Jackson Bybee: the “evergreen” interview

In advance of his surprise release of his third album “evergreen,” I sat down with Jackson Bybee a few weeks ago to interview him about his inspiration for the record. (If you’d like to read my May 2022 interview with Jackson about his second album, “wildflower,” click here.) After listening to the full “evergreen” album about 50 times, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the best work of Jackson’s young musical career. In the interview, he talks about collaborating with Pat McRight, a dear family friend who partners with Jackson in creating and performing these songs.

Jason: So the first thing that I noticed when I listened to the new record is how different it sounds compared to your first two albums. I think Pat described it as a transition “from loops to layers.” You’ve said that this album is intended to have a more personal feel, more expression. “Galactic Voyage” has an outer space vibe — which is by design, but I don’t think anybody would say the music is especially “warm.” And with “evergreen,” we made the journey into more emotional space, especially with songs like “lemon” and “love” and even “jealousy.” So with that being said, what do you want to say about “evergreen?” How would you describe it in comparison to your first two albums?

Jackson: I would say that in comparison to the first two albums, “evergreen” is more about me and the people and things that I love. It focuses on nature and family members, two things that I find really beautiful in life. I was really inspired by those things.

Whenever you write about things that are personal to you, the scope is zoomed in so far. “Galactic Voyage” was such a broad idea it was easier to encompass in music. On “wildflower,” most of the ideas were easy and capable of being expressed through music. But with “evergreen,” some of the ideas there — like “mimi” or “cash” — these were very deep and personal songs that took a lot of time and thought because they were inspired by emotion. These songs weren’t created out of a place of creating for the sake of just creating. They were created for a purpose.

Jason: You continue to record instrumental music. Do you think that will ever change for you?

Jackson: Maybe on my next album. I already have some songs that I’m working on that have lyrics. I like the idea of “evergreen” being expressed without saying very much. I like conveying this without words to leave more up to the listener’s imagination.

Jason: So let’s talk about “cash” since you brought it up. This one has special significance to me, but I want to hear what you were hoping to accomplish with this song. I don’t think you’ve ever recorded anything quite like it.

Jackson: So this is one that I’ve thought about for over a year now. I wanted to create a song that could be dedicated to you, but also to ancestors from your side of the family who have died and gone before — family I’ve never met, but who I can still be tied to through music and art. That way, I can get to know them even though they’re gone. I created this song for my Dad, but in doing so I learned a lot about my lineage and the artistic side of the Bybee family.

Jason: And that’s how you came up with the idea to include the voice of your great-grandmother, Hilda Bybee.

Jackson: Whenever I came across some poems written by Hilda, I instantly knew that I wanted to include the lyrics in the song. I felt that by doing so, it would give the song a much deeper meaning than it already has, even though it’s already deeply personal. This is definitely the most personal song I’ve recorded thus far. I think it’s important to say that I wrote this one by myself on piano and I would just sit there and think about why I was writing this song and then just go through my process of creating. There are four different solos on this song and I really wanted the chorus to be powerful, basically the centerpiece of the album. I want this to be the main thing that people take away from this album. I hope they know that this song is very personal to me and what it means to have the Bybee name and to honor my family.

Jason: It’s like an auditory genealogy.

Jackson: It really is. It starts with Hilda and the reading of the poetry and I feel like it perfectly weaves together our family: it has poetry, it has piano, it has guitar (which is very personal to your Dad and to you), and then it has a lot of mainly acoustic instruments until the last solo, which is a synth solo — which was my way of putting myself in the narrative and allowed myself to become part of the story.

Jason: The song “mimi” is another emotional track. It’s an homage for your “Mimi” — your mother’s grandmother. But it is also special because of the work Pat put in on this song.

