Jeffrey Gaines – Interview

Over the past three decades, singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeffrey Gaines has created an incredible catalog of music that has won him a devoted fan base.  He’s continued to captivate live audiences during solo gigs, as well as opening for a range of A-list musical peers. I had the opportunity to speak with Gaines as he prepares for to his upcoming City Winery NYC show.

For an intimate evening of soulful vocals and introspective lyrics, you don’t want to miss the performance of Jeffrey Gaines on Sunday, April 14th at City Winery NYC (The Loft). Tickets are still available-click here for more information. Doors 6PM, Show 7PM. 

Interview and photographs by Rebecca Wolf.

RW: I photographed you last August at City Winery NYC when you opened for John Waite. Had you worked with him before?

JG: Yeah, strangely and beautifully he fell in love with my debut record. He met me at a show of mine. I came out and said, “You can’t stand in the crowd and just be anonymous.” And, he’s like, “Love what you did!” So, we’ve known each other since the top of the 90s. 

RW: Is it different being someone’s opening act vs doing a show for yourself?

JG: It’s completely different. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to open up for people. It gives me an onstage perch, a view of the big time. I kind of enjoy that, if you can get it. It’s getting invited to something where you don’t have to concern yourself with the overhead. In ’92 I went on tour with Tom Petty in Europe for the “Into the Great Wide Open Tour.” Those weren’t my tractor trailers; that wasn’t my stage plot and set up. All the pressure to sell that record. I’m like, “I’m on tour with you and Robert Plant is watching me from side stage.” Robert Plant wouldn’t have just come to my show but now he’s watching me. It’s so good. I like to open up for people who were big in a period of time when rock and roll meant a whole bunch. If I’m opening up for Heart or someone like that I really enjoy the crowd. They’re people that rock.

What I carved out, with my debut record being smaller, more intimate…it’s written more in the reality of my life….solo acoustic energy. You’re playing generally a small place. When I’m conceptualizing it, when I’m writing songs, still to this day, I’d like to imagine I’m at Glastonbury and it’s a massive crowd. But, then I realize I’m making these records now and it’s like I’m whispering in one person’s ear. I tend to make really intimate records. I love when I’m in front of someone else’s audience from another era when rock and roll was king and concerts were king. I do a lot of that because I don’t have that audience really because of the kind of music I’ve made.  People listen to it very intimately and feel private about me and they don’t want to share it. Unfortunately, it’s a real weird, strange mistake; I keep writing these songs and when someone listens to them, when someone enjoys them, they think it’s just them and me and it’s private. They don’t even just listen with a friend or going somewhere with a gang of people in a car. It’s like, “Oh, when I come home from the party, then I’ll play Jeffrey Gaines.” 

RW: Yeah, to zone out with a glass of wine. 

JG: Yeah, zone out with a glass of wine.  I’ve even seen it when they get together they’re looking around at other people like, “You know him, too?” It’s like I’ve made it so intimate that people think when I get them in a group that I’m cheating on them. It’s like, “I didn’t know you knew all these girls.” They’re like, “No, I like you more, or I like you most.” I’m like, “Put your tables together, and say hi to the person next to you.” 

We’re trying to sell this City Winery in NY. I’m at the loft, upstairs. I’m in the little room but little is still big to me. I’m still trying to get people to fill that up. I’m always ready to rock. All I want to do is rock and I love playing guitar and I love the whole thing. Anybody who’d be doing it would understand what I mean. It’s like a great feeling. If you’ve got that thing and you can do it …I’d love to do it every night. 

RW: When you’re home, just hanging out, are you singing and playing music because it’s such a passion for you?

JG: The only thing with that is I can’t stop listening to everybody else. So, whether I’m making music or playing music, when I’m at home I’m usually just playing stuff because I like to stay fired up with the tunes. That’s just an overspill from junior high. It feels really weird because I’m still listening to the same stuff for the pleasure of just listening to music. I’m not that sophisticated in my interests. What I listen to is so punk and so different than what I do. Whatever is from your formative years. I’m always making sure I’m never leaving that, at least in my listening. That’s where the excitement is, in my spirit and that’s what made me want to do it. I’ll be driving to a gig that’s going to be super mellow but the drive up I’ll be so ramped. Then I get to the gig and I have to bring my energy down. If you’re solo, without a drummer kicking off the beat, without any pulse, I like going into them with more pulse than you need. Then you try to harness that back. I’ll play something from my first record like, “A Dark Love Song.” You just have to kind of slow it down and get into the depth of it but the energy’s there. 

