Jump, Little Children have spent some time contemplating the meaning of home and community. One of the band’s most well-known songs, “Cathedrals,” contains the lines: “In the cathedrals of New York and Rome, there is a feeling that you should just go home, and spend a lifetime finding out just where that is.”
As it happens, Winston-Salem is a kind of home for the band — one of many. The band formed in 1991 when the members Jay Clifford (vocals/guitar), Ward Williams (cello), and the brothers Evan (drums) and Matt Bivins (harmonica/accordion/mandolin) were students at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Winston-Salem still has particular resonance for four of the band’s five members, who spent their formative years in the Twin City. I spoke with Williams and Evan Bivins by phone earlier this week while the band had a stop in Ohio. We talked about their early years and about their recent return to touring and recording after a 10-year hiatus.
“[Playing in Winston-Salem] does feel like a hometown experience for me, even though most of my family is gone, for the most part,” Evan said. “We have so much extended family.”
Home became, for a time, Ireland, when the band moved there to play. Then it was Boston, and then finally Charleston, South Carolina, where Jump, Little Children cultivated their fanbase and made enduring connections with the community there. (Bassist Jonathan Gray joined Jump when they settled back in Charleston.)
The band had an eclectic spirit from the start with their shared school background in classical music, their interest in American roots music (the band’s name comes from a song title by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee), and an early connection with traditional Irish music.
“In the beginning, we were pretty passionately acoustic,” Williams said.
But that changed. The musical ethos of the early ‘90s was one that encouraged dynamic contrasts, rough bits paired with smooth ones, loud sections into quiet ones, straight-ahead beats that shifted into less predictable sections. JLT had all of that. Their major-label debut Magazine, from 1998, had a lot of these touches. Listening to it now, it brings to mind the New Pornographers, Cake, Rufus Wainwright, Squeeze, Nada Surf, the Lumineers, and Beck.
You could say Jump, Little Children were ahead of their time. They were making ambitious, sophisticated, heartfelt pop music, but there was nothing overtly “Southern” about the band. Much of the time Jump, Little Children sounded like they had more in common with Radiohead than with Hootie and the Blowfish.
The cello always has a way of adding a lush, emotional, baroque-pop aspect to a rock band. And the fact that guitarist Clifford has a background in writing arrangements for strings led to many of the band’s songs having an elaborate and interesting interplay between the guitar and cello, or other added string players. Listen to “Yearling,” off the band’s 2001 album Vertigo, which has a section where the flickering guitar line almost sounds like a part of a string quartet. The string parts don’t even sound like they’re tacked on as afterthoughts; they sound integral.
A number of factors either conspired or led to the band’s not being quite as enormous as they might have been. Their follow-up to Magazine got tangled up in record label complications, and then, when it came out, the band was touring to support it during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when people’s minds were elsewhere. And so, in 2005, at one of their annual shows in Charleston, the band announced that they were done for the time being, and would be moving on to other projects. But, as with so many bands, a long stretch of time away led to JLC reforming. The band announced some reunion shows in 2015, and then a few more the following year, including a crucial festival gig with their friends from Shovels & Rope, spurred the members to make plans for writing and recording a new album. They released Sparrow in 2018, 20 years after their major-label debut, and after over 10 years since their last studio release.
During that 10-year period, some of the members had made solo records, some played on Broadway in a musical theater setting, some wrote their own musicals, and some kept busy with other projects, and all of that filtered into the sound, which was correspondingly different from the band’s previous releases. The band had made the decision to keep evolving rather than just being a reunion act that played from their back catalog for established fans. Now, they’re trying to navigate the world of crowd-funding platforms and campaigns. It’s a paradigm that might be perfect for JLC, whose fans are passionate and devoted. The band members, for their part, seem to find the intense connection with fans, through microblogging sites, meet-and-greets, live-chats and other features, to be central to what they do. (Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Matt Bivins has written lengthy posts about the band’s thinking behind turning to crowd-funding as a way of sustaining this new phase of the band’s career.)
This time around, for 2019, the band has given themselves the challenge of essentially getting their entire back catalog under their belts, playing a number of shows (though not the Winston-Salem one) consisting of performances of their early albums in their entirety. And, meanwhile, singer and primary songwriter Clifford is working on new material, which could land on a new record in the future. As it’s been since the beginning, the band has no particular plan beyond just staying creatively engaged.
“Because we’re all in different towns, it makes it more complicated,” Evan said. “I think all we really know is we like being together, and we like hanging out, and we like making music together. Jump, Little Children is one of those things that is always gonna be a part of our lives.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.