Perhaps because he grew up a bit of a nomad, spending time in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Edwardsville, Illinois, Jesse Elliott has never been one for putting down roots. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown attached to cities he’s visited. When he picks up the phone at a South Carolina tour stop, the singer-guitarist for roots rebels These United States gives every indication that Vancouver almost feels like home.
“I’ve spent some time up there just hanging out,” the easygoing frontman says. “We’ve got some good friends in a couple of bands there. It’s just such a naturally beautiful place, like a more green, more architecturally interesting version of Seattle—and you can’t complain about that, because Seattle is pretty great. Last time I was up there, I fondly recall sitting in a giant park in the middle of the city. I also hung out in Gastown and Kitsilano and a couple of other fun neighbourhoods.”
While Elliott can’t remember which park he killed an afternoon in, he has no problem naming the Vancouver bands he loves hanging with, a big one being Yukon Blonde. Like the formerly Kelowna-based quartet, These United States draws on whisky-burnished alt-country, hard-edged folk, and classic pop. And like Yukon Blonde, Elliott and his bandmates—pedal-steel specialist J. Tom Hnatow, guitarist Justin Craig, bassist Anna Morsett, and drummer Aaron Latos—are all about pushing boundaries in their latest, These United States. Check out the poltergeist keyboards and Age of Aquarius bursts of harmony in the back-roads rambler “Born Young” or the spectral OK Computer guitar that kicks off the atmospheric slow burner “The Park”.
As accomplished as These United States is, the band hasn’t exactly been labelled an overnight sensation. It’s only been with the release of These United States, its fifth full-length, that the group has finally begun to pop up in major publications like Interview and score high-profile opening slots for the likes of Willie Nelson.
Part of the reason for the band’s lack of exposure might be that the singer is too modest to trumpet his own achievements. Suggest, for example, that he’s one of those rare guys in the indie trenches who can actually sing—this borne out by the soul-drenched “Not Gone Tonight”—and he quickly downplays his performance.
“I’m really not a singer—I don’t come from a very musical background,” Elliott says self-deprecatingly. “I considerable myself more of a writer who happens to like hanging out with musicians.”
The frontman has a more plausible theory as to why things haven’t happened overnight: he’s been too busy living it up in places like Vancouver to worry about advancing his career.
“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, when we first started touring, we just sort of booked our own tours and went out on the road,” Elliott says. “We racked up a lot of miles and a lot of shows before we really had any idea what we were up to. It hasn’t been until the last couple of albums that we’ve got a booking agent and all the other stuff you’re supposed to do when you’re, you know, responsible musicians. We’ve kind of gone about things, for better for worse, in a pretty random, fun-motivated kind of way, rather than do the smart thing and tell people about our albums and tours.”
These United States plays Electric Owl on Tuesday (September 4).