If Jeff Heiskell is looking to wipe the slate clean, then his first solo album under the name Heiskell will do the job and then some. His new self-released album, Clip-on Nose Ring, is a blistering account of relationships, cynicism, and regret, fueled by some of the catchiest melodies of his 20-year career.
It's an unexpected sound from a guy best known for his clever, if slightly detached, musings as the lead singer for the Judybats, one of Knoxville's most beloved pre-grunge alternative bands. The Judybats were signed to a major label in the early '90s and touted as the next big college rock band. They toured the country and were regulars on MTV's seminal weekly alternative show 120 Minutes. And then it all fell apart.
"I've always considered myself an artist, and I don't do this because I've always wanted to be on TV and get laid a lot," Heiskell says. "That's not why I started playing music and that's not why I am doing it now. And in the Judybats there was a point where I didn't know why I was doing it anymore, and maybe I was just trying to write the next jingle for stupid college kids to listen to for a week. And I could not do that."
Clip-on Nose Ring signals more than just Heiskell's return to music. It's a statement of where he is in his life, a gritty confessional that will surprise more than a few of his old fans. Many of the songs openly refer to his relationships with men: married men, chubby men, men half his age. But Heiskell says it's just the first time he's been allowed to explore his relationships so openly.
"I started writing one song and was like, ‘If I write this song, there will be other things that will follow,'" he says. "And I gave myself some time and decided that I am ready to do that. It was very hard on me, making that decision.
"Because of being on a major label, there were certain things that were OK, but there were parameters. Like writing songs about men, it wasn't something I felt like I was allowed to do previously. Personally, this is very revolutionary for me."
Heiskell teamed up with local rockers Tim Lee (of Tim Lee 3) and drummer Eric Nowinski (Angel and the Lovemongers) for the new record. After deciding that he wanted to record another album, he bought a guitar book at McKay Used Books and CDs and started writing songs. He would record them and then play them back for Lee and Nowinski, and they would all three flesh the songs out in the studio. He says they never took a rough mix home, but just left it simple. It's a bare-bones approach that resulted in some of the most melodic songs Heiskell has ever recorded. From the laid-back melancholy of "Best Broken Dream" to the jolting rocker "Helluva Summer," Heiskell says he was interested in writing killer hooks that you can't forget.
"I've never had a recording experience like this, where the people involved were so focused on the task," he says. "I'm really indebted to them for being so dedicated to this project." It's an experience Heiskell hopes they can emulate live. They're playing a show at Barley's to kick off the album release and may do some out-of-town gigs as well.
It's also hard not to notice Heiskell's new tough-guy image. The cover of Clip-on Nose Ring shows him decked out in a black leather jacket with a silver hoop big enough for a bull piercing his septum. He says it's the perfect metaphor for local musicians and what Heiskell says is their phony hard-rock facade. "Somehow I mentioned ‘clip-on nose ring' and Tim was like, ‘That's what you've got to call the record,'" Heiskell says.
"You look at all of the musicians with their black clothes and black leather jackets and tattoos and all that. Like, ‘I'm so cutting edge,' but they all grew up in the suburbs in a rancher. All these people think there is something so punk rock about them. That has always bothered me. To me, I'm more fucking punk rock than anybody else in this town. And doing a record like this is more punk rock than anything anyone else has done in this town. There's nothing cutting edge about them."