Pop music: The beatniks are back - in Parsons Green
Sarah Jepp was afraid her career was stalling. Then epiphany struck on the District Line.
Friday 26 June 1998
Sitting in the elegant lounge of the Portobello Hotel in Notting Hill, 25-year-old singer-songwriter Sarah Jepp punctuates this admission with a slightly nervous laugh. The daughter of an Irish-American mother and a Chilean father, she was born in Minnesota, but also lived in New York and Los Angeles before settling in London. Jepp has also spent a fair amount of time "on the road". Fitting, then, that Mojo magazine should describe her eponymous debut album in terms of "beatnik cool".
Talking to her, it soon becomes apparent that her journey thus far has been peppered with false starts, odd jobs, and intriguing characters. At 19, having decided that she couldn't handle the cold of another Minnesota winter, she moved to L.A's Venice Beach and took a job as a nanny. "It was a complete nightmare", she says. "I kinda expected the mom to mother me a bit, too, but she was more interested in getting me to clean the house, like, 16 hours a day."
Her next jobs were as a breakfast waitress and a telemarketing clerk, but despite having "lucked-out" with an inexpensive room on the Venice Canals, L.A's vacuous side was beginning to grate. "You'd get the smile, but that was it," she explains. "I'd go, `I'm a bit down, I just got here,' and they'd go, `I gotta go talk to my friend over there'. I figured it was me," she laughs. "I moved to New York."
Though Jepp was already writing perceptive vignettes and developing a vocal style redolent of a more stentorian Rickie Lee Jones, at this stage, she still didn't have the self-belief to pursue music professionally.
She went to fashion school for a time, even wrote sketches for a stand- up comedian at one point. Down on her luck, she took a job at a horse stable in Central Park, moving from "friend's couch to friend's couch".
It was around this time that she met Dave Boyd of Hut Records. Within two months of her forming a band with guitarist Brandon Ross and former Jesus And Mary Chain drummer Richie Thomas, Boyd had signed Jepp to Hut. This, she says, was "a miracle out of the clear blue sky".
Produced by Nico Bola, Jepp's debut album carves a refreshing sonic niche. Featured instrumentalists include vibraphone and marimba player Brian Carrott ("Don't forget that extra `t' - he's not a vegetable"), and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.
The departure of Richie Thomas in the project's early stages clearly unsettled Jepp. She says that she felt she'd lost an important ally and was scared that Virgin (of which Hut Records is a subsidiary) wouldn't let her make the album. Her overcoming of that fear is documented on Parsons Green, perhaps the record's stand-out track. "I was travelling on the District Line to my lawyer's office when I had a kind of epiphany," she explains. "I realised that, despite my grief, I shouldn't stop what I was doing."
Jepp tells me that with Bolas cracking the whip, her album took just three weeks to make. She recounts how, when she "lost it" and started crying during a vocal take for the song Orbit, the producer was unmoved. "He was like: `No, this is work, Sarah, and these musicians are on the clock'. He gave me two minutes and then I had to get back in there", she says. Perhaps he realised that if he did get her back at the mike, he'd get the definitive performance? "Well that was his story," she smiles. "He said he knew that if he set me a challenge, I'd always be willing to step up to the plate."
The strength of Jepp's songwriting is its honest portrayal of characters she's met along the way. Christy, for example, is a warts-and-all snap- shot of a wannabe actress she lived with in L.A., while her best friend's mother's migraines and hobbies are immortalised in Bowling Night. Did she worry how Christy might react to her song, I wondered? She pauses. "No matter how good a relationship you have with your friends, there will always be times wen you think `God, you're really getting on my nerves'," she says. "We can all be idiots. Are you gonna have a sense of humour about it, or are you gonna be a phoney?'
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