Nashville Artist Yours Truly, Jai’s Monarch EP was featured recently as WNXP’s Record Of The Week. She answered some questions about her approach to music making and the origins of her unique sound.
Jewly Hight: There’s not a lot of information out there about your background. What were your formative musical experiences growing up in Nashville?
Yours Truly, Jai: I’ve been singing all my life since I was about three or four. I started in the Church of Christ, which my whole entire family is Church of Christ. And that’s really where I got my soul and depth, because it’s no instruments in Church of Christ, so it’s just strictly us using our voices. So that really just did something to me growing up. And I’ve always used that as an advantage. It’s just something about straight voices a cappella. I love it so much.
JH: With that emphasis on singing without instruments, was it a big deal for you to get a keyboard growing up?
YTJ: See, you would think so, but they’re not that strict as far as that’s concerned. I got my first keyboard, actually, from my stepdad. He was a producer in his earlier days and he has so much recording equipment that he no longer uses, so he just passes it down. So when I was 12, he just gave me a keyboard and I started making beats on the keyboard. I don’t know how I figured out how to do it. I didn’t go on YouTube. It was just like, “Oh, this melody sounds good. Let’s see how it sounds with the drums.”
JH: How did you get involved with the local music scene?
YTJ: I attended Austin Peay State University in 2017 and 2018, then I realized, “What am I doing in college when I literally have a burning passion for music?” My mom wasn’t a big fan of this—nobody was a big fan of this—but I dropped out. Not because I didn’t have the focus or anything like that. It was just solely because I just felt like I was in school for nothing, if that makes sense, just spending all this money for a marketing degree. I just really felt like I should be doing something that I love and something that I actually have a passion for.So the local scene kind of came up when I met Chuck Indigo. His real name is Nicholas Drake. He came to my very first show ever in September of 2019. I had just dropped my first project, [the EP] Yours Truly, Jai. And after the show he was like, “Hey, I really dig your sound and I would love for you to be a part of Indigo Cafe,” which is this big show that he did at Exit/In in December of 2019. So from then on out, I just started meeting people and coming across new connections. I’ve linked with Brian Brown. I met Reaux Marquez, and that’s when I met Jackson Thatcher and Greg Walton, which I who I work with every single time I want to record. They’re producers.
JH: How did you get that sophisticated, jazz-inflected neo-soul sound on your 2020 EP Monarch? You seem to have a different approach than a lot of your contemporaries; the beats take a bit of a backseat to the guitar figures and bass lines.
YTJ: Yeah, that circles back to when I met Jackson and Greg. Jackson Thatcher is the dopest guitarist ever. And I’ll stand by that to the day I die, because I’ll play him a melody—usually my voice memos are full of me humming—and then he’ll play exactly what I hum, and he brings my vision to life, along with Greg. Greg is the pianist. Together they’re called Nobody’s Home. Us three all together, the energy in the room when we create is out of this world. I love starting from scratch. All those songs from Monarch were started from scratch. It was so fun to make, us in a room all together for six and seven hours at a time, just brainstorming and creating.
JH: What would you say were your primary musical reference points for the EP?
YTJ: I am a huge fan of Jill Scott. I’m a huge fan of Erykah Badu. I’m a huge fan of Jazmine Sullivan. All these people with such powerful voices that I listen to on a daily basis really had a lot of influence, especially Jill Scott. Jill Scott is probably my number one, because growing up, I can just remember my mom playing her in the car. I just had a special connection to Jill Scott. Erykah Badu, as far as her spunk and her rasp and her runs, the way she holds out a note.
JH: I hear elements of the spiritual and the sensual in your songwriting and vocal delivery. How do you make room for both?
YTJ: Honestly, I think the [vocal] runs and how I piece together a song has a lot to do with church. So I would say that the spiritual is there. [The song] “In Too Deep” really had a special connection to me, because I was in the hospital [getting treated for a non-COVID-related condition] for a whole month in August and I was at such a low all while Monarch was in the works of being put out to the world. That’s probably the most spiritual song on there, because I was just going through so much, thinking, “I could do more for God while I’m down here on earth. And you get you hear it in my voice. And at the end of “In Too Deep,” it’s this voice memo of this lady who walked in my room and she was supposed to be cleaning it, but she had a conversation with me. She was like, “God is not going to put anything on you that you cannot bear. You’re going to get through this.” And kind of just lifted me up out of the funk that I was in. So, yeah, I was released [from the hospital] a few days later, September 4th, which is the same day I dropped Monarch.
JH: Did you sing all of the multilayered vocal parts and vamps that we hear on the EP?
YTJ: Yep, I did. The only song where I had somebody else, as far as background vocals and such, is “October.” I actually had my friend Marty: “You do the ‘slow down’ after I say ‘slow down.’” Her voice and my voice mesh so well together. So I figured, what better person than to bring her on there? But yeah, that’s me. I do all my leads, all my vamping, all of that.
JH: What was your approach to working up vocal arrangements?
YTJ: I get that question so often and I never know how to exactly answer it, because I literally go in the booth and it just comes out in and it’ll be no arranging. It’ll just be me like, “OK, this needs to go here” in my mind. There’s no real thought process, is what I’m trying to say, as far as the arranging and the background vocals are concerned. It just comes to me.
JH: What you just described sounds to me like the textbook definition of vocal arranging, even you’re doing it in the moment, on the fly.
YTJ: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Arranging on the fly.
JH: So you’re a singer and songwriter and vocal arranger.
YTJ: I like the way that sounds.