Jehsea has no problem giving it to you straight. It’s in his nature to pull no punches. Ask him about the current state of rock music and the rock singer, multi-talented musician and creative mastermind behind Welles will tell you how few things in life make him so equally prideful and angry as people bemoaning its death. He’ll readily tell you that despite others constantly talking up his once-in-a-generation, jarringly emotive voice, one that recalls Kurt Cobain by way of John Lennon, to him it often sounds like nothing short of “burnt toast.”
“I hate to experience anything that isn’t just the cold-hard truth,” the Arkansas-native who has a knack for penning at turns tender, melodic and gut-punching rock music, says without hesitation one morning. “But music definitely takes me away from it all,” he offers with a nervous laugh. “Well, for three to four minutes anyway,"
Welles understands the best singers wield their instrument with a stealth utility; they’re readily able to unleash a wealth of emotion from little more than a murmur, if, in his case, an occasional manic howl. Where vocal precision belies sterility, depth and character are blood let out from a deep wound. To that end, where Jehsea may not deem himself a storyteller in the classical sense — he fancies himself a rock lifer — on record his aching voice does plenty of heavy lifting. He’ll tell you he responds most profoundly to “road-weary” singers like David Bowie, John Lennon, and early Bob Dylan. He recalls drawing instant inspiration from Kurt Cobain when first hearing Nirvana’s “Lithium” in middle school. “I heard this American just barely getting through the lyrics and I was like ‘OK. This is cool. I can do this.’” Now, after nearly a decade of pointed urgency and, more importantly, a desire to share “everything that’s been going on in my head, he’s ready for his reveal.
The 22-year-old takes a deep breath and begins to recall those halcyon days back in his native, small-town Ozark, Arkansas, when he’d record music off the radio straight to cassette tape; or the nights when he’d lie awake and dream of playing gigs at roadside bars in nearby Fayetteville; or when in 2015 he finally threw caution to the wind to begin recording songs that ended up comprising Welles’ forthcoming debut album.
The musician is forever trying to best understand how his band’s genre-blurring music, inspired by an equal parts love of the Beatles pop craft, sweaty rock riffs, psychedelia and confessional singer-songwriters, acts as his salve. Still, the singer says, “I hate to admit to any kind of escape mechanism because I’m really conscious of being tricked. I can get too heavy and way too into my own head and spiral downward. Oftentimes unintentionally I take everyone else in my life along for those rides with me. Every once in a while though I come back up for air.”
It’s in his own contradictions and self-revelation in song that Welles best proves an undeniable talent. Where “Do You Know How To Fuck?” rides over a slashing, barbed wire electric guitar riff, the singer’s voice pleading “love me tender!” with bellowing with ache, moments later he’s exhaling, his breath stretching into smooth curves, on the acoustic-and-Mellotron-anchored “Summer.” If the young man finds a principal power in his own art it’s in its ability to foster contemplation. “Are You Feeling Me,” which draws heavily from the musician’s early fascination with the Beatles (“I got Sgt. Peppers on cassette tape when I was in second grade from my grandfather. I listened to that thing like mad. It was all I would do.”), for instance, is him coming to terms with how he’s not always the easiest hang. “That song is almost an apology,” he declares. “Sometimes I get so heavy and I drag you around. But I’m happy and I love to have stupid fun and laugh and make blanket forts and play video games and get high. I’m down. But every once in a while I crack open a book that reminds me it’s all fleeting. It’s like I’m trying to hold water in my hands and it keeps slipping away.”
Jehsea wrote the bulk of his outfit’s debut album living in a communal art compound in the college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Friends of varying artistic disciplines all shared an apartment building they dubbed “Space Mountain.” “Some of us worked on bicycles, some of us were doing painting and art,” he explains. “It was our own little Andy Warhol experiment. It was crazy.” While attending college, Jehsea led several bands. However the artist acknowledges he’s now entering a new chapter in his musical life. “I’ve had this sense of urgency towards music since I was 14 or 15,” he says of diving headfirst into his career as the recording artist. “Now it’s all about ‘How do I move this forward?’”
For starters Welles is itching to play as many live shows as possible in the coming months. “I don’t much like being in a crowd but I can be in front of one as long as they’re at my will,” he offers. “Plus it would do no good to sit around and think on these things and write this much and make this much noise alone in my room if I don’t get to show it to everyone else.”
What Jehsea is undeniably certain about though is there’s no time like the present to share his artist creation with the world. “I’ve dedicated my life to this lifestyle so if this doesn’t pay off I’m going to be old with all these tattoos and gonna look like a piece of old leather.” He stops and laughs before cracking a smile. “It’s just time.”
Central Parkway YMCA Stage