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Bio

Jesse Terry

On the eponymous title track of Stargazer, the lushly orchestrated and existentially optimistic fourth LP from singer/songwriter Jesse Terry, the notion of personal unhappiness is framed in terms of a cosmic choice: “Go on stargazer, I know how much it hurts / But you are free now to pick your universe.” Infused with the warmth of a beautifully arranged string quartet and the otherworldly tremor of a lap steel guitar, “Stargazer” unfurls as a melodic Zen koan, a deep intuition all of us have at one point or another that the extent of our suffering — no matter its apparent source or point of origin — is largely up to us. The world’s frequent brutality and indifference are undeniable facts of life, facts that can feel oppressive and impenetrable. True freedom inheres in our ability to choose hope — to pick resilience over recrimination, optimism over oblivion. Taking that timeless and hard-won kernel of wisdom as his starting point — the recognition that hopelessness is the worst kind of human prison —  Terry’s lustrous, earnest Stargazer is precisely the kind of record we need in these seemingly hopeless times.

In a period of American life considered the most divisive and tribalistic in modern memory, the notion of hopefulness may feel misplaced to some. For Terry, though, it’s a byproduct of his own life experience. “I think I will always be innately hopeful, because I’ve seen how much life can change,” he says.  “And I’ve seen how much people can change, if they open up and allow themselves to do so.” After a turbulent adolescence defined by runaway shelters and reform schools, Terry grew up encountering other people in increasingly desperate situations. He credits the health of his outlook today to the pain he shared with others all those years ago. “I’m only happy because I know how difficult life can be. And then I become even more grateful, because even though I’ve traveled down some dark roads, I’ve met many more that have had it so much worse,” he says.  “People whose lives were devoid of love or light, without any family or without families that cared.” When he awoke hooked up to machines in a hospital bed in the aftermath of a substance-fueled binge at 18 years old, Terry says he realized that happiness is a choice, and he vowed to begin making it daily.  At a certain point, he says, a vision of what happiness would look like took hold in his mind. “I feel like I’ve been on that path for a long time now,” he says. “There always was a tiny spark in the shadows, even at my lowest points. If you’re working on it, the light gets brighter every day. Now I’m in a place that I love, with a wife that I love, with family in my life that I love. But it took a long while.”

Around that time in his life, Terry’s mother lent him her old acoustic guitar — it was love at first pluck. Songwriting became a codified means for him to discover who he was, and he dropped out of art school to pursue it full-time. Though he had been on a path to become a painter, he says there was something vital in music that was missing in visual art. “Fine art at that time felt more like a chore than a gift,” he says. “I knew that I had some talent there with visual art, but it didn’t save my life like music did. I never needed it to survive.” Music had always been a part of Terry’s life, however. His earliest musical memories were the sounds emanating from his parents’ turntable: the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, Electric Light Orchestra (sounds that, not coincidentally, largely inform the sonics of Stargazer). Both his parents had beautiful singing voices and were part of a successful local duo until they divorced when he was five. His father maintained a recording studio of one sort or another throughout Terry’s childhood, and he would often let his son record vocals on tracks. It wasn’t until he began writing his own songs that Terry truly began to realize music’s capacity to heal. Though he had turned to the Beatles and James Taylor for healing and guidance through some of the most difficult seasons of his own life, he realized that songwriting gave him that same capacity for connecting with another troubled soul. More powerful still was the realization that his songs might be able to help others heal. “At a certain point I realized that I might have the chance to ease someone else’s pain with my music, which is a much more powerful and humbling thing,” he says. “So I consider myself very lucky if the experiences that I went through gave me some empathy and helped me connect with other human beings at a foundational level – to understand some of that struggle and some of that resilience.”

Stargazer is very much an album representing the arc of that journey. Forged in the crucible of the artist’s earnest engagement with a chaotic, confusing world, the record is wonderfully difficult to classify. Drawing inspiration from a diverse pool of influences — from vintage Jeff Lynne-produced pop to the Roy Orbison of “In Dreams” to The Man Who-era Travis — Stargazer is an album commensurate with its moment, imbued with an unconquerably hopeful perspective. “I will always go back to hope and lean on that, because that’s what has gotten me here in the first place,” Terry says. Produced with multi-instrumentalist collaborator Josh Kaler in Nashville’s sumptuous EastSide Manor Studios, every aspect of the album went through an intentionally rigorous evaluative process. “Josh and I worked in the studio for months, making sure that we were bringing something fresh to every track, some kind of new sound or new harmony line or new string line,” Terry says. “I wanted Stargazer to be arranged and produced like the records I first fell in love with.” A significant part of that production process involved strings and renowned arranger Danny Mitchell. “I’ve worked with great string players in the past, but this is the first album where I’ve had the strings professionally arranged for a quartet,” Terry says. The inherent magic, power, and emotion in Mitchell’s arrangements are palpable throughout the record. “I wrote many of these songs with the strings in mind, knowing that they’d be taking my songs to new places.”

One need only listen to the soaring chorus of track “Woken the Wildflowers” to understand what Terry means. Begun while on holiday in New Zealand with his kiwi wife in the wake of the 2017 Women’s March, the song is a tribute to the renewal of American ideals made manifest that day. “Those are the American values that we read about in grade school – equality, justice, decency, freedom, truth – and I loved seeing millions of people across the world standing up for those beliefs,” Terry says. “I wanted to honor that in song.” Undergirding the chorus’ gentle call to “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” the strings swell with the possibility of regeneration felt across the world that day.

Stargazer is notable, too, for the diversity of its sonic palette. Terry is as adept at cross-pollinating spacey rockabilly with power pop (“Dance in Our Old Shoes”) as he is at writing dreamy, Beatles-esque ballads about a loved one’s toxic personality (“Kaleidoscope”); as comfortable at the helm of a charging, Springsteen-down-South ode to the new Nashville (“Runaway Town”) as he is singing a heartbreakingly tender lullaby to a European capital (“Dear Amsterdam”). “People, myself included, are always trying to categorize music into specific genres and I really wanted to avoid thinking that way while making this record,” he says. “In fact, the term ‘genre-less’ became a bit of a mantra for me as I was writing and recording Stargazer.”

The result is a record representing a clarity of vision and a creative pinnacle that, for Terry, has been a career in the making. The countless hours logged on the road and in the studio, he says, have primed him for this moment. “I’ve loved the slow and steady arc my career has taken, the places around the world it’s taken me and the people it’s put in my path,” he says. “Two years ago, even a year ago, I wasn’t ready to make this album.”

He remains anchored to the raw wonder he felt when first picked up his mother’s guitar all those years ago, to the period in his life when an optimist emerged from the black fog of early tribulations.

“Everything feels like it’s happening at the right time.”