Josee McGee Is In Control
The incredibly talented 22-year-old singer-songwriter, Josee Mcgee talks about her debut album, musical family background, court apology song, open mic, akashic record readings from Juanita Mozzarella and much more in this conversation with Ben and Bryce of the band Harborer.
As my car rolled up onto the red brick road outside of the carriage house recording studio that is Realgrey Records, I thought about how I’ve gotten to know Josee over the past year while playing at open mic nights at Muggswigz Coffee and Tea in downtown Canton. As she would tell me later that day, she has been running the open mic on Tuesdays for a little over three years now. With artists coming from Canton, Cleveland, Akron and all over to share their original music with other writers and listeners, it would be hard to deny its influence on the songwriting community in Northeast Ohio. For Josee, Tuesday open mic nights are just the surface of her life as a growing musician. Gearing up for an album recorded at Realgrey Records, amongst a small acoustic EP and some other singles, there has been a lot of time spent inside the studio for Josee and the other musicians and artists working alongside her. I came to Realgrey to talk to her about the recording process and her life surrounding it, hoping to get a snapshot of the life of a talented and hardworking musician.
The studio is a house in Canton managed and owned by Ron Flack, who showed up at the scaffolding-covered entrance when we arrived. I later learned that he is the most seasoned studio veteran of anyone that works on their impressive and tasteful collection of microphones, rack equipment and monitors. He usually sits in on sessions or pops in and out to check on whoever is recording that day. As a result, he usually gets to know the visiting artists and engineers on a personal level.
Ben and I walked in to greet Josee and Spencer, her boyfriend and fellow musician, who played drums on most of the new album and worked in production throughout the entire recording process. I walked into the console room of the studio and began asking Josee about her new album after brief chats about Drake and the concept of “weird” music.
“[My new album] is going to be called Tree Rings because I'm relating human life back to the life of a tree – all of the things you go through that leave visible and invisible marks on you as time moves forward,” Josee said. “The song ‘Calluses’ talks about the literal marks of writing songs or being a musician on guitar. The first five songs on the album have to do with reflection – everything I went through up until this point and shedding all that, deciding I’m a musician and deciding that being a musician matters to me whether it matters to anyone else.”
Knowing how important Josee has been in the process of our band Harborer’s songwriting in the past year, we have long been awaiting this album that has undergone many changes throughout its production. Since Ben has known Josee for a couple more years than I have, he asked which of the songs on her ten-track album were the newest and oldest additions to the collection that she was now releasing as Tree Rings.
Listen to Tree Rings by Josee McGee on Spotify here or below:
“The oldest song is probably ‘Little Thoughts and Things,’ and I believe it's over three years old,” Josee said. “The newest song would be ‘Face in Time’ – the last song. I'm glad you asked that question because those songs are directly a reflection of each other. I wrote ‘Face in Time’ kind of as an ode to ‘Little Thoughts and Things’ because I feel very similar to some of the things that I was saying in that song.”
Elaborating more about old songs, Josee talked about her childhood and writing her first song after a bike accident that her friend was in. The incident impacted her in a way she felt like she needed to express. She was 13 years old when this happened, and since then, songwriting has been an outlet: a tool for self-exploration and a way of redefining her meaning of the world.
“That was just a shocking amount of pain to deal with at that age and I knew everyone around me was going through it too,” Josee said.
I thought about the shocking amount of pain that a lot of people close to me have felt in the past year and I realized how much of a cathartic tool songwriting can be to people who need some sort of emotional outlet in their lives.
Before she was a songwriter, Josee was a singer with her family. As a kid, she would sing with her aunts and cousins in their touring family band. They would play at different coffee shops and go to the library together in between sets to find backing track CDs for their performances. Her step-grandpa also musically influenced Josee at a young age: he played the organ at St. Joan of Arc for all of her childhood and was a music teacher and composer for most of that time as well.
