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For Jesse Dee, soul never out of style

Greg Kot

10:49 AM CDT, September 26, 2013

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Jesse Dee didn't have any other choice: It was soul music or bust when he was in grade school. Now the childhood fan is making soul-fueled records that he hopes will draw listeners back to the music that first inspired him.

"I grew up in a religious household, and the kind of music I was allowed to listen to was pretty restricted," says Dee, who was born in 1980 in Boston and grew up in nearby Arlington. "My parents steered me away from — I want to say secular music, but pop music. Oldies were my option. I grew up and later listened to everything else. But when you're 8 years old, and you hear soul, R&B and doo-wop for the first time, you fall in love with it."

Dee developed a passion for singing in church and school plays, and the soul vocalists he discovered from the '50s and '60s, including Sam Cooke, Chuck Jackson and Otis Redding, left a deep imprint. "I've always been drawn to music heavy on feeling and emotion, as opposed to music with lots of notes and proficiency," he says. "Soul music conveys emotion better than any other kind of music, and the singers were just out of this world."

It wasn't exactly mainstream music for kids growing up in the '80s and '90s, but Dee took it a step further and started playing in bands as a teenager with a soul emphasis. At 18, he picked up a guitar and focused on folk because of its simplicity – three chords were enough to learn some Bob Dylan songs. Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album also motivated him to sharpen his lyrics, and he began wedding the two styles: folk songwriting and soul emoting.

"It led to a lot of hours of street busking," he says. "It makes you appreciate when a song works and it inspired me to be a better songwriter. The focus became the song, and then incorporating soul into it. As much as I love lyrics that say 'baby this' and 'baby that' in soul songs, it can sometimes can be a little lacking substance-wise."

After studying at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he worked the soul and roots music circuit in New England and released his first album in 2008, "Bittersweet Batch." Along the way, young performers such as Amy Winehouse, Jamie Lidell and Alabama Shakes began incorporating old-school soul into new music.

"I never saw soul as outdated, but it wasn't particularly popular when I started playing it," he says. "What I see happening now isn't a revival – I'd call it a resurgence, because it's always been around. Ultimately, I'm making music for myself, first and foremost. Once on stage, we're entertainers. It's important to realize you're putting on a show, and we want people to be moved. But I have to love the music and believe in it to do that: 'This is what I like, this is what I like to listen to.' To me, soul is about emotional sincerity, coming from the heart. If you do that, it's not retro, and it's not about the person's race or where they're from."

Dee and his band played steadily for five years before returning to the studio to record "On My Mind/In My Heart," which was released by Chicago-based Alligator Records earlier this year. It's not about despairing ballads and dark-end-of-the-street laments. Instead, its 11 originals place a premium on hope and romance.

"I love a heart-wrenching soul ballad — some of the best soul songs ever recorded are in that context," Dee says. "But music as a whole is such a powerful thing, and one of its most powerful qualities is when it's uplifting and optimistic and positive. The way music has affected me over the years, that's when it's most powerful for me. There are a lot of sad songs out there, and sometimes it can be easier to write those than the happy songs. But I dig the underlying feeling of optimism and hope. People need to hear it more than they ever have."

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

Jesse Dee: 9 p.m. Friday at FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, Ill., $15; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM 91.5).