Jillian Rae is a multi-talented violinist, lead vocalist, and songwriter whose creative and dynamic style of violin playing, along with her lifelong experience as a performer, lend her an assured stage presence. She has an innate ability to create hook-laden tunes affirming the positives of life in the face of struggle and disappointment.
Like many of Minnesota’s finest musicians, Jillian Rae grew up in the north, on the Iron Range – an environment as open to country, folk (and yes, polka) as it is to pop, rock and blues. Growing up in a music-loving household, Jillian was hooked early when she began taking violin lessons at age 7. From there, she began to sing, dance, perform and has been working hard at perfecting her art ever since.
The ultimate reward for her years of musical passion and pursuit is the ability to give back. After years of study, performing and teaching, Jillian opened a music school, The Music Lab, in 2011 with her pal and fellow musician, Josie Just. Located in Minneapolis’ Nokomis neighborhood, The Music Lab is Jillian’s vehicle for passing on all she has learned – actively teaching voice, violin, and viola to youth and adults, with (of course) an emphasis on performance.
Jillian has been a heavy hitter in the Minnesota music scene for years, playing with as many musicians as humanly possible – on stage, in the studio, or both. Currently, when she isn’t performing with her own band, you can still catch her playing fiddle and singing with a number of bands around the Twin Cities: Corpse Reviver (Early American Folk, Bluegrass), Steve Kaul & The Brass Kings (Folk Revisionist), Brian Just Band (’60’s California Pop), The Fiddle Heirs (5 fiddles and a bass), Adam Levy’s (The Honeydogs) solo project, and The Blackberry Brandy Boys (Cosmic Country).
In her spare time, Jillian occasionally tours with the Grammy Award-winning Okee Dokee Brothers, lending her fiddle to their children-oriented folk/bluegrass performances.
A scene from the music video for Jillian’s cover of Donovan’s “Superlungs My Supergirl”
AMS sat down with both bandleader, violinist, and lead vocalist Jillian Rae and her husband, guitarist Eric Martin, to talk about their music, sources of inspiration, favorite pieces of gear, and their busy schedules recording, performing, and teaching.
AMS: Jillian, it’s no doubt that performing comes naturally to you. What was the biggest transition from being one of the members of a band to headlining your own group?
Jillian: That’s a good question right off the bat. I think for me personally, the biggest transition was breaking into that role and having no fear. You know, when you’re a side player and you’re not writing the songs, I think it’s easier to have sort of an air of fearlessness. I’m playing my part and presenting the song that was given to me. It was an exciting, yet scary transition for me, because ultimately what had kept me from fronting my own band for so long was not feeling confident or comfortable putting my own songs out there.
You’re a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist – primarily violin, and a songwriter. Am I forgetting anything? What brings out the authentic acoustic sound of your instrument on stage?
Jillian: The violin is the instrument that I feel like I play really well. It is kind of a non-traditional instrument in a rock band setup, but we’re seeing it more and more these days than we ever have in history. It’s a wooden acoustic instrument that wasn’t meant to be plugged in and that already presents its own challenges. It’s never going to truly sound like it does when unplugged. As a lot of people know, the instant you put a pickup on a violin and plug it in, it instantly sounds like shit. [Laughs] So, you have to figure out what you can do to manipulate and make it sound real again. I have effect pedals that I like to use with my violin and those in themselves are instruments. The [Electro-Harmonix] Cathedral Stereo Reverb is on my board and it sounds great with the violin! I love that pedal – I can’t get that sound out of any other reverb, it’s just so unique!
At home, I’ll play out of an amp but in a live setting, especially if it’s a big venue, I’ve had no luck getting the sound I want plugging into an amp on stage and having that mic’ed. So what I typically do is use an L.R. Baggs DI that is house-controlled by the engineer in the space along with my pedalboard and all the pedals that I want to use. I like the L.R. Baggs DI because it has a solid EQ and I can play with the levels. I usually find that I have to turn my lows down. It depends on the room, but I find myself boosting my mids a little bit, boosting my treble a little bit more, and then playing a lot with the presence. I fiddle around with the pedals . . . Fiddle around. I totally didn’t mean to say that! [sheepish laughs] Anyways . . . Eric, my guitar player, husband, and sound engineer extraordinaire, he helps me check every pedal since I need both hands to play. I can’t be turning knobs, so he’s tweaking the levels to fit each show that we do.
