Whenever Jesse Elliott and his sister would begin to bicker in the back seat on family trips, their mother would threaten them with campfire songs and enlist their participation. Though the harmonica-led tunes were intended as a creative form of discipline, Elliott realizes now that the family sing-alongs were a strong influence on his approach to songwriting.
"For me, music is a communal thing," he says. "I think this is part of what I've always loved about African music, and also even the campfire thing. I never thought about that connection before."
Having set out on an ambitious tour of 33 consecutive shows with a new local lineup each night, Elliott has established his band, These United States, as an ever-changing, dynamic collaboration based around his simple acoustic songs.
These United States
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"Music is mostly about spontaneous social interaction, so I try and keep my songs simple," he reasons. "What I like to do is write a simple song that I enjoy, and then gather a bunch of people around me and see how they interpret it, see how they take it in new directions and mutate it."
Constantly moving in new directions himself, Elliott has kept up a nomadic lifestyle, a proclivity he undoubtedly inherited from his domestically restless parents. "Well, my parents were hippies, I guess you could say," Elliott explains. "My mom is a sort of early-'60s, bright-eyed Simon and Garfunkel kind of hippie, and my dad is an early-'70s, disillusioned, burnt-out Hunter S. Thompson kind of hippie, and so they kind of instilled a fear of staying in one place."
That would account for the family's frequent moves. "I grew up around the Midwest in a few different places, mostly outside of Chicago, in an old river town called Elgin," he reveals, "and also Michigan and Indiana, and I went to school out in Iowa. I think I had been to all of the lower 48 states by the time I was thirteen or fourteen."
Around that time, Elliott became a camp counselor, in charge of leading younger campers in song. Although he grew up listening to a string of obligatory mainstream acts like MC Hammer, Nirvana, Tool, Pearl Jam and Metallica, he ended up drawing from the repertoire of his mother's camp songs. "I got to be the kind of soundtrack for a bunch of little kids," he recalls, "passing on the fear and loathing of camp songs."
After torturing kids with "House of the Rising Sun" and "Oh! Susanna," Elliott moved on to more adventures in Europe, where he worked as a legal writer in international court. There, motivated by Den Haag's appreciation for live music, he began to write songs in earnest, putting to use all of the knowledge he had unwillingly accumulated from childhood cello and clarinet lessons.
Before too long, Elliott began to grow restless in the Netherlands. "I was missing being in the United States of America," he admits, "and I happened to get a good offer as a writer for a guy who is based in D.C." Richard Florida, who had written a national bestseller, needed help writing speeches, and Elliott fit the bill. While ghostwriting, as he puts it, "non-fiction, social-science research stuff," Elliott's artistic ambitions remained unfulfilled. "Music started moving in the back of my brain again," he says, "and I had to quit so I could pursue it full-time."
Finding himself in the political heart of the country, Elliott conceived the fittingly titled These United States as a different way to put his thoughts into words. Unlike his past writing efforts, penning songs provided an opportunity to interact with musicians and audiences through his narratives. It also presented a reason to dance and a beat to dance to.
The music of These United States may not exactly induce dancing on a large scale, but it manages to satisfy Elliott's craving for collaborative experiments. Finding inspiration in landscapes, bright colors and indigenous folk music from a period of his life spent in Mexico, as well as in the objects of his pining while in Europe, his musings condense quite tidily into a surprisingly pop-conscious product in spite of the varied perspectives involved.
These United States' first album, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden, was produced by Paleo, a musician who's got good pop sensibilities but who is more interested in music's intellectual aspects. Paleo worked alongside Elliott's 33-day project with a similarly ambitious goal of writing 365 songs in 365 days — the two are longtime friends — but he was uninterested in an invitation to join the tour. "He didn't want to do it," Elliott says, "because he didn't have any interest in interacting with that many different people, and he thought everything was gonna be a total disaster."
Paleo's apprehension proved to be unwarranted. "I think that probably half the shows ended up being pretty awesome and inspirational," Elliott declares, "and I feel like I can kind of say that objectively in a weird way — like, it's fun when two-thirds of the people on stage are people that you don't know or just met that day."
Despite the difference in their approaches, Elliott recognizes the value of collaboration. These United States is just one of many paradigms he's inhabited; he believes that all of his past and present outlets are abstractly related. To bolster this notion, he draws a parallel to an unlikely muse.
"Jim Henson created an entire universe for people to inhabit," he notes, "but that was still very connected to the real world, in that Fraggle Rock taught kids really valuable lessons about how to interact with people who were different from them, and Sesame Street was a kind of magical realism in and of itself. I think Jim Henson is probably my single biggest influence or inspiration over the course of my life, because he's kind of about everything — about music and art and film and social science and all of that rolled into one, and just how people interact in the world.
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"I think he took everything and turned it into magical realism in a way that gave people a lot of hope or clarity or inspiration or whatever, and that, to me, is the purpose," he goes on. "That's what very few people but a few awesome ones, like Jim Henson or Andrew Bird, manage to accomplish at some point, this creating another universe, another lens for people to see the universe that they inhabit."
From an experiential hippie upbringing to an unexplained affinity for all of these united states, Elliott is continually impressed with our union and the humanity it hosts. At the same time, he admits that this kinship comes with a troubled sense of patriotism.
"I love the United States of America, but not all of it," Elliott declares. "I feel very strongly about it; I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship. There are some things that I just think are amazing about it — shit, man, the geography, the mountains. You know, there are some things that the United States has that you just miss when you're not in them.
"There are some things that I could do without," he concludes, "like, you know, some of our friends down the street here in our nation's capital, and other things like that — but, overall, I'm stickin' with the sinking ship. It's been a good ride so far, so I'm gonna see what we find at the bottom of the ocean."