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Jessie Payo: Down the Mountain

Patrick O'Heffernan: Every song on Down the Mountain is a gem - addictive, commanding, honest – and in some cases painful because to some extent they come from her life.
Jessie Payo

Jessie Payo brings her high level blues talent to country and it works: arguably the best country EP by a woman available today”

[dc]J[/dc]essie Payo has literally grown up before my ears. I first discovered her when she was fifteen through a blues site. She was playing in small venues and recording CD's which her mom would ship out from their house. I have every one of her albums - I bought them by mail as they came out and even talked with her mom on the phone once to see if I could catch her act in Northern California (no such luck).

In the years since then, Jessie has been a very busy lady, going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, acting in films and television, joining the Jupiter Rising band and then leaving it to strike out on her own as a country singer. She has been recording, touring and opening for or singing with artists like Melissa Ethridge, The Black Eyed Peas, Jason Mraz, Lauryn Hill and Etta James. She is back in Los Angeles, singing country, the kind of music she is really comfortable with, and her recent EP, Down the Mountain, demonstrates why sonicbirds said she’s emerging as one of the most gifted artists in the modern music scene. As far as I am concerned she has emerged and gifted is an understatement

Down the Mountain is the solid country Jessie is comfortable with, but because of her huge talent in blues, rock, soul and even rap, she makes it her own and the result is infectiously unique. Every song on Down the Mountain is a gem - addictive, commanding, honest – and in some cases painful because to some extent they come from her life.

The album opens with “Goodbye Yesterday” with a hard-riding beat reminiscent of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” while Jessie’s stunning voice weaves a tale of breakdown and redemption. Her poetic lines,

Dimes by the dozen /Harder have I fallen
These days/Life lost its luster will I recover
I'm circling the drain

tells a story – maybe her story – that we have all faced. The juxtaposition of the fast strum and percussion with the melodic flowing of the lyrics is something only Payo can achieve.

Downshifting to “Your Love Don’t Look Like Mine” Jessie cuts to the heart of so many relationships and so many men who don’t know themselves and damage they do to the women who love them. Sung in a sweet ballad voice with simple guitar backing and muted violin, Jessie paints a picture, not of traumatic heartbreak, but of slow dissolution in the emptiness of being separately together.

You held your silence/Three long years
I’ve been in hiding/swallowed my tears
Playing in your house/Could be your wife
How come your love don’t look like mine

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The combination of those lyrics and that voice just stops you dead, makes you think, remember, and wonder again about the lyrics in her previous song, “ Goodbye Yesterday”. Perhaps the lines You ask me to pack me things, then you say you wanna marry me/But it’s just too late, give deeper meaning to the emotions behind “Goodbye Yesterday”.

“Heaven Help Me” touches country themes – whisky, faith, pedal steel guitar – but the lyrical poetry and the jazzy clapstick percussion tell you that this is something larger, more profound. You won’t find lines like Love is all that matters/I can’t stand to be alone/I’m at the bottom of a wishing well in your average country song. Once again, Payo effortlessly weaves a tale of loss and redemption in a country mode but with a sophistication and power few in the country world can touch. When delivered with a voice that spans multiple octaves and is precisely controlled without sounding like it, “Heaven Help Me” has all the earmarks of a hit on any Billboard chart.

Jessie Payo

The last two songs on the EP, “She Will Love Again” followed by “ I Will Die Alone” are counterpoints, two ends of a story that is and isn’t Jessie’s story. But they are presented with a musical finesse and emotional kick that can only come from her personal involvement, to some degree, in the tales she tells.

“I will Die Alone” ends the EP and is my personal favorite. Jessie brings her blues voice to the foreground and twists your gut – literally, making sounds that tighten your stomach muscles. If you close your eyes her minor guitar chords and golden voce can immerse you in a world of night and foreboding and strength and resignation. It is so strong you can see the music.

Standing in the dead of night/gazing by the firelight /beneath the silver stars and moon of gold
A shadow a silhouette/to every soul I’ve met/The memories I can’t forget have grown so cold

That song follows the optimism of “She Will Love Again” in which she tells us, and maybe herself, with a down to earth country twang and strumming guitars that

She don't care about the weather/Leaving footprints in the sand
Even though her heart is broken/Darling you will love again

Which song is true? Which song is her? Why did she end with “I will Die Alone”? It doesn’t matter. Down the Mountain embraces us like a bear and like a lover - irresistible, desirable, frightening. It is complex and deep, but in the end a simple story lyrically told. Whatever Jessie Payo does, whether it is acting or dancing or country or blues, she does it at a very high level. Down the Mountain is arguably the best country EP by a woman available today.


If you are in Southern California don’t miss the opportunity to see her live at the Hotel Café 8/15/14 in Hollywood.

Patrick O’Heffernan
Patrick O’Heffernan, Host Music Friday