Durand Jones on honouring the Southern Black experience: “I don’t want my home to live in memory”
Hillaryville, a small community on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, looms large on Durand Jones‘ debut album. ‘Wait Til I Get Over’, the first solo outing for the frontman of soul heroes Durand Jones and The Indications, is dominated by the town, a place founded by freed slaves in the late 1800s, and where the 33-year-old grew up. You can leave Hillarville, it seems, but Hillaryville never leaves you.
In turn, the people, culture, customs and heritage are woven into the rich tapestry of this gorgeous record, one that joins Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’, Alabama Shakes’ ‘Boys and Girls’ and more in detailing the Black Southern experience. When NME last caught up with with Jones, he teased the record as resembling the smell of “magnolias on a hot summer’s day”, there’s a “mustiness and sweetness” to that scent, one that remains pungent on this album: “I feel affirmed in everything that I believed about this record. I knew that I had to do this to show the world a little bit more of who I am and what I do,” he says two years later.
While on tour in Chicago, Jones tells NME about his hometown, why now was the right moment for a solo venture, and what he wants people to take from ‘Wait Til I Get Over’.
Why was now the time to do a solo record?
“It was a recent discovery, really. I knew at some point that I wanted to make a solo record and I knew I had some songs, but I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to work together. Once I started to think of my life story, Hillaryville just kept coming up over and over again.
I wanted to dig down deep and find out what Hillaryville was like before I even came into the picture. I really felt like it took the community to raise a person like me, and I wanted to honour them in some way. I somehow fell down the rabbit hole and it really laid the message out to me as to how to tell this story and how to deliver it to an audience.”
How did that differentiate from your work with The Indications?
“It worked best with the solo record because I was finally able to take the reins creatively and really let something be about me. The Indications is a collaborative effort and in that environment I’ve come to learn that you have to be OK with hearing no, which wasn’t the case here. With my collaborators Drake [Ritter] and Ben [Lumsdaine], it was about saying yes to everything and finding a way to make that work.
I was recently listening to QuestLove on a podcast, and he was saying that The Roots have built a house that has a solid foundation, but it’s really important for them not to stay in the house all the time. They have to get out of the house and into the world and discover things: to attain that wisdom, that knowledge and come back to the house cultivated. I really do feel like that’s where The Indications are right now. We built this house, but we’re all out in the world discovering things for ourselves. It’s really important to do.”
What were the big inspirations for you in this record?
“When we were taking the first steps in making the record, Drake and Ben not only asked me what my musical influences were, but also we really embraced the wider influences. We brought to the studio books like Tony Morrison’s Sula, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, and Claudia Rankin’s Citizen.
Drake took a lot of my non-musical influences and made these binders for everyone that had poetry from Claudia Rankine, Nikki Giovanni, Fred Moten, that had prints in there from Glenn Ligone, Nick Cave [American sculptor, born 1959]. Even a local artist called Anna Buckner and her quilt paintings. Everyone involved with the record was able to flip through a binder with all of these influences and get a real taste of what the record is about through that form.”
You went back to Hillaryville during the pandemic. How did you find it?
“I got to do a lot of things that I don’t get to do in my normal life. I was able to start a garden and grow fruits and vegetables and plant fruit trees and go fishing every day, so that was like the really beautiful aspect of it. But a part of me realised that as much as I love Hillaryville, I needed to get out and see more of the world still. It made me realise how much of a ‘rolling stone’ I enjoy being. Eventually I’m gonna move back to that area, but I have a lot more of the world to discover first.
But I’ll never take for granted the quiet and the stillness. You can sit on the porch at night and can hear literally everything from miles away. We have a saying here that it’s so quiet, you can hear a mouse pissing on cotton. [Laughs] It heightens all your senses and I love that stillness, and being able to write songs in that place.”
The title track integrates a lined hymn, a traditional gospel vocal method that combines multiple voices in quite a euphoric, emotional way. Why did you want to integrate that to the record?
“Making this record made me fall in love with Hillaryville in a whole new way and I see it with totally different eyes. Now I understand the traditions that the elders were trying to instil within me, and to learn and understand the history of Hillaryville and honour a town that was founded by formerly-enslaved folks
I know that there are other Black artists who were raised in similar church situations like I was and may not have felt compelled to embrace a tradition like lined hymns in their music. I hated doing all that as a kid. I thought it was so whack and lame and really old fashioned. But I went back as a grown man and saw they weren’t doing it anymore, it really broke my heart. By then I knew the context and I knew that these elders were passing on a tradition orally to me and my generation. I didn’t quite understand the importance of that at the time and the legacy to uphold and keep. I wanted to honour them with this record – I really do hope that they’re proud.”
‘That Feeling’ is the first song you’ve written and shared about another man. Why was now the time to do that?
“I knew that if I wanted to tell this story, I had to include that as well into this. When I was in the process of figuring out a lot of these songs, I was reading Just Above My Head by James Baldwin, which really focuses on gospel music and queer identity. I was reading that book and just crying – bawling – at every page because I really felt like James was taking something that felt very personal to me. I felt so exposed reading this but I also learned that there is strength and vulnerability; I wanted to give myself the task of doing that.
A lot of my close friends already knew about my sexuality, but I’d kept my audience and my fans in the dark. I really told myself that I wanted to be transparent with this record and I wanted to face some fears and overcome some things that felt traumatic to me and that included grappling with my sexuality and not being completely open about it. This whole recording process was a therapy lesson for me. I’ve grown while making this record and I feel freer in doing so. I really do feel like this was the right move to make and ironically, at the right time, I didn’t expect to, I didn’t expect for this song to have a political tinge to it.”
Was there a moment where you felt like you’d never be able to write a song like this?
“Growing up, I loved going to church mainly for the music, but every once in a while the pastor would get up there and preach about how homosexuality was wrong. I would come home, get on my knees and pray to God: ‘I didn’t choose to be this way. Why did you do this to me?’ All that indoctrination was doing was pushing me into a path of fragile masculinity, which I hate to say is so rampant in America right now.”
Is this solo venture something that you would consider doing again or does it feel like a sort of a standalone chapter?
“I have to continue to tell this story, man. I feel like I’m a voice of the rural South now and so many towns just like Hillaryville are disappearing. There’re folks who are taking this land from these poor Black communities because of property taxes raising and all these different things. And they don’t know the context.
There’s this one subdivision that was being built very, very close to Hillaryville recently and they had to stop because they realised that they were building over an unmarked slave grave. I don’t want my home to live in memory. I want it to be sustainable in many ways. I would love to fight for these lands to be sovereign and be untouchable. This project has become so much bigger than me and I really have to continue to tell this story; I’m already thinking about what’s the next step with the music, with the activism and the art.”
Durand Jones’ ‘Wait Til I Get Over’ is out now on Dead Oceans