Jamie and the Guarded Heart Bring Local Rock and Local Loss To ‘Funeral Song’ (INTERVIEW)

Jamie and the Guarded Heart have recently released their second album, Funeral Song, following a period of releasing mainly singles, and have found that writing and recording the new songs in the pandemic period helped them express even more openly some of the themes of locality and loss that have always been part of their perspective. The song “Black Dresses” was key to this development, expressing the experience of traveling to a funeral and reflecting on the hometown of someone who has passed. However, the directness of the songs on the album, and the big sound that Jamie Salvatore (he/him) and Morgan Russo (she/her) crafted to express their Rock influences, combines realism and energy for a big statement. 

The duo have always leaned into their working class roots and the local flavor of their hometown of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, but on Funeral Song, those details and that personality take on the significance as a world that can’t escape change and yet is deeply grounded in the past. I spoke to Jamie Salvatore and Morgan Russo about the personal journey they’ve undertaken in making Funeral Song and the ways in which it expresses their quest for bigger sounds and greater honesty with their audience. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that this album is a big culmination of your work and some of the songs on this album have a specific history like “I’m Sorry Too”, which goes back in time in your live repertoire. When did you start selecting songs for the album?

Jamie Salvatore: We released our first album, which had nine songs, but then started just doing singles, so we put that full collection up on Bandcamp. After a couple years of doing singles, Morgan really wanted to do a full-length record, and I was totally on board with that. “I’m Sorry Too” hadn’t seen a proper studio recording and we thought the record could really use it. 

Morgan Russo: We wanted to record a version that captured the energy that it had when we played it live. 

Jamie: All of the other songs were written throughout the pandemic. Releasing singles was part of what the market seemed to be dictating, even though we grew up with albums and love them. I’m a firm believer that there are songs that I would have never discovered if they’d been in the streaming world. When you bought an album when you were young, you spent your allowance or the money that you made at a local restaurant as a dishwasher, like me, and you spent 20 dollars on a CD. You’re going to listen to that until you find songs you connect with. So here, as we were writing the songs, the album started to take shape. We knew it was time to make an album.

HMS: I’ve been reading this really entertaining book by David Hepworth about the history of the LP and I was reminded of the early days of singles as 45s. So there’s a solid history to working with singles, too. But did you see a relationship between the songs on the album because they were written in the same period of time?

Jamie: I’m a huge music nerd, and I love the history of singles. That was actually part of what convinced me to be okay with the world of singles. I knew that was how Chuck Berry did things, how The Beatles did things for a while. My grandfather was a musician in a band called The Tyrones which were signed to a label called Mercury Records, and I have the single that he played bass on, a 45. 

For us, our album Funeral Song, definitely has a theme. We write very realistically about our life, and we’ve experienced a lot of loss. It’s also full of nostalgia for our weird childhoods, even though they weren’t awesome, and our town sucked. [Laughter] Once we had a couple of songs, including “Black Dresses”, the writing and lyrics kind of shaped the direction of the others. 

HMS: Some musicians don’t want to talk about darker stuff, and they have their reasons for that, but talking about things like loss seems to fit into your ethos of being open about your regional influences.

Jamie: I think life kind of gives with both hands. As an artist, I think it’s your responsibility to give to your audiences with both hands, too. We have these songs that are very open, very revealing, very honest, like opening up a family photo album. Then we have songs like “Kiss Me On The Mouth” which is about being a dumb teenager, hanging out and smoking weed, and doing all the stuff you do when you’re a kid. 

I think that life is full and I’ve always loved records that are full, too. I’m a big Replacements fan, and I think that they do that really well. They have the songs that are Punk Rockers and the heartbreaking songs, too. 

HMS: For the video for “Black Dresses”, I found that it was really relatable and earthy to use slightly grubby hotel rooms as part of the settings. Maybe weirdly, I associate that with having to travel to funerals. They become less than comfortable settings for unusual events in life. 

Jamie: We had this old motel in mind first, and we got there and they said, “We don’t take reservations”. Then we had to find another shady hotel and sneak the cameras in.

Morgan: This was not in a good part of town!

Jamie: We weren’t there for long, but we’ve spent a lot of time in hotels and motels while touring, and we were looking for that. The hotel setting was literally the concept of having to travel to funerals, though. That’s exactly what the idea was for us. It’s just another layer of sadness! The outside shots were in a baseball field, because you go back to this person’s hometown and there’s nothing more connected than thinking about someone’s past than the local sports field. 

HMS: When you started to record these songs, did you know you were headed for an album?

Jamie: Yes. We have a song called “The Great Unknown”, which started us making singles, and every song since then has been Produced by the same person, Scott McGinley, from Collegeville, PA. This was still the height of Covid when we were recording, so there was still lots of social distancing and masking. 

