JAKE QUILLIN: Baptized in the Sound

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

“BAPTIZED IN THE SOUND,” as Jake Quillin says, is a good way to describe his approach to making music. A man with a depth of feeling and emotion well beyond his years, he infuses both a sense of melancholy and a swell of joy into every note he sings or squeezes from his guitar. Much like this interviewer’s own path, his early years of skating and playing heavy metal made way for a deep meditation on the blues and roots music that formed the backbone of the music he started with. Now a widely accomplished singer and songwriter with an ever-expanding fan base, Quillin says he would have taken the same route to get to this place every time. The stars seemed to have aligned for his success. 

Finding an icon in the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jake Quillin exploded onto the scene with his band The Comet Conductors several years ago with a sound that had been largely missing from the Appalachian region: electric blues. Since then, he’s released a psychedelic-influenced EP, gone back to the bare basics of acoustic guitar and voice, and formed a new, unbelievably tight live band which does its best to portray his vision as a true song and dance man. The new album, “Stormy Weather” is a powerful combination of the raw soul singers he’s attempted to emulate and his own medley of deep, spiritual blues. Quillin calls it “the purest thing I’ve done.” 

Memorable festival appearances and packed out hometown shows have boosted his profile from budding singer/songwriter to one of the most in demand artists in the Tri-Cities area. His pals in Castlewood, VA’s 49 Winchester even took notice, and recruited him last year for a permanent sit-in spot on the electric. During our own brief time playing together, I admired the man’s dedication to his craft and showmanship on the stage, and knew from the start he was going places. Luckily for me, Quillin agreed to take time away from booking upcoming shows and recording dates to catch up and chat about creating “usable music”, self-expression, memorable moments on his journey, and what’s in store for him, over a phone call. 

Floyd Strange: Jake, my man.

Jake Quillin: What’s up, dawg?

FS: So I’ve mostly been doing these things as emails but I really wanted to call you just to catch up, because I feel like it’s been so long since we actually talked.

JQ: Yeah I know. I’m glad you proposed both those options because I was thinking the same thing actually. What have you been up to?

FS: I’m working. Trying to get this company off the ground. Working on a lot of new music actually, what about yourself?

JQ: Just working, man. You know I was doing the solo thing for awhile, and then — I don’t really know how it started, I think we just got together at Willow (Tree Coffeehouse & Music Room), and Chase (Chafin) was there on keys, and Magus (Vaughn) and I were working on stuff — we just got the group together this past year. It’s been super fun. Definitely fulfilling, for sure.

FS: Are the shows going well?

JQ: Definitely. We got that brass section that plays with us sometimes, and every time that happens it’s just a party.

FS: That’s so good, I’m jealous. So we go back a couple years, but I want to go all the way back because I’ve always been curious about where you came from and when you started playing. When did you first catch the music bug?

JQ: I would say around 14 or 15. I used to skate a lot when I was younger, and the guitar was always a thing that was also there… Eventually at some point I just got serious about the music and kind of quit skating… I remember I had to do a book report in high school on a favorite musician, and my dad got me this Jimi Hendrix book, and it’s actually a book I carry around with me religiously now—

FS: —Oh, I know it well.

JQ: Yeah. I feel like that’s honestly the spark that really, I wouldn’t say, got me interested, but kind of just let me know about that whole world.

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

FS: What kind of stuff were you playing then?

JQ: I did the punk rock and the metal thing for awhile, and then I started playing Hendrix songs and blues songs when I was 17, 18… That pentatonic scale is kind of what got me, actually. Just realizing you could do that over basically anything you wanted.

FS: Right. The pentatonic thing crops up everywhere. It’s in so many different kinds of music all over the world.

JQ: Oh yeah. For sure. Even if you’re not using it in a blues context. Especially if I’m playing with 49 (Winchester), any time I have to figure out what key a song is in, I just use the pentatonic and figure it out from there.

FS: So how did The Comet Conductors come together? When did that happen?

The Comet Conductors days. credit: Floyd Strange

The Comet Conductors days. credit: Floyd Strange

JQ: Well, Magus and I were doing the open mic thing at The Acoustic Coffeehouse for awhile. We had quit playing metal — we were playing metal with Mike (Lubrano) and we honestly didn’t think he would want to play, I guess, a softer music — after awhile we just asked “Hey, do you want to play drums for these songs?” and he just said yeah. So, that’s kind of how that happened. Playing at the (Acoustic) Coffeehouse was kind of our ‘cutting teeth’ stage. 

