When Jessica Ackerley performs with her clean Strat plugged straight into her amp, the accuracy and authority of her rapid-fire right hand is a thing of beauty. Her record A New Kind of Water [Bandcamp] made Guitar Moderne Record Picks XVIII based on her warm tones, advanced sense of space, and musical interaction. On the other side are the unique sounds she gets through her pedal board when performing in her noise-pop duo ESSi. The combination made talking to her a must.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I started on bass and was mostly self-taught on both instruments until I went to college to study jazz guitar. Punk music was the first thing I was into on bass, and then guitar led me to classic rock like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I’ve always been interested in art that leaned towards the outskirts, even when I was a child. The outside stuff always felt like a friend that understood me. Being exposed to late night avant-garde art shows and movie shorts on CBC and Bravo (side note: in Canada Bravo is actually an arts and culture channel, not a reality T.V. channel), I would catch glimpses of art that wasn’t mainstream and it piqued my curiosity. In music school I felt like an outsider, not only as one of the few women in the program, but also in my musical taste and desires. I have always wanted to do something different.
What music influenced you?
All of the greats on guitar….Hendrix, Page, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Les Paul, John Fahey. From the more experimental side: bands like This Heat, Liars, U.S. Maple, as well as modern guitar players such as Marc Ribot, Nels Cline, and Mary Halvorson. Along with composers such as Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Tyshawn Sorey, these are all of my heroes.
You have amazing dexterity in your right-hand picking. How did you develop that?
I took a few lessons with Miles Okazaki while attending the Banff Jazz and Creative Workshop. He has an incredible picking technique and taught me a lot about how to hold a pick and different types of attacks. I spent a few years working on the exercises and tips he gave me. He has a great book called The Fundamentals of Guitar that goes into detail about picking.
In the Marc Edwards video you are playing full out for almost 20 minutes. How do you keep your hand from cramping up?
My left hand is pretty bad in terms of tension at times. It’s a technical thing that I’ve been trying to work through over the years because my hands are so small. I also have difficulty focusing on relaxing in the moment. I find solo sets or duo sets are always exhausting, both mentally and physically. But while I am playing, when the energy level is so high—especially playing with a musician like Marc—you just go for it and reach for what you can.
What was the guitar in the ESSi video?
The ESSi guitar is one I bought on Craigslist called a Teisco Bedell. It is one of those late ’60s/early ’70s Japanese models they sold really cheap in department stores.
What effects are you using on it?
I use a DD-6 Boss Delay, an ODC distortion pedal, a Moon Mini Ring Modulator, and a Boss Octave Pedal as my pedalboard for ESSi. My guitar also has an out of phase pick-up from the previous owner trying to add a third pick-up and making a mistake when they wired it.
You have a terrific command of effects in the ESSi project, why have you chosen to use a completely clean Stratocaster tone and no effects for your improv work?
With my improvised music, I feel there are many different dimensions and realms to explore with the instrument in terms of harmony, melody, and rhythm. I want to continue to internalize and work through them in order to develop my language. Adding another sonic element is something I might consider down the road after focusing on these other elements I want to refine in my playing. I also really like the idea of grabbing a guitar, plugging it in, and playing with only myself and the amp to rely on. There is a freedom in the simplicity. With ESSi, it was my first time getting into guitar pedals and it was a whole other learning curve for me that made me depend less on my guitar playing and more on the choice of sound as an expression. Between both projects and styles, it’s nice keeping them contained so I can be more focused on refining what I am trying to create.
What do you like about the Stratocaster or is it that particular guitar?
My gold Strat is my main axe. My parents got it for me as a high school graduation present. I’ve never felt the need to buy another high-end guitar because I love it. Also, Jimi Hendrix played a Strat, and he’s my all-time favorite.
Are you usually using the bridge and middle or neck and middle on the Strat?
I switch between the two depending on what I want in the moment. I lean more towards the bridge when I’m trying to get more harmonics to ring out and lean more towards the neck when I want more low end.
Many improvising guitarists completely eschew traditional melody or guitar phrases, whereas you might occasionally embrace one or the other. If free improvisation is truly free, why do you think there is a prohibition among some musicians about including any lyricism as part of the language?
There is a certain pleasure and liberation that comes with being able to play something that goes against the “rules” of melody that have been placed upon us. I think it comes from an esthetic standpoint similar to punk. The energy and intention trump the complexity. Jazz is a fairly young style of music compared to styles that have been around for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. I can see why some musicians press the need for pre-meditated phrasing from “the tradition” in order to preserve its purity. But the avoidance of that is also what forces progress and creates new and innovative contributions to music. The rub and conflict of esthetic between musicians is, in some ways, good for the development of this kind of music in order to move it forward.
Whose music currently inspires you?
I am very interested in artists who have developed their artistic identity in a way that is deeper than just their instrument or genre. I am very inspired by Jen Kutler, who is based in the noise scene and builds her own instruments. She does a great job of conceptualizing human emotion, identity, and vulnerability through her music. Brian Chase and his solo project Drums and Drones has really motivated me to think about the creative process as a methodical tool to develop your music, and to treat it as a means of exploring your curiosity by shifting the personal reward towards the process rather than the finished piece. Sandy Ewen just released a solo album with accompanying visuals that people should check out. I am amazed at how well the visuals translate alongside the depth and dimension in her guitar playing, she is a real polymath.
As for guitar, I always find the most inspiration from spending time with other players who are also friends. Seeing them perform, and talking about music and guitar. Rob Grieve, Lucas Brode, Dave Scanlon, Jocelyn Gould, Wendy Eisenberg, Tashi Dorji, Daniel Wyche, Magdalena Abrego, Aaron Quinn, Andrew Smiley, David First are a few, but there are plenty of others who, through listening and spending time with them, have influenced my own playing.
Who else would you like to collaborate with and why?
In reality: Chad Taylor, because I love his drumming and a lot of the records he’s played on. He’s been doing these “morning meditation” videos on Instagram during quarantine that I’ve been enjoying. I went to school with him and missed my chance then, so I feel if the opportunity came now I wouldn’t want to pass it up. In a dream: If Snakefinger was still alive, I’d love to make a minimalist rock record with him.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I haven’t done much touring (alas this was the year where more touring and out of town shows were going to happen for the first time in my career in Canada, the US and Japan), but I’ve found that because I live in NYC, I get to perform a lot, and a lot of those performances are either documented through video and posted online, or people see my name on bills and then go check out my music.
When making niche music like this, in order for any audience to be sustainable, building an audience seems secondary to building a community. I spend a lot of time on my music but also work on booking shows and supporting other’s art. By default, that leads back to the support of my own stuff.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
I have a duo album coming out on Notice Records with Patrick Shiroishi, a sax player from LA, that I am excited about. It will hopefully come out late Summer/early Fall and be purchasable through Notice Records and on Bandcamp. With this quarantine downtime I am writing more solo guitar music and am hoping to record an album with this new material alongside some the solo material I’ve been conceptualizing the past year and a half. Maybe I’ll get that out into the world early next year.
Such a wonderful interview with a cutting edge artist. Thank you for this. I enjoyed the insightful questions.
Any guitarist who claims This Heat as an influence and has a fantasy of making a record with the late great Snakefinger is going to catch my attention!
Cool performances, great playing.
Yes!!!!! Jessica is amazing 🙌