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Jesse Dee Sounds Upbeat, But His Soul Singing Will Still Break Your Heart

This article is more than 5 years old.
Jesse Dee (Crystal Huffman)
Jesse Dee (Crystal Huffman)

For better or worse, Boston-based soul singer Jesse Dee has gained a reputation for relentless positivity. Maybe it’s the major keys he favors, or the big, joyful brass section that he employs so freely. Or maybe he’s just a happy guy.

“In my own defense, I have some very depressing songs,” he says with a chuckle.

Depressing songs notwithstanding, Dee, who will appear with his band at Brighton Music Hall on Friday, Nov. 29, doesn’t argue with the observation that he errs on the happy side. In his telling, this isn’t really an accident, but the result of a kind of personal philosophy. “Music in its optimistic sense, or its empowering values, is really at its most effective,” he says.

Dee sings with impeccable technique and an expanse of color, from delicate rasping grays to the deepest, purest blue notes. Even his most cheerful numbers have depth. “I think that all emotions are complex, whether we realize it or not,” he muses.

This idea is exemplified in the song “Tell Me (Before It’s Too Late),” from the 2013 album “On My Mind/In My Heart.” It begins with a sense of foreboding that is at odds with its laid back, finger-snapping groove. “Lately I’ve noticed/ You’ve been acting kind of strange/ And your disposition just increases/ With the passing of each day,” sings Dee, his voice tentative at first but slowly gaining strength. When he reaches the chorus, it’s with a crash of cymbals and an earnest entreaty: “Go ahead and tell me/ Tell me, tell me what’s on your mind/ I’m tired of watching you trying to hide that/ Something, something isn’t right/ It only gets worse the longer you wait/ I can see in your eyes the pain you have inside/ So tell me, before it’s too late.”

Though the subject is dark, the song’s entire premise rests upon an optimistic certainty: it is not too late, and there is no problem that cannot be solved without a little bit of sharing.

For someone with such an uplifting delivery, Dee speaks with unexpected gravity. This isn’t the voice of a man who is chipper by nature. Rather, it seems he has simply found contentment, lending him a thoughtful, measured quality.

“The more I travel, the more places I’ve seen, I think the more I’ve grown to love Boston,” the singer remarks. Born in Boston in 1980 and raised in Arlington, Dee studied fine art and performance at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He resisted the siren call of New York, unlike so many of his peers, settling instead in Medford, not far from where he grew up.

“Boston has a unique scene,” he adds. “I should say ‘music community’... I mean, Boston’s a small town to begin with, but in my experience it’s hard to find the community that Boston offers.”

That a musician of Dee’s level still finds artistic nourishment in his hometown after so many decades speaks well of Boston. Most of the musicians on “On My Mind/In My Heart” are local, and the album was recorded as close to live as possible, not an easy feat. “I think all my favorite recordings, all the best recordings ever made, were recorded live in the studio,” says Dee. To give it that extra boost of realness, “On My Mind/In My Heart” was recorded to one inch analog tape.

The desire for authenticity serves Dee well, particularly when it comes to the issue of race in soul music. Aware of the long tradition of cultural appropriation in American pop, he describes his process as a balancing act between carving out his own identity and paying homage to the genre’s heavies.

“I’m just trying to make real music and be genuine about it. I’m trying to write good songs and then perhaps introduce elements of soul music, so to speak. As opposed to writing to the genre,” Dee explains. “It’s easy to come across contrived as a white person singing soul music. Even more so than other genres, because of the history and because of the deep-seated meaning of it all. Whereas I love James Brown, I’m not trying to be James Brown. I’m trying to be me.”

It’s hard to begrudge a man that. Especially when he’s so darn happy.

This program aired on November 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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