Time To Go Home
The bar is about half full and Michael Jarrett is ending his set with the appropriately titled "Time to Go Home," the first cut from his debut album "Come On." A twenty-something woman with hoop earrings leans forward and taps her foot. Sitting beside her, a man in a baseball cap nurses the last of his Budweiser and looks from the girl to Jarrett and back again. The place is quiet, except for the sparsely strummed guitar and the distinctly unmusical sound of a bartender dragging a garbage can. Jarrett leans into the microphone for the last verse, intently staring at the space between my table and the next, and sings, "You put your hand on my shoulder, and whispered it's time to go home."
The last chord is strummed and the audience begins clapping. The girl with the hoop earrings is smiling wide and the man sitting with her, downs the rest of his beer and grabs his coat. It's time to go home.
Home for Jarrett is a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of Austin, TX. When I arrived there the day before, 30 minutes late for the interview we'd scheduled, I apologized and blamed a wrong turn. "Hey, no sweat," he said, welcoming me in, "I forgot what time you said you were coming."
Michael Jarrett is 31 years old, but looks more like 25. He's tall and thin; his dusty blonde hair cut short and neat. He wears snap shirts, Wranglers, and the old fashioned Hush Puppy boots, not out of odd nostalgia or some affinity with the Texas mystique, but rather "because they're comfortable." It's as simple as that. And Jarrett's songs - often probing, humorous and tender all at the same time - are characterized by the same simple idea. They work because they're true, they're genuine, and, in short, they're comfortable.
In his thick Georgia drawl, he asks if I'd like some wine and motions toward the couch, clearing a place among various books on spirituality, a few novels, and compilations of short stories (a collection of Flannery O'Conner among others). I'd heard his first album, "Come On," which I thought was a great debut into the songwriter society, but I was ill prepared to ask anything more than the standard "who are your influences?" type questions.
"Nice place you got here," I said, as he offered me the wine in a coffee mug.
"Yeah man, I live here for free." He went into the story, which explained my driving through a subdivision of multi-million dollar houses to arrive at a dirt road and a mobile home trailer. Like all the stories I was to hear, it was ridiculous but I knew it was true.
Michael grew up in Columbus, GA in a family with three younger brothers. His college years took him to southeastern Tennessee and it was there that he began his songwriting. After college, he bounced around Texas and back to Tennessee, working on ranches, in bars and for a high-school ministry, before ending up in Austin late in 1999.
Since then, it would still be difficult to say that Michael calls anywhere home. "I woke up here this morning," was his response to how long he might continue to live in Austin. It is this seemingly nonchalant approach to life that is belied in his songs. With a catalogue that far exceeds the 25 recordings, clarity, poignancy and attention to detail have become the identifying marks of Michael's songwriting.
How long have you been playing music?
I got a guitar for Christmas when I was in high-school. I didn't really play a whole lot then but... I have horrible rhythm and so I was trying to play and I couldn't strum a song to save my life and so I learned these finger-picking patterns like you might hear sometimes in folk music and stuff and I learned to play these patterns because they had a natural rhythm to 'em so I could kinda fake it. But really, I didn't play much at all, I didn't write anything in high-school and then in college, a good friend of mine and I, the very first week I was up there at Sewanee, we got together and we were playing. Well we'd try to play together, he had really good rhythm and I'd try to follow along but actually it took me about three years after that, and that was playing regularly in college, it took me about three years before I could play a song that wasn't mine because I didn't have the rhythm to follow along. I don't know, I still have pretty poor rhythm. I have a good friend who's a drummer and he definitely agrees.
When did you realize you wanted to be a songwriter?
Actually, I went to school to be... I don't even know if I'd say right now that I want to be a songwriter. I don't like get up in the morning and think, you know "OK, I'm a songwriter." I mean I work hard for that and I work hard to get the shows but I do so many other things. I spent like six months in Mexico this summer and I travel around doing jobs here and there. And I play music all the time and it's just kinda part of who I am, I don't know, it's not something that I just felt like "hey," you know, "I'm gonna try this vocation for a while." It's more just like "hey," you know, it's like my left arm or whatever.
