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The Songs That Changed My Life: Jeremy Ivey

By Helen M Jerome

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Jeremy Ivey is talking to Holler from the home he shares with his wife, fellow musician Margo Price, and their two children. He’s perched in a corner of their charmingly messy music room, just outside Nashville, as the sun streams in. The couple met when Price was working as a waitress in a bar, and went on to play in two bands together, Secret Handshake and Buffalo Clover, plus her ‘supergroup’ The Pricetags, which also featured Sturgill Simpson.

Spooling back into Ivey’s earlier life, however, takes you into an endless series of knock backs. Born in San Antonio, Texas, as a child he had a stroke, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and told he’d never walk or talk. Typically, Ivey proved them wrong, emerging as a gifted guitarist, songwriter and now solo artist with his latest, third album, Invisible Pictures.

Ivey also overcame the restrictions he faced when adopted by a strict Christian family who home-schooled him and stopped him from hearing pop music. The moment he could escape, he was out of there. Being Texan was another thing Ivey was ashamed of.

“I wanted to be from the north, not the south. I’m a sensitive, feminine sort of guy; I’ve never had that macho thing. I was embarrassed to be from Texas because it put me in this class of people that were these kind of brainless jerks who rode around with loaded guns in their truck; they wanted the world by the balls and they thought they owned it, and they don’t. I was never that kind of person. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve accepted it. There are some incredible songwriters from Texas - Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark - so it’s okay to be from Texas, you don’t have to be a jerk.”

Where his previous albums – 2019’s The Dream and The Dreamer and2020’s Waiting Out The Storm - were respectively about “imagined things”and “the world”, with Invisible Pictures, Ivey has turned the spotlight on himself. All the songs here were written in about two months at the end of 2020, after he’d had a nasty bout of Covid, yet despite everything he tried to put a little bit of hope into the whole album.

“A lot of points of positivity were shut off, like travelling. And I was worried I wouldn’t be able to write because I usually do that between shows, even when I’m on the road with my wife. That movement creates creativity, so I felt stale. I was drinking too much and going through a pretty low depression. Not that I had any right to be depressed, because everyone else was going through the same kind of thing, but it hit me pretty hard.”

So Ivey turned his creativity to writing precisely about this, trying to find the good in the worst feelings, and emerging stronger for it. “Even the darkest song here has a little bit of ‘it’s going to be okay’. I kept one song off the record because it didn’t have that edge of hope, a song called ‘Closure’ about my birth father, who I never met, and it was pretty mean and harsh and I thought it didn’t belong. I did try to put hope in this record, but I didn’t want it to be cheesy; I’m really bad at writing straight-up happy songs.”

Songwriting can be cathartic for Ivey, with his latest batch including ‘Black Mood’ on depression, ‘Phantom Limb’ on abuse, and the title track about the Christmas 2020 Nashville bombing. “I don’t go to therapy, so writing songs is therapy for me. It doesn’t mean I’m always going to write super-autobiographical songs, but even if I’m writing a completely made-up story about a cowboy bank-robber, there’ll be me in there. It’s the old cliché… it’s cheaper than therapy.”

He was also finally ready to channel one of his musical idols on this record. In high school he’d started writing songs and playing a style he thought he’d invented, and using his little four-track recorder to double his vocals and guitar. Then one day a friend told him he had to listen to this guy called Elliott Smith.

“It kind of wrecked me, because there was somebody else already doing this who was better than me. I almost quit completely. I was very into Elliott’s music and started absorbing it, but I knew I couldn’t do that any more. So for years I tried to avoid it, and the simpler, three-chord thing was my palette; a lot of country songs. Then recently I thought I can do whatever I want, and it felt really freeing. I’d limited myself because Elliott had done it better, but I decided to not let that bother me. Even if it came off like I was ripping him off, that was fine.”

The finishing touches came first by working with Elliott Smith’s collaborator, Rob Schnapf, out in California. He even played his idol’s own hollow-body guitar on ‘Phantom Limb’. “It was so cool to walk in there and pick up the guitars that Elliott wrote some of XO on. There was this little Gibson ES-330 that didn’t belong to him, before he could afford his own, and I also got to play one of the acoustics he played a lot, on that track. It was like being a kid in a candy store.”

