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Jamie Drake Finds her Voice Through Words and Music

Jamie Drake

On stage, Jamie Drake brings to a conclusion a heart-felt ballad, one of her own. And before the echoes of her clear soprano voice finish resounding through the hall, she starts another original tune.

Cookies and milk, go together perfectly.
Don’t you wish you had a cookie tree?

The children’s song brings smiles to the audience, and the mood shifts from serious to silly. Some folks sing along. Such transformations are not unusual for Drake; she is a singer/songwriter whose songs range from lost love to cookies and milk, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
All around Southern California Jamie Drake has been making her mark in the folk world and beyond. As long as ten years ago, when she began seriously pursuing a career in music, the singer/songwriter was described as “One of the brightest women in acoustic.” In the intervening years, she has shared the stage with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; Moby; Susanna Hoffs; San Diego’s own Nickel Creek alum Sara and Sean Watkins; and other notable performers.

The strengths of her talents have kept her from being pigeonholed into being considered a certain “type” of singer/songwriter. Music reviewers have used such disparate words as “soul,” “ethereal,” “earthy,” and even “brilliant” to describe her singing and her songs. In 2015, performing in Lonesome Traveller, a sort of Mix Tape for folk music, the New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger noted that Drake, “embodying Judy Collins, quietly claims the show’s best moment with a relevatory version of ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’.”

“I love writing my own songs,” Drake says. “It seems foreign to me to take on someone else’s songs, to do them with my interpretation of them, I do that, but I want to tell my own story. But also, in telling my story, I’m telling a lot of other people’s stories, too.” For Drake, singer/songwriters do way more than get up on stages and strum their guitars to their self-penned songs. “We give people a way that they can process pain or joy. Everybody has these experiences, but not everybody can write those experiences down; that’s what music is for.”

She sits down from time to time to write, but mostly the inspirations for songs come to her—and they can come at any time. She may be driving or walking down the street, and a melody pops into her head. She will stop what she’s doing, and sing the song into her phone so she has the musical idea to work on later. “I always have melodies in my brain,” she says. “For some songwriters the lyric comes first; for others, it’s the melody. I’m more of a melodic hook person. The melodies come to me first most of the time.” When Drake talks about these melodies and songs, it is almost as if she is channeling them from the ether or unworldly realm. “A lot of the time when they, the melodies, visit me, it’s like I already have the idea of the lyric that goes with it.” It’s like it’s given to me, a sort of big magic. It’s like the ideas have their own identity.”

Drake has a wry sense of humor, and she laughs often as she recounts the twists and turns of her life and musical career. She never takes herself too seriously, and a hallmark of her performances is her sense of humor. If you go onto YouTube, you can find a video of Drake performing a version of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” accompanying herself on ukulele. It’s spry, funny, and, surprisingly, she lends a musicality to the tune that is unavailable in the original.

The singer/songwriter has dark brown eyes and bangs, the rest of her long brunette hair framing her face. She is blessed with the classic good looks of the female troubadours of the sixties and early seventies. If you’re looking for a resemblance, you might say that Drake looks like a young Emmylou Harris. The day I saw her at Nate’s Garden Grill, she was barefoot, wearing a sweater and jeans. On the front of the sweater was a cartoon sailboat.

Music has been part of Drake’s family for generations. Her grandmother travelled about as a performer in a gospel group, and her father was a singer/songwriter. Her mother was a nurse, but enlivened her home with song. Drake remembers her mother often waking her family with the gospel classic “Rise and Shine and Give God the Glory.”

Drake and her brother grew up singing their father’s songs, and she was quite young when she started to learn some of the more technical aspects of singing. She says, “It was around the time I was in first grade that I first heard harmonies. It was something that just felt natural to the song.” Besides singing, Drake had picked up the beginnings of the songwriting craft. “I would make up songs in my head when I was little. I didn’t realize what I was doing. It was just a way for me to process things.”

The Los Angeles transplant was born in Ohio but spent a lot of her youth moving around, much of which was in Florida. “I’d been in nine different elementary schools by the time I was in fifth grade. I spent a lot of time being the new kid,” she says. The moving around led, somewhat indirectly, to Drake’s musical development. During one of the moves, the family piano met a bad fate when it fell off a moving truck. After that Drake got a guitar. She learned three chords, wrote her first song, entered a high school talent contest, and won first place. “It was a country song called ‘One Millions Tears,’ and it had the same story line of that old song ‘Brandy.’”

In high school Drake discovered that she had a talent for performing. “I played the lead in all the musicals at the school,” she says. The fix seemed to be in. Drake’s future encompassed the stage, singing and acting. She enrolled in the American Musical Theatre Academy, the highly regarded New York school that prepares students for careers in musical theatre. After a year, however, Drake realized that a life in the theater was not meant for her and left the academy. “I didn’t like that my corner of the world was going to be there,” she says. She nonetheless spent about three years living in New York. Her life included involvement in her church, leading congregants in hymns and songs. She no longer directs music for congregations, but still continues a relationship with her church to this day.

Drake married young—she was only 21 when she said, “I do.”—and while she was married during her twenties, she did not seriously pursue music seriously. She realized her life’s calling—what she refers to as an “Ah ha” moment—came to her when she and her husband split up (an amicable split Drake explains) when she realized that creating music by writing songs and singing was what she should do. She says, “I realized that I had a talent and I was not going to waste it.

“I gravitated toward the Cranberries and Pearl Jam,” Drake says. “I really liked the male voices that were big at that time, so I wound up singing really low. But then I studied with a classical voice coach. When he heard me and how low I was singing, he said to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re a mezzo soprano, not an alto.’” Drake has a three octave range, unusual for folk singers, and even unusual for more schooled singers. The typical opera singer—be he or she a bass, baritone, alto, or soprano—has a range of two octaves. Having three octaves to work with gives Drake a great deal of flexibility and allows her a greater degree of expressiveness. “My range is a fun thing for me to utilize,” she says. Sometimes I put a song in a lower range. I can get a different feeling that way.” She keeps her voice in shape with exercises. “I usually do warm ups before a concert, but I’ll then let my voice rest for a few hours before a concert.”

This year promises to be a banner year for Drake. When I spoke to her, her fourth studio recording was in the process of being mixed. She was finishing up preparations to take part in the 2018 Folk Alliance International, the big conclave that brings together singers, publicists, agents, and of course musicians for networking, networking, and more networking. Upcoming shows include a date at the Mercury Lounge, the musical venue at the Lower East Side of New York City.

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