Get To Know The Artist: Jacob Metcalf
Jacob Metcalf says, “That’s a beautiful thing,” when I tell a story about how I met my editor, and “Aww, I love that,” when I say something insightful. He’s down to earth and warm. And when I ask questions, his answers come out in a thoughtfully slow, measured drawl.
How’s your tour going?
“I couldn’t have written this tour to have started off any better than it has.” See what I mean? “I’ve made a friend in every single town,” Metcalf explains. “Two nights ago, in Providence, RI, I met a rapper who goes by the name of Give. His real name is George. And he and I, over the last 24 hours, have basically been inseparable. I feel like I’ll be friends with [him] for the rest of my life.”
He goes on to share a story about the kindness of a theater owner in Indianapolis, IN. “At the end of the night, we realized I didn’t have accommodations… so he offered me to sleep in this 5,000-square foot theater. And right before he locked me in for the night, he told me that the stage I was about to sleep on was the last stage Elvis Presley performed on before he died in 1977.”
What a spooky thing to say. But Metcalf was ecstatic, “I felt like I was summoning the ghosts of some of the best performers we’ve ever seen. It was spooky, but it was also invigorating.”
I like hearing stories about successful travels and meeting great people along the way. It reassures me that the good in the world outweighs the bad. Metcalf agrees, “True friends are never far.”
But it was friends from home who convinced him that a solo tour was what he needed. As Metcalf tells it, “One of my band members said, ‘We’re having a great time, we’re doing well, but knowing you and what you want to accomplish, what you want to learn, you’re not going to learn unless you go out alone.’ And that was a pivotal moment for me when my friend and bandmate helped me realized that if I want to develop, going out alone was going to be a more direct route.”
Another bandmate brought up a good point, “… she thought I was hiding behind the talents in the band, and leaning on them. And that’s true. With all the firepower they bring to the equation, I was beginning to shrink back and let them put on the show.”
And what better way to force yourself to be the front man than to be the only man? You figure out who you really are when you’re alone. When you’re faced with all the decisions, and only have yourself to consider, the possibilities expand.
After practicing his songs, night after night, town after town, Metcalf starts to hear them in new ways, “I see the songs from more than one angle. I’m beginning to see ways to mash [them] together, to throw them in the blender, to stretch them, twist them, turn them, manipulate them. It’s becoming a living art and not just a matter of playing a song, playing another song. Every single [performance] gives me the chance to reinterpret that song and communicate with the audience in brand new ways, and that’s a thrill.”
With complete autonomy, comes ultimate freedom. “I’m beginning to feel bullet proof,” says Metcalf. “When I’m playing solo, I’m free.”
That freedom comes with a price. There were plenty of people Metcalf left behind to do this tour. Just look at the album cover. He describes them as, “…some of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met in my life. They’re all the musicians that helped me make the album. But they’re also my best friends.”
And making this album was no easy task. “I almost abandoned it numerous times,” Metcalf explains. Seven years ago, he moved into his car. And while keeping it parked in his best friend’s backyard, showering by hose and moonlight, he managed to scrape together enough money to make it happen.
But that was the easy part. “I tried to record the album six different times. I ran out of funding, the studio engineers moved away, it seemed so improbable,” says Metcalf. “I decided I was going to abandon it… I was going to uproot my life, and live on boats as a deckhand. And one of my friends, my roommate and bandmate, my best friend, he told me not to go. He said he believed that I still had work to do. So I listened to him, and I stayed.” And for the next three years we made the album… released it in 2016, and here we are one year later.”
I admire that dedication, even if Metcalf dings himself for nearly scrapping the whole thing. And I don’t doubt that he’d be on a cargo ship somewhere had he not had that community around him. His love and appreciation for his friendships is evident, “Everybody on the album, every single one of those faces has a beautiful story to tell.”
Leaving them to pursue a dream, to develop as an artist, might not have been the easy choice. But being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely.
“I read a quote that struck me as really beautiful,” says Metcalf. “’Loneliness is the poverty of self, and solitude is the richness of self.’ And I love that. I spend these long hours in the car, chauffeuring myself to the next town, but to me that isn’t a deficit. I love the alone time. I love letting my mind wander. And when I show up to a gig, I’m like a spring that’s been winding up for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and I’m so excited to see people.”
