Jesse Lynn Madera has a new version of Johnny Cash’s “Unchained,” a harbinger of her album Belle Sent Me, which is due to be released in 2023. Jesse Lynn worked with producer Dan Navarro, the unsung hero/songwriter of songs such as “We Belong” (famously sung by Pat Benatar) and, more recently, the whimsical earworm with Lin Manuel-Miranda “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Americana Highways had the good fortune of being able to sit down with both Jesse Lynn Madera and Dan Navarro, briefly, to discuss the project.
Americana Highways: How did the two of you get connected to work on this project?
Jesse Lynn Madera: Divine intervention! Ha! Really, I’ll try not to be hyperbolic, but there was some full-circle serendipitous sorcery at play here, so it seemed. Dan and I share a booking agent, Laurel Falkenstein, and she suggested to my manager Jill Willis that Dan would be a great mentor or collaborator for me. This was during the pandemic, so it took about a year to finally get together. Right before I was going to meet Dan, Jill said “Oh by the way…” and informed me that Dan, as part of Lowen and Navarro, wrote “We Belong.” When I tell you that Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” was a major part of me becoming a vocalist… I don’t even know how to convey how important that song was in my early life. I tried to tell Dan this, but ya know he hears it all the time! When people would ask 3 year old me what I wanted to be I’d say “Pat Benatar.” And that was because of Dan Navarro and Eric Lowen. “We Belong” was my first ever favorite song.
Dan Navarro: Laurel Falkenstein, Jesse’s and my mutual agent, introduced me to Jesse’s manager, Jill Wills. Jill turned me on to Jesse’s music, and I loved it. Later, Jill asked for a studio referral, and I recommended Jim Scott’s studio, Plyrz, where I had cut my last album with Jim producing and engineering. That evolved into an invitation to play and sing on the project, and later being invited to produce two sides. I suppose Jess and Jill had a hunch there would be synergy, so it was a short step to turning the whole project into a family affair. I jumped at the chance to be hands-on, and the emotional and artistic connection with Jesse was visceral from the start.
AH: Jesse, what is your connection to the song “Unchained,” and what made you want to cover it?
JLM: When Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson released their VH1 Storyteller’s live album, I had Johnny’s performance of “Unchained” on repeat. Dan calls this “main-lining” and that feels about right. I absorbed this song. It was how I felt and feel. I have always battled with inherited depression and anxiety, and at the same time am childishly optimistic. I tend to expect that things are going to get better, that I’m going to get better. This song hits all those marks for me. I am not a religious person, but this is my prayer.
AH: Can you tell us about the differences between the original version of “Unchained” and your rendition?
JLM: I’ll call the original version Jude Johnstone’s because it’s her song. Jude’s is so great. It’s more gospel and a bit faster. I love it. Johnny’s live version, which was the first version I heard, is simple and direct, and also faster. From artist to artist to artist we should have different versions. Every person on the planet has a different palette of experiences, so we’re all working with different shades… Art is fascinating that way. ‘Unchained’ is the best kind of song because it’s such an available song. I think a lot of people – most people I know – can relate to it in their own way. My rendition is very much ‘shadow work’. It’s slower, it feels a bit darker. Jimmy Paxson (drummer) showed up with chains inside of a trash can and played that. The textures Dan Navarro and Jim Scott teased out of the track are gloriously dark velvet. Brian Whelan’s solo is a nod to Willie Nelson, and his vocal harmonies make the song in my opinion.
AH: Dan, what drew you to this project?
DN: Jesse’s voice. When Jesse said she wanted to cover Jude Johnstone’s “Unchained”, cut by Johnny Cash in 1996, I was fascinated. Jude, an old friend of mine, did the song very “gospel,” while Johnny, in a solo-guitar-and-voice live version, pulled it waaay back from his Americana studio album version. I felt that an even slower, achingly soulful rendition, delivered by Jesse’s gorgeous voice, would drive home the message of trials, surrender and redemption. And she did.
AH: Jesse, what inspired you to title your upcoming album Belle Sent Me?
JLM: My great-grandma, who I never met, was named Belle Clayton. She was born November 18th, 1894 and died January 23rd, 1976, and she was a poet. She was never published or known, but she was an artist. She compiled all of her poems into a handwritten book, and one of her so-called friends thought the book was so good, they asked to borrow it. The book never made it back home, and Belle was so discouraged, that she never put that sort of effort in again. The times were also hard for everyone. She wound up having four boys in the war at the same time, and was so overwhelmed by worry that she just stayed home and paced the floor. I can imagine that level of anxiety becoming paralyzing. The boys made it home, but then she lost one of her daughters to a stroke at an early age. Belle suffered a lot of angst, and some of the family ruthlessly gossiped about her in disapproval of how she handled it. She was a very intelligent and well-read person, and smart people tend to feel deeply. There are a few women in my family who have lived their own versions of this story, including me. I’m calling on Belle as a representation of all of us. Any opportunity that I have to express myself creatively, out loud, belongs to them too.
AH: Can you tell us an interesting anecdote about making about the album?
JLM: I can tell you I have most of the tracks recorded, and also that I have more than I need. My last album Fortunes was only seven songs. This will be a truly full length release, as far as meeting industry criteria. It’s a mix of some country-ish Americana, reminiscent of my EP Come Visit Soon, some soul, and a touch of Fortunes’ ethereal sound. Right now I’m arranging and rearranging the song order trying to have them tell a story that feels true to me. I have a 100 percent larger team behind me than I did before when I released those two earlier collections, and I’m so happy about that! At the same time, I need to make sure the story I’m telling is mine.
AH: Where can we see you performing live this year?
JLM: Most of my time this year is devoted to finishing up the album, but I’ll be at the Key West Songwriter’s Festival in May, exact dates/times to be announced. I also have some other potential dates we’re solidifying around then. There may be shows this summer in the north east. I’ve got some dates opening for Dan in August. My website is the go-to for tour info! http://www.JesseLynnMadera.com
Thanks for you time, and for speaking with us Dan Navarro and Jesse Lynn Madera!
Find more information on Dan Navarro here: https://dannavarro.com/home
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Video Premiere: Jesse Lynn Madera “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”