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Former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, in New York, on North Carolina

Moving quietly


  • Photo by Deborah Francis

Darren Jessee has one foot out his front door. He's leaving his Brooklyn apartment with his bandmates to grab a late lunch the day after his band, Hotel Lights, played a show in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Jessee in motion: It's a fitting introduction to his music and his band, whose name evokes a sense of transience, of destination and departure. The image fits Jessee's personal life, too. Best known as the former drummer of Ben Folds Five, he left Chapel Hill for New York a little more than a year ago. Before he departed, he wrote Firecracker People, the second Hotel Lights' album, but he recorded it as he packed for the North. By the time it was released in August, he was settled in the bigger city. The tunes are still spacy and Southern, but they glow with a new cosmopolitan refinement now. After all, location and change are essential to Jessee's music.

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"Location has a lot to do with how you feel every day and what kind of information you're giving, even the weather and stuff like that. I think it makes a pretty big impression on most songwriters, where they live," says Jessee, who recently returned south to play a reunion show with Ben Folds Five. The 37-year-old went to high school in Charlotte and spent most of his adult life in and around Chapel Hill. He liked his "country life," and the privilege of space—a house and privacy that North Carolina could afford. "Those are things you can have in North Carolina that you don't really find [in New York City]."

Firecracker People was written over several years (Ben Folds Five played one track, "Amelia Bright," live), but it feels tied fast to its setting. The album carries the intimate qualities of North Carolina living that Jessee says he misses. And on the album's closing track, "Run Away Happy," Jessee sounds as though he's singing his goodbye letter to the state he always called home. It's as if he's waving through the back window of a car that's steadily shrinking into the distance.

"We were finishing up Firecracker People, and I had already made that transition [to life in New York]. North Carolina still feels a little more like home just because I grew up there, but New York definitely feels very comfortable to me these days," says Jessee, in his amiable, quiet way. Jessee dreamt of moving to New York as a Charlotte teenageer. Now, he loves its late-night culture and its endless opportunities. "Whether or not things exactly work out for you, you know there's at least a possibility that something exciting and unexpected could happen."

Jessee hasn't changed just his setting in advance of Firecracker People. Of the many musicians that played on Hotel Lights' self-titled debut, only producer Alan Weatherhead returned for Firecracker People. Otherwise, Tift Merritt's rhythm section—drummer Zeke Hutchins and bassist Jay Brown—contributed a shuffling sense of rustic Americana, at which the self-titled record merely hinted. (For more on this, see "Two records, one rhythm section.")

"I really like bands that have different sounds for each record. Even though there's a thread that unites them, there's a different feel to it or a different quality," says Jessee. His records are united mostly by his voice, offering small images through an unassuming, reflective tone. Relying more on guitar than piano, and augmented by restrained but sweeping keys from Weatherhead, Firecracker People is the more consistent and satisfying of the two Hotel Lights records.

"The first record was definitely more songs that I had been working on for a long time in different places, and I think the new record is more of a snapshot of a period of time," says Jessee. Hotel Lights moved between the soft-spoken, keys-floating balladry of standout single "You Come and I Go" to the crunchy power-pop of "Marvelous Truth," and blends of steel guitar and processed beats, as on "Motionless." If a solid record, it felt, at times, disjointed. The pieces of Firecracker People, by contrast, fit. Jessee says each song served as a building block for the next, making for a slow evolution, but one that suits the record.

"I just had these songs that I'd been working on and I just felt like they worked together and there was some feeling I was getting from the whole thing, so I started chipping away at it," says Jessee. "It's kind of like if you're writing short stories or a novel or whatever, you might have a basic outline, but you might not know exactly how you're going to get there until you're in the middle of it."

But part of the thrill of any project is the uncertain finish line. And for anyone or anything in constant motion, as Hotel Lights is, the destination is always a surprise.

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