Strange Certainty: An Interview with Jay Van Raalte

Photo courtesy of Mike Ledford
Charleston, S.C. guitarist and songwriter Jay Van Raalte says she was born with a strange certainty that she was a musician. It didn’t stem from a deep family tradition or an array of instruments at her disposal, but rather from an introduction to the 1988 documentary U2: Rattle and Hum. She became so deeply invested in the film that her early school years had her writing ‘Bono’ in the top corner where her name belonged.

Her 7-year-old hands tried picking up guitar before almost immediately setting it back down, but tried again as a preteen and hasn’t looked back since.

“For a long time, I thought I was this person that really loves music but that I just couldn’t play it,” she said.

In high school she found Nina Murchison, and ultimately they formed the band Jump Castle Riot. While playing together for more than five years, Van Raalte accumulated dozens of songs that didn’t fit the style of the band. The demos were made at home, including self-written bass lines and guitar riffs, and needed to be something more than half completed ideas sitting in a folder on a computer.

The five-track EP, Linearity, gave Van Raalte the opportunity to step out from behind the shadow of ‘guitar player’ and into the spotlight of ‘musician’. Every word, every note, every instrument (minus drums) is entirely done by her.

“It feels like a natural culmination of all the skills that I've been building separately over the years,” she said. “I was always building up the skills and it just eventually got to a place where I had the time and bandwidth to start pushing in that direction.”

Producer Matt Zutell of Coast Records collaborated with Van Raalte for the EP, including playing drums for all five tracks. The song that listeners can really hear his personal touch is “Best Times”, where Van Raalte came in with just a basic chord structure and lyrics before letting the two of them get captured in the moment. As they played the song through, Zutell banged out an incredible drum outro that they structured the whole rest of the production around. During that same session, she had a similar moment where she perfected a guitar solo take after take until it became a piece she was really proud of.

“That was the first moment where things really felt like they were changing and expanding in the studio,” she said.

Despite these songs being up to five years old, Van Raalte had no trouble still being able to relate to them.

“I’m definitely in the moment or in the emotion when I write it, but then I take a step back and put on my producer hat or my songwriter hat and I look at it a little more analytically,” she said. “I really look at the emotion I’m trying to portray or the message of the song and figure out how to best represent it, how to make it the most clear and the most impactful and arrange the instruments so that they're all supporting that message. At that point I'm not so much experiencing it as almost imagining myself as a producer for a different artist. It's an interesting process because I would say my bigger strength tends to be working with other people and helping execute their vision, so I'm much more comfortable in that world once the initial creation is done.”

Although the message of the EP isn’t explicitly stated in the lyrics, she wanted it to be less of a huge statement and more of just being herself. As a queer artist who sings about women, Van Raalte says that listeners don’t seem to bat an eye when they hear her sing about the same gender. She is allowed to be herself and express herself any way she wants, and by doing so she hopes that others can find that same sense of acceptance.

Jay Van Raalte’s certainty of being a musician proved to be correct. She has accepted that she cannot be Bono, but she can be herself - and that’s all that she ever needed to be.