But yeah when I went to school, I went to Sewanee... I was gonna be a veterinarian, get a pre-vet degree, but after the first semester of physics, I decided I didn't care to be studying sciences for the rest of my life so I ended up being a Math major for a while 'cause I did really good in calculus... really well. And the head of the department asked me if I wanted to be a Math major and I said "sure," you know. Then I became an English major for a while and ended up being an American Studies major which was kinda like "ok you don't have to decide on anything as long as it has to do with America you can study it." It was a lot better for my personality.
What do you think about your songs being compared to writers like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine?
Well shoot. You know, it's an honor actually that anybody would compare my music to Townes or to John Prine. I guess I don't feel this huge burden to be different. I've always been kind of an odd person anyway, I guess. So it's not really (laughing) something I have to try for. And so being compared to someone, two or even more of my favorite songwriters, I think it's wonderful. I can listen to my songs and hear that they're very different than these guys and also see the similarities that everybody else hears, and that's fine with me.
What kind of things tend to inspire you to write a song?
Well, I don't know what inspires me to write a song. I know that I have a lot of songs that are (chuckling) kinda sad or at least... no, they're pretty sad. But they always have this --most of 'em at least, there are several that don't-- have this tongue in cheek sadness. Like I know that I'm sad but I've been sad before and I got out of it. And actually I don't work on... well I don't write those songs, I might come up with a line or two, but I don't spend a lot of time on those songs when I'm in the middle of the feeling. I kinda have to wait until I get past it and can have some perspective looking back and say, you know, "ok this is how I was feeling." And try to be... like if it was after a bad relationship or something, I try to be aware of how I'm feeling and maybe even ask a few questions to myself like metaphor type questions, similes, you know, this feeling is like this, it's like this or whatever.
I kinda see a lot of my songs as these parables that talk about things that I believe, that are important to me emotionally, spiritually. You don't necessarily have to... if you don't get it that's alright I guess. People who do get it enjoy the songs a little more. But people enjoy (Ballad of the) Ace of Spades all the time and I really don't know how many people get it.
Do you find that songwriting comes easily?
No way. Songs do not come very easily to me at all. I have (the song) Phillip Lee. That thing took me over two years to write and I was working on it pretty regularly the whole time. I had the first verse, which is also the last, and the chorus were written in an evening, pretty much, the chorus was tweeked a little bit but it was written in just one evening. Then it took me two years (laughing again) to figure out what the rest of the song was about. Yeah, yeah. It was something else.
There are other songs that I've written in just a couple days but it always, gollee. No, no it's not something that comes easily but I can't testify that it doesn't come more easily than it would for someone else. But it definitely doesn't come easily.
Do you write anything other than songs?
Yeah, I've tried writing just about everything. Also, I've wanted to dabble in photography but that didn't work out for financial reasons. And I paint, some, or I'm learning to paint. I'm hoping that there will be one of my paintings on my next album, we'll see how that goes. I guess there's just as good a chance of getting a painting for the album as getting the album out right now.
Then I've written short stories. I've written poetry. I've written a novel or, I've attempted to. I've worked on a couple screen-plays, a short film. I'm working right now on a feature length and... what else can you write? Letters, emails, yeahŠ you name it.
What is your favorite one of your songs?
My favorite song is probably whatever is the most recent song generally. You know, if I just wrote it, I'm usually pretty excited about playing it for a while. But I don't know, I think that probably I have more like favorite parts of my songs. Which is good 'cause it keeps me excited about singing each one. Yeah, different lines.
Which of your songs is the most popular with audiences?
The most popular song, for the longest time has been Ballad of the Ace of Spades. Pretty much since I wrote that song, it has been the most popular. It's got that talking, story telling to music accessibility I guess. I don't have to sing on it, except for a little bit at the chorus, so maybe that's why people like it. And it's kinda funny. You know, I'm glad it's people's favorite cause it definitely has a spiritual message that's there for people to hear if they want it.
Also, the new one is Canadia, starts off "My bonnie, lovely lady." Yeah, people dig that one a lot. It's funny, it's cute, it's sensitive. Blah, blah, blah.