Jesse Blake Rundle: folk musician on life changes and Idaho life

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023
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Jesse Blake Rundle
Jesse Blake Rundle

Sometimes the most interesting queer music comes from the least expected places; Boise, Idaho, for example. That's where out singer/songwriter Jesse Blake Rundle is based. A Kansas native who spent a number of years living in Washington DC, Rundle has said that he crafted the songs on his new eight-song LP "Next Town's Trees" during a period of "immense change," when he left the church, uncovered his sexuality, began his first same-sex relationship, and became sober. The results are breathtaking, and blaze with beauty, emotion, and raw honesty.

Jesse Blake Rundle  

Gregg Shapiro: I don't get to do this very often when interviewing a musician, but I'd like to begin by talking about poetry and your 2019 chapbook, "Form Burn Step." First, what poets do you read/consider influences?
Jesse Blake Rundle: I love talking poetry! Over the holidays I went to Powell's in Portland and picked up some new books I'm excited to get started on. I really love Wallace Stevens, of course, since I wrote a whole song cycle from his poems. I love his approach to rhythm and also the mix of absurdity and seriousness. Then there's e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, etc. as some classic influences. More recently, I've been reading Solmaz Sharif, James Tate, Mathias Svalina, and Terrance Hayes. That Solmaz Sharif book really blew me away.

Were any of the poems in the chapbook previously published in literary journals or anthologies?
Not yet. I never pursued journal publication for those poems, but I'd like to in the next couple of years. I started looking at journals in 2019 and then realized how involved it is, so I decided to spend my efforts on making music.

What was involved in the process of selecting the poems for the chapbook?
In 2019, I took a poetry class from Kerri Webster, a professor here in Boise. I was so intimidated when I walked into the first day of class. There were about a dozen participants and most had MFAs and had published poetry. I honestly didn't know what a chapbook was, and I was just looking for some inspiration and structure to help me revise some poems.

I soon realized I was going to be assembling a chapbook during the class. I gathered up a couple years' worth of poems, printed them all out, and started narrowing them down until I had a chapbook. Some themes started to emerge on faith, the longing for a romantic relationship, and drunkenness. It was pretty intimidating to share those poems in class because I hadn't shared most of those thoughts with anyone. Every time I read in class I was shaking with nerves. It was overall an incredible experience and I'm so grateful for all the poets in that class.

Have any of the poems turned up as songs on your albums?
Bits and pieces of poems definitely end up in songs, but rarely a full poem. When I'm songwriting, I usually start with an instrumental part and then search for a melody by mumbling over the guitar. Then I grab my stack of papers with old poems and start looking for words that fit the energy of the instrumental. I will often grab lines and stanzas from several different poems and from there figure out the themes and the arc of the story. I got a lot of practice at this process when I was working on my "Radishes and Flowers" album. I used poems from Wallace Stevens' "Harmonium" for lyrics and used a similar process for turning those into songs.

In terms of music, what artists do you consider to be your strongest influences?
Radiohead really changed the way I understand music, particularly Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist. I love the way he thinks. I love the song structures and harmonies and their ability to sing about unusual topics in a compelling way. They cover a lot of emotional territory I rarely hear in music.

Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse are also big influences on my lyrics. They're playful and complicated and meaningful all at the same time. I also spent several years studying classical piano and composition, and I can't escape the influence of composers like Prokofiev, Messiaen, and Reich. They are all deeply embedded in how I think about harmony, texture, and rhythm.

Fire is a recurring theme, as can be heard in the songs "I Want You To Know," "White Hot," "Stones," and "Fire."
The fire theme wasn't intentional and I'm not sure I've interrogated myself enough to even know where it came from. When I was working on the album art with my friend Tyson Gough, it became clear that fire was the key image recurring in the songs and needed to be represented in the art. Tyson and I grew up together in the flint hills of Kansas where the prairies get burned every year. So those prairie fire images are really part of our childhood experience of the world.

Jesse Blake Rundle  

I think the theme of fire is about rebuilding from the scraps of what's been burned down. It's destructive and creative at the same time. And then there's the idea that love — particularly the kind of gay love that was always off-limits before — is dangerous and sparked by the fires of hell.

I really love the brass on "I Want You to Know" and "Stones." How did you know that Jonny Enright's trombone playing would be a good fit for those songs?
God, those horns from Jonny are so beautiful! When I was finishing up production, those songs felt like they needed some grand emotions that I couldn't capture with the guitar or piano. Horns just seemed right. I mapped out some really rough parts in midi first, but those midi sounds can't carry the weight of a real player. So, I sent them to Jonny. He really captured the energy and emotions of the songs in those horn performances.

The gorgeous strings played by Yoed Nir on "Yes, I'm Angry" create an interesting juxtaposition to what you are singing about in the lyrics.
This was one of those a-ha moments during production. I almost cut "Angry" from the album so many times! I kept trying to make it a driving song — trying to carry the anger and frustration present in the lyrics — but it never worked. It felt empty and cheap. Then I realized the song's not really about being angry. It's about being angry internally, while on the surface looking serene. So, I tried out a heavenly type waltz vibe with strings and piano to juxtapose against the lyrics. And then it all made sense.

I didn't have a huge budget for session players, but this song just wouldn't work without real strings. So, I reached out to Yoed and loved what he came up with. It made me cry when I heard it with those strings. It just felt right.

"Hand In Hand" might be the loveliest queer love song I've heard in a long time.
I don't usually write songs that are this literal and personal, but it's really just a recounting of my first date with a man. The streets were empty that night with a light rain, and it felt so quiet and private.

I was in a sort of trance the day after, and this song just came out of me. I was overwhelmed with the sense of freedom I never knew was possible. It was like all this weight of shame and anticipation for 30+ years was lifted. I didn't even know that weight was really there because I was so used to it.

So, the song is about that feeling of safety, freedom, and intimacy. The ability to just be myself fully and not worry about the world outside at all. And the last line — "no one can hear me crying, because I'm not anymore" — that was just real. I didn't know how much my repressed sexuality was making me sad and lonely.

You are currently based in Boise, Idaho. How does a gay man end up in Boise?
Well, I didn't plan it out this way [laughs]! When I moved to Boise, I didn't really understand my own sexuality. Once I decided (or maybe realized) I was going to come out, I was thinking about moving to a city that would feel safer than Boise, and also have more distance from the family and relationships I have here. It seemed easier to do if I was more anonymous. Then the pandemic hit, and I was stuck. I just couldn't handle it anymore, so I decided to come out. It's all gone so much better than I had imagined.

What's the queer community like in Boise?
Everyone has been welcoming and friendly. There are some nice community events that are outside of the regular bar scene hookup culture and I really appreciate that group of people. It's small for sure, but I've been able to connect to lots of people and feel like part of the community.

What about your experiences as a musician in Boise? Is there a music scene on the verge of becoming the next big thing?
Boise is in a really good place with the scene right now. Treefort is an awesome music festival that happens every spring and brings the city to life. And there are a bunch of great bands with new acts popping up every month. I've been running a songwriting group for the last year and there have been so many great songs shared out in that group, in all sorts of genres. I think the pandemic gave us all a chance to really up our game, focus on our craft, and write some great songs. I've been so impressed by the releases and live shows of a bunch of local acts. I can't wait for us to have our breakout artists in the next couple of years. I know they're here, making something beautiful.

Do you have live dates or a tour in the works?
We're playing Treefort Music Fest here in Boise in March. And the band is gonna play some shows in the Pacific Northwest this summer. I'm working on a few dates as a solo act, hoping to go back to my roots in the Midwest and also in the DC area, where I lived for several years.

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