Jessy Wilson and Kallie North are the unlikeliest of duos. Wilson, from Brooklyn, was singing professionally before the age of 10, and eventually toured as a back-up singer for John Legend, who she calls a mentor. (Legend is featured on their debut album’s closing track, “Leave It to the Sky.”) North grew up in East Texas and as of just a few years ago, was living and working as a photographer in the Mississippi Delta with her husband, a soybean farmer. She learned to write songs and play guitar when he gave her a six-string for Christmas.
They both chased musical dreams to Nashville and found each other by chance in 2013. “The first meeting I had in town was with the Vice President of [music corporation] BMI,” remembers North. “He was like, ‘I think you can make it in this town!’ and setting me up with publishers. To tell him thank you, I gave him a photo of an old, run-down juke joint piano. He framed it and put it on his desk.” Three weeks later, Wilson walked through his door. “She was like, ‘I want to know the person who took that picture,'” North remembers, laughing. “That’s why we ended up meeting.”
After a few months spent as drinking buddies, they decided to team up and record together. “It seemed like both visions, combined,” explains Wilson. “We went for it.” They booked a slot at CMA Fest in 2014, signed with Capitol later that year, and, as they say, they wouldn’t compromise to the A&R department’s pop-leaning ideas. When the imprint they were signed to, I.R.S., folded, they got dropped—but they didn’t quit. Earlier this month they dropped their excellent album Broken People via Third Generation Records.
With songs dipping between soul, rock, folk, and the blues, Muddy Magnolias shared the tunes and artist that shaped their musical vision.
“Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” Bill Withers
Jessy Wilson: I fell in love with Bill Withers right when I moved to Nashville [in 2013]. He was like my companion; I fell in love with his way of crafting songs and how just really normal, but genius, his songwriting was. “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” in particular, influenced our song “Broken People“—the groove and the story he tells about living in the inner city.
“Everything is Everything,” Lauryn Hill
Kallie North: The first time I ever heard Lauryn Hill I was in my sister’s Acura. [Laughs] I’ll never forget it. But “Everything is Everything” specifically inspired a part of the end of our song “Brother, What Happened?” We wanted to do a free-flowing—
Wilson: —thing like Lauryn Hill or Stevie Wonder would do in some of those old songs when they would record in a room with people and the people would be shouting or chanting.
North: We set up a mic in the room and just went for it. We had so much fun bringing that influence to this process.
“Little Ghetto Boy,” Donnie Hathaway
North: Donnie Hathaway is the Muddy Magnolias’ band. When we drive and do road trips, that’s what we’re listening to.
Wilson: And at the end of [our song] “Got It Goin’ On,” we had this tag at the end, “Everything has got to get better,” and we kept saying those words. We were like, “Where is that from?!” And then we realized: “Little Ghetto Boy.” [Laughs]
“Cry Baby,” Janis Joplin, Natalie Cole
North: I’m from the same hometown as Janis Joplin. [North and Joplin both hail from Port Arthur, Texas, about 90 miles east of Houston.] She was on every billboard while I was growing up, but I never listened to her records. And then recently, I watched the documentary [Janis: Little Girl Blue] and when we woke up the next morning to write a song, I literally walked in and was like, “I have been changed from the inside out!” I was like, “Janis Joplin had so much to feel and so much to say and she was holding on for dear life by her voice.” I was so emotional. And with “Cry Baby,” it’s funny because [Jessy] and I were listening to two separate versions.
Wilson: I had never heard the Janis Joplin version. I grew up in a house that primarily listened to soul music and a lot of soul artists did their interpretations of classic rock songs. My cousin gave me the Natalie Cole version of “Cry Baby” when I was in 12th grade and I took it and ran with it. I had a little band with my best friends and we performed it. At the end, she does this thing where she’s like, “Cry!” and everyone sings in harmony. When we went to record “Why Don’t You Stay?” that was right there in my head. I feel like you can definitely hear that influence.
“He Made a Woman Out of Me,” Bobbie Gentry
North: If Jessy moved to town with Bill Withers, I moved with Bobbie Gentry. This song is ridiculous. I want to cut this on our next record—[to Wilson] by the way. [Laughs] It’s so soulful. And what I love about Bobbie Gentry is that she was so obviously influenced by soul music and Muscle Shoals sound and Aretha Franklin. So while she’s listening to Bill Withers and I’m listening to Bobbie Gentry, I can feel their connection; how they were feeding off the same things.
“Going to California,” Led Zeppelin
North: Led Zeppelin had the amazing ability to say, “Oh, we’re folk,” and then, wait a second, “We’re deep rock n’ roll,” and, “Now we’re blues.” We have pulled so much from that. We have so many influences that are so broad, and people were trying to box it in. And we were like, it’s cooler if we’re just everything. I love that you can go in and out of our record and have deep blues moments and folkier moments.
“Living For the City,” Stevie Wonder
North: When I was a kid, it was all about grooves. I’d just be singing all the words to songs and I hadn’t lived a day in my life! Didn’t even know what I was singing. And now, when I go back and read people like Stevie Wonder and even Biggie, it’s like, “That’s what they were saying?!” And so “Broken People,” the title track on our record, we really wanted to go in and really say something.
“All Kinds of Kinds,” Miranda Lambert
North: Miranda Lambert is our country, rock n’ roll hero. We love everything about her. She’s brilliant, she’s an incredible songwriter—she’s literally one of the only people in Nashville that have stayed true to themselves. She makes country cool. Jessy came to town because she knew that the best songs that she had ever heard were written in Nashville, Tennessee, and that right there is one of the best songs ever written in Nashville, Tennessee. The lyrics of it should be branded on people’s hearts. It’s what Jessy and I are living for together. It’s the mantra of what we believe in.
“No Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley & the Wailers
Wilson: If I’m home, you can catch me three times a week listening to Bob Marley in our house. What I love about him is that he talks about what he believes in, his religion, his surroundings. And these are things where sometimes people will be like, “We don’t like this type of music because it doesn’t reflect our life and what we believe in,” but who can listen to Bob Marley and not feel an inner connection, a pull for love and peace? It’s so healing. When we went to write “Leave It to the Sky,” we wanted something that was a little bit more metaphysical. A lot of the songs on the album are about leaning on each other, but here we wanted to make a song about leaning on something that you don’t even understand.
“Up to the Mountain” (MLK Tribute), Patty Griffin
North: I don’t know if her voice is reminiscent of someone I know from home or my mother singing around the piano when I was a child, but I shouldn’t cry that much! [Laughs] But this is beautiful song. It’s about someone who is trying so hard and they’re not giving up. And we have a song on our record called “Train” about someone who is trapped in whatever circumstances they’re in. It’s heartbreaking.