The original lead singer for the Gin Blossoms, Jesse has gone through enough drama with the band to make Fleetwood Mac stare in awe. The gamut included lineup toggling, alcoholism, personnel juggles, and the suicide of founding member Doug Hopkins. Through it all Jesse remained, and managed to keep a grip on his sanity; as well as produce, write for TV and film, and put out an album with Canadian music man Craig Northey.
During their hiatus, Jesse says all the Gin Blossoms kept busy in different directions. It's good they kept their blood bubbling, because when the call came to get back in the studio together, they were ready.
Jesse Valenzeula: Is she still happy about the song?
Songfacts: She is. I did ask her about it, and she said business boomed right after that song came out. (laughs)
Jesse: Did it really? Good for her. I know she got a new sign. She has that beautiful new sign now. I used to live down the block from her (in Tempe, Arizona), right off of Maple in a little apartment, and I used to walk to the gigs and always passed her sign. It was kind of nasty and worn out. But her name is such a fun three syllables, "Mrs. Rita. " And I kind of liked it. So it just sort of stewed for a while. And in the past I had a terrific gentleman friend of mine, Bill. We grew up together, and he was a tarot card reader, and he used to read my cards. I never actually went to Mrs. Rita, but I loved having my tarot cards read by my friend Bill, so I just kind of put the two things together.
Songfacts: Really? She told me that you guys did come in.
Jesse: We did go in later. But I'd never been in before I wrote the song.
Songfacts: Did she read your cards?
Jesse: No, I suppose that some of the guys have gone to have their cards read. We all lived in that neighborhood for years and years and years. It wouldn't surprise me if somebody stumbled in there one time or another. The great gag is, if you're a songwriter, you're always looking for some kind of inspiration. If you see an interesting character, and then sort of write something up and try and just use it.
Songfacts: So was the song based on anybody in particular?
Jesse: I think so. Probably. I think everybody's been that miserable one time or another.
Songfacts: Who wrote the line, "There's no swimming in the bottle, it's just someplace we all drown"?
Jesse: There was a lot of drinking back then. I wrote those words.
Songfacts: I think that those are some of the most lyrical words ever. Can you tell me about "Christine Irene"? For some reason I got the feeling there was something a little dark in that song. But I tend to probably read things into songs that aren't there.
Jesse: You think that song is dark? Give me something you're hearing, enlighten me. I can't hear anything dark in that. Tell me.
Songfacts: "We can laugh till dark, the moon stays bright, and hang our secret on its last light. From a first date kiss that could not hide, we both wanted something more tonight."
Jesse: Oh, well, they just want to hook up, don't they? (laughing)
Songfacts: I was talking to someone over the weekend who told me that when she was a teenager she was date-raped. And that's probably why I read something darker into that.
Jesse: No, I think it's just this is gonna be our little secret that we're gonna do this. I think he's crazy about the girl in the song. I was young, then, when I wrote it. It's just sweet song, it's kind of a Nick Lowe kind of song, just about a pretty Irish girl.
Songfacts: Do you know "Christine"?
Jesse: I've had too many Christines. I tend to like Irish girls, though. So it's a good name. My wife is Irish; blonde hair, green eyes. I'm Mexican. My son came out a little Irish kid. He has red hair.
Songfacts: All right. Let's go to a little more recent, "Learning The Hard Way." Take me through that one.
Songfacts: It does. It reminds me of driving from Phoenix to San Diego or back. You're driving through the desert. You stop for coffee and gas.
Jesse: Yeah, that's a total gag. I mean, because over the years I've driven between Phoenix and Los Angeles millions of times. And I've sort of memorized the drive, and I know where I'm gonna stop, and I know I'm gonna stop at Hadley's Fruit Farm and get a date shake and a turkey sandwich or something like that. And I know all the hills. By the time I get to Quartzsite, I'm practically home. And there's a great big old gas station out there in the middle of nowhere, about an hour out of town. I don't remember what it's called… But just driving that drive, and I just started ruminating on the 5 or 6 hour drive, and just kind of wrote it down when I got home.
Songfacts: Who was it that said you guys needed the song? "We need something upbeat! Quick! Think of something!"
