Jackie Greene was, fittingly enough, staring at his phone, waiting for an Uber to arrive when the inspiration for "Modern Lives" struck.
"My wife was feeling rushed, and I was feeling like we didn’t pack everything, and we were just watching this little screen counting down the minutes until a stranger's car would come and take us to the airport," remembers Greene. "For some reason, I picked up a guitar and started playing this hootenanny thing. I sang the first verse and part of the chorus into my phone and then literally wrote the rest of it in the Uber. It all seemed very appropriate."
Hailed as "the Prince of Americana" by the New York Times, Greene has always had a knack for capturing the human experience in all its messy, emotional complexity, and on his new EP, 'The Modern Lives – Vol 1,' he draws inspiration from some of the great social paradoxes of our 21st century world: that the technology designed to simplify our lives can actually complicate them in ways we'd never imagined, that the most crowded cities can actually be the loneliest places to live, that the constructs meant to connect us to each other can actually leave us feeling more isolated than ever.
Greene's been chasing a sense of authentic human connection through art ever since his teenage years, when he began self-recording and releasing his own music in central California. After a critically acclaimed independent debut, he signed his first record deal and embarked on a lifetime of recording and touring that would see him supporting the likes of BB King, Mark Knopfler, Susan Tedeschi, and Taj Mahal, in addition to gracing festival stages from Bonnaroo to Outside Lands. The New York Times hailed his "spiritual balladry," Bob Weir anointed him the "cowboy poet" of Americana and blues, and the San Francisco Chronicle raved that he has "a natural and intuitive connection with… just about any musical instrument."
While Greene's songwriting chops were more than enough to place him in a league of his own (NPR's World Café raved that his "sound seems at once achingly intimate, surprisingly energetic and unburdened by adherence to genre"), Greene also emerged as a singular singer and guitarist, prompting Rolling Stone to praise his "honeyed tenor" and name him among "the most notable guitarists from the next generation of six-string legends." Between studio albums and his own tours, Greene took up prestigious gigs playing with Phil Lesh & Friends, The Black Crowes, Levon Helm, and Trigger Hippy, his supergroup with Joan Osborne.
"As artists and writers, I think we're all just sort of amalgamations of what we listen to and what we do," Greene says of his omnivorous approach to music. "You play with The Black Crowes or Phil Lesh for a year, and it's inevitable that some of that's going to sort of rub off on you. And I'm grateful for that," he adds with a laugh, "because as it turns out, I really love their music."
'The Modern Lives – Vol 1' may tip its cap to some of Greene's heroes and colleagues, but the sound is 100% his own. Recorded entirely by Greene in a Brooklyn basement, the collection finds him playing every single instrument and serving as both his own engineer and producer.
"It was more like a laboratory than a studio," Greene reflects. "Part of the writing process for me has always been the actual recording, and while I've had fleshed-out demos make it onto albums before, this was the first time I've done the whole thing as a truly homemade, DIY project."
The EP also marks Greene's first release as part of his new partnership with Blue Rose Music, the record label and multimedia company founded by media and tech veteran Joe Poletto.
"It's essentially a venture that's going to allow me to release music in the way I've always wanted to," says Greene. "I've realized over the years that the homebrew aspect of what I do is very important to my aesthetic, and part of that is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Joe really gets that," he continues. "I have complete and total freedom artistically and musically now, which means I don't have to play by the old rules anymore. That's really exciting to me."
Released from the shackles of traditional music business models, Greene was free to follow his muse in the basement. There, he found that the physical limitations of the space were actually inspiring rather than prohibitive, as they forced him to get more creative than ever with his arrangements and to learn to let go in the quest for sonic perfection.
"You can imagine being in a small Brooklyn basement and dealing with all the outside interruptions," he explains. "I was really put off by it at first, but then I decided to step back and stop worrying. My concept for the EP was this look at our modern lives, and that's all part of it. We're all living in each other's space here, like ants in a giant anthill."
It's a distinctly New York metaphor, and Greene wastes no time in getting to the point on the EP as he grapples with the close quarters and hectic pace of life in his new hometown. The collection opens with the rollicking, funky Americana of the title track, which finds him singing, "Your Times Square looks like a graveyard / I've got a billboard for my headstone and a car horn for my eulogy." On "The Captain's Daughter," he reflects, "I could sleep here on the stair / Who would notice, who would care?"
"I still don't see myself as a New Yorker," admits Greene, "and I don’t think I ever necessarily will. I like it and I enjoy it, but I didn’t grow up that way and I wasn’t born into it, so I feel like these recordings are distinct reflections of living there. There's a little bit of aggression to New York that I think people will hear right away."
Throughout the album, Greene's storytelling offers its own brand of philosophy, one that resists the urge to find easy answers. On "Back Of My Mind," for instance, he crafts a wistful ode to a simpler kind of life, but rather than waxing nostalgic for days gone by, he questions the veracity—even the usefulness—of memory, suggesting that fiction may cloud fact when it comes to looking backwards. Forward momentum, it seems, is the key to survival in our modern world. The banjo-and-dobro blues of "Tupelo" warns of the devils lurking in our past should we dare return from whence we came, while a gritty, distorted cover of Willie Dixon's "Good Advice" concludes that "you keep on going if you're sure you're right." By the time we hit EP closer "Alabama Queen," we find that true freedom in this modern world ultimately belongs to the freaks and weirdos, those unburdened by the expectations and weight of society, those willing to follow their muse in pursuit of their own kind of happiness.
"The main aesthetic here is the discovery of myself," reflects Greene. "The EP takes this very homemade, ragamuffin approach that's not overcooked, and I'm really embracing that. It's got me more excited to make music than I've ever been. When I'm on the road now, I can't wait to get back to my basement and record."
If the open road's got him longing for the dark, noisy confines of a Brooklyn basement, perhaps modern life has finally turned Jackie Greene into a New Yorker, after all.