When Jess Tardy sat down to record her latest project, “Sky City Lullaby,” she had no intention of releasing it publicly. The independent full-length album, which she will celebrate on March 24 with a show at Club Passim in Cambridge, was originally envisioned as a tribute to a close friend who had passed away in the summer. Just a collection of some of his favorite country songs, recorded at home, with the quiet intimacy of a long friendship recalled.
“He was a really neat older guy named Big Ed Tucker,” remembered Tardy on a recent afternoon at a coffee shop just a few blocks from her Somerville home. “He used to email me just the names of songs. He was like, ‘I can teach you anything you need to know about songwriting with Texas songwriters.’ And not just [Texans]: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash. And so he would send me these song titles. The subject of the email would just be the song, that’s all. It was like a fortune cookie.”
“Sky City Lullaby,” Tardy’s first album in over 10 years, is a mellow, soulful collection of mostly covers, and stands in stark contrast to her previous work. Anyone who caught her weekly residency at Bull McCabe’s Irish pub in Somerville, which she played for a year and a half until last April, would expect the sort of bold, irreverent country persona that she channeled so adeptly in those shows.
“I tend to trade in breakup songs and drinking songs,” says Tardy, who, until recently, was most often found pounding out bluesy, wit-riddled tell-offs from behind a keyboard.
It is the sort of material that ought to have been at home in country music territory. Tardy, a Maine native and Harvard graduate, moved to Nashville in 2002, where she signed with a major country label amid assurances that she would have artistic freedom. Those promises quickly disappeared, like puffs of exhaust on the highway.
“It’s kind of like seeing the kitchen of a restaurant you really like,” says Tardy of her time in Nashville. She faced a lot of pressure to fit in during her five years there, much of it centered around her appearance and her background. Among other things, the label wanted her to dye her hair, change her name, and hide the fact that she went to Harvard.
Tardy chalks much of this up to timing. The early 2000s were marked by huge losses for the mainstream country industry, which struggled to find its bearings amid declining record sales and a rapidly changing media landscape. Now that the panic has subsided, Tardy sees hope for artists trying to make it. “I think it’s changed a lot,” she says. “I think the Nashville of 2014, I would love. I think it’s wide open now.”
Not that she has any intention of moving back. “I’m old enough now to know that I’m a New Englander,” she remarks wryly. But more than that, New England, and Boston in particular, has provided a far more supportive creative environment. “There are all these venues where the song comes first,” Tardy explains. “It’s not about what you wear, or your hair extensions. It’s about the song, and the connection with the audience.”
Tardy wrote the first number on “Sky City Lullaby,” called “City Of Gold,” during a visit with Tucker and his wife at their home in New Mexico. Tardy describes Tucker as a grounding presence during a tumultuous time in her life. While she struggled to figure out her artistic identity, he encouraged her to focus on the songs. She remembers him as a “real old New Mexico cowboy,” a big, bearlike man with a generous personality, the sort of guy who offered rides to hitchhikers and sometimes even a place to stay.
“City Of Gold” is wistful and a little bit melancholy, but hopeful at the same time. “I see a city of gold, makes this lonely stretch of road worth traveling, oh/ There’s a house with a big porch swing, and my big love is waitin’ for me, oh,” sings Tardy, accompanied by the gentle tap of pick against string. Some sparse piano chords, a single accordion reed, and the resonant croon of pedal steel guitar imbue the song with both vastness and warmth.
“City Of Gold” sets the tone for the album, which has an interior, yet playful, quality. Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” gets a more up-tempo treatment with the laid-back vibe of a living room jam session. The popular jazz standard by Irving Berlin, “Blue Skies,” which was famously covered by both Willie Nelson and Ella Fitzgerald, appears swathed in reverb and bolstered by an electric guitar’s hefty presence. Cindy Walker’s country ditty “Dusty Skies,” made famous by the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills, finds unexpected, but pleasant, company in a clarinet duo.
Tardy credits her producer, Sean Staples, and the unique recording experience that they undertook, sitting an arm’s length from each other around a single mic in Staple’s home.
Most albums these days are recorded with instrumentalists and singers in separate booths, so that individual performances can be replaced or reworked in isolation during the editing process. It is not uncommon for vocalists to record upward of ten takes, and then go back and re-record certain syllables or notes to get the desired effect. The final product is a Frankensteinian amalgam of various takes, merged together with an eye towards perfection.
The vocal tracks on “Sky City Lullaby,” in contrast, were left mostly intact but for a few subtle tweaks. Knowing that the editing process would be minimal required Tardy to really commit, which she was able to do thanks to a comfortable, low-pressure environment. “The guiding principle was just to get the best performance possible,” says Staples.
“Nashville, it’s all about sort of the shine and the sheen, and making something reach out and grab somebody,” he explains. “And I think that there’s something about this record—it draws people in, as opposed to reaching out and hitting people over the head with something bright and shiny. It’s more subtle.”
Tardy, who can unleash an impressive belt, found a more delicate, vulnerable side to her voice during the relaxed recording sessions. “I just wanted to sing,” she says. “[On] some of my favorite records, people just sing, and leave the flaws on there.”
For Tardy, the recording process made all the difference. She was, at last, free to focus on nothing but the songs: not her accent, or her tone, or all the potential mistakes. And the songs, as Tucker no doubt knew, were always the whole point.
This article was originally published on March 10, 2014.