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Jackie Greene’s Basement Tapes

Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta | February 20, 2018
jackie greene jay blakesbergJay Blakesberg

On an early fall evening in New York City, a day before the release of his new EP The Modern Lives Vol. 1, Jackie Greene is conducting a Q&A for a small crowd at The Cutting Room. Eventually, and inevitably, the conversation turns to his tenure in a certain Southern rock band. “When I heard that you were going to be in The Black Crowes, I thought, ‘That’s kinda weird’ because I didn’t think of you in that way,” the moderator says. Greene flashes a knowing smile and responds, “You thought I had no chops, man!”

Indeed, Greene has worn many hats over the years, from moonlighting in bands like the Crowes and Phil Lesh & Friends to a stint in the supergroup Trigger Hippy. After releasing his acclaimed 2002 debut record Gone Wanderin’, he was hailed as an acoustic laureate at the tender age of 21, eliciting comparisons to Bob Dylan. Later, while bolstering his prolific solo career, he opened for legendary guitarists like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, and also toured with Bob Weir’s RatDog. All of these different roles (in tandem with his keen songwriting abilities and California-country vibe) have granted Greene the ability to cross genre lines and connect with fans from all walks of life. Eight studio records and countless tours later, he landed in Brooklyn in 2015 faced with yet another challenge. Used to California’s wide-open spaces, the singer had to adjust to the noisy confines of New York City.

“I have a love-hate relationship with New York, as I think all New Yorkers do,” Greene admits a few weeks after his Cutting Room show. Melding together country sounds with urban laments—as only a Californian-turned-New Yorker could—his new EP The Modern Lives Vol. 1 wastes no time equating Times Square with a graveyard, and billboards with headstones, on opening track “Modern Lives.”

“The Modern Lives project is basically my documentation of my New York years,” Greene says, adding that volume two is already in the works. Recorded and produced last winter through spring, The Modern Lives Vol. 1 was a kind of independent study for Greene. Its liner notes are singular, just the singer and whatever equipment he managed to haul from the West Coast. “I wanted to make something that felt, quite frankly, homemade.” he says. “I did everything myself in my basement in Brooklyn. I played all the instruments myself.”

And while it was a rewarding experience, Greene acknowledges that taking on all of that responsibility was a leap of faith. “It’s a little bit scary to go into a project knowing you have to do everything yourself,” he says. “But it’s kind of like the pride you get when you build something in woodshop class.”

Despite his previous experiences with home studios, his Brooklyn setup was particularly primitive—The Modern Lives Vol. 1 was birthed next to a washer-dryer and storage space. “Professional is not a word I would use to describe it at all,” he chuckles. In an extreme “exercise in patience,” Greene spent his days writing and recording, hoping that the incessant clamor of New York City wouldn’t pour through the subterranean room’s small, street-facing window. “You could be doing a take and, in the last 10 seconds, someone’s car alarm goes off outside. It’s not ideal,” he recalls.