Caitlin Jemma: Cosmic cowgirl who brings The Goodness
Editor’s note:Caitlin Jemma performs Friday, March 22, in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room, along with Kuinka. The free show starts at 10 p.m.
“A connection with nature and the cosmos were always fundamental for me,” Caitlin Jemma says. “As a teenager I didn’t appreciate it as much. But in retrospect, I’m really glad I had time in nature.”
The promising young singer and songwriter was raised on a country acre of land in the hillsides outside of Virginia City.
“In my bed at night, I could hear the coyotes howling,” she says. “We didn’t have a fence so the wild horses would come through. We had a view of Mount Rose where we watched the thunderstorms and lightning storms roll in over the mountains. And I remember being able to see the stars at night really clearly.”
Jemma’s earliest impressions of music came as child, hearing her father’s rock and roll record collection flow through the open windows as she played on the farm.
“We listened to Dylan, the Stones, The Beatles and all that classic stuff,” she says. “When I was a little older, I’d walk around with my Walkman all the time.”
By the age of 8, she fell in love with Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, not to mention having a little thing for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Here was this female rock star who writes her own songs, she’s got pink hair and she’s kind of weird,” Jemma recalls. “I just loved it.”
[pullquote]Being around wild horses, being in this wild place on a dirt road, so much in me has realized that this is all part of my internal landscape” [/pullquote]When Jemma was 17, her father bought her first guitar as a down payment on the new job she landed as copy girl at the Federal Highway Administration in Carson City.
“He said, ‘You’ve got a job now. You can pay me back,’ ” she recalls.
A few years later, she found herself in Arcata with the seeds of her future band, The Goodness, playing bluegrass covers around Humboldt County.
Her 2012 debut LP, “Home is the Hills,” features a playful, rootsy take on indie folk through stories that sound as if they spilled beautifully from the swinging doors of an Old West saloon.
“But the group fell apart and I was just with myself,” Jemma says. “I missed the desert and seeing the stars you could see in the desert.”
So she followed up in 2013 with the grounded, poetic, honest and raw “Lick Those Wounds,” calling to mind a young Lucinda Williams with a cowgirl twang.
“Being around wild horses, being in this wild place on a dirt road, so much in me has realized that this is all part of my internal landscape,” she reflects. “I think it did really positive things for my soul and mental health. That comes out in a lot of my songs.”
Aimless and unsure what was next, Jemma met folk musician Bart Budwig at a mutual friend’s house party. Two months later, they headed on a tour together, starting from of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the fall of 2016 as they weaved their way through the Midwest and Deep South from Kansas City to St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Austin, Houston and Dallas. She played songs from her newest album, “Old Joy,” as Budwig’s friends sat in along the way.
“That was when the seed was planted for the country-soul fusion,” she says. “Old Joy is primarily a bluegrass record, but now I had a trumpet player I was playing with sometimes. I’ve always loved Motown soul music, funk. I used to think it was my alter ego. I realized then that was closing myself off to a big part of myself.”
Following the “Old Joy” tour, Jemma relocated to Eugene, Oregon, where she began break new ground in the festival circuit after bonding with some of the Pacific Northwest’s most wildly talented performers such as Rainbow Girls, John Craigie and High Step Society. She will be playing a late night lodge set with some of these friends — as The Rainbow Goodness Band — at Lost Sierra Hoedown on Friday, Sept. 21.
“It’s gradual,” she says. “You hear about overnight success, but I don’t know if that really exists. I think a lot of it is chance.”
Jemma’s breakthrough gig in May, on the Grand Artique stage at Lightning in a Bottle, came through a couple of Australians she had met on tour the year before.
“They told me you should stay with this person any time you go to LA,” she says. “I did and they booked me for LIB.”
It was a gig that gave her the confidence that she could be the star she always saw through that farmhouse window as a child.
“I think a lot artists feel discouraged,” she admits. “They see you on the festival lineup and they think, ‘Oh, she must know someone.’ You can put yourself down, but I think perseverance is what it takes. I’m sometime still that head-down-to-myself performer when I feel shy or insecure. Over the years, I’ve played all kinds of gigs. Sometimes people literally have their backs turned to you. But lately, I’ve really been focusing doing my best at every show.”
This year, Jemma has fully embraced a way of being she refers to as the “Cosmic Cowgirl.”
“The cosmic, or psychedelic, cowgirl archetype of that is the willingness to allow yourself to be free and question the things you say you’re not allowed to do,” she explains. “Why can’t I be a country soul funk superstar? Why am I putting myself in this box?”
Now that The Goodness is back together and better than ever, Jemma finds herself surrounded by an ever-expanding collective of folk musicians, artists and performers.
“I keep collecting this supergroup band,” she says. “At our fullest, we have strings, horns, drums, electric guitar, backup vocals. It’s grown up to about 12 people so far.”
In South Lake, Jemma will perform Live at Lakeview with a stripped-down quintet. Expect a loose, fun performance from an energetic and authentic road warrior.
“I’m working on allowing myself to be silly since I can be over-serious sometimes,” she says. “I can be a self-defeatist. I’m clumsy and I knock shit over on stage all the time.”
During a recent show at WildCraft Cider Works in Eugene, Jemma was getting so into it that she spilled cider all over herself and didn’t even notice until her clarinet player said something.
“I want to be this really wild person but also in the moment enough to laugh at myself,” Jemma says. “Who’s got a towel? I’m standing in a puddle right now. I like to make jokes about it. The important part is I’m allowing myself to be me.”
Throughout seven years of steady touring and recording, Jemma always has come back to the quiet introspection of the Northern Nevada desert for grounding and inspiration.
“The desert is a lonely place, but it is a place to go within,” she says. “You also have to identify what your saying ‘no’ to in yourself. What are your personal blocks and things that limit your own success? I have to look at those times when I am not letting myself shine.”
The young singer from that Virginia City acre now envisions fronting a giant family band with back-up dancers and extravagant stages full of flowers, lights and imagination.
“I want to have this spectacular thing,” she says. “I’m really trying to think what are the stories that I’m telling? What is the message I am trying to say? How can play it in a new way? “
After her performance in South Lake with openers The Daily Fare, Jemma will head to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert with the live music Reverbia Camp. She plans to play a couple of sets with her band, as well as solo sets throughout the week.
“I won’t be with all the people I usually play with so it’s going to a new experience,” she giggles nervously. “For Oregon County Fair, we had months of rehearsal, but now we are rehearsing in pieces. It’s a good lesson for me to let go and be free.”
— Sean McAlindin
ABOUT Sean McAlindin
Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he's not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local backcountry powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.
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