Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.
Fun Fact: Album track “Butterfingers” was inspired by a candy-loving Caravans song called “Three Musketeers” from a hard-to-find Hipsville Records compilation.
Why He’s Worth Watching: Gentleman Jesse’s irrepressible ditties are as refreshing as dousing your face in a cool pool of water on a sweaty summer day—if the water also has a magical chemical content that impelled you to twist and shout and shake your fist.
For Fans Of: Elvis Costello, Exploding Hearts, Wreckless Eric
Crafting a lyrical hook to stimulate crowd participation is feat enough for most musicians, but Atlanta power-pop maestro “Gentleman” Jesse Smith extends his art to guitar solos. “My rule is that you should be able to sing them,” he says. “That’s why I don’t like Jimmy Page. I love Led Zeppelin, but I wouldn’t ever want to emulate his guitar playing because you can’t sing his solos. They’re way too coked out.”
When Pete Townshend coined the term “power pop” back in 1967 to describe the pithy, clattering tracks The Who were playing at the time, it didn’t stick. But Smith is happy to expound upon the genre’s path since then, plucking at his not-quite-handlebar mustache as he orates. “There are blues-punk bands, like The Oblivians, stuff like that, which is a big foundation. And Teengenerate, people doing obscure punk sound from wherever. It can go from soul music, pop music, British invasion. It all comes out.”
The genealogical morass doesn’t much worry the Gentleman, whose recent debut LP demonstrates this impassioned study of forebears. In fact, he finds categorization encouraging. “Everything’s been done,” Smith says. “So when there’s a blueprint that you can work with, and the foundation is there and you’re let loose to do whatever you want within this—it’s probably the most artistically freeing thing I can think of. If you do something that takes a left turn that makes it original, then good for you. But it’s painstaking to try to be original. It’s tedious, and it’s no fun.”
As it turns out, Smith’s own left turn is delectable. His penchant for the aggressive—fueled by years of brandishing bass and guitar in the more straightforwardly punk quintet The Carbonas—has not been abandoned. But here the grit gets sanded down and scaffolded with multi-tracked sweetness, all harmonized and hook-laden, each part calibrated to achieve maximum catchiness and congeniality.
Even the verbal content is more about pop intoxication than wordsmithing. Like songs of the early Beatles, which he refers to as “the quintessential power-pop band,” Smith sings of girls and related despair—but only because lyrics are a necessary evil. “If I could get away just saying ‘Words, words, words, words, words,’ I would,” he admits, downplaying his considerable knack for fashioning catchphrase refrains.
Considering his gift for it, it’s strange that packing songs dense with such ebullience was not always to be the central focus for the project. “There was a time when pop music didn’t mean anything to me,” he says, confessing that he was originally going to start a “weird punk band.” But as the power-pop factor in Smith’s aural repertoire swelled, a friend encouraged him to head in that direction, and after months of four-tracking demos, Smith enlisted his and others’ help to open for fellow Atlantans Black Lips.
These days, as the album brings some notoriety, Smith is slowly learning the strange life of a frontman. “I’ve been getting recognized by people I don’t know, which is weird. The mustache helps,” he admits, still pulling at its ends. “But it’s gotta go soon. Once it becomes a ‘thing’, then it goes.” A surprising sentiment from someone so willing to take conventions and make them his own, but it’s appropriate that Gentlemen Jesse keeps his focus on pop cocktails rather than fashion. After all, elixirs this satisfying will be around long after the lasts wisps of facial hair are shaved away.