Having earned critical applause for her melancholy indie-folk, Amy Jay now makes a remarkable leap forward with her moving and kinetic debut album, Awake Sleeper. The Florida-born, NYC-based singer-songwriter surveys profound emotional terrain, juggling fragments of memory and embedding her observations within a paradoxically lush sonic approach. Exploring the boundaries between acoustic and synthetic, minimalist and ornate, Awake Sleeper echoes a breathtaking cross-pollination of introspective songcraft, surprising textures, and hypnotic soundscapes.
“I want the listener to feel suspended in an outer calm and inner angst,” says Jay. “To go back to formative memories, to relive the sensory experiences that shaped them, and empower them to delve deep and process those emotions head on.”
Recorded at Brooklyn’s Mason Jar Music with producer Jonathan Seale (Feist, Fleet Foxes, Aoife O’Donovan), Awake Sleeper marks Jay’s third official project and first full-length release following a pair of well-received EPs – 2016’s Supposed to Be and 2018’s So It Is – that earned her national acclaim and nearly 1M worldwide streams.
After the release of So It Is, Jay fell into focusing solely on the business side of being an independent artist, devoting her substantial energies more towards the administrative than the creative. She spent her days staring at her computer screen rather than picking up her instrument, she wrote emails when she should have been writing songs, she pitched her music to playlists, booked shows and applied for festival slots, “all in the name of building a career without actually doing what I love about the career.” Before long “it was New Year’s,” Jay says, “and I thought, ‘What happened? This is not why I do music.’”
The pendulum swung and Jay was propelled to write as much as possible, looking for community to find support from kindred struggling spirits. “If there was a songwriting challenge,” she says, “I took it. Multiple seven-songs-in-seven-days challenges, another song-a-week for three months challenge. Anything to keep me accountable to improving the craft, pushing back against the temptation of having the wrong order of priorities.” Here she discovered, through shared sound bites and critiques, both a knack for collaboration and hunger for creative feedback.
Over the course of the year, “time and time again the inspiration for these songs birthed out of my internal processing through strangely meditative and overly stimulating commutes,” Jay says. “I rarely listen to media on the train because I want to be aware of my surroundings. What transpired often was a paradoxical way of forcing me to focus because there was so much going on around me. Thoughts percolated up on the same car of the same train at the same time every day. In the mornings, half asleep, brain waking up, and in the evening, drained from the day, back and forth on the A train to Harlem, my mind drifted to all sorts of places,” not unlike journal entries set to Jay’s own internal soundtrack, translating seamlessly to the album’s paradoxically lush sonic approach.
“It may have been the latest YouTube binge gone wrong. Or in the case of ‘Call My Name,’ reliving an argument from the night before,” Jay says. “There were times when I was so desperate to grasp the concept of truth, it felt like grabbing smoke and I would go numb. It was in this space that wrote ‘Sorrow.’
“Or moments where I would escape to imagining the simplicity of childhood,” she continues. “In my head, always, coping in a state of overwhelm, wishing I could yell it out, knowing no one would really hear me. But my voice ended up flowing out through these songs.”
By the fall of 2019, with a plethora of material in hand and a grown confidence in large part due to the encouragement of her peers, she took the bare-boned song skeletons and phone demos, trekked down to Mason Jar Music in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and set to work with longtime friend and producer Jonathan Seale. Seale enlisted a top tier line-up of NYC session players to fill in the sonic spaces in Jay’s often sparse songs, including Mike Robinson (Railroad Earth, The Jeff Austin Band) on guitar and pedal steel, drummer Jordan Rose (Cory Wong, Theo Katzman), guitarist Chris Parker, bassist Jeremy McDonald, Andrew Freedman (Henry Jamison) on piano and synths, and award-winning bowed-string instrumentalist Duncan Wickel (Molly Tuttle, Rising Appalachia) on violin and cello. Jay and Co. were also joined by her newly adopted, “distractingly cute and very sleepy” dog, Huxley.
“I had just adopted him a month prior,” Jay says. “I had waited years to be in a place to own a dog. He was the emotional support animal I never knew I needed. Having him there was one of the best parts about the process.”
As Huxley frolicked with Seale’s own studio dog, Blue, the Mason Jar sessions spanned fall and winter of 2019, wrapping up in February 2020, just under the COVID wire.
“I’m so grateful I got into the studio before it all started.” Jay says. “It was so normal, really fun and collaborative. We had no idea what was coming.”
Awake Sleeper was profoundly inspired by Jay’s day-to-day life in New York City, conjuring its incessant energy, its ambient noise and constant motion, occasionally quiet but ceaseless in its flow. “Day in, day out…,” she sings on the vaporous “Lucid Dreaming.” In its own way, the album pre-imagines the city’s strange magic during the pandemic, its perpetual buzz lurking just below a sense of haunting solitude. Jay gave life to her songs with an idiosyncratic sound equally informed by experimental electronica, classical music, and post-rock as it is by traditional acoustic folk songcraft. “It was a conscious choice that the recording elements reflect the lyrical themes, like for example, when we doubled the vocals to mimic emotional duality, or repetitive instrumentation to evoke anxiety or stuckness,” Jay says. “The direction of the music was very much decided by how best to portray these themes sonically.” Built upon aquatic, insular rhythms more connected to the mind than the body, songs such as “Inner Critic” hew closer to the sounds in her head than the Harlem street where she lives.
“It’s calming and chaotic at the same time,” Jay says. “It constantly makes you feel something. There’s never any pure silence. And I think that’s true to my personality – I might appear calm on the exterior but inside there’s always something buzzing. ‘Monster’ is a perfect example, bringing the underlying hum of my anxiety to light.”
With no ability to tour or properly support Awake Sleeper, Jay decided to sit tight on the recordings. She spent the lost year performing the occasional livestream, keeping her powder dry until she could treat her first album as an occasion, a moment, a declaration of intent and identity.
“I wanted to do as right by this record as I could,” Jay says. “I’ve done other projects, but I didn’t feel as genuine or confident in my voice as I am now. I think I’m expressing myself better than ever. It does kind of feel like my first official statement.”
With the future looking somewhat brighter, Jay is now getting set to hit the road in support of Awake Sleeper. A graphic designer with a love for decorating and ambitious projects, she spent much of last year refurbishing a beat-up shuttle bus into a road-ready RV.
“It’s been a dream for a long time,” she says, “before van life became a trend. I love getting my hands dirty, I’m definitely a creative personality. So the idea of making a tour bus from scratch really appealed to me. Now, after many, many, many hours of books and YouTube and Facebook groups and Reddit, it’s a tiny home. It has solar panels and a roof deck;, we could even put a little amp on top and play shows. We can even record as we travel.”
Having made Awake Sleeper in what now feels like a distant past, Amy Jay is looking firmly towards the future, driven to continually push her songcraft towards new terrain while still honoring her remarkable debut album with the attention and self-love it so rightly deserves.
“It’s complicated,” Jay says, “because obviously I’m proud of this huge, monumental thing that I’m doing. I have to just remember it’s a time capsule, a glimpse into a life before the world crashed, snapshots of memories. We captured what was happening at the time, written in the past, relevant for today.”
PHOTOS AND ARTWORK
AWAKE SLEEPER by AMY JAY (2/11/2022)