Take Something Beautiful – The Songs of Jesse Younan

by Jenny O’Keefe

In July 2008 Jesse Younan died from acute myeloid leukemia. He was 35 years old and had just released the album ‘A Good Day for a Migraine’ to critical acclaim. Jesse’s voice was strong and his words brilliant, and his death came far too early in a young man’s life.

Now, some notable independent Australian artists have teamed up with Vitamin Records to create a tribute album.

Glenn Wright, director of Vitamin Records, had a chat with Jenny O’Keefe about this release.

Can you tell me a bit about how the idea came about for Take Something Beautiful?

After Jesse passed away, for a long time we struggled with keeping his last release relevant. I found it hard to listen to the album and I think everybody felt deflated.

I gave the album to many musicians and music presenters and one in particular really pushed the songs for placement. Norman Parkhill from Source Music found music placements for Jesse’s music on East of Everything (ABC series) and Packed to the Rafters. He became a fan and suggested we put out an album celebrating Jesse’s music. Now four years on it feels far more appropriate, as many of us who were close to Jesse are returning to his albums and enjoying.

We hope through this album that more people will discover Jesse’s music, and also that it will help those artists that are involved in some way.

How did you go about selecting who would appear on the album, and which songs they would cover? Did the artists decide this amongst themselves?

These artists are all indie acts that were about the same profile as Jesse was when he passed away. They are pretty much all more established now – but back then they would have been contemporaries to Jesse.

Norman wanted the album to have continuity so we had David Symes (Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, Jackie Orszaczky) come on as the musical director, producer. The artists invited all had some direct association with Vitamin Records and or Source Music and some, like Lucie Thorne, knew Jesse and were fans. The songs were offered to the artists.

I was reading that you were a close friend of Jesse’s. When we lose someone in our lives the grieving process ebbs and flows over time, with different lessons emerging through the experience. What do you remember most about Jesse as a friend today?

I think we were friends – yes, but more I think we happened to be on the same path and were like-minded. I believed he could be a very accomplished artist and he had chosen my company to work with to get his music out. I really liked the guy and we had some good times – I guess that’s a friend?

What I remember most is that he had huge contradictions. He could look mean and hard yet my three-year-old and six-year-old (at the time) were totally in a spell around him. He didn’t really talk to them much – just smile and make the odd joke – but they just loved being near him. He would play his guitar and they would listen and be calm and be happy. He was staying with us so the children really did love him.

I couldn’t bring up the courage to tell my three-year-old he had died for about 12 months. Eventually she worked it out and it really was a big life lesson for her, losing somebody.

Vitamin as a record label is something quite special. All the CDs in my collection from you guys end up feeling like lovely friends. What is the ethos of the label?

That’s lovely, there is little if any ethos except one of us in the office has to love the music. Sometimes the music is really good but there is no love – so we pass. Music is very personal so I think we have passed on some very good music, but it just wasn’t for us.

Jenny also fired a few questions at some of the artists involved in Take Something Beautiful.

What does it mean to you to be involved in this album, covering the work of Jesse Younan?

“It is an honor and a fabulous privilege to be involved in this project, as I value Jesse’s songs very much, and this feels great that they are being given new life by some great unique Australian voices.” — Jordie Lane

“It’s intimidating to rework someone else’s work, especially when there’s no way for feedback from them, it’s also inspiring to place what you can of your own heart and soul onto someone’s work that has their heart and soul attached.” — M Jack Bee

“I was drawn to the album primarily because the song structure to Blowfly is so different to anything I have ever written, I found it a good challenge to interpret. It felt like a dramatic song that needed dramatic delivery. I liked the idea of keeping the tone fairly dark because it suits the themes. I didn’t know him but it seemed like a worthwhile project to be a part of because he was such a unique talent.” — Abbe May

“I felt very honoured to be asked to be involved with this project. Jesse was a great songwriter and musician and from all accounts an amazing person, so being asked to interpret one of his songs for the album was kind of nerve-wracking.” — Jai Pyne

Did you know Jesse? Can you tell me about your thoughts of him as a man and a musician?

“I did know Jesse, but not well. I remember the first time I met him many years back at The Retreat Hotel in Melbourne. We were on the bill together, and I just remember it really blowing me away. He was intimidating to see at first, but one of those people with a gentleness that overpowers that quickly. A damn good picker of the guitar, and a voice that has lived, that has suffered, that has loved.” — Jordie Lane

“I never met Jesse unfortunately. A former member of our band Tom Hespe was a friend of his and held him in very high esteem as a person, musician and songwriter so I heard a few stories about the man and was exposed to his music through Tom. We actually ended up playing at a tribute show to Jesse shortly after he passed away, we covered ‘Forever’. The songs lend themselves to different interpretations quite fluidly and they still stand up as great songs. I think good tunes will always do this: no matter how you play them – whether it be with layers of instruments or just stripping it back to guitar and vocals, they will still convey a story and Jesse’s songs certainly do this extraordinarily well.” — Jai Pyne

“I met Jesse only once at Peats Ridge Festival in 2006/07, it was brief but behind his dark exterior that day I saw a knowing humour in his eyes. Once I moved to the North Coast I started working with producer Christian Pyle who had spent the last months of Jesse’s life producing ‘A Good Day For A Migraine’. I got to know Jesse in a recorded sense, and got a lot of pretty insane stories from the process of those guys making that record.” — M Jack Bee

Can you tell me about the song you recorded for the album and its meaning?

“I find Road Long Been Travelled darkly uplifting, there’s a knowing that life is short and to forget the bullshit in a really honest way. It didn’t feel forced the way Jesse played it, so I picked up my guitar, learned it and then played it as if it were my own. That’s what the song was saying for me to do in life, so I treated it that way.” — M Jack Bee

“Dave Symes and I went back and forth on the track, the lyrics and how we were going to approach it. We tried to work it so it would suit my voice and my style and sit in with Jesse’s song. I had the track for a while and played around at home on acoustic guitar with it, just trying to get a feel for it.

“Then we just had one session for the bulk of the recording, putting down drums with Jared Underwood and Dave Symes playing bass. I played some atmospheric kinda guitars on it and tried to do the vocal as much justice as possible.

“The meaning of the song [C’est La Vie] is very heavy. My take is that it’s about coming to terms with mortality and resorting to addiction and escapism – drawing a parallel between these things and then also touching on some very intense family things. This was pretty confronting to try to encompass in my voice and our interpretation of the song, but it was really fun working on it with those guys. It was also quite touching to be able to contribute and celebrate Jesse’s song and his person. There was so much of his personality and soul in his work and it’s great to make this into a beautiful thing.” — Jai Pyne

“I was asked to cover Swing. They must have read my mind, ’cause if I had to choose my favorite song it would be that. I was very much pleased to take the direction of producer Dave Symes on the studio. We decided to keep the song fairly true to the original based around guitar and voice.

“I can’t really be the judge of its true meaning, but I do see it as a confessional about the struggle with addiction and life and love.” — Jordie Lane

Take Something Beautiful is out now through Vitamin Records, and will be performed live at Mullumbimby Music Festival 2012, Nov 22-25 

The album features covers by Abbe May, Jordie Lane, Jai Pyne (The Paper Scissors), Jen Cloher, Lucie Thorne, Emily Lubitz (Tinpan Orange), Greg J Walker (Machine Translations), Cameron Potts and Gabby Huber (Dead Letter Chorus) and M Jack Bee.