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Pi Jacobs brings her ‘honeyed’ voice to Upland

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Pi Jacobs has a voice that lets you in.

The oft-used adjective is “sultry,” and that’s accurate to be sure, but it’s more than that. There’s the blues, and a classic country twang acquired by osmosis, apparently, as she’s a Northern California girl, pop, rock and a little jazz in there for good measure.

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Her mother’s eclectic record collection certainly had a hand in it as well, as did her multiracial, multicultural family, and an upbringing she herself describes as “chaotic.”

From this stew Jacobs pulls together one of the most difficult moves in music — she makes her own noise. Her honeyed vocals bring to mind Aimee Mann, Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow and one of her (very) early obsessions, Carole King. Her songs are somehow familiar, even on first listen, another rare quality. This instant appeal has helped to land her music in dozens of television shows and commercial spots, as well as in films and in-store retail playlists.

Jacobs will bring her trio for a free 6-9 p.m. show at Last Name Brewing in Upland, on Saturday, January 8. More info is at www.lastnamebrewing.com-/events.

Music was always there for her. The child of a single mother, she spent some time living on a commune in Sonoma County, a spot memorialized in “Weed and Wine,” originally off her 2017 record, “A Little Blue,” but also included on her latest, 2021’s “Live From Memphis.”

Her mother was a “full-on hippie.” She was also very musical, favoring mostly soul, with Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye in heavy rotation, but also classical, pop and country. Her records ran the gamut, including Jimmy Cliff’s 1967 debut, “Hard Road to Travel,” which Jacobs “became obsessed with when I was like, seven.”

“It was very chaotic, but artsy,” Jacobs told the COURIER. “And the artsy part of it was definitely a comfort and a solace to me.”

She can’t remember exactly when she stared singing, but her mother recalls her first solo, on Silent Night, “in a little hippie choir.” She was three years old.

“Apparently I opened my mouth and nothing came out,” Jacobs said. “I just froze. I couldn’t do it.”

Her nascent talent got its first bolt of lightning moment when she heard Carole King’s 1971 masterpiece, “Tapestry,” as a preschooler.

“There’s literally a picture of me holding the album like I’m hugging it,” she said. “What I remember is like, we had this terrible huge Buick Skylark. It was a boat. The paint was peeling off it. It was so embarrassing to me that we had this car. But the backseat was one of those long [bench] seats, and there was kind of a shelf was behind the backseat, and the speaker for the radio and the tape deck was on that shelf. I would crawl up in the space between the shelf and the window and just put my ears on the speaker when that came on. I was into it.”

Over the past two decades Jacobs has released nine albums, two EPs, and multiple singles. Beginning with her debut, “Irrational,” in 2000, on up to 2021’s inventive “Live From Memphis,” her songs have ranged from pop to straight-ahead rockers, from a unique blues/country hybrid to introspective singer/songwriter fare.

“Pi is the real deal,” said drummer Butch Norton, he of Lucinda Williams/Eels fame, who plays with Jacobs, live and in the studio, when he’s not on the road with Lucinda. “She’s one of the hardest working artists I know out there putting her heart and soul into everything she does. It’s wonderful to see others discovering her. Totally deserved.”

Jacobs’ songwriting has evolved over the 21 years she’s been recording, with newer material delving more and more into the personal.

Her father, a first-generation Filipino-American, was mostly absent in her young life. After some prodding from a therapist, she journeyed to Alaska to find him. It was life-changing.

“I was 19 and I had barely ever traveled, so it was a whole wild adventure,” she said. “All artists are, to some degree I think, channeling whatever personal pain they have in their lives. You know, if you didn’t grow up with a father, there’s part of you that’s always thinking ‘Oh it’s my fault. I’m not good enough. That’s why they didn’t come around, or care about my birthday, or even care about what I’m doing.’”

In “The Moment,” off 2017’s “A Little Blue” album, Jacobs lets us in on part of that journey:

“Well my father split the scene
And my grandma rest in peace
See my cuz, sometimes at a gig
Changed my name, to go with this ring
And people see what they see
They don’t know much about me
I remember where I’m from
Every color knows how to love.”

On her father’s side, her Filipino grandparents got divorced. Her grandfather, who had immigrated from the Philippines, remarried an American Black woman. She has cousins that are Black, Filipino and white.

“When I was little-little, I was very confused about race,” she said. “My life was so mixed. And I still have questions, of course. But that was part of my seeking too, was like, did I get this from [her father’s] side? Well, what is it? What does it mean to be Filipino? It turns out he was really not very Filipino! He moved to Alaska and had been there so long that he was really ensconced with the Native Americans there. He just sort of blended in with that culture and felt that was his culture.”

We are all now the beneficiaries of that mélange of ethnic and cultural influences. Her music is a grab-bag of Americana in the true sense of the word, encompassing jazz, blues, soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll, with her voice — that sultry instrument — at the center of everything.

She sings every day, even during the mostly downtime over these past two COVID years, so that her “voice is not a stranger” when she performs.

Speaking of, the timing of Jacobs’ 2020 album, “Two Truths and a Lie,” was just about as bad as it could have been. It came out in February, just prior to the world going into COVID hibernation. A month later, the solid year of touring and promotion that had been on the books for months was rescheduled, rescheduled again, and then largely cancelled.

She got back onstage for some outdoor shows after being vaccinated in April 2021, and “stuck her toe in the water” with a short tour in September.

“Things are coming back,” she said. “They’re different now. I would say that audiences are lower attendance, but the people that are there are very, very grateful. My shows have been, a lot of them, very magical, because people really missed it.”

Fans of exquisitely crafted and soulfully executed original pop, rock, soul, blues and country music would do well not to miss Jacobs’ January 8 show at Last Name Brewing.

More info on Jacobs is at www.pijacobs.com.

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