I write a lot on the piano and the guitar. I just got a banjo a few months ago that’s kind of my new favorite instrument at the moment. I have a little baby accordion sitting up there that I love to mess around on. Pretty much anything that has strings. Eric got me a bass guitar for my birthday this year, so I’ve been having fun playing around on that. We have a drum kit. We have kind of a basement studio setup for rehearsal and recording, so I bang on the drums every once and awhile. We also just got a synthesizer recently [the Korg Minilogue] which is just ridiculous – it’s kind of like the new favorite toy in the house! It hasn’t been introduced into what has been already recorded, but Korg gear is definitely a huge part of our practice how we make music on a regular basis.
Spotlight on the duo, Jillian Rae and Eric Martin.
So, Eric, you have to hold down background vocals, cover all aspects of lead and rhythm guitar and have to be ready to pick up another instrument at a moment’s notice. It’s clear that you have to wear a lot of different hats in this group! Tell me a bit about your setup and how you prepare for a show.
Eric: I’m always thinking about how I sound in the group with bass, drums, and the violin, and then depending on the night or the show. Is “Jillian Rae” a two-piece band with Jillian playing the fiddle and me playing acoustic guitar and maybe an electric guitar? Or do we have a five-piece band with a keyboard? So my setup and how I play is going to be a little bit different.
Jillian: There are quite a few mutations of the band as we tour, depending on the show and what’s necessary. Sometimes people will want something very stripped down, so we do perform as a duo a lot, and that’s totally different than the full band situation.
Eric: Yeah, I mostly play electric guitar with the band and that means plugging my guitar into a Fender Deluxe or Pro Junior Amp. I really like the Pro Junior – the 10” speaker – it’s just a really expressive amplifier so I can get a real acoustic sound, at least that’s the way I kind of think about it. I can turn the amp to a setting and just play more as I would with an acoustic guitar, so when I’m playing electric it doesn’t feel much different. I play a lot of pedals. I’ve gone from playing like eighteen pedals on a pedalboard to wanting to only have four. It’s constant change and it’s never the same for more than four shows. I also play a Martin acoustic, a 000 body, and I really love it!
I treat all the sounds as very standard, I’m not overly experimental other than what is the right sound for this song. I treat it like, “Who am I trying to sound like?” Is this like a Keith Richards feel? Or am I strumming like Robbie Robertson? What kind of vibe does the song need? If the song feels more like pop radio, I might change something up a little bit. I always have some sort of reverb and a delay, and something to push it over the edge, like a Tube Screamer [Ibanez] or J-Rad Archer.
Any favorite pieces of gear?
Eric: MXR’s Carbon Copy Delay Pedal. That’s the thing for me. I don’t know when it first came out, but I got one right away and there eventually was a point where I had two on my pedalboard. I loved it so much I needed two of them.
Eric: One is always set to a slapback delay and then the other one goes into like, the weird oscillation. We have a couple of songs where that’s the thing, the big buildup of the song is the violin solo and underneath are dive bomb Carbon Copy oscillation sounds. Hands down that is my favorite pedal and it has been for a really long time.
How did the sound and style of “Jillian Rae” come together? Was there a direction you wanted to take from the beginning or did your voice just kind of arrive organically?
Jillian: Personally, I think our sound is still morphing. When I first put the group together with the original lineup it was kind of one of those things where it’s like, “Okay, I have seven decent songs.” It wasn’t very many. I think that even included a cover because we’ve been covering Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” forever, we’ve kind of made a version of our own over time. So that was probably included along with the original seven songs. I was like, “Okay, these are the songs that I deem ready to throw out in front of people.” I don’t know if it’s been more of a compliment or a criticism, maybe a little bit of both, but a lot of what I heard from people listening to Heartbeat, my first full-length record, is that its genre-hopping. I think what the project is really about is the violin and fronted female vocals. The songs are very personal to me, so they come from a place within, but I don’t think there is really a perfect genre or element you could really say that it is. It kind of falls under the “Americana” umbrella, but I think some of my tunes are definitely more country, alt-country, some of them are definitely a little bit more pop, and some are louder heavy-sounding rock. “Heart in a Jar”, the zombie-themed song I released as a single a couple Halloweens ago, is a bit more indie rock and electronic.
This quick interlude brought to you by the Jillian Rae Band.
Eric: I think that Jillian has an idea of where the song will go and knows exactly what’s it’s going to sound like. And then the people playing, whether it’s me, the keyboard player we have at the time, or the drummer, we collaborate on the end result.
