Matthew Followill Jessie Baylin
Singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin has had the same phone number since she was 14.
Though life has taken her from New York City to Los Angeles to Nashville, where she lives now with her husband, Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, her three-digit area code is a constant reminder that her roots are elsewhere: New Jersey.
It was there that she was raised in a restaurant family in Gillette, busing tables as early as 12, and listening as her mom and dad played her artists like Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Barbra Streisand and Billie Holiday.
Baylin, 38, may have left home when she was younger, but her formative years in the Garden State have stuck with her and informed much of her strength, so much so that she's named her new album Jersey Girl (out now).
"It's actually a title I've run from my entire life, and yet here I am," she tells PEOPLE. "It's a full-circle moment."
The 11 tracks on Jersey Girl, Baylin's first full-length release in four years, are breezy, retro daydreams — and they almost never came to be.
After the death of her longtime friend and producer Richard Swift in July 2018, Baylin struggled with her musical direction. ("He just captured me in a way that no one had before," she says. "I felt like I didn't know how to move forward once he passed away.") Internal strife over her own loss of identity didn't help, and, for a time, she thought she may not have any more albums left in her.
"I was kind of in a frozen period after having two kids and feeling a major loss of identity. I was feeling like a hologram version of myself," she says. "And I just thought, 'Gosh, I've got to figure out what's going on with me. And maybe if I can figure it out on paper through words, I can sort of write myself back into my life, in a way.'"
So write she did. In Swift's absence, Baylin leaned on producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk to produce her music, making it a point to craft a sound different to the musical magic she and Swift had created. This time around, she turned to "classic" pop records like Carole King, the Bee Gees, Todd Rundgren and Burt Bacharach.
"I completely found myself again and was really excited about the stories I needed to tell that I felt needed telling. I needed to sing these things into the world," she says. "I feel like we gently nodded to the sound that I've been known for the past decade, but we've pushed it into a new realm that is really thrilling and just feels a little bit more in your face, but still in a lovely way."
Matthew Followill Jessie Baylin
The results were beyond her wildest dreams, and Baylin says Jersey Girl is "for sure" her most honest record yet. Even so, she admits that being so vulnerable in the public eye doesn't come without fear. Work on Jersey Girl began in February 2020, and when the pandemic reared its ugly head not long after, Baylin wondered if perhaps it was a sign.
"I was like, 'Maybe this just isn't meant to be. Maybe these parts are not supposed to be shown. Maybe the dream has to die now,'" she recalls. "But [my crew] wouldn't let me stop, and I have so much gratitude. They knew me better than myself to help me push, drag it over the finish line, whatever it may be. I'm thrilled with how it turned out. It just feels like it was essential to my future as a person and an artist to finish this."
As Baylin poured her heart and soul into the record, Followill, 43, helped hold down the fort, acting as head of the at-home cheerleading squad that also includes the couple's daughter Violet, 9, and son Oliver, 4.
"It was amazing to watch her go from 'Mommy of the Year' mode and ease back into her artistic world," he says. "It was really special to see the raw range of emotion throughout the whole process… from doubt to, 'Wow, I've still got it.' I love being able to be a supportive husband who also happens to be her biggest fan."
Marion Curtis/Starpix/Shutterstock Nathan Followill and Jessie Baylin
The pair's love story appears to have provided at least some of Baylin's inspiration for the record; songs like "Catch Fire" and "Cloud Nine" are deeply romantic odes to a significant other.
Married since 2009, the year after Baylin released her debut album Firesight, the musicians first met backstage at Bonnaroo in a decidedly unromantic fashion: in front of a porta potty.
"I was eating this strawberry shortcake ice cream bar. And