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NEW YORK — She grew up listening to albums such as Emmylou Harris’ “Roses in the Snow” and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” so when it came time for country singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander to give her first release a title, she went for something similarly evocative: “Honeysuckle Sweet.”
“I truly am a Southern girl and most of my writing comes from that place,” explains the Tennessee-born Alexander, who touches on pop, rock and blues in her 11-track debut, which comes out Tuesday on Columbia Records and which she coproduced. “The title has a nice paradox because the rest of the record is really dark.”
She’s no Alanis Morissette, mind you, but in each song about life, relationships or faith (this is country music, after all), there’s a melancholic edge. On “Everywhere,” she practically cries through a moving ballad about being unable to shake an old love and on “Unfulfilled,” she wistfully sings, “I got chains around my ankles/I got chains around my heart,” calling to mind the voices of Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt.
Alexander admits she can’t even write a true love song. “I have a great boyfriend and I want to write a song about how great he is, but I can’t,” she says with a shrug. Luckily, her boyfriend, John Randall, a songwriter who has worked with Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley, is pretty understanding: “He kills everyone in his songs, so he knows how it is.”
The only reason Alexander hangs her hat in country music, she says, is because of the great “cheatin’, drinkin’, pitiful” songs, but it also has something to do with her upbringing: She spent every summer with her father, a musician and painter, in Nashville (she lived in Georgia for most of the year with her mother), listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King play on Beale Street. “I got to go into honky-tonks and beer joints and live that life as a child,” she says. “And of course, they wanted to give the cute seven-year-old blonde the tip jar so I would collect tips for a lot of the bands and I remember feeling like ‘This is it. This is the kind of energy I want to be around.’”
While studying social work at Middle Tennessee State University, she played gigs in Nashville and eventually moved there just before graduation. She got steady work as a back-up singer, often performing at the Grand Ole Opry, and was signed to Warner-Chappell as a songwriter, where her ballads were sung by Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. After winning a competition for the best unsigned act in Nashville, at the Nashville Grammy Showcase, in 2001, Alexander got signed to MCA (she later moved to Sony’s Columbia imprint), and recorded her album in Memphis.
Now that she’s constantly touring the country, Alexander has become an authority on thrift store shopping and tracking down the nearest Lucky store. “I love their jeans, but I would say the majority of my closet is vintage,” she says. “Any time I have to make an appearance, I try to find some great old dress.” She picked up a love of the old from her mom, who passed away last year. “We were poor, but she made me think going thrift shopping was this big event,” Alexander recalls. “Maybe it’s the songwriter in me — I like to find someone’s old belt or boots, you know? I definitely try to wear things that have a story.”