He has 11 weeks to tackle 48 venues, from coast to coast, across 7,000 miles throughout the US and Canada. He’s about a month in and getting ready to zigzag back across the country as he heads west.
What’s interesting about the album he’s promoting with this tour is that it feels very transient. Metcalf describes himself in airports and crashing in people’s homes. It’s the kind of music you could turn on in the car before you head out for a road trip, and just let it play. Maybe Metcalf’s belief that the car is the best place to listen to music had an impact on how he wrote the album. But he offers another explanation.
“You have to know that Fjord, was written over the span of a decade. I wrote ‘Sarah Sells Shoes’ in 2002. The long and short of it is, the whole album is a love letter to humanity. Almost everything in there is very personal, very autobiographical. There’s a lot of doubt and a lot of disappointment that threads through that entire album. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a fjord in person, that geological phenomenon where you have two beautiful mountainous peaks and an icy river cutting a channel through them, then you have the perfect metaphor for how I view relationships. I called the album Fjord because, no matter how much I love people, there’s always some disconnect, some inability to fully understand another human being. And to me that’s very bittersweet.”
A lot the songs on Fjord pull you in two different directions – tense, heartbreaking lyrics juxtaposed against lovely music. Fail to pay attention and you could easily miss the meaning behind the songs.
The whole record is highly instrumental, and I imagine how that might translate when you take it down to one man and his guitar, playing bittersweet melodies in an intimate venue. My mind sees couples clinging to each other, with less optimistic lovers on the verge of calling it quits. Not a dry eye in the place. Metcalf reassures me that the experience of a solo tour, the happiness and excitement that comes from that, permeates his live performances.
“You’ve heard that tragedy and comedy are the same thing, right?” Right. “On the album, I think you can feel the tragedy in all those missed moments, all those disappointments. But in real life, in the present day, when I sing those songs, there’s so much more perspective… I can laugh at my defeats. I can be amused by my failures. I love that.”
And Metcalf strives to make a one-man show just as powerful as an orchestra. “My goal is to take the symphony and translate those parts to the voice and the guitar so that when you hear me play live, solo, it’s just as intricate, it’s just as fine detailed, there are surprises, and maybe the tone has a subtle shift because there’s so much joy in what I’m doing.”
After hearing about years of hard work, seemingly endless challenges, and doing what’s necessary to make your life happen, I understand the joy and gratitude that Metcalf describes. This easily may not have happened. But then we start to talk about something that makes me think this album would have come out of Metcalf one way or another.
“For me personally, art heals me. It’s the best therapy anyone can ever invest their time in. When you go to write, and you create something, Mary, I can’t speak for you, but I imagine that something really lovely happens for you.”
It’s true. My boyfriend, who has a job he feels indifferent towards, broke it down for me once. He said, “The difference between you and me is that if you could do anything, you’d still write.”
Metcalf continues, “Some amount of self-healing occurs. And speaking from experience, when I encounter other people’s art and it moves me, their art heals me, too. There was a guy who performed last night in Newport. And when he was playing, for the first time on this tour, I realized how much I miss my girlfriend. We’re pretty independent people. But his song, literally crushed [me]. I love that, when some’s art can move you. I felt the full weight of the emotions that had been wanting to come out of me. That’s got to be a goal of mine, to heal myself and to speak to other people.”
But you’ve done it, Jacob. His music has certainly spoken to me. If you have time for nothing else, listen to “Correspondence.” It’s the song that you wish ‘the one that got away’ felt whenever they thought of you.
Having such a knack for song writing, being able to get to the raw emotions, it’s poetry. And given the lyrics on “Traffic”, it begs the question…
How do you not consider yourself a poet?
“All I do is journal,” Metcalf explains. “I journal everything. My brand-new friend George said hilarious things to me and I wrote all of them down. And eventually, something in my journals looks like the anchor from which a song will root. And then it just kind of balloons out of that.”
To journal, to write fluidly, is a form of poetry. It’s a release. It heals us. Maybe that’s why artists do what they do. Why they choose to create. To let those emotions, which could otherwise be cast aside, occupy something tangible. Sometimes it feels good to hurt a little bit. If just to fucking feel.
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Photography credits to Cal Quinn (Jacob Metcalf Headshot) and James Jackson (Jacob Metcalf Live Shot)