Jillian: There are arrangements. Definitely a group arrangement.
Eric: When we started playing under her solo artist name, the keyboard player only wanted to play a Fender Rhodes. He didn’t want to play anything else but a real Fender Rhodes Electric Piano.
Jillian: And that of course lasted for like one show, because he was, “I can’t carry this shit all the time.” So. . . [laughs]
Eric: So that led to a lot of arrangements because the electric piano was like “that’s the thing, it sounds so good.” You don’t have to change everything else but, your guitar part ends up being a little bit different because of the Fender Rhodes.
Jillian: Right, or where the violin sits, my fiddle parts are definitely more prevalent in some songs than in others. Sometimes it’s more like a multi-layered string arrangement that might not happen at all like the recording when played live, it’s just more about the soundscape of the song. And then others like “Chains” – the song Eric was talking about with his oscillating Carbon Copy pedal – it’s very much like a fiddle hook and line throughout that drives the song. Yeah, I think I’m still on this turbulent waveride right now, as long as it incorporates the violin. I kind of listen to everything so I think it’s kind of a no-brainer that elements of everything will kind of come out.
Always high energy! These live shows sure are fun!
Who were your biggest musical inspirations growing up? Are there any people currently that give you that extra boost of inspiration?
Jillian: I can’t say forever, I don’t know when I was first aware of him. At least high school and then beyond, I mean. . . Andrew Bird is just huge for me as a violin player that loves classical music and classical technique but also loves fiddle, pedals, and effects. He’s like the master of the looping pedal among other things. I think Bird is a huge influence and he’s a “pusher” for me, he pushes the envelope and it’s very inspiring. It’s like, “Okay, that’s a cool thing he just came up with, man. . . I want to broaden my horizons.” Growing up, I loved country music, especially old-school country and then the modern country of the time – you know, the 90’s – Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain. The Dixie Chicks too – I would sit in my room and just learn those fiddle parts by ear. But, I feel like a lot of what inspired me was straight up rock-and-roll, guitar rock music. The violin was my instrument, so I would just pick out those tunes on violin. I still do some Led Zeppelin tunes – to play those riffs on the violin is hopefully not only cool for everybody to hear, but it makes me feel like such a badass playing those songs I grew up loving! Jimi Hendrix. Kansas. The Allman Brothers. I can’t exactly remember the first time I tried to figure out “Jessica,” but that was a big process for me, just learning these awesome guitar tunes by ear. I could go on and on, I listen to lots of music! My dad is kind of like a rocker dude, my mom listens to everything. I grew up playing Scandinavian fiddle music, there is a lot of that, the way that the rhythms work. I still end up playing that way when I write a riff because it’s ingrained in my head.
Eric: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.”
Jillian: Oh, for sure! We still listen to that all the time.
Eric: That’s the type of record I want to make. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that.
Eric: I am constantly inspired currently, for new work, by Butch Walker. His work, both as a solo artist and as a producer for other people, is unreal! He produced a song [Everything Has Changed] on Taylor Swift’s record, not her last one, but the one before [Red], and it’s the best song. We were listening through the record and you hear it and you’re like “this song is so good.” Then you look at the credits and of course, it’s Butch Walker.
Jillian: You can’t forget Jeff Tweedy too. We’re both huge Wilco fans. Tweedy, as a songwriter, a bandleader, a producer, the Mavis Staples [the prominent R&B artist] stuff that he worked on is just sick!
Eric: And Nels Kline in Wilco is a very inspiring guitar player.
Was there any specific “Aha!” moment or breakthrough where you thought to yourself, “I could really see myself doing this music thing full-time?”
Eric: Personally, I never used to think it was a possibility. I was raised, you know, to graduate high school, you go to college, you get a “real job,” – that was the culture. But I always wanted to be a musician, from the moment I sang Garth Brooks into a VHS video camera as a nine-year-old. And now I kind of realize how awesome it is being a musician when you’re up at like, seven o’clock in the morning and driving the van and everyone else is asleep. I just love it. I love driving the van, getting to a venue, setting up your stuff, and playing. I wouldn’t want it any other way!
Jillian: So, no specific moment?
Eric: No, not really.