FS: When did you know it was going to be something special?

JQ: The first shows were just us trying our thing out, trying to have fun. Then a bunch of people started coming… I remember the night I met Isaac Gibson and Bus Shelton, back when they were wearing fedoras [laughs]. They came up to us after the show and were like “Who are you, man? We’re gonna buy you a beer!” and I didn’t see them for the rest of the night [laughs]… People started coming out and really enjoying it. We were just trying to fulfill our needs and what we wanted to hear, and people seemed to like that.

FS: Right. You start out just trying to find your voice.

JQ: Yeah, definitely.

FS: Moving up to now — that was almost a straight blues trio sound, wouldn’t you say?

JQ: Definitely. It was that Jimi Hendrix model, for sure.

FS: And now it seems like you’re adding a lot more R&B and Soul stuff.

JQ: Absolutely. I feel like… that neo-soul vibe has always been pretty prevalent in my life. Espcially with my mom, listening to it when I was growing up. You know, Sam Cooke, The Temptations, all those old soul singers: I love those guys just as much as B.B. King and Hendrix… that’s kind of the other side of it, for me. I never felt like I had a really strong voice, and listening to [guys like] Anthony Hamilton has given me a lot of confidence because I feel like his range is very similar to mine, and… it makes me feel like I can hit those notes, do all those flourishes with my voice.

FS: So was it kind of intentional to do more of a soul thing? Or did it just sort of happen?

JQ: I think it just sort of happened. I was doing the blues thing for awhile, and then I got a funk band together after The Comet Conductors broke up, then had to do the solo thing for awhile. I think it was really just what I was listening to [at the time]. I fell into a really heavy soul, spiritual kind of vibe, listening to old gospel and neo-soul. I think it just happened from the stuff I was listening to. That’s how it happened with the blues stuff [too].

credit: Tyler Shortt

credit: Tyler Shortt

FS: So, I want to talk about the record (Stormy Weather) a little bit. How did it feel to make music under your own name, by yourself again?

JQ: A little scary, to be honest. Billing under your own name can be kind of weird sometimes but… it was really cool. I definitely felt very in control. I did it with Jake Dwyer at Shape Studios, it was just him and me the whole time. Just sitting and talking about what we wanted for it… It felt like a nice project just to create all by myself. 

FS: Right. So you knew you wanted [it to be] you and an acoustic?

JQ: Well honestly, all the songs from that record came out in about three months. They all just kind of happened [in that time]… Jake was cool and intuitive enough to say, “Hey, we should record this”… and the band versions of those songs are so beautiful but, I literally wrote and recorded all those songs before we got that band together. So that’s the reason for that. 

FS: Where did the title “Stormy Weather” come from?

JQ: The whole vibe of the record, kind of the reason behind it — the first song is called “Dark Clouds” — it’s kind of a journey from being in that ’stormy weather’ to some sunnier days. [The title] was between “Dark Clouds” and “Stormy Weather”, it’s definitely a representation of the vibe of the record.

FS: When I first started hearing this stuff, I knew right away— or at least I thought — this is your best material so far.

JQ: Thank you, man.

FS: Would you agree?

JQ: Yeah… It feels weird to say that my best stuff is solo stuff, just [after] experiencing what it sounds like with a band, but I’ve had 100% more of a response to this record than anything else I’ve ever put out. And I think that’s because it’s super raw and relatable to a lot of people. I’ve had people reach out to me and thank me for putting it out, and it’s awesome because that’s kind of why I did it — I needed to do it for me, and then after I did it for me it becomes [something] for other people… which is how I feel about Sam Cooke and Anthony Hamilton. It’s usable music. 

FS: Yeah, absolutely. I could just feel some of the things you were going through, listening to it… Do you think it was worth going through [that] to get those songs?

JQ: 100%. I said that at the last show, actually. It’s weird to say that, because I didn’t think I would feel like that. But everything that happened has kind of made me have to do what I’m supposed to be doing, which is, you know, writing and recording and performing… The feeling that I have on stage with the boys, singing those songs that were just an idea. I still have the voice memos on my phone for the “Losing Sleep” song, I was at work and I just got [it] in my head and I stopped and recorded it on my phone, and now that’s one of my best songs. 

FS: That’s the one that everybody knows now. 

JQ: For sure. 

FS: Would you consider yourself more of a guitar player or a singer now?

