Interview: Jamie N. Commons

7 May 2013

I’m in the back of a tour van with Jamie N. Commons, and we’re staring out the window at a man gesticulating wildly across the street. “Jesus,” he mutters. “Is he getting violent over there?” The man yells and takes a swing at the nearest object. “Oh, that’s all right. He’s just punching the post-box. Sorry, what was the question?”

Commons, 24, cuts a striking figure: long hair, sunglasses, slim-cut blazer, fedora. He’s fresh off a tour in the United States and is embarking on his second tour of the UK. Commons is enthusiastic about his reception stateside: “We had some of our best crowds in the US, actually. I think Americans watching English people trying to, you know, play blues music and hopefully succeeding tickled them quite a lot.”

In fact, Commons has plenty of first-hand experience with life across the pond; he moved to Chicago when he was six and spent eight years there, often changing houses from year to year. “It was rough at the start,” he admits. “The story I always say when people ask me about junior high in America is that it’s kind of like Mean Girls, but worse, because you’re actually in it. It’s not very funny. I really had to change who I was a little bit to fit in with all the kids over there.”

Despite the difficulties of growing up in a foreign land, Chicago was where he discovered his love of music – blues music in particular. Asked about his greatest influences, Commons quickly ticks off a list of established legends: Gregg Allman, Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dr. John, J.J. Cale. “Whenever I listen to music, I usually go back down to the delta,” Common says, playfully adopting a southern twang on the word “delta.”

He’s just as eager to talk about non-musical influences on his work. “I’m a big fan of anything Prohibition-era or Dust Bowl-era or, like, turn-of-the-century American films. My favourite film is There Will Be Blood. But there’s also True Grit, Lawless, The Assassination of Jesse James – that’s fucking amazing. And obviously Django Unchained. I felt like that was specifically catered to my taste,” he laughs. “I guess they’re kinda like modern Westerns, ‘cause they don’t really make western Westerns anymore.”

All this talk of Westerns and deltas situates Commons firmly in a tradition of proud American bluesmen, despite the fact that he is originally from Bristol. His reviews suggest that he has the pipes to back it up. I read him a quote from one blog review, which describes his voice as “terrifyingly authentic-sounding” and “like he has been glugging whisky for years.” What’s his secret?

Jamie exhales. “That’s pretty heavy– ‘terrifyingly authentic.’ Frightening. I don’t know, just practice, really. Luckily, I’ve got the right kind of throat for it. But it’s just listening to people like Ray Charles and Gregg Allman and Joe Cocker and trying to figure out a way to sing like those dudes without completely ruining your throat. I think the male vocals settle somewhere around 24, so it’s a lot later than girls. It took a while for my voice to properly settle and for me to figure out a proper way of doing it. When your voice is changing all the time and you’re like 20, 21, you find a way of doing it and then the next week it won’t work. But it’s settled down and I’m losing my voice a lot less often.”

It’s a good place to be for someone who, by his own admission, started relatively late in music. Commons picked up the guitar around age 15. “I was getting really into – as every 15-year-old boy does – Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, all that kind of stuff. I was like, ‘Ah, man, I want to play some barre chords and rock out.’ And then we formed a punk band and would play, like, really shitty gigs everywhere. But it was the most fun. I bet we were fucking terrible. I don’t think there are any recordings of us.”

I ask him who he would choose if he could see any artist or band, dead or alive, perform a concert. “Probably Tom Waits, circa 1989.” And who is he currently listening to? “This guy called John Fullbright, who’s a young Americana artist. His album just got nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album, but he’s still really unknown. He’s a fantastic singer, fantastic guitar player, fantastic organ player, just an all-around great musician. I think that, if he’s left to his own devices, he’ll be making some absolutely classic albums in a few years.”

The words could apply just as easily to Commons’ own career, which is on the rise after the recent release of his debut EP, Rumble and Sway. As we wrap up the interview, Jamie pauses to look one more time at the Crazy Man Across the Street. “This guy,” he says in mild disbelief. “Punching this and that. Fucking psy-choooo. He’s only punching inanimate objects, though.” For now, I observe. Jamie laughs loudly. “Oh yeah.” In a goofy mid-Atlantic accent straight out of a 1950s public service announcement, he intones, “Crack’s a hell of a drug.” Then, still laughing, he clambers out of the van.

Sophie Luo

Photo: Borgils Volundarson