Name: Jessica Ackerley
Occupation: Guitarist, improviser
Current release: Jessica Ackerley's Friendship: Lucid Shared Dreams and Time Travel, a collaboration with Daniel Carter, is out via 577.
Recommendations: Andrew Smiley’s solo guitar record, “Dispersal.” Most underrated guitarist of our time, and the whole album is one stunning long form piece.
Any art by Wangechi Mutu, but my favourite pieces are her collage works.
If you enjoyed reading this interview with Jessica Ackerley, visit her personal tumblr for more information on her and her work. She is also on Facebook, or twitter if you're looking for for current updates and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was very curious about sound from an early age. My first musical explorations started on a Casio keyboard, which my parents bought for me from a Radio Shack.
I grew up in a rural part of Alberta, Canada, so much of my musical influence came from the radio and musicians that I read about in magazines. I think a defining point that drew me to guitar, like many guitarists, was Jimi Hendrix. I was also very into painting and drawing when I was a teenager, so the idea of sound and visual concepts went hand in hand for me as a creative outlet. Both felt like they were interchangeable as a form of expression.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
As a guitarist I spent a lot of time listening to other guitarists, but I was always a “lazy student” when it came to learning how to play their music. I would often get distracted or lose focus working on the music at hand, going off into exploring my own ideas.
It kind of felt like I would never be able to play in the same way that they played, so I decided to put a lot of my energy and focus into the way I wanted to play the instrument pretty early on.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Coming up as an artist playing the instrument that I do, alongside the type of music that I do, I found it hard to personally relate to my peers and mentors because there were so few musicians who looked like me to look up to in improvised guitar music.
In some ways it liberated me knowing that there wasn’t an obvious carved-out path to follow, and that always gave a sense of freedom to explore music without the weight of expectation or comparison of those who came before me.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I was a young musician, I dreamed of being a straight-ahead jazz player, the barriers I met going down that path with sexism and misogyny deterred me by the time I reached my mid-twenties. It nudged me in a direction towards other music styles and seek out different communities that felt more inclusive.
Over time though, I found myself compromising what I wanted to play in order to fit into particular scenes and genres. Trying to be “liked” in certain circles. Which also made me unhappy and unsatisfied, because I was always compromising and overextending myself.
As I get older and more settled in my artistic practice, I found that it is best to create what I want to create, draw from whatever genre or style I feel like, and not really try to adjust what I want do just to fit in with certain groups. It helped me cultivated musical relationships with other musicians who also don’t really fit in any specific boxes. I feel lucky to be at a stage where I am working with these artists. It made everything worth it in the end to reach the point I am at in this moment.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Guitar has always been my main instrument and the one constant tool in all of my musical endeavours.
My decision over time to stray away from jazz music and into the noise and experimental rock scene inspired me to extend my sonic palette with guitar pedals and vocal effects, specifically in my band ESSi. When I started playing guitar professionally, it was all about being “exact” and playing “correct.” By the time I was gigging with ESSi, I disregarded a lot of that mentality and strived for sounds that were more visceral and organic. That motivated me to worry less about the notes I played, and more about the impact that a sound could make. It really inspired me to shift my focus to playing free in the recent years because it was a balance between my love of improvisation and interpretation of sonic elements.
And that led to my work with Daniel Carter with our most recent album. He helped shift my views about previous approaches and gave me the confidence to embody my deep love of free improvisation.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
When I started playing guitar, it still was a prominent instrument in mainstream music, like with “American Idiot” era Green Day and Avril Lavigne (can you tell which year I was born?). As time went by, it seemed like that wasn’t the case when listening to songs on the radio or in popular music. I sensed for a moment that guitar as a leading voice was beginning to drift and eventually become a niche instrument as time went on.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by artists who are playing guitar music in very innovative ways, like Yasmin Williams, Sandy Ewen, or Rachika Shayar .... and many more that I could go on about! I think there is still much to be said and explored with the instrument and I hope that I can be a part of that dialogue.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My methods of collaboration have been dramatically split because of the pandemic and my recent move. Before the pandemic, my main collaborative project was with Rick Daniel and our band, ESSi. We rehearsed and wrote music together twice a week for 4 years straight. I would say that was my most in depth and fruitful collaboration with another artist.
Now many of my collaborators are mostly people I met on Instagram but never met in person. It’s different, but great! I’ve been file sharing with a fantastic guitarist from Uruguay, Federico Musso. We are currently working on a chain letter project where we’ve been passing along files with Patrick Shiroishi, Chris Williams, Nat Baldwin and Camila Nebbia.
