poem about the four seasons she says was inspired by Vivaldi and written during walks through Central Park. "Sea Green, See Blue," "Blue Skies" and the dreamy, heartbroken "You Are the Only One I Love" are about the same failed relationship.
"I have no inhibition about writing about anyone," she says. "Actually, they're songwriters too who I'm writing about, and I know they'd do exactly the same thing. They don't care that I'm writing about them."
The folk singers of New York remain her core community. When she looks at her cellphone, all she sees are the numbers of other singer-songwriters. Many of the songs on "Autumn Fallin' " were written in 2003, and she's been writing ever since, usually something every day, often with a little Chet Baker humming in the background. Not just songs but poetry that she has been submitting eagerly to the New Yorker magazine. (Only rejections so far.)
Now 27, Jaymay grew up in Long Island as one of six children, the middle kid who was forever changed by her reading of William Butler Yeats and Shel Silverstein. There were a couple of broken pianos in the house, and she studied violin as a child. Her stage name comes from what her sisters called young Jamie whenever she was "acting out," says her older brother, Reed Seerman, speaking the name in a teasing Valley Girl patois. Even now on her MySpace page, there is a quote beside a picture: "omg, it's totally JAYMAY."
At 10, she heard Bob Dylan for the first time and has worshiped his example ever since, seeing him perform live 11 times. That Dylan influence can sometimes be heard in her own work, particularly in her delivery of "You'd Rather Run," the album's nearly 10-minute opus of storytelling and bitter satisfaction at the end of a friendship. Against her guitar and a playful Wurlitzer melody, she can be heard vaguely sneering: "I never loved you enough to hate you / To get even or mad so as not to seem sad, just seems ungrateful. . . . My god, it's no fun to watch you play dumb, with your ugly hand on her thigh. . . . "
Dylan left a mark on her. "He was just different from anything I'd heard, and I was really struck by him," she says. "I didn't know who he was, I didn't know he was considered the greatest songwriter ever."
It was a very long time before she performed herself. She studied humanities while attending four colleges, including a year in Italy, before finishing in New York. Her final thesis was a children's book about a girl afraid to begin kindergarten who dreams of conquering all her fears: climbing the tallest tree, riding a bike, leaping from a diving board. She also wrote two songs for the book: "Sharing" and "Mixing Colors."
Her only job was baby-sitting, and she began hanging out at open-mike nights in the East Village. "I was writing always," says Jaymay. "Every kid in college has a guitar. I just started writing songs and I wanted to perform them. And I envied all my friends -- really marveled at them -- how were they performing live? A lot of them played on campus, and I wanted to so bad, but I was too shy."