Jesse: I think a couple of years ago we started talking about making a record. So it was just sort of management and stuff like that.
Songfacts: And you are doing double and triple things, aren't you? You're doing a solo, you're doing a Gin Blossoms, and you're also producing?
Jesse: Oh, yeah, I've got a new record probably coming out this summer, cross your fingers. If I find the time to finish it. And the Gin Blossoms are always playing. I don't really produce that much. I do a lot of co-writes, and I do a lot of film and TV work, but producing's kind of time consuming, and these days there aren't really that many acts to produce. I produced a song for an artist, I had a young artist from Sweden here last week, we wrote 3 songs, and I just started making the demos the other day. It all happened pretty fast. It was good. I produced the last Gin Blossoms record. I'll produce the next one. It's sort of out of efficiency. And by the time I finish my demos and stuff, and the guys all play on it, it's sort of a song already, so I sit there. I don't get the idea of having a middleman anymore.
Songfacts: And a Gin Blossoms album is due out in the summer/fall, cross our fingers?
Jesse: Well, I would think summer/fall if anything. We just started the A&R process, so there's time. We have a summer tour. And that's why it's gonna be hard to make the record. In my opinion, of course, I'm only the one who has to keep the budget, and the time… I think it's probably gonna be hard to get it in the summer. It would be great, though. It would be great to have it in the summer.
Songfacts: Would you say that you are the kind of writer who's a little detached from your writing?
Jesse: Well, I mean, there's some songs I'm very attached to, and some songs it's sort of a business.
Songfacts: Can you tell me an example of one that you're attached to? That kind of pulled from you?
Jesse: When I was younger, I was pretty attached to everything, and that's the problem with youth. But on the last record, for example, I liked all my songs, really. But I think "Super Girl" was special for me. I got to a really nice groove, and I got the band to groove in a way they've never played before together. I mean, individually everybody's gone on to do lots of different things in different fashions. But for us it's always been about really sort of fast, up-tempos and stuff. And so I brought the pocket down. And I think I got somewhere between a good lyric and nice melody.
"Super Girl" is about someone being passed by. Someone being passed over. Someone who didn't rise to… someone who's just probably mis-lived their life a little bit, and go on to see someone else do very, very well, and not be envious, but more sorrowful that the guy wasn't able to keep up with somebody. And love from afar, still loving someone.
Songfacts: You have one on your solo record, "Andale Pues." Every time I hear that song it makes me smile, and I don't even know what it means.
Jesse: It means "let's get going - now." That's an old groove from like Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. I love that groove. There's a great old songwriter from Austin, Texas, Doug Sahm. "She's About A Mover," I don't know if you remember that song. But it has that same groove. And I really love Texas music, and that was sort of my tribute. That song has a line in it - now, no one would ever know, but there's a tribute to a great Mexican musician.
Songfacts: Name names?
Jesse: In one of the last verses I say something about hanging out in a bar "where the Lalo records play." And that Lalo Guerrero was a songwriter from Tucson who passed away about 4 or 5 years ago. And Lalo Guerrero grew up in Barrio Viejo in Tucson, and then moved to Los Angeles, and he was a songwriter for years and years and years. And he was very successful. He started out writing novelty songs, and then he went from there. He had a great career. I met his son a few years ago, because Lalo was inducted into the Arizona Music Hall of Fame, and his son came to accept his award.
Songfacts: And did you get to know Lalo at all? Was he a friend of yours?
Jesse: I never met Lalo. He was older. He recorded with Los Lobos. And he owned a bar in Los Angeles, but this was back in the '70s, before I was really of age.
Songfacts: Are you bilingual?
Jesse: I'm Spanglishy. (laughs) I probably should be fully bilingual by now, but I know just enough to get yelled at.
Songfacts: Do you go down to Mexico a lot?
Jesse: No, I don't. They're beautiful people there. I feel comfortable there. You know, I'm Mexican, so…
Songfacts: You have a hard time getting back across the border. (laughing)
Jesse: (laughs) Wouldn't that be terrible? You know, a couple of years ago I was on the road with an act on Interscope, and it was a girl singer, we had a really terrific band, it was me and a guy named Nick Kirgo, and Gary Mallaber, who is a legendary drummer, he played with Steve Miller - he's actually the drummer on Van Morrison records, the early ones, like Wild Night and Moondance. But Gary's a real pistol, he's a character. And we were driving back from San Diego, they stopped us. And Gary turns around and says, "Jesse, show them your license so we can get back to L.A., baby."
