Catching up with Jay Carlis

Philly-area singer, songwriter releases new solo debut album

Musician Jay Carlis
Jay Carlis recently released his debut solo album, ‘Here We Are.’ | Image: Holden Blanco

Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Jay Carlis has released “Here We Are,” his Americana, solo debut. But his interest in music dates back to his childhood.

Carlis hails from the Lehigh Valley, and after a stint in his mother’s musical theater troupe, he began songwriting as a teenager. After taking an extended break from songwriting as an adult, Carlis found himself called back to his guitar and notebook and the songs came spilling out. The joy and heartache of marriage and the challenge and celebration of raising young children inform the emotions and storytelling of his return to the craft. His songwriting style developed, inspired by great modern songwriters like Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter, Drive-by-Truckers and Hiss Golden Messenger. In 2017, he was a finalist in the Philadelphia Songwriters Project competition.

His musical foundation is steeped in Americana and folk from his many years covering Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan tunes. As a high-schooler, he was part of a roving pack of like-minded, guitar-playing kids who sang around campfires at Bear Rocks on the Appalachian Trail, on benches in the Allentown Rose Gardens at night and parking lots of Grateful Dead and Phish shows.

PW recently caught up with Carlis to talk about his new album and his career.

You began writing songs as a teenager. Talk about your early interest in music. Who were your first influences, and why were you drawn to songwriting and performing?

My mom ran a theater workshop for kids so I actually started performing when I was really young. I did a solo number in a Cedar Crest College musical when I was 9 or 10. Then I started getting into rock music when I was in middle school: Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Guns N’ Roses. I sang GNR’s “Don’t Cry” off the “Use Your Illusion” record in the eighth-grade talent show, and I’ll admit I liked the attention that got me from some of the girls. Then I got into the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and ultimately the Grateful Dead. I started playing guitar at about 14, but it was when I finally could sing and play at the same time a couple years later that I took off.

I started writing poetry in high school, thinking me and my buddies were part of some new beat generation, following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac. I took a music course my first year at Haverford College and started writing for an assignment. I remember lyrically riffing off a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem to write my first tune. I started taking other people’s poems and putting them to music, singing harmonies with friends. And I kept writing as a way of expressing emotions that I really didn’t know how to talk about or process in any other way. It’s still the same today, whether the songs are personal or stories about other characters, there always needs to be an emotional hook that catches me. And performing is a way of connecting that emotional experience with other people.

Your solo debut, “Here We Are,” was just released. How did it come together? What’s been the response from your fans?

After a year or two of living through some pretty big changes in my life and the world around me, I ended up with a bunch of songs that all came from the same voice and carried similar themes. My wife really loved the new tunes and I wanted to record these tunes and get them onto her Spotify playlists. So I went to Jay Levin (executive producer) and Ross Bellenoit (producer) of Turtle Studios to make it happen. Ross dug the tunes and shared my vision of a real intimate, earthy record. He brought the band together: Tommy Geddes on drums, Nate Gonzales on keys, Jeff Hiatt on bass, Brittney Ann Tranbaugh on backing vocals, and really brought the tunes to life. Ross played electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, lap steel, all these amazing sounds that bring diversity to the record but also tie it all together with this raw Americana feel.

And the fans are loving it. Folks who are really spending time with the record, getting to know it, and finding their own meaning in the music. That’s one of the things I like about these songs is that they are very relatable and universal.

Jay Carlis can’t wait to get back to playing live music with The Barrel Fires. | Image: Holden Blanco

In addition to your solo work, you’re also the lead singer and principal songwriter for The Barrel Fires, a Philly-based rock band. And you’re from the Lehigh Valley. Has the Philly music scene impacted your music and career? What’s it like to be a part of the local music community?

The Philly-scene has definitely had a big impact on me. It starts with XPN. We are so lucky to have such a powerhouse independent radio station here. I’ve found so much new music on XPN that has shaped my songwriting. And then to have Helen Leicht and John Vettese playing my music on the station is such a thrill. I’m so grateful for everything they do.

And then there are the amazing artists that I’ve gotten to know and work with, Ross Bellenoit first and foremost. He’s such a gentle genius and an incredible songwriter in his own right. I’ve learned so much from him. Katie Barbato, an amazing singer/songwriter and all around super kind person, has been a mentor for me and graced the record with her beautiful voice on Fire and Flood.

And I have to tell you about my favorite night from early 2020 when I got to join an absolutely incredible lineup of Philly musicians in a Robert Hunter tribute at the Ardmore Music Hall. I met Dan Drago of the 25 O’Clock Podcast while we were both nervously waiting to get in front of a big, excited crowd of Grateful Dead fans. I was the first person to front the full band and the energy just took off. I played two songs and then spent the rest of the night dancing with my friends in the audience. People were coming up to me and high-fiving me. Justin Mazer played the most amazing “Terrapin Station” with the Dead Friends and the place was on fire. That’s where I met Mike Caroto, who joined me in August at 118 North Wayne when I celebrated the release of the new record. So it was just this electric atmosphere, meeting so many local musicians who share my love of the Dead, performing and then joining the crowd. It was so much fun and full of energy and then, bam, six weeks later, the whole scene is just shut down. I know a lot of us who were there hold onto that night like it is frozen in time. It was such an amazing night and I need to give a huge THANK YOU to Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment for inviting me.

How have the pandemic and all of its closures affected your career? How have you spent your downtime?

Well for me there really is no downtime. I have a full-time job working in the solar power industry that keeps me pretty busy, and then a wife, three kids, two guinea pigs and six chickens at home. In some ways there is really less time these days. I used to travel for work and get time to read and write and just be with myself. That led to some of the best songs on the record, just reflecting on this world we’re living in and my place in it. There isn’t much of that quiet time these days. I’ve been able to get together with The Barrel Fires a few times since March. We set up outside at a safe distance and let loose. I feel so blessed to have found such good friends who really enjoy the challenge of playing original music. Mike Kay, Josh Meyer and Dave Rodbart really encourage me to keep writing so we can try new things and bloom as a band.

What’s ahead for you after the pandemic passes? Live shows? More new music?

Oh man, hugs. When this thing passes I’m going to go around and grab all my friends and hug them. That’s the first thing that I’m going to do. And yeah, getting out and playing live shows with The Barrel Fires. I can’t wait to be back on stage with those guys, connecting with the crowd. We’ve got a bunch of material that we’ve been playing for a while too that needs to be recorded. It’s a little more rock’n’roll than Here We Are, more in line with our Run Around Years EP. I can’t wait to get back to Turtle Studios and make another record, but I have the feeling it is going to have to wait a little while longer. 

What are the best ways for your fans to keep up-to-date with what you’re doing?

Instagram @thebarrelfires and Facebook: Jay Carlis.

  • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.