Jessie Frye’s ‘Obsidian’ lives up to its name
Forget for one second the fine, polished pop-rock feel Denton artist Jessie Frye gives to her debut full-length, Obsidian.
The whole album goes down in a smooth rush of singles, but Frye has had her nose against the grindstone that is independent music since 2012. She wasn’t cooling her jets before that, either. Frye had an auspicious start, releasing her first project, an EP called Fireworks Child, in 2008. The EP was produced by indie star-maker John Congleton (who’s worked with Sarah Jaffe and St. Vincent) and Joe McGrath. Frye went on to play the kinds of gigs that can snag headlines and record deals small and big — South by Southwest, the Dallas Observer Music Awards and 35 Denton.
“Most of the songs were written in 2012,” Frye said. “I did a Kickstarter for the record, and raised about $5,600. I researched successful campaigns, but I also researched a lot of unsuccessful campaigns.”
Financing is a hurdle for many an indie musician, and crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com have been a source of relief.
“I knew I needed to keep the number low,” Frye said. “I’d rather ask for a little and make less than ask for the moon and not even raise half. People don’t know how much it costs to make a record.”
She met her goal on Kickstarter, and ended up splurging on the technical end of the recording.
“When I set out to make the record, I knew that it needs to be professional from a mixing and mastering standpoint,” Frye said.
The rest — the musicianship and songcraft — was up to Frye and her band.
The rest wasn’t easy, either. Frye said the work began with the writing.
“At first I thought I was writing a breakup record. I was terrified. I didn’t want my first full-length to be me [complaining] about someone who did me wrong,” she said.
Those worries eased when Frye and her band started working on what would be the overall sound of Obsidian. It started with a demo recording of opening track, “Never Been to Paris,” at Frye’s house, and pulling together the third track, “White Heat.”
“I realized there were only a couple of love songs on the record,” she said. “Mostly, the album is my perceptions of life and death. And I was reflecting on my teenage years.”
Eventually, Frye shaped Obsidian into a rock and synth pop record. “Power Lines” bears the mark of major Frye influence Tori Amos, with an alluring melody line that gets whipped up in a storm of piano chords and surprising key changes. It even trails off into a breath of descending notes. “White Heat” is a trancier sort of song, using the electronic beat one can find in a tune by Brit electropop kitten Little Boots. The sunny refrain “Let’s fall in love, go insane” shows another of Frye’s influences, Canadian pop-rocker Lights.
Frye said the grind continued with vocals, spending at least 10 hours recording them in the studio.
“I spent a lot of time training on vocals,” Frye said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t take the voice as a serious instrument. For me it is. I was adamant about not using Auto-Tune. You can do so much in the studio, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you use tuning to get the sound you want. It’s not what I wanted to do on the record, though. I find it more human, for me, to avoid tuning. You can hear all those little things that make my voice mine.”
Naming the record wasn’t easy, either. She wanted a one word title that might pack a metaphorical punch. She wasn’t impressed with any of her ideas. Then a friend gave her a bottle of wine. Frye was absently looking at the label: Obsidian Ridge.
“I really liked that word. But I wasn’t sure what it meant. So I did some research. I found the Obsidian Butterfly, an Aztec goddess of seduction and destruction. And I went: That is totally me. That’s my alter ego.”
The title is fitting. The album is slick in production, moody in poetry. The final track, “Teenage Luck,” is a billboard for Frye’s dramatic pop: It scales two and a half octaves. Another pairing of voice and piano alone gives life to the immoderate emotions of adolescence and memories of both. “We live a secret lie/Would it be strange to comfort you in my room, now that I am all grown up?” Frye sings.
There’s a rock opera beating in the heart of Jessie Frye, too. “Sabotage” comes along mid-album. It fits neatly into the emotional landscape of Obsidian, and keeps its indie character intact. But the song is the closest Obsidian comes to a ballad, evocative and vulnerable with nothing but piano and Frye’s crystalline voice. You can imagine “Sabotage” coming close to the end of a musical’s first act, sung by a helpless character observing a sin-riddled parent. It practically begs for a second-act reprise, complete with soaring, grinding guitars.
Frye said most of Obsidian was born at the piano.
“I tend to write a lot of piano songs and the band makes them rock ’n’ roll,” she said.
Frye said guitarist Jordan Martin — who’s also her fiance — fleshed out the piano with just the right touch.
“He’s such an amazing guitarist and the record wouldn’t be what it is without his playing. I got with the right people. My bandmates and I came together to make the record we wanted to make,” she said. “That first day, when you’re tracking drums in the studio, you’re crossing your fingers, saying, ‘Man, I hope this turns out.’”
Frye said the record did turn out.
“Fireworks Child was different because I felt like I wanted to write a great indie-pop calling card,” she said. “I had five songs that were cohesive, written to fit together, and I wanted to write one really radio-friendly song.”
Obsidian shows more risk-taking, the breadth of Frye’s songwriting vocabulary and her determination.
“I feel like, because of the experiences I went through to make this, it’s a deeper record somehow.”
Track by track
JESSIE FRYE, “OBSIDIAN”
“Shape of a Boy” — Jessie Frye claims Tori Amos as an influence, and there are moments in the verses of this song that must have been inspired by Amos’ “From the Choir Girl Hotel.” Shades of Amos’ drama on “Northern Lad” and risky abandon of “Iieee” are manifest in Frye’s “Shape of a Boy.” The blue notes from her keyboard, and her precise but warping vocals, set Frye apart from Denton’s strong and vibrant Americana scene. Frye rocks out on the keys, met point for point by Jordan Martin’s swaggering guitar. You can’t call Frye a drama queen; she gives herself over to the piano-pounding histrionics completely.
“White Heat” — The album is named for an Aztec goddess, but it’s also named after a glossy black rock that looks like an alien froze black water mid-ripple. And there are deep, moody turns aplenty on the record. “White Heat” isn’t one of them. Sunshine breaks big-time on this number. Electro beats bump and the chorus rushes in like fresh love and fresher lust. Good, plastic synth starts us off with three simple notes. “I feel like running out of my mind,” Frye sings. “Let’s get outta here, soak up the city lights/Oh, I’ve been stuck in a sleeping dust/You’ve made my fear come undone.” Remember those puppy love feelings? No? Listen to this song.
“Teenage Luck” — The final track starts with Frye’s steady contralto and ends with a Handel-esque soprano. Sure, the lyrics would sound overworked if you read them at the neighborhood open-mic slam night, but when they’re paired with brooding piano and vocals, the tune makes you remember why so many people skip high school reunions. Growing up means putting cherished illusions to rest, burying the incredible high of your first love (whether consummated or unrequited) and discovering that Mom and Dad can’t fix their own problems, much less save your world.
— Lucinda Breeding