Songfacts: (laughing) Okay, back to music. Talk to me about "Cheatin'." That's another one of my favorites.
Jesse: Well, that's kind of a novelty song. I wrote that with old Dougie, and I had that title from college. We'd sit around in college drinking beer, mostly, and one afternoon we were at a little bar in downtown Tempe, and we were trying to think of the most horrendous country titles we could think of. And my buddy, Ricky, came up with that one. "You can't call it cheatin' cuz she reminds me of you." Pretty much wrote itself. It's a funny song. One time we were in a radio station years and years ago, a lady DJ, I forgot who she was, she goes, "I'd like to say I love that song, because it's funny. But I do find it mildly offensive at the same time." I said, "Okay, that's good for you." (laughs)
Songfacts: (laughing) It's like you want to go and slap the guy in the song and say, "Are you serious?" But it's funny, it's very cute. Tell me about "Follow You Down."
Jesse: Yeah, we wrote that right at the end of recording Congratulations I'm Sorry. We were working on the record, and I'd come home at night to my hotel room, and I had those chords and I finished writing by the time we got home. And we'd already finished the record, but I had this great song, so I demoed it up and I sent it to my main A&R man, David Andaly, the great David Andaly, and he said, "Why are you hiding this thing? Let's put it on the record." So we went and recorded it right away.
Songfacts: So that one that you wrote all by yourself, the melody and the words?
Jesse: Mostly. But all the guys came in on it, and we finished it together.
Songfacts: Can you tell me what is meant at the very end, "Are they gonna find us laying face down in the sand"?
Jesse: Well, Robin wrote some of those lyrics. I think that just means… I don't know what that means. (laughs) I think that means, are we gonna make it? Is there a possibility? Or are we just gonna be dust?
Songfacts: Are there any other songs that you have that you can tell me that are a piece of Jesse?
Jesse: "'Til I Hear It From You" is really nice pop perfection. It's saccharin enough, it's good enough, and I like playing that one. It's a great song I can count on - I can count on hearing it in grocery stores. And because of that, it reminds me why I work. As you get older, as an artist, you have to start realizing what you do carries some value, even monetarily. And that song is a pretty big one for me to sort of help me realize, yeah, I guess this is what I do for a living from now on, how lucky I am. Because it's all I really love doing. And I get to do it all the time.
Songfacts: How was it for you the first time that that happened, and you heard your music playing over a public PA system somewhere, like a grocery store, can you remember?
Jesse: Well, I remember being proud. I mean, I almost wanted to tell somebody, Hey, that's my song!
Songfacts: Did anybody notice? Were they like, Wait, wait, that's a Gin Blossom over there! That's him!
Jesse: (laughing) No, I was pretty anonymous. I will say this, though, it's funny - one time my wife and I were at a Lowe's, and I think we were buying lighting fixtures, and she wanted one, and I said let's go for the cheaper one. And she wanted one that was just a little more expensive. And I was like hemming and hawing, and all of a sudden one of my songs came on the radio, and she said, "It's not as if you can't afford to get me the more expensive one." I was like, "All right, there you go. You can have it."
Songfacts: (laughing) She did have a case. Now, when the band very first started out, you were the lead singer, correct?
Songfacts: And then it switched. What interests me is that you do a huge part of the writing for the songs. But yet you're able to hand over your songs to somebody else to sing, even if you're capable of singing them yourself. I would think that I would want to sing my own songs.
Jesse: I don't mind. I have a very good friend of mine, JD Souther. He's got a fabulous new record. Oh my God, it's just a great piece of work. But he's a beautiful friend of mine, I've known him for years. He would write all the smash hits for the Eagles that we remember now. And he's been asked that same question. And he says, "No, man, that's cool. Whoever wants to sing them is fine with me." And I'll tell you what, he sings them beautifully.
