Jesse Younan - Media

Jesse Younan: Making the soul audible and expressing pain
and the dirtiness of life

Jesse Younan has a great big singing voice, so it takes you by surprise to discover how soft-spoken he is when you meet him face-to-face. In addition to his quiet nature, Jesse is reluctant to talk about his art – he’d rather that his music spoke for itself. Yet, when pressed, he does offer some insight into how the self-taught musician got to be so proficient a singer/songwriter.

“I started playing guitar when I was six,” Jesse explains. “If I was a bricklayer for the same amount of time, I’d be a pretty good bricklayer.”

Since Jesse basically learnt to play the guitar by improvising, he was pretty much always composing – making it up as he went along. However, he says, it seemed like a natural progression to start writing his own songs once he’d reached the point where he could compose his own music rather than playing other people’s songs. “It was in my late teens, really, that I started putting it down on paper or tape”.

Jesse never jammed with mates at school – music wasn’t even offered as a subject at the school he attended. Apart from playing music with his brother, Jesse never jammed with anyone until he was in his early 20s, and even though playing music with anyone is always “a good idea” – he likens it to “having a conversation” – Jesse found that the level of playing was rarely balanced. “I’ve been playing since I was six, and I would be playing with people who may have only been playing for a couple of years, so I always ended up in the position where I was the one who knew what he was doing. It was never a nice balance.”

At times, Jesse’s deep, booming voice, distinctive finger picking style and lyrical candour is reminiscent of Nick Drake. But Jesse insists that Drake, whom he’d only encountered about five years ago, isn’t an influence. “I’ve always found it hard to talk about influences, because I don’t know,” he’ll admit, before declaring that the first song he ever learnt to play was John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’. “A lot of the melodies maybe come from that kind of stuff,” he says – although Denver’s influence is harder to spot in Jesse’s original compositions.

Another influence is the music Jesse’s parents would play in the house when he was young and, although there is once again a reluctance to talk about it, Jesse describes their music as “Middle Eastern sort of tones”. He suggests that the Middle Eastern music he was hearing as a child influences the way he sings. That music, and the blues of the legendary Robert Johnson, are his key influences.

“Where we can always say ‘the blues’ starts and ends is Robert Johnson,” Jesse explains. “I don’t sound like Robert Johnson, but the way I approach music has to do with my background and the blues. The music from my culture, to me, is basically the blues, only it’s worlds apart as far as styles and subject matter.”

On the surface this sounds like a contradiction, that indigenous Middle Eastern music is essentially ‘the blues’ except for its style and subject matter; for most people the blues is defined by style and subject matter. But Jesse has it sussed: “where it’s similar is at the root of it: the honesty and rawness. Making the soul audible and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life… I’m not exactly an authority on the blues, but any kid who picks up the guitar, the
first thing he learns is a blues riff that’s been played over and over again."

As a songwriter, Jesse admits that all of the songs he writes come to him at the low points of his life. “I don’t really have any say in it. It’s become just a habit. I might be feeling low and that’s basically what will inspire a song.” As a result, Jesse feels that every song he has written basically constitutes one body of work, one song. That he can take a low feeling and write a jaunty, rollicking song is not contrived. “There’s no motive behind it,” he maintains. “It just comes out that way, and I don’t have much say in it. I just play the way I play and that’s just how I go about it. I don’t pay too much attention towhat is going on around me, it’s all just coming out of me.”

© Demetrius Romeo 2004