If you take a look through his family tree, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Henry Jamison was born to write songs. There’s his father, a classical composer, and his mother, an English professor, who both inspired and encouraged him directly, but if you continue tracing Jamison’s lineage back even further, some interesting names start to turn up. Go back to the 1800’s, for example, and you’ll find “Battle Cry of Freedom” author George Frederick Root, the most popular songwriter of the Civil War era. Travel even further back in time, to 14th century England to be exact, and you’ll find the poet John Gower, known to be a friend to both Chaucer and Richard II.
“There’s definitely this bardic tradition in my family,” reflects Jamison. “I don’t know how much any of it means, but I was handed a set of skills growing up, and I had to learn how to develop them on my own.”
With his stunning debut album, ‘The Wilds,’ Jamison is ready to share that development with the world and claim his place as the latest in a long line of remarkable storytellers. Blending delicate acoustic guitar and banjo with programmed percussion loops and synthesizers, the Vermont songwriter grapples with the jarring dissonances of contemporary life on the record as he struggles to reconcile the clashes between our inner and outer selves, the natural world and our fabricated society. Jamison writes with cinematic precision, conjuring vivid scenes and fully realized characters wrestling with existential crises and modern malaise. His dazzling way with words and keen ear for memorable hooks at once calls to mind the baroque pop of Sufjan Stevens and the unflinching emotional honesty of Frightened Rabbit, but the delivery is uniquely his own, understated yet devastating.
‘The Wilds’ comes on the heels of Jamison’s 2016 breakout debut EP, ‘The Rains.’ Tracks from the collection racked up more than 20 million streams on Spotify, as his uniquely off-kilter brand of lyricism earned a swarm of critical acclaim. NPR’s World Café featured Jamison in their breaking artist series, raving that his “descriptions of places ring true and his subtle production touches stand out,” while Vice Noisey said his “mellow folk…soothes your nerves,” and Consequence of Sound praised him as a “visual lyricist” writing music that “sounds like a dream taking form.” The EP earned Jamison dates with Big Thief, Lady Lamb, and Tall Heights plus festival appearances and performances across Europe.
When it came time to record ‘The Wilds,’ Jamison picked up right where he left off with ‘The Rains,’ returning to the same unassuming, mountainside house in Goshen, VT, where he’d cut the EP. There, Jamison reunited with engineer/co-producer Ethan West, a veteran figure he likens to a musical midwife who helped him birth the songs. While Jamison’s home in Burlington isn’t exactly Times Square, working in Goshen felt like an opportunity to leave behind even the slightest traces of urbanity.
“The studio is about an hour and a half from where I live in Burlington, and you’ve got to drive a little dirt road halfway up a mountain to get there, so it always feels like a bit of a pilgrimage,” says Jamison. “By the time I get to the studio, I feel like I’ve entered some slightly different zone. The property is covered in trees, and Ethan decided he was also going to start a maple sugaring and honey business, so we had to schedule our recording sessions around his maple sugaring season, which is the most Vermont problem you could have.”
Jamison is a solitary artist who writes, records, and arranges everything himself, including all of the album’s string arrangements, and ‘The Wilds’ is a pure reflection of the world through his eyes. The record opens with an ethereal vocal movement that gives way to “Bright & Future,” a short, spare, richly visual song that sets the stage for a record driven by philosophical and psychological musings. On the title track and “Through A Glass,” Jamison comes to a Walt Whitman-esque understanding of the multitudes contained within each of us, while “Sunlit Juice” and “Dallas Love Field” use extended metaphors to examine what happens when we try to impose our outer will on our inner lives (it usually doesn’t end well), and “The Jacket” searches for authentic connection in a synthetic landscape.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re just moving through this air conditioned world of artificial light and hard surfaces,” says Jamison. “That song is about longing for human connection but feeling cut off from everything I’m trying to commune with. The air conditioning and fluorescence leads to this total loss of self.”
The only hope we have for truly understanding ourselves and making peace with our psyches, according to ‘The Wilds,’ is to accept ourselves and each other for the complicated, conflicted, imperfect beings we are. On the abstract “Black Mountain” Jamison reaches the realization that by sacrificing his attachment to his sense of self, he can gain a greater appreciation for his place in the universe, the way a river running into the sea ceases to be, yet simultaneously becomes something grander than it had ever been before. On the gorgeous “Varsity,” he comes to terms with the reality that things will never be as cut and dry as we’d like, singing, “I’m not what I appear to be/ I’m a little more confused, but also less so,” while on the utterly charming “Real Peach,” he seeks to bury the hatchet with the declaration that “if all is fair in love and war, then I don’t know what we are we fighting for.”
“If you’re fighting with someone, you can really believe what you’re saying, and they can really believe what they’re saying, and so you sometimes have to look at the space around your disagreement and discover that you still want to be with that person,” explains Jamison. “It made me think of this Rumi line which I adapted for the song, where he talks about being in the field beyond the right and wrong.”
In Jamison’s case, he may be on the mountainside above the right and wrong, in a basement studio where the outcome of any disagreement is less important than the revelations it produces. The truth of the matter, according to ‘The Wilds,’ is that truth itself is subjective and deeply personal, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can move from conflict, both internal and external, to harmony. It’s heady stuff he’s writing, but as far as Henry Jamison is concerned, it’s all part of growing up, which is why the album’s final track, “No One Told Me,” references Galleons Lap.
“That’s the place where Christopher Robin leaves Winnie The Pooh and goes out into the world on his own,” says Jamison. “In the song, it feels like I’m finally moving out of childhood and into adulthood.”
In some ways it’s an ending, and a bittersweet one at that, but in others, it’s just the beginning of a brand new life. As Jamison waves goodbye to his past selves on ‘The Wilds,’ he welcomes into being new multitudes, each of them counting the days until sugaring season, patiently waiting for their chance to press record and document this latest branch of an extraordinary family tree.