Songfacts: But there's no songs of yours that you have said, "I have to do this one, because nobody else could do it the way I could"?
Jesse: No, I've never done that. But on the last record, there's a song called "California Sun" that's really special to me. I turned in the demo with me singing it, and the label says, "Oh, can we just leave it like this? Because we love the way you sound on it. You sound so earnest, like it really means something to you." I'm just fine with that.
Songfacts: Isn't "California Sun" an homage to the Beach Boys?
Jesse: (laughing) Yeah, I would say so. I would definitely say so. But you know what really it is - and it's sort of bittersweet, because I was living here in California, obviously, and my wife's mother got very ill back in Kansas, back in Lawrence, Kansas, and she had to go stay with her. It was before my son was in school. So they left. It was wintertime, and they went to Kansas to stay for six months, and I always go back and forth, I was on the road, I had to work. And we were in the middle of remodeling our house, and so I was living in my garage, which is a studio, and it was the rainiest winter in 20 years. And I really missed them both, and so I wrote a song about that.
Songfacts: And that was on your last album?
Songfacts: Can you tell me about any that are going to be on the one coming up?
Jesse: A&R people haven't made their cut yet. But I know we got signed with two songs that they flipped for. One's called "This Disarray," and the other one's called "Don't Change 4 Me," which the Olympics used. It's been covered already by a guy named Matt Moon, who I co-wrote it with. Me and Danny Wilde wrote it with him. And Matt Moon's version was featured in a movie called Soccer Mom. And then last summer the U.S. Olympics, NBC used the song in the Olympics commercials. So it's already had a lot of life. It's a really fun song to sing.
Songfacts: Speaking of movies, I'm kind of getting off track here, but you do a lot of writing for shows - TV shows and whatnot, correct? And movies?
Songfacts: How does that come about? Do you get sent scripts? Or do they just tell you, "We have a character like this, we need a song that is around that"?
Jesse: They used to send scripts, but they don't do that anymore. Usually what they do is they send you a piece of film. And they just tell you to write something for that. I do either like a whole song, or sometimes I do interspatial music, which is just pieces of music that just sit in the background.
Songfacts: And you had a song on Drillbit Taylor, "Let's Play Two." Is that one that they wanted you to kind of form around a character, or around the movie?
Jesse: Yeah, the Dodgers use "Let's Play Two" in their stadium. I don't think it's about the character of… the Drillbit Taylor people enjoyed it because it moves pretty good. It made the scene work. They had just asked for some up-tempo songs, I think, as I recall. And we sent it over.
Songfacts: I've heard before that sometimes stuff happens where the artists' stuff gets picked up and used, and you don't even know about it.
Jesse: Sometimes you don't. And you just get a notice, something just happened recently like that.
Songfacts: Don't you have control over that? Do they have to ask your permission?
Jesse: You know what, if it's sitting with the publisher, they'll just do it. I mean, sometimes it just slips through. Somebody might be supposed to make a phone call. But I'm not really that conscious about it.
Songfacts: I guess as long as they don't make any bad deals for you, it's all good.
Jesse: Business is different these days. I don't know if there's any good deals. (laughing)
Songfacts: Sweet! (laughing) I noticed that you guys have played the Belly Up in Solana Beach.
Jesse: I love that place. That's a good fun place. Yeah, we're on that circuit. (heavy theatrical sigh) What are you gonna do?
Songfacts: That's my old stomping grounds. When I first turned 21 that's where we used to go all the time.
Jesse: It's where you raged?
Songfacts: Yeah (laughs) that's where we raged. It's a good venue, because it's really intimate.
Jesse: No, no, I love it. We've been playing there for 20 years.
Songfacts: Cool. Okay, anything else that you'd like to add?
Jesse: Not really. I'm just glad I'm a songwriter. And I'm glad I was able to make a living at it. I get to meet really fantastic, interesting people, and I've gotten to work with some of my heroes and it's been nice.
Songfacts: Yeah, you are really, really blessed to have that much talent and to be able to make use of it the way you are.
Jesse: I don't know if it's talent as much as tenacity. I just work every day.
Our conversation with Jesse took place on March 19, 2009. Get more at ginblossoms.net.
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