Jesse James DeConto: Songwriter, Journalist, lead singer of The Pinkerton Raid
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Songwriter Jesse James DeConto is also a veteran journalist who has worked as a staff writer and editor for newspapers in Ohio, New Hampshire and North Carolina. He fronts The Pinkerton Raid, which has released four full-length studio albums and shared the stage with The Ballroom Thieves, Annabelle’s Curse, Forlorn Strangers and Lowland Hum. Jesse James DeConto writes about politics, labor, identities, and the environment. A stringer for The New York Times, he’s covered modern Freedom Schools for The Atlantic, Bree Newsome for The Washington Post, voting rights for The Christian Century and immigrant farmworkers for Reason. An award-winning reporter in five years at The N&O, DeConto was a Park Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill, using immersion and narrative writing to report on the families of death-row inmates and extreme credit-card debtors. DeConto is also author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.
You’re a musician and a journalist. Do those two things connect in some way?
I think they connect for me. I tend to write songs that are pretty observational. I am more interested in characters and scenes and storytelling than mining my own emotional life, per se, so the songs can be journalistic in that sense.
A lot of my songs are personal but if they mine my emotional life it’s more around concrete experiences or relationships. The last record we made [Where the Wildest Spirits Fly] was particularly journalistic in the sense that it ties more than ever into what’s going on in the broader world politically.
What’s something you believed about art and creativity as a young person that you don’t believe as you’ve gotten older?
I think I thought this about life in general and then I applied it to art … I thought that you could just outwork any problem. Parents taught us this. I’ve come to realize how much luck is involved in succeeding and how important connections are and networking is. So that’s been a hard lesson.
How do you think we can get this country in particular and the world in general to value art and creativity more highly and what do you think it would look like if we did?
I think that if we had a system that valued labor then we’d have a system that valued art. Capitalism doesn’t value labor it values capital. So it’s easier to make money with money than it is to make money with work.
If you just applied something as modest as a fifteen dollar minimum wage [for artists] it would change the whole art economy. Because most of us are working other ways to make our living. I can make some of my living as a musician and a journalist. But what I count on to pay my bills is a spouse that makes good money and rental property that I manage. And that’s what I can count on. I can’t count on the other stuff. It comes in, but it’s haphazard.
So when you look at how people work and the hours we put in on creative stuff almost nobody is making even minimum wage now. if you tracked the hours spent on performing, rehearsing, perfecting your craft …. I mean the going rate on a musician is about $150 an hour. Because that performance is a tiny fraction of the actual work you’re doing. And the reality is that you can only get paid that market rate when you’re serving someone else’s interests – like, playing a wedding [for example]. It’s not anything purely creative.
Nobody I can see has the imagination to propose a minimum wage on entrepreneurial or freelance work. But just as an idea – If we could set a bar for relatively unskilled work of $15 an hour, maybe people would start to ask the question of: what about people who can do what most people can’t do? Shouldn’t we make sure they’re being properly compensated?
So I guess the short answer is that it’s part of a broader conversation about whether we value work or whether we only value capital.
What would that world look like?
I think we’d see more art. But I think the biggest difference is that the people who are doing art would be happier. We wouldn’t suffer as much. The cases of mental illness among creative people are so high. There’s so much anxiety and depression.
I also think we’d get better work. Not so much fluff and distracting content that people can create quickly and cheaply. I’m applying like crazy for funding because there’s no other way to do serious journalistic work.
What does living a creative life mean to you?
I think it means doing work and making things, telling stories and curating emotional or enriching experiences for people, just because – just to make the world a better place. At some level it has to resist the market that asks you to check certain boxes and rewards you if you check those boxes. [A creative life means] trying to communicate the big, important truths of humanity in ways that are independent from capitalism.
What do you like best about being creative?
It’s hard to narrow it down. I love the process of taking an idea and then shaping it. It’s a kind of a puzzle. How do you fit an idea into a song form that people can understand and receive? That’s fun.
And I like doing that process with other people. The experience of creating together as a band and working in the studio and getting feedback from others and then responding to that feedback – that whole process is really fun. And having something that you’re proud of at the end is also amazing. And part of that [pride] is knowing what you’ve been through to get there. Knowing how many problems you’ve solved and decisions you’ve made along the way.
What are some creative challenges you’ve come up against?
I’m always asking, is it enough? Are other people going to find this interesting? Is it okay to just trust my own strengths and impulses? Should I lean more into discomfort and try to do something I’ve never done before? It’s a constant tension. Because I’m not sure creative people succeed by doing things they aren’t good at. But, on the other hand, where can you push your own limits? So there’s a lot of second guessing, doubt.
What’s the role of the artist within their community?
I think it’s simply to direct peoples’ attention toward what really matters: our own connections with ourselves, one another and the earth that we live on. We get abstracted and alienated from all of that. We all get caught up in a lot of things that don’t really matter. Our system is built that way. There are so many distractions.
What’s some advice you’d give to someone who wants to be more creative?
Figure out how you can simplify your life and your financial ambitions. Can you live more simply? Can you cut things out? You have to resist the pull of the American dream because it’s not really compatible with the creative life.
If you really want to create then you will create. If you don’t feel terrified that you won’t create or that you will lose your sense of creativity then you should probably just let it go. You and the people around you have to make many sacrifices for art, so if you can imagine doing something else, you should probably do that other thing
This interview has been edited and condensed.