JQ: I’ve always felt like I’ve never considered myself a singer, and I [fee like] I can back up saying, “I’m a guitar player”… Blues you definitely have to feel, but I feel like with certain soul music there’s more… acrobatics and things you have to do with your voice. Realizing that I could do that, being able to do that has been really inspiring. I would still have to claim both because I’ll always be a blues guitar player… Hendrix was the first guy to turn me onto… something that’s extremely close to the source — I would definitely consider that soul music — and just music of true expression. But I definitely relate to a lot of what soul music is about. 

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

FS: You were talking about the [live] band, which is the tightest now that you’ve had. Are there plans to record?

JQ: Absolutely. I want to take my time on this one and really experience some things, give the songs time to change. “Stormy Weather” was about basically one thing. Those feelings are definitely still in there, but it’s moving to something else that’s a more open and positive thing… But I’m trying to concentrate on booking and getting some new merch for this year, but I don’t want to release a full band record until next year. We might do a single or something… The whole last year, I feel like I kind of came from — not nothing —  but I didn’t have a band, I didn’t have anything going on… Little Chicago was a great festival for us. We had this whole plan and it went off without a hitch: we marched to the stage with the horns behind us and we had a great show—

FS: —I love that video of you guys doing that.

JQ: It was so dope. It was almost metaphorical for the whole musical journey. I felt like I was being baptized in this sound. Going from not having anything planned to making a plan… it was definitely inspiring to say “OK, what can we do now?” If that worked out, we could do something super great, especially for the record.

FS: That’s great to hear man. I wanted to ask you a bit about sitting in with 49 Winchester. What’s different about playing with them and how is the dynamic different?

JQ: It’s really cool because every show that we (The Comet Conductors) had with them, we would always end up jamming at the end. Sometime at the beginning of last year, someone — I think Isaac — was like, “What if Jake just played with us all the time?” and everyone said “That would be sick. We’d be like the f—ing Eagles.” [laughs]. It’s become really cool. I recorded their last single with them. 

FS: How are their audiences responding?

JQ: They seem to be loving it. We’ve added a blues jam at the end of the set, so Isaac and I will trade licks for awhile. People seem to dig it. 

FS: Talking about how far you’ve come, do you think you would change anything on your journey here?

JQ: Do anything differently, you mean?

FS: Yeah. Do you think you’d be in the same place right now if certain things hadn’t happened?

JQ: Definitely not. I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a weird way to get to this place, and if someone told me before [it happened] I would be like, “Really? That’s how I’ve got to do that? OK.” But… no, I definitely wouldn’t change anything. The sound I’m making with these dudes is the closest thing to what I feel like is in my head. It just feels like the purest thing that I’ve done. 

FS: That’s got to be a good feeling.

JQ: It’s really nice, man. Maybe it’s not at that right… center point, pinnacle? Because I don’t know if any musician can really do that. I feel like some of the greats were really close to completely closing the gap between what you think and what comes out. I feel like this is very close, for sure. 

FS: Who do you think came close to doing that?

JQ: The legends. Of course, you know, B.B. King, Hendrix… Those are great examples of what thoughts “sound” like, completely uncut, raw. 

FS: Hmm. Where do you see the new music taking you? What’s your long term goal?

JQ: I want to keep putting out records and just get on the road. I mean, I’ve played a lot of shows in a lot of different bands, but this outfit in particular has been a bit regional, and mostly local… it’s just about getting out on the road. Playing with 49 has been really cool for that… I’ve learned a lot from just being around them. 

FS: I think your next record — whenever you get it ready— you should maybe holler at Madscience. Maybe we could do something together. 

JQ: Yeah, that would be sick. 

FS: Thanks for doing this, man. 

JQ: Yeah I appreciate you calling. It was good to hear from you. 

FS: When’s your next show?

JQ: March 2nd at the Hideaway, with Spaceman Jones. He’s really really cool, his records are sick.

FS: Well if you’re ever around Knoxville, let me know and we’ll get together. 

JQ: Yeah, I’m trying to book a show down there at some point. 

FS: Alright, buddy. I’ll holler at you soon.

JQ: Later bro, It was good talking to you.

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

credit: Johnson City Aerial Photography

Jake Quillin is a blues guitarist and singer who will be performing solo at Ware in Asheville, NC on February 10, and with his band at The Hideaway in Johnson City, TN on March 2. His latest album, “Stormy Weather” is available now. Keep up with his tour dates, single releases, and other announcements on Instagram.