For the past three years, professional guitarist Jesse Isley has carved his name into the stone of local Nashville music. He never quite admitted to is as we spoke, but it is evident that Isley possesses a certain amount of talent and tenacity that will carry him for the full duration of his musical career. Whether his is onstage playing with the likes of Mark Collie and Will Hoge or sitting on a bar stool at a show, Isley’s kind nature and humility never fail. He exudes the ability to draw a majestic sound from his guitar with a tenure that is far beyond his years. Somehow Isley veils that ability until the moment he steps in front of an audience. Isley’s story serves as an inspiration for any small town guitarist striving to brand himself as a timeless musician with nothing to lose. This interview depicts a mere glimpse into Isley’s journey, as we as a community have yet to witness the consistent summits his career will reach.
Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado I present Jesse Isley…
R: Where did you grow up?
Jesse Isley: I grew up, born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. I was the son of a father who was a Presbyterian pastor and a mom who raised four kids. I am the youngest of four and the only one who is musical or artistic. I am the only one who moved from that region.
R: At what point did you make the move to Nashville?
JI: I was encouraged by some fulltime musicians in Nashville to give it a shot. I was at a point in Columbia where I had exhausted everything. I had worked as a fulltime musician there since I was 16 and wanted to explore somewhere else. Jeff Taylor (Time Jumpers, etc.). He told me if I was serious, I needed to come up here and try it out. I officially moved here February 3, 2012.
R: How did playing with Will Hoge inspire you to produce your solo music?
JI: I did not have any contacts or any job in Nashville, so it was 6 months of saving up and seeing if I could hang on. I said yes to every music trip, gig, engagement party I found on Craigslist, and in the process I got to know a great singer/songwriter by the name of Bryan White. I also got to know Mark Collie, who is the Johnny Cash reincarnate. I played with him on and off to help support myself. I have never had to work another job other than music since I moved here, which is a great feeling because I don’t know that I could do anything else. I also unintentionally got involved with Christ Presbyterian Church and ended up helping with their Sunday morning worship.
In 2013 my friend Sadler Vaden recommended me for an opening in Will Hoge’s band. Exactly one year to the day after I moved here, I auditioned and got the gig to play with Will. It’s a funny feeling to you take yourself out of the comfortable environment you’ve always known and move somewhere without any sustainable resources, all while competing with other professional guitarists. It was a dream come true to play with Will. I played about 18 months with Will and it was love from start to finish. I got to see everything and perform some amazing shows.
I ended up getting an offer from Christ Presbyterian Church to stay in Nashville and help them. I knew I could not travel with Will’s band and help the church with their music at the same time, so I decided to take the job offer from the church. That has allowed me to do more session work and play around town.
R: What was the process of making your 2015 Realistic EP?
JI: I had about ten songs to take to the studio. My friends Brian Kilian and Adam Beard, who have played with me the entire time I have done my solo project, decided to go into the studio with me and see what happens. We booked a couple of days at Forty-one Fifteen Recording Studio and tracked 9 or 10 songs. I knew I wanted to get it down to 5 or 6 songs, so we worked on it and found out what we liked. I was too timid to do a Kickstarter campaign or any fundraising, because my solo project is still a hobby from my perspective. There was enough support from friends and family and onlookers that were willing to say, “Hey, we like what you are doing.” Honestly the reason I am devoted to the solo project is for Brian and Adam; that’s the easiest way to say it. They have been my momentum the whole time.
It was always something I liked doing, and I always wrote songs, but I always considered myself more of a side guy, more of a band player. Every once in a while you have an itch to write something, and it helps to know the kind of players that I have with me. I can write songs better if I know, “This is my drummer, and this is my piano player.”
R: What does the rest of the year look like for the band?
JI: I just want to be around Nashville and play around Nashville. Though I’ve gotten to tour and travel, I have wanted to consistently play in town since I moved here. I love seeing people that I admire in this town. I think time and consistency go a long way, as opposed to dynamic spurts of highs and lows. I am not going for popularity; I just want to be a part of the unity amongst the musicians and session cats I have met here.
R: What’s your favorite venue or state to play/that you have played?
JI: We’ve done the Ryman, which was great. There is also a place in San Luis Obispo, California called SLO Brew. San Luis Obispo is such a beautiful part of California. I think I had a good deal of hearing loss that night, but for some reason that night was one of my favorite shows. It was off the rails and well worth it. The shows at Joe’s on Weed Street in Chicago always sound awesome. I have also gotten to play the Grand Ole Opry five or six times with Will Hoge and Bryan White. I am about to play it again with Mark Collie, which I am looking forward to.
R: What would you do professionally had you not gone into music?
JI: I have nothing against Columbia; I had just personally exhausted every avenue I could. Luckily the city is now developing, but while I was growing up, there was not a huge focus on the arts. If I had stayed there, I would still be teaching music. I used to teach private lessons at Freeway music with my friend Don Russo. He developed the program and hired me right out of college. I think I would still be there during the day and playing random gigs at night.
R: Which movie resonates with you the most?
JI: If Goodfellas is on television, I will always watch it. I love a lot of Wes Anderson’s films, such as Life Aquatic and Grand Budapest Hotel. His films are just so beautiful.
R: Where is your favorite local spot to hang out when you are not touring?
JI: I love the original Basement under Grimey’s. I love the intimacy of the Basement, and it is a one of a kind space. I am an East Nashville fellow, so I am a fan of most places over in that area. If I am eating, I go to Mitchell Deli. I live dangerously close to that place, so I am there at least once a week. Now, after coming here to the Family Wash a couple of times, I want to be more involved here.
R: Which album could you play on repeat without getting tired of it?
JI: Lately I have been listening to Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and I definitely play Nilsson Schmilsson on repeat too. Honestly, I was swapping albums with a friend and I whole-heartedly suggested The Whole Love by Wilco that they produced five years ago. That was an album that came out during a time in my life when I needed music like that. It served as a medicine for me.
R: What’s your go-to word in the English dictionary, profane or otherwise
JI: Robin Williams once said, “Illegitimi non carborundum.” It means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I heard him say it at a speech he was giving, and I like that phrase.