A Night in Jesse Jo Stark’s Alternate Universe
A Night in Jesse Jo Stark’s Alternate Universe
WORDS BY: KYLE FITZPATRICK | PHOTOS BY: BRANDON DENSLEY / DNZ PHOTO
Sometimes hype isn’t an idea but a feeling, an atmosphere, a fog that lingers around a room in the hopes of clouding your vision. It’s a fitting metaphor for Los Angeles-based musician Jesse Jo Stark: she resonates a sort of “People are talking about me.” ambiance that makes you question how–or why–she has gone unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because her hype cloud is becoming stronger.
This was the clearest takeaway from her September debut at The Echo’s Monday Night Residency program. She kicked off her trio of shows with a taught fifty-minute set of ten songs tucked in right before midnight. The venue was filled with a mixture of blinky teens and even blinkier adults set before a stage of musical instruments wrapped in floral garlands. Illustrations of Jesse Jo inspired by mid-century horror movies occupied t-shirts along with display fonts intended to make you feel like she’s a one woman version of “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” There was much pre-show chatter and beer drinking, a few humanoid hyena whoops and weed smoke mixing with stage fog.
Four grown men took the stage in navy mechanic jumpsuits, their names embroidered in white cursive on their chests. They assumed their instruments–the drum set, keyboards and synths, intermittent therein, and bass and guitar, embellished with rosy straps–and waited as a very coy Jesse Jo stood at their center before grabbing a retro candy bar microphone. She wore a seersucker bra top and matching pedal pushers on chunky heels. People screamed over the reverb and glowy lighting scheme.
“I wanna burn in your fire,” she sang. An aggressive, thumping bass drum dragged the audience through the song as a projection of swerving cars and blown out scenes played through Jesse Jo and her band. The songs rolled into each other, picking up one of Jesse Jo’s more notable songs “Down Your Drain.” Her guitarist and bassist sang backup, making very distracting faces, orgasming over her words. “You make me want to be the one to take a slip on down your drain,” she fed the crowd, nourishing them with California rock nostalgia.
The room ate it up too. There was a strange back-and-forth momentum to the room, as if we were in both a 1960s desert biker bar and a 2020 Los Angeles rock studio. Women in Mary Quant silhouettes held iPhones above their heads to livestream Jesse Jo to their Instagrams. Men in cuffed t-shirts and berets took photos with Polaroid cameras as mothers with a boxy 2005 digital camera captured the moments in parallel. The pre-show hyenas called again. Jesse Jo pulled her hair over and over again, rolling through songs, positioning herself at the center of her band, wallowing at the center of a pentagram’s pentagon formed by her bandmates. She was conjured from a hex Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey placed on Noah Cyrus to become Linda Ronstadt.
That was the irony: this is 2017 and the world is going to shit. Still, we’re here listening to Jesse Jo sing about damned “deadly dolls” (Her new single.) and how she learned so much at the Chelsea Hotel as uncanny heat breathes on the doors, hurricanes whir through gulfs, and political malaise consumes the country. Didn’t this residency begin at 11PM on September 11? You would have no idea in Jesse Jo’s world, a performance space of longing love and wasted kisses on LA nights. This is a world independent from the real world, a fantasy.
This is true though: Jesse Jo has a very, very clear angle, one that is so undeniably captivating. She has a stage presence and an unshakable now-and-then quality that draws you to her although you wonder what she’s really thinking, if she’s really here or has a hot take on racial injustice–or if she is instead one of the ghostly women that she sings about, above the fray of real problems and the real world. By the time she whipped out the tambourine for her penultimate song, the audience felt a twinge of relief that she’d rock us further as an audience member threw fake rose petals onto fans. Was this a pre-produced moment or rock mania magic? We may never know.
The show swelled to an end, the hyena whoops fading as the show closed. Jesse Jo noted that her grandparents were in the audience, thanked everyone, and the venue kicked on the house music. The spell had broken. The fog of hype immediately lifted and people went for the door, back into sticky reality. The show was free and, in many ways, is the best bet locals can make on musical distractions from the world. Produced? Likely. But pure? Yes, pure enough.
Nothing lasts forever though and, as young artists go, the allure of Jesse Jo is that her momentum is building bigger and bigger atop of a sturdy post-sixties, 2017 frame. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see where her cloud floats off to.