What we did was, I went into the studio and tracked the basic guitar and vocal to a click track, then I gave that to our drummer, who went to another studio to track the drums for the record. Then every Wednesday, Morgan I went to Scott’s studio, working behind a closed door, and we’d basically do a whole song every Wednesday. You’d leave the house feeling so excited about the day, then you’d come home and feel like you got hit by a truck!

Morgan: They were very long days, and it was emotionally draining. 

Jamie: You need to really believe in what you’re doing, but in this kind of situation, you also need to have a group of people around you who want to see you succeed, and want to help you make something special. Fortunately, we have a fanbase like that, and people on our team who are like that. 

HMS: Does that connect to your small show that you did for the “Guarded Hearts Club”? Was that for the extended team? 

Jamie: That was part of the group. We have an Italian social club in our hometown, and we’ve shot a lot of stuff there. We did the album cover out front. So we opened up a little RSVP only show to The Guarded Hearts club, and we played them the recording of the whole album as a listening party. It was a thank you to them since we wrapped the record a year ago. We hadn’t been able to play shows yet, so it feels like we’ve been talking about this album forever. It was a really special day and there was a lot of love. Bands in the past used to do listening parties, and I thought that was so cool. 

HMS: As you were recording, song by song, did you start to see this group of songs any differently?

Morgan: So much. There were songs that I didn’t even feel sure about in terms of what they would mean on the record and whether they would sound right. In the studio, after recording it, and listening to a final mix, I’d often feel like, “This is my new favorite song on the record.” That definitely happened and changed things. I wasn’t sure about “When You Did”. The lyrics are great, but I wasn’t sure about it musically in terms of how it fit in. After recording and production, I now think it’s the best song on the record.

Jamie: I actually became grateful that we didn’t play most of these songs live first. While I love the way, “I’m Sorry Too” came out, it wasn’t quite the journey that the other songs were, because we knew the parts very well. With the other songs, we didn’t know how they’d turn out.

Morgan: We were figuring out the instrumentation and arrangements in the studio and it was exciting. 

HMS: Does that make for some tweaking that’s necessary on the new songs now that you’re heading out to live shows? I also noticed that you play some shows as a full band, and some shows as a duo. 

Jamie: We live by that Tom Petty idea, that a song has to sound good on a guitar or piano first for it to be a real song. All our songs start on a piano or acoustic guitar. They are obviously more Rock when we play it with the full band, but when we perform it as a duo, it needs small adjustments. 

Morgan: We do some fine tuning. When we’re a duo, I don’t play bass as if there are giant, crashing drums behind me. We just work on it a little to be more nuanced. We don’t change the song structure. 

Jamie: It’s not like the extreme differences between the studio version and the acoustic version of The Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”. It’s just the slightly less aggressive version.

Morgan: I do get to be the whole rhythm section for the duo shows. 

HMS: We do have “Sing From Your Heart” on this album that heads a little more in the acoustic version. This is a song that reminded me that you have Roots Rock elements in what you do.

Jamie: I’m really happy that song is on the record. Originally, I did not want that song on the record, but Morgan said that the album needed it. Now I couldn’t see the record without it. We purposefully wanted a bigger sounding record, so I wasn’t sure about putting an acoustic song on there. It was recorded in our dining room at our table and if you listen closely, you can hear our steam radiator.

Morgan: It’s hissing in the background.

HMS: I’m glad you included it, too. Aesthetically, for an album called Funeral Song, it makes sense to have something a little more stripped down in there. It’s almost like a nod to tradition. 

Jamie: Absolutely. I have actually performed at a couple of funerals and that feels correct. 

HMS: One of the harder sounding songs, “I Don’t Love You” is a very high energy Rock song and has a cool video. This also doesn’t shy away from talking about darker things. What was on your mind writing that one?

Jamie: We jokingly call that a “pandemic love song”.

Morgan: Like the idea of being in lockdown with someone else 24/7. 

Jamie: I came up with the idea for the song from really missing playing those packed, sweaty little clubs. The main reason for us creating the band was to write songs and play them in those places. Our goal wasn’t really to be a recording band, but up until the pandemic, everything was in service to the show. I personally really love The Clash and J. Geils, and I wanted to write a song with a little snarl to it. That’s how Morgan is, just in general, so we just really went for it.

HMS: There is an interesting little theme in there that change is possible, and change happens, even in the outlying corners of the world. 

Jamie: Right, the only constant is change. I’m not the most angsty person, but the lockdown and subsequently, missing out on performances, started to make me really feel like a caged animal. [Laughs]

Morgan: I feel like that song is us venting our frustration! 

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