Fast forwarding in her life, Josee talked about her rough times as a teenager when she was into drugs and got in occasional fights. As a result of her delinquency, she found herself making an appearance in court for shoplifting. After talking to the judge, she promised to sing an apology song on her returning court date.
“They gave me some community service but like, they gave me the opportunity,” Josee said. “I told him I would write a song about how sorry I was or something. So I did on my returning court date, and everybody cried.”
Bringing the conversation back to her new album, Josee explained why it is coming out on her birthday, May 23rd. She talked about the prophecies for her “23rd year” made by a family friend named Juanita Mozzarella.
“This woman, what she does is she interprets your Akashic Record. She has some connection, I guess, like a medium,” Josee said. “She talks to your spirit guides while they're talking to you. She and my grandma are close. My grandma trusts this woman and communicates with this woman all the time. Years ago, she was asking about me and that woman said that on my 23rd year, I should be going down the right path, that I should be pretty certain and pretty good to go or something.”
Realizing her own future is in her control, Josee decided to release the album on her 23rd birthday to fulfill the prophecy that her grandma's friend bestowed upon her.
While we were busy thinking about the future, our host, Ron Flack, was living in the present, handing out guitar picks and stickers to Ben and me for our first time in the studio.
“Can you imagine me in 10 more years?” Ron asked. “Do you think I've lost my mind now? Like I'm sixty-fucking-one. Can you imagine me when I'm 71? I'm gonna be at the nursing home. Gandalf of stickers.”
“You shall not pass … without taking some stickers,” Ben said, imitating a 71-year-old Gandalf-Ron passing out stickers to visitors in his studio.
Our stale jokes and sarcastic conversation made Ron ask about the podcast we had mentioned earlier.
“When [a podcast] is just a conversation ... sitting on two toilets next to each other, that's when it works. If you contrive any of that shit it's just cheese,” Ron said.
Which is also good advice if you are writing an article for a magazine.
After giving us some wisdom and friendly words, Ron went back to drilling holes in the wall outside of the studio because Realgrey was gearing up for a renovation. The garage looking “carriage house” portion of the building was now under the same roof as the main part of the house. The new extension connecting the two was to become the new live room for recording larger groups, so that there would now be a room to sit down and relax where the console room currently lies.
With Ron busy, we continued talking about our musical lives and the state of the open mic night that Harborer attends every week. Soon after we started going to the coffee shop, the owner made a rule that no copyrighted music was allowed to be played, meaning it all had to be original material. Josee said she was nervous to pull the plug on covers.
Unfortunately, some performers who were legitimately talented and friendly were turned away because of the new rule, but with it came a crowd of energetic new-age hipsters to better match the coffee shop’s target demographic. The rule shifted the type of performers from people singing their favorite karaoke songs, to those exploring more creative and original concepts. Many of the new people coming were also a result of Muggswigz being one of the only remaining places to see live music during the pandemic. It was appealing to musicians and also live music fans. Thankfully, in all of this, Josee always maintained a stellar ability to entertain and inspire other people to get on a stage and share their talents with others.
Bring Your Song is an event similar to the energy of the open mic that Realgrey has hosted for a long time, where songwriters play a song in front of other songwriters to get healthy feedback. While this tradition has been out of commission due to Covid-19 for a while now, Ron hopes to bring it back as more people can be sustained in the studio.
Knowing that there are other artists around you that want you to succeed and believe in your ability to create art is important when growing creatively.
“Being an artist you can get hung up on who is caring about you, and how many people are caring about you,” Josee stated.
Without having a safe space filled with artists like Josee McGee, I would not be where I am in my musical journey and am excited to see her hard work pay off with this album release.
Hearing Josee's troubles as a teenager and now writing songs with unlikely people about unlikely topics made me realize the richness of the journey of a songwriter and how valuable it is to have memorable experiences while making music. The album Tree Rings is a beautiful display of the marks and stripes that a songwriter earns along the way through their struggle to create something impactful.
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Tree Rings was released on May 23, 2021.