Hotel Lights is the long awaited project from Darren Jesse, former drummer of Ben Folds Five. Now a singer and songwriter, Jessee is releasing his own music.
Jessee, who WXPN’s Bruce Warren called Ben Folds Five’s “secret weapon”, formed Hotel Lights in 2003 after many years writing songs, playing drums, and touring in the trio. He co-wrote some of Ben Folds Five’s biggest hits including “Brick” and "Song For the Dumped" as well as writing the tender ballad “Magic” from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In his own band, Hotel Lights have had their songs featured in hit TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill) and a major motion picture Baby Mama.
It’s been three years since the release of the band’s critically acclaimed sophomore record Firecracker People and now Hotel Lights are gearing up for the release of their highly anticipated new album, Girl Graffiti, on Bar/None Records on August 16th.
Hotel Lights, featuring singer-songwriter and former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee (vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards), recorded Girl Graffiti with guitarist/engineer Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse, A Camp), Jay Brown (bass) and Zeke Hutchins (drums), both of Tift Merritt's band, at The Sound of Music in Richmond, VA.
The new record has the spirit of a live recording, but with a graceful, polished delivery—a testament to the musicianship and sound these four seasoned players have created together over the years.
North Carolina native/Brooklyn-resident Jessee made Girl Graffiti with no pressure, only wanting to please his fiercely loyal fan base, his longtime band and himself. Most songs and vocals were tracked live in the summer, some with the band having just learned them moments before, like the gently stunning “My Own Cloud.” Others were finished in the cold of winter, like the album’s Rhodes-driven ballad “Super 8mm,” a true standout track where Jessee paints lyrical pictures that begin with an apropos mention of freshly fallen snow.
The title track of Girl Graffiti is lush-pop perfection, with steadily driving verses and a richly orchestrated chorus, all led by Jessee’s blissfully understated vocals. Longtime fans of Hotel Lights will enjoy some of the looser, seemingly off-the-cuff tracks like “Dave Sharkey to the Dance Floor,” “Through The Crowd” and “All My Asshole Friends” with their nostalgic vibe and sing-along bent (for “All My Asshole Friends”, Jessee and Weatherhead enlisted a live horn section to playfully romp up the verses). In addition to horns, there’s a subtle presence of strings throughout the album, adding even more poetic beauty to a band that innately possesses so much of it already. Girl Graffiti is an album that’s decidedly relaxed and exquisitely shimmering—all at once.
In 2006, Hotel Lights released their self-titled debut record on Bar/None Records, which was followed up by the 2008 release of Firecracker People, to an enthusiastic response from fans and the media.
Hotel Lights have developed a loyal following for their lilting pop sensibilities and sumptuous melodies. At heart, Girl Graffiti is a rock record with majestic soundscapes, melodic ease and sigh-inducing lyrics that have Hotel Lights written all over it.
After an unfortunate fire derailed them from recording at The Sound of Music in Richmond, they brought a buoyant new rhythm section from Tift Merritt’s band (drummer Zeke Hutchins and bassman Jay Brown) and drove to Butch Vig’s Smart Studios to record the basic tracks. Jessee decided to keep it loose this time around and asked the band to not over-rehearse the new songs. The result is a fresh, live sound that recalls Wilco’s Summerteeth or Nada Surf’s Let Go. Jessee and Weatherhead finished the album by traveling back and forth to each other’s home studios in North Carolina and Richmond over the remainder of 2007. By early 2008, the band’s sophomore album was finally complete.
Firecracker People could very well be the perfect driving record because it takes you on a journey itself. While Jessee’s charmingly distinctive voice and lyrics are the focus of the album, the elegant melodies and subtly embellished crystal-clear guitar soundscapes make the album complete. You will find yourself listening closely for each word, and singing along to every melody. Jessee’s songs are akin to short stories, introducing us to new characters and intimate life moments, both real and imagined. On the opening track, “Blue Always Finds Me,” Jessee takes the listener from Maine down to Texas and straight on up to a star-filled sky. The title track, originally penned for a yet-to-be released Parker Posey film, reveals Jessee’s knack for simplicity and universal truths: “We’re all firecracker people, going off all the time.” Jessee’s songwriting was well-loved by Ben Folds fans, and he surely won't disappoint in this new recording of fan favorite “Amelia Bright.” Never released on a Ben Folds Five album, the song is a breezy highlight, with a catchy piano hook and a sweet tale about a certain girl in a “red ‘50s dress from a thrift shop nearby.” The album ends with a masterpiece, “Run Away Happy”, that begins in simple folk styling, slowly building into a gorgeous pop tale about possibilities of creating a new life. But citing lyrics, listing complimentary adjectives and name-dropping references merely scratches the surface of an album that can be a deeply felt listening experience. Simply put: this is an album you can easily listen to in its entirety, imagining your own experiences along the way.
As a whole, Hotel Lights is not your average band, and Firecracker People is not an average record. The album, like the band itself, is eclectic, effortless and classic all at once. While their debut effort was a wondrously slow burn, Firecracker People shines bright from the start. And as Darren Jessee continues to blaze his own path as a songwriter with Hotel Lights, Firecracker People is a beacon for all to take notice.
“… when you see hotel lights in the distance you feel like ‘yeah, I’m almost there’, but when you stand in the bathroom and turn on the hotel lights, they are fluorescent and you see every scar.” - Darren Jessee
Fans of Darren Jessee – singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and former Ben Folds Five drummer – have long been wondering when he would officially release the debut disc of his new band, Hotel Lights. It had previously been available only as a very limited self-release, one that generated a serious interest and prompted lots of internet chatter about when the album might actually show up at the local bricks-and-mortar record store. It’s easy to see what everyone was getting excited about: this self-titled debut is a collection of elegantly arranged, folk-tinged pop that will appeal to fans of the Shins, Yo La Tengo, Sufjan Stevens and, of course, Ben Folds. (Darren co-wrote such BF5 classics as the beautifully melancholy “Brick” and “Song For the Dumped.”)
Accompanying Darren on the Hotel Lights album are former Archers of Loaf drummer Mark Price, bassist Roger Gupton and keyboardist-guitarist Chris Badger. They recorded the album at Sound of Music in Virginia, with guitarist and producer Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse), who now plays with the band. Adam Scheslinger from Fountains of Wayne helped out with some of the arrangements. Among the stand-out tracks are Darren’s wistful tribute to the pop radio classics of the seventies, “A.M. Slow Golden Hit” and the harder-rocking, organ-driven “Marvelous Truth.”
The music is richly layered with melodious keyboards, crisp guitars and soft pianos. Hotel Lights play with authority and confidence, creating their own brand of timeless pop. Jessee's vocals are as distinct and endearing as the songs themselves. And his lyrics set him apart from his peers, with an honest, storytelling that repeatedly touches upon the holy trinity of great pop records: love, loss, and starting over.