After years of being what she called a "closet musician," Jillian Bessett began a musical transformation, first into a folk singer-songwriter and ultimately into a rock vocalist and bandleader.
Now leading Jillian and The Giants, Bessett is ready to release Mr. Airplane, the band's debut collection of tunes, swinging from hard-edged blues to wondrous a cappella, just the sort of broadly expressive album that rises from shedding boundaries and embracing possibilities.
"I'd done some solo folk stuff, but I thought let's do a full band and it became this rock thing," Bessett says. "I had no idea where it was going and I still don't."
While Bessett says it can be a bit of a bummer trying to drum up gigs and an audience as a band that's been hard to define from the start, she is ultimately happier exploring different sounds with her bandmates, husband Paul Radek on bass, Chris Callahan on guitar and drummers Bryn Jones and Julius Schlosburg.
"There's a lot of different directions the album goes. There's an a cappella piece, there's a blues piece," she says. "It's Jillian and The Giants, but everybody brings their own ideas to the table. It's a lot more collaborative. The keystones of what it is, no matter what direction or genre of whatever song, are Chris's guitar playing and my voice. That keeps it pinned down and things move around."
Bessett's vocals tie the record together. Powerful, soulful and smoky, her voice and piano are balanced and complemented by Callahan's emotive, versatile guitar playing.
Work on the album began with the title song, which itself began as a story. The main character is a little fish, named Icarus, who doesn't want to be in the ocean anymore. So he leaves via an airplane he found as trash in the ocean, but ultimately doesn't make it.
"It's this 'bloom where you're planted' story," says Bessett, one that in some ways mirrors part of her own life, but is also meant as something anyone can relate to.
Bessett was born in Tucson, moved to Sedona for high school, then traveled around afterwards, had kids and ultimately moved back to Tucson about six years ago.
"I came back home and thought 'this is it for me,' but I fell in love with Tucson all over again. This is right where I want to be," she says.
Bessett felt welcomed and inspired by Tucson's musical and artistic community and figured it was time get moving on her own musical ambitions. Growing up, she'd learned guitar and sang in choir and found songwriting inspiration in artists like Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco and k.d. lang. She played some folk music while living in San Diego, but in starting Jillian and The Giants, was making her first real push as a musician.
After deciding to move beyond the solo acoustic folk style, she enlisted Radek and Callahan, who perform together in the surf-rock group Shrimp Chaperone, to help bring songs to life.
"I'd written all these folk songs in order to deal with personal things, but I've come to realize that what I love is creating a show and making it fun," she says. "I want to rock. Emotional folk songs have their place, but I much prefer to do big rock band shows. That's when I'm having the most fun."
The physical aspect of rock 'n' roll can provide just as much of an emotional release as the more cerebral, lyrical aspect of folk music, she says.
"When you're grooving and dancing, it's not just about this person working through feelings, it's about creating something so that we can all let loose for an hour. It's just as cathartic creating that," she says.
The main difference she's found in approaching music with her band is in the collaboration, Bessett says, leaving songs open for the instrumental parts than can transform the sound in dynamic ways.
"I still write songs in the same way, but what I realize is the structure is different. There's much more room for collaboration," she says.
The album release isn't the top of the mountain, but a means to the end of getting out and playing more shows. The band is working on a Phoenix release show for November and plotting out a spring tour.
"With an album, it's so much easier to get people to talk to you," she says. "That's been one of the driving forces behind getting this out."
Of the eight songs on Mr. Airplane, Bessett wrote six and Callahan wrote two, "Rodeo Palms" and "I Don't Know My Name." The album release show will double as a video premier for "Mr. Airplane," an animated short by Jason Willis, a local filmmaker who captured a Sundance Film Festival audience award in 2013.
A second video is in the works for "Chicago," a tune that Bessett wrote about her husband and one that illustrates just how dynamic the band can be. On the record, it carries a softer folk vibe, but on stage, the band transforms it into a raucous rock tune.
"It's a sweet, simple love song, but it seems to be the one that most people are gravitating toward now," she says.
The recording of Mr. Airplane happened slowly over time, at Bessett's home studio, where she and Radek, who engineered and mixed the album, have a readily built-in system of checks and balances.
"Paul is very detail oriented and good at making sure the fine-tuning stuff happens. I'm more of a big-picture person, so when both of us are satisfied with it in the studio, we know it's done," he says. "It was such a joy to work on and just hang out in our music room and really get things right."