Jillian: We’re polar opposites in this question, but I do think it’s funny because we end up at the same answer. I don’t have an “Aha” moment either. I’ve been playing music since I was seven and essentially performing and touring since I was eight. I just never thought I would be doing anything different. Doing the All-State Orchestra thing once I hit high school and if I go to college I’m going to go for music because, duh, that’s what I do. I’ve had one desk job in my life that wasn’t music-related. All I’d ever done was play music, study music, and teach music. So when I sat down at a desk and I learned how to be a Client Service Associate for a stock brokerage firm, it was kind of the reality of “this isn’t me, I can’t do this.” I did that for a little bit less than a year and that was my one blip in the radar of not doing music for a living. It’s almost been like survival, there are times where you are like “Well, I play and love music; I just need to figure out what to do with it to survive.” I started out booking all of my shows myself and doing the promotion. We do all of that ourselves now, the two of us. We went about a year and a half working with a booking agent, which was wonderful at the time. We were fortunate; finding someone in that role that is a hard worker and truly believes in what you’re doing is worth its weight in gold. Anyone can book their own shows, but not everyone wants to spend the huge amounts of time in front of a computer, e-mailing and following up numerous times just to get a venue to respond to you once. Shifting our lives with the busy schedule of touring and having to balance that with my teaching have led Eric and I to drop half of the schedule of what we do for our other non-performing jobs to allow for more time.
Eric: So. . . we’re basically back to doing everything ourselves! [Laughs]
You just recorded a new EP in June. What was that process like? When is it expected to be released?
Jillian: What I realized about making this EP is that I went about it in a totally different way than I did with Heartbeat. When we went into the studio to record Heartbeat, which is ten songs, we had been playing and performing the songs for a while – months and months. There were a few of them that I wrote closer to the session, but we had all played them together and were super solid going into the studio. It was like, “We got this! Here’s the schedule, let’s do it!” Our approach was to do it as efficiently and play as well as we could, but not push anything. We waited until we had the records in our hands, printed, produced and ready to go before we even tried to set a release date and book a release show.
The EP is four songs. I actually recorded a fifth song that I hope to release as a single. My thought was to record it, get it done, and have something fresh and new as soon as possible. So we went into the studio and banged out the songs in two days. But then after that, the reality of our busy gigging schedule set in and it became clear that it wasn’t realistic to record in two days, get all the overdubs finished in a week, mix it, and say it’s going to be done in a month. Here we are a couple months later and the four songs for the EP are in the process of being mixed now plus I still have a few overdubs to do on the fifth.
So I learned not to push it. Set realistic goals, especially when you’re not home to dedicate full days to recording and mixing. We’re almost done and are realistically looking at an end of 2016/early 2017 release.
Jillian, you are also a teacher and co-owner of the Music Lab, a private music studio in Minneapolis. How long have you been working with students? Any words of wisdom for eager musicians out there?
Jillian: I’ve been teaching privately for about thirteen years. At the end of the day, even if the gigging and touring schedule gets crazy, it’s still important to give back in that way – both technically and on the worldly side of music – to someone who is eager to learn. So, no matter how busy I get on the performing side of things, I’ll always be teaching.
If there’s one piece of wisdom that I make sure to tell my students, it’s to keep playing. The more you play and the more you allow yourself to be exposed to new ideas, the better. At the Music Lab, we just had a week of summer camp where we work with kids aged 8-13 and put them into bands. We teach them how to play cover songs, write new music together, and how to promote a show. One of the biggest answers when you ask an older elementary or middle school kid what kind of music they like, at least in Minneapolis anyway, is “I like everything except country!” Maybe what they think of as a country is more limited to a small sample of pop-country. But that just really hit me; you can’t close yourself off to a whole genre of music like that. I gave them all listening assignments and told them to look up the Flying Burrito Brothers, Willie Nelson, and a couple of others, it might have been the Everly Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. It was pretty cool, all of the kids that played guitar were like, “The Flying Burrito Brothers, wait . . . that’s like . . . rock!” They couldn’t believe that their music is considered a type of country.
So play as much as you can, listen as much as you can, and don’t put your instrument down. I play my instrument like my life depends on it – and it kind of does! [laughs]
What should expect from you in the near future? Any goals on the horizon?
Jillian: The main goal is to finish the dang EP! [laughs] So we could get to work on another full-length album.
Eric: Expect an acoustic EP with no electric instruments. And then you can expect a more full-length, record in more of a pop direction after that. That’s how we’re channeling our creative efforts, aiming to make it sound different.
Jillian: So basically, lots of new music!
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