Jeremy Ivey has clearly enjoyed thinking about the songs that changed his life, and refers to his notes as we go through them, one by one. His choices reflect every part of his childhood, youth and musical awakening.

T.S. Eliot - The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock

Most people would try to be cool and say this hip artist influenced me, but I did something kind of weird and went all the way back with my first two picks, that aren’t necessarily “song” songs.

The first thing that influenced me with wordplay was TS Eliot. So my first track is a poem, ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’. It’s great and I still look back at it as the first thing that really struck me. There’s an innocence about it, plus the fact that I was a young teenager when I first read it. This was in a book that my friend gave me, a generic, “greatest poets of all time” kind of book. I’ve heard Eliot doing it himself which is great.

Beethoven - Pathetique, Third Movement

Growing up I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music, so I couldn’t listen to rock n roll, folk, country, blues, any of that stuff. It was all off the table. For us it was only Christian and classical. Of course, I went with classical, so the next thing would be the third movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique. There are three songs in that movement, and a lot of range it, a lot of tenderness and melody. That’s influenced me a lot.

The Ronettes - Be My Baby

I still wasn’t allowed to listen to music, but started hearing it. I was a pretty damn good basketball player, to pat myself on the back – a two guard and point guard – and my coach was an oldies fan, so we always had music cranked up on the bus going to play a game.

One song that knocked me out was the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’. I’m not going super deep into obscure stuff, but as a kid this really hit me. In the 90s it shouldn’t have meant much to me, but there’s something about the way it sounded, the way those girls sang, the song itself, the hook, everything. Sometimes the first time you hear something it’s just right.

When I finally got a copy of it I played it over and over, like Brian Wilson losing his mind. That wall of sound, and the way [drummer] Hal Blaine is missing every other snare hit. I read later it was a mistake because he was trying to get his headphones on when they were counting the song off, and Phil Spector said keep doing that!

The Beatles - Think For Yourself

Another obvious choice, but the first record I was actually allowed to have and not get in trouble for was Rubber Soul by the Beatles. I’d only heard a few early Beatles songs so I wasn’t really well versed besides ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and one or two I heard on the oldies station that my coach played. I went out and bought Rubber Soul on CD and lived with it for a couple of years, and it changed the way I looked at writing, chord progressions, harmonies and melodic guitar lines.

The song that really hit me was a ‘Think For Yourself’. Growing up in a fundamental, southern Baptist Community, thinking for yourself wasn’t really allowed. That song meant a lot to me because I knew that – and I had a little wink to myself – I was going to get out of it; I was going to have my own brain and my own thoughts. That song inspired me to break free.

Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind

I knew his greatest hits, but really discovered Dylan when I moved to Colorado after high school. I was over at a friend’s house, and I’d smoked weed before, but never real weed. I’d been smoking this horrible stuff, and in Colorado they had this plethora of outdoor organic whatever. So I got stoned at my friend’s house, and I’d never heard this record before, and I remember thinking I kind of knew it was Dylan, but he sounded older, more laidback and groovy.

The song that really hit me was ‘Idiot Wind’. I had read Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell and you can go through and pick out the song titles that Dylan took… ‘Idiot Wind’ seemed like the meanest song you could write to anybody - I like the fact that you could unload on some person, even if it’s an ex-lover, and be so precise with your verbiage, about the “wind blowing through the buttons of our coats, and the letters that we wrote”. That song set me off to the very lyrical rock n roll I ended up liking.

Elliot Smith - Independence Day

Elliott Smith definitely affected me a lot. He’s not known for his positive, happy songs – although I feel like he’s got a few that are really good, maybe some of the best songs he ever wrote were positive.

But with ‘Independence Day’, if you’ve ever played the guitar before and you try to play that song, it’s a finger twister, with that little lick, the way that he did descending lines he definitely got from the Beatles. Their melodies went in steps and Elliott knew that and used it. He’s speaking to someone who’s a “future butterfly” - someone younger, saying it’s going to be okay because one day they’re going to get rid of this cocoon they’re in. It’s a beautiful song.

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Jeremy Ivey's new album, Invisible Pictures, is out on Friday, March 11, via Anti- Records.