[Read our Patrick Shiroishi interview]
All of us are spread around different continents and never played as a group, but the dubs that have been layered so far sound amazing just because every musician is very good at what they do. I’m also working on a remote collaboration with Nick Turner (Tyresta) and Chaz Prymek (Lake Mary). It is a more in-depth remote collaboration where we’ve been sharing listening lists and spending time refining the recorded dubs. The album is leaning mostly on the ambient side and very different from other music I have made in the past.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
With my life in New York City before the pandemic, I would usually wake up around 7 or 8 am and use whatever time I could get in with practice and emails, then I’d usually be running off to midday rehearsals, and afternoon/evening private lessons with my guitar students. I had students all over the city, from Harlem to Caroll Gardens.
Dinner would usually be a quick bite at home before heading out to gig or see a show. I’d usually spend 3 to 4 hours on the subway a day between lessons and music commitments. I would use that time to listen to a lot of records. The MTA was always a mess at night, so it would often take an hour and a half to get home. I’d go to bed around 1 or 2 am and do it all over again the next day. That was my schedule for the past 8 years, running on that big city high while burning the candle at both ends.
I recently moved to Honolulu, Hawai’i, four months ago though, and my schedule is very different now. I usually wake up at 6/6:30 (never recovered from the time difference) and scan through the many messages and emails I’ve already received for the day -- because everyone else is already eating lunch when I wake up. After coffee, oatmeal and watching art videos on YouTube, I begin warming up and working on guitar things before I teach my online lessons until the early afternoon. I usually spend those few hours before dinner getting a workout in, composing at the beach or going for a long walk and listening to records.
My husband and me usually make dinner around 6 pm, sometimes we go down to the beach and grill or hit up a happy hour. There isn’t much of a nightlife here, so I usually spend my evenings working on music for a few hours before bed. It’s more quiet and not as exciting and NYC, but I am embracing the stillness these days.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I wouldn’t say that I had any defining moment that pushed me to the next level in terms of my musical reputation or a career changing opportunity. It is has always felt like a slow burn of hard work and trying to open my own doors. Considering that so much of my career was focused in jazz, and later in the vein of free improvisation, I’ve only had one adequately paying gig which my former professor booked for me a few years ago.
I make my main income through teaching. There have been many tip jar gigs over the years where I have played to only other musicians in the room and a handful of enthusiastic audience members. Those gigs really helped me develop my musical identity and I’m grateful for those opportunities that allowed me to experiment and develop my ideas.
I think that despite how hard it can feel sometimes, it is important to keep going, create your own opportunities and support your community, no matter how small it is. It was what pushed me to discover my own voice and do records and shows the way I wanted to do it. Really embracing that DIY ethos. Committing to that mentality has brought some amazing people into my circle.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I usually have to put my phone on airplane mode, close the bedroom door and spend those few hours just doing the work. I don’t really wait for inspiration to strike. When I am super stuck, I find going for walks and listening to records beforehand is a great source of inspiration. But for the most part, it is very important to prioritize my time on my music and try to not burden myself with too many other commitments.
I find that I feel the most satisfied when I’m creating in this sort of setting. Also not putting too much emphasis on other what people’s expectations are of the final result and really leaning into the creative process being the reward.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Making music for me has at times felt difficult and occasionally painful - in social circumstances, dealing with rejection, and feeling limited in my abilities and opportunities. It has driven me into periods of self-doubt and depression. But music has also been a key tool in discovering who I am and contributing what I feel is an important addition to musical canon, even if it is small.
When it comes down to it, I really am just seeking out connection, and that is a powerful healing force. Knowing that something resonates with others, as well as how other people’s music impacts me.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
As an artist, there is a certain responsibility in informing oneself and making that effort to not come from a place of ignorance where it can perpetuate harm.
I can recall times in my life where I was not educated in how some of my actions or artistic choices would cause harm to marginalized groups. It is something that I actively work on, and hope that myself and others around me can hold that kind of accountability when something problematic arises.
Like for example, my art is influenced by Black American Music, and if I’m not taking those actions, like donating or passing along opportunities etc … to support the artists and people in those communities, then I’m the only one who benefits. And that is a problem. I try my best not to be that way.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
My high school art teacher told me one time that our most important senses are our sight and hearing. It feels like both senses have a unique mutual connection in the way they transmit sensations and how we interpret them. This might be why there are so many visual artists who also work in music and vice versa.
I think with the way I see things in day-to-day life, like the hue of a color or the contour or organization of various shapes, really influences my experience of the world. And the abstraction of those two things is often what I draw from when I am trying to interpret sound in a musical sense.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I’ve been striving to focus my energy on societal and political changes though day to day life, because it feels to me like that is something that would have a deeper impact. My art probably manifests those views in some ways, but recently I’ve been drifting away from making those obvious statements in just my music, and directing that energy towards concrete actions in how I choose to live and engage with others.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music feels like a friend who really gets me and is always there for me no matter what. It comforts me when I’m dealing with a loss, or heighten events or periods of time in my life that sometimes cannot truly be expressed in other forms of communication.