The solo acoustic gig came to me. The first time I saw Billy Bragg opening for Echo & the Bunnymen I was like, “Holy shit, that’s it.” So, I moved from Harrisburg, where I had a band and friends I grew up with, to Philly. I didn’t get to bring a band and I didn’t have time to start a band. I started playing solo acoustic in 1989 and there were so many places to play gigs. Then I got signed in ’90 playing solo. Once the label sees you that way, and they decide that’s what you’ll do, so much for getting funding. They’re like, “You don’t need a band.” I said, “I want one.” They responded, “We saw you playing by yourself. Just keep doing that.” So, that’s how the whole career thing end up being Jeffrey Gaines solo. I wish some of my band records would’ve taken off more. Big radio preferred playing a song of me and my guitar so they started playing that “In Your Eyes” cover. That was just somebody bootlegging a live version at a gig one night. Who knows if that’s the quintessential version but that’s the one that got recorded. It’s so weird how you get known for something. I’m not Peter Gabriel but he’s like, “I wish I’d sung that with the kind of feeling you give it.” I said, “It’s the sound of feeling that I give it because I don’t know what it’s about. I wasn’t in that relationship that was so profound for you.” Anyone singing a cover can only imagine what the feeling is.

RW: Well, you make it your own. 

JG: You absolutely make it your own, and I can’t help making stuff my own. I like revisiting The Police, at least the first two records. I just can’t even believe the magic going on. I liked it when it first came out, as did everybody. But, now that I’ve been through all the processes and know how hard it is to capture the magic on tape, it just holds up so well. As they got bigger, the bigness started happening and that new thing started to take their eye off the ball. However, that’s often in conflict with the amount of sales. When the bigger hits are coming that’s often when I’ll be dropping off those  artists, when I can hear the elements changing too much. But, the general public will love it a lot.

RW: Well, that happens a lot. When artists have favorites and there are different ones the public picks up on and those become the hits. So, have you opened for Sting ever?

JG: Yeah, I did get to open up for Sting. He said, do an hour, which is a lot more than any crowd ever wants. The lights go dark and they start cheering and then I come out and they go, “Okay, it’s the opening act. I’m sure it’s going to be fine. “ And, it is fine but it’s not the person you came for. Throughout history it’s been about 30 minutes but Sting’s like, “Do an hour.” I think we may have past the threshold of their interest but Sting was like, “musicians first. I want you to get your fill.” That was so sweet of him. 

RW: Does it get uncomfortable if you’re playing your music and the crowd isn’t keying in? Does it change your motivation?

JG: If that does happen, luckily people are there because they love music, so I can sing my way into holding their interest. They usually stay onboard as long as I’m singing. I don’t do a whole lot of guitar noodling. There’s not a lot of time I don’t keep a human connection.

RW: Are there artists you’d still like to perform with or open for?

JG: I would’ve loved to have opened up for John Mellancamp. To this day, I think the simple strokes of his guitar, the simple lyrics and the simple vibe…I think we would’ve sung and written great together. We would just be taking the music back. Sometimes a person has acquired enough of the fame game that they’re not in pursuit of it anymore. It’s not about some thirst for more. That’s how I think about Mellancamp. 

RW: Do you have any other musical goals you’ve set for yourself at this point in your career?

JG: I wish I had more goals in general. That’s a good question. Sometimes, people think when they talk to me now, any interviewer, civilian, or fan I get the sense, “Are you working? Are you working on new music?” It sounds like I’m being snappy but I’m like, “I want you to know me more. I want you to know that I’ve never worked on new music.  And, whenever I came up with another thought I never thought of it as new.” They are not new, they are trying to be old. It could come out in 2024 but it’s not going to sound new. There’s not going to be any influence or appearance of now in it. If I’m doing it right it will come out in 2025 and sound like “Something in the Air,” from Thunderclap Newton. I’m trying to nail something that is gone anyway. I don’t want things patched in through the board, or simulated. I don’t want to the newest technology to fake something.

RW: You’re more like old school. You like it like it’s supposed to sound.

JG: Yeah, I don’t want to fake anything. I know there’s a guy with a keyboard that can fake every sound but I don’t want that.  And I find audiences now need a little help. They can be as uptight as an office meeting sometimes. No one is going to cut loose because everyone will stare at that one person who’s really feeling it.

RW: Well, it’s also because they will be yelled at by security.

JG: Or, they will face societal ridicule. The only thing that’s going on is you’re trying to get people to feel more liberated. How can I instruct them during this period of time, instruct them to have more fun. You have two hours and I’m hoping when it ends you’re not wishing you’d yelled up to tell me to play something. In between songs it was silent and you could’ve nudged it. You could’ve said it and set the show off on a course that would’ve made it unique to tonight. You can make our night so much different than last night for me. Don’t just watch it like a TV show. We are collectively the program. You are capable of having an impression on me and I’m hoping to be interacting with you guys. 

RW: Well, you need a person to instigate it and make people feel comfortable to speak up and interact.

JG: I know. I just laugh to myself because I’m him. I’m that person who’ll go to someone else’s show and get it going. So, who’s me now?

RW: Well, I’m bringing a friend to your show and she’s not afraid to speak up. So, we will have that covered for you.

JG: NICE!! Thanks! Looking forward to it!