Singer-songwriter Jeffrey Gaines has gone against the grain since releasing his first folk-oriented album during the grunge rage of the early 1990s. Causing difficulties for radio programmers with his boundary-crossing music, however, Gaines spent a decade trying for a commercial breakthrough. Nevertheless, Gaines built a loyal following through passionate concert performances and a series of intensely personal albums, each based on his singular voice and distinctive song narratives. Given the acclaim for his songwriting, the success of his breakthrough hit in 2001, a cover version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," was somewhat ironic.
Gaines was born around 1966 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a carpet business. Although Harrisburg is the state's capital, it has generally been regarded as a cultural backwater in contrast to Pennsylvania's major cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, young Gaines pursued a number of artistic programs while he was growing up, taking up painting and drawing before devoting most of his time to singing. Although his parents were not in the music business, Gaines recalled in a Rolling Stone profile that music, especially R&B, was always around the house: "Soul is easy--I've heard people singing that way all my life, hangin' around under mom's ironing board, hearing Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding." In addition to R&B, Gaines was also influenced by the New Wave of the 1970s, particularly in his own songwriting. He later cited the Jam's Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, as well as John Lennon among his influences.
Gaines' love of music led him to test out his performing skills, and he sang with a number of Harrisburg bands in his teens and early twenties. Most of their repertoire was cover songs, although Gaines had already started writing his own material. An early professional breakthrough came at an unlikely time for the aspiring singer, who was working for his father's carpeting business while he performed with cover bands. One job had Gaines and his co-workers installing carpet in a new Harrisburg recording studio. While on the job, Gaines was asked to test out the microphones in the studio. Following an enthusiastic response to his singing, Gaines began to record some demos, which led to an offer in 1989 to join the up-and-coming band Maggie's Farm. Preferring to work as a solo artist, Gaines declined the opportunity. He moved to Philadelphia, and in 1990 his persistence paid off when he signed a contract with Chrysalis Records.
Debut Tackled Tough Subjects
Released in 1992, Jeffrey Gaines was "an impressive calling card," according to a Q magazine review: "Gaines's songs are engagingly effective in their directness, tackling subjects such as failed romance, internal conflict, the guilt of unwanted fatherhood ("Didn't Wanna Be Daddy") and parental alcoholism ("Sorry the Very Next Day") with a lyrical style which is often uncomfortably honest." Stereo Review agreed, noting that "Gaines is intensely sensitive but in a completely disingenuous, unaffected way, and his grasp of the gulf between inner dreams and street realities makes these twelve unvarnished narratives completely believable." This honesty carried through into Gaines' live performances. Taking on about 200 tour dates as an opening act for Melissa Etheridge and Tom Petty, Gaines also made a number of appearances at smaller venues that highlighted the intimate nature of his self-penned songs. Gaines also started to make a name for himself on the international concert stage, which led him to add the 1986 Peter Gabriel hit "In Your Eyes" to his concerts. "Playing in places like Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris, there was often a language barrier between the people, so I tried to think of a song that was internationally known like that," he explained to Billboard in April of 2001. "They've enjoyed listening to my eight songs, so I like to say good night with a song where I can get the entire audience singing along."
Although his second album was "more richly textured, more righteously rocking," according to a Billboard review, the focus remained on Gaines' singing and songwriting. Like his debut, Somewhat Slightly Dazed, released in 1994, featured a collection of emotionally poignant songs. One track, "Safety in Self," was a tribute to Gaines' mother, who had died in 1993. "It's about those of us on the surviving side. She was a strong individual. Everyone lived their lives seeking her approval," Gaines told Billboard. "When someone like that goes away, you're out of gas--but you need to get on with it." Somewhat Slightly Dazed also contained the single "I Like You," a harder rocking, rave-inspired song about friendship and romance, and "In Her Mind," a psychological portrait of a troubled woman.
Unfortunately, Gaines' work emerged at a time when the prevailing music trends were not so accommodating to a singer-songwriter who was hard to categorize as "rock," "easy listening," or "alternative." Although the subject matter of his lyrics fit in with the emotionally devastating territory shared by grunge and emo-core artists popular in the mid-1990s, Gaines' sound was decidedly more acoustic and laid back. On the other hand, his typically spare arrangements, which kept the focus of his music on his words and voice, left Gaines off the play lists of most adult contemporary stations. Caught in between radio formats, Gaines' first record company tried to gain him airplay on alternative, adult, and college radio with little success. Without radio-friendly hit songs, the commercial success of Gaines' first two albums did not come close to matching their critical acclaim.
Galorea Hit with Critics
Four years passed before Gaines released his third album, Galore, on independent label Rykodisc in 1998. Containing "the best songs of his career," in the opinion of the Washington Post, the album confirmed Gaines' status as a leading singer-songwriter. As on his first albums, Galore's lyrical matter included psychological studies of beautiful women (as on "Belle du Jour") and troubled young men ("First Chapter's Last Page") and the tensions of romantic relationships. Galore also included more existential explorations of self-identity as well as the social commentary of "Praise or Blame," about the history of Native Americans. While it was a hit with the critics, however, Galore did not significantly expand Gaines' sales. Once again, radio programmers found it difficult to fit Gaines' work into a specific genre.
While Galore missed the mark in terms of sales, it did contain the seed of Gaines' eventual commercial breakthrough. In a special, limited edition of Galore, Gaines included a bonus CD of live recordings of songs from his concert performances. In addition to covering tracks by his longtime inspirations David Bowie and Elvis Costello, Gaines added the Peter Gabriel song "In Your Eyes," which he had used on his set list for several years. To some critics, the bonus live CD contained the best tracks on Galore, and they served as the inspiration for Gaines' fourth album, Always Be.
Radio Success with "In Your Eyes"
Released in 2001 by independent label Artemis Records, Always Be was recorded in the space of only two weeks, live in the studio. "The ink's still wet on some of the songs," Gaines commented in the record company press release for the album. "They were just solo acoustic songs that I had not even had the chance to play for the audience yet, while some of the other songs are nods to the past in that I've been playing them for a while and people who have seen me live have heard them before." Chief among the live cover versions was his concert favorite "In Your Eyes," which was released as the first single from Always Be. Unlike Gaines' previous efforts to break through on radio play lists, "In Your Eyes" was quickly picked up by adult contemporary stations across the United States, in part based on the familiarity of the track as a previous hit by Gabriel. Some listeners even assumed that the song was a concert track by Gabriel, given that the two artists shared somewhat similar voices.
After years of building his reputation as a singer-songwriter in his own right, Gaines now had a hit song with a cover version; however, the success of "In Your Eyes" promised to introduce a wider audience to the rest of Gaines' work. In 2001, he continued to tour extensively as the opening act for Stevie Nicks on her North American tour, while performing his own dates in front of fans who were long acquainted with his outstanding live shows. "I just stand there happy as hell to be up there," Gaines said on his record company's website. "I want people to come because the music gives them something they need."
by Timothy Borden
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