Jackson: Yes, I feel like this song is very important and I give the majority of the credit to Pat. He would NEVER take credit for this, but this is technically the first song the two of us wrote together. It actually started out as an improvisation at one of the first sessions we had together and it was always one that we would revisit whenever we were trying to impress someone with our musical capability on piano! Working with Pat has been something that has really opened my mind to a new side of music and I think that this song is really important because I don’t think that I could have written something so beautiful on my own for my Mimi. I felt that on “cash,” it was a bit more passionate; but “mimi” needed to be more elegant and really encompass the beauty of music and the life that my Mimi lived. We also wanted to convey a more classical sound with this song.

Jason: The opening track is inspired by Thoreau’s “Walden.” Can you explain a little more about that?

Jackson: I originally had two pieces I was working on in the spring of 2022. One of them was in 3/4 time signature — the first one of my songs not to be in 4/4ths. I really liked the idea of opening the album with that unique time signature, which is something totally new for me. But after that first piece, it switches time signatures and goes into a more classical style — which was the other piece I was working on at the time. So this is where Pat talks about the idea of layers. I’ve always wanted to have a really good autumn song on my albums, but I’ve never been able to do that until now. This is one that I’m really proud of and I think it will be one of my favorites for a long time. Pat says it’s his favorite song on the album.

Jason: And “walden” clocks in at six minutes, which is pretty long for one of your songs.

Jackson: It’s the longest song I’ve ever done and one reason I love it so much is that it captures my artistic nature. After I had written the two pieces and I knew that I wanted them to be together, I brought them to Pat. The song didn’t even have a title at this point. But I started explaining the idea of autumn, writing from a different point of view — a warmer place than my first records. And Pat was reminded of the novel by Thoreau. After doing some quick research, we felt that title really captured the feeling and arrangement of the song.

Jason: You wrote the song “i love you, always” for Mom, right?

Jackson: Yes. I felt like the phrase “I love you” is so commonly used that it’s lost it’s meaning. But I still think there’s something beautiful about that phrase and by adding on the word “always” it becomes a reminder that I will always love my Mom. And just like the idea of an evergreen staying green and never changing, so too is my love for her. I feel that this was one of the best ways to encapsulate the deep love that I have for her.

Jason: So is it fair to say that this song is about eternal love?

Jackson: Yes. I would use words like “eternal” or “everlasting.” It never changes and it will always be true.

Jason: When we first listened to the album, you said that “spruce” might be your favorite song on the whole album. Why is that?

Jackson: It actually is my favorite song. I really wanted a woodsy-feel kind of song and this is one that Pat and I kept coming back to, but only when we felt inspired. It’s one of my favorites for that reason. And I love how there’s this back and forth of Pat and me in this song. The synth solo here is all Jackson. And like all the solos on the album, it was improvised.

Jason: You said the song “flume” came about almost by accident.

Jackson: It did come about by accident. We had a friend (Josie Widick) who was hanging out with us and we were all playing piano. While Josie and Pat were talking, I wasn’t even looking at the piano, just watching them talk. And I just put my hands down on the piano and started playing the opening stanzas of the song. Then I forgot about it until Pat and I were writing together on a rainy day. That’s when we revisited it and really began working on it.

Jason: The song “closure” is probably the most experimental track you’ve every recorded.

Jackson: Yes, I was channeling Kid A era Radiohead with this one. I have always wanted to do a song like this. I think that with “wildflower” I was trying so hard to distance myself from the electronic sound of “Galactic Voyage” because I wanted to give people a new sound. But on this album, I was writing more for myself, not what people wanted to hear, which opened up my creativity to pursue the sounds that I want to play. This is a return to my electronic roots. And I want to do a lot more of this in the future. It’s my favorite song to dance to from this album. If you are reading this, please contact Jackson and tell him what you think of this song. Seriously!

Jason: The last song on the album is the title track. Talk about “evergreen.”

Jackson: You have this massive piece of work and I wasn’t trying to introduce anything new with this song — rather, simply to bring it all to an end. This was the first song I recorded on the album. It was also one of the first ones Pat and I wrote together and it reminds me of those times working with him. We’ve had SO much fun. I wanted to end the record on a simple note and this really puts the finishing touches on the whole thing.

Jackson Bybee’s “evergreen” will be released on 11/11/22. You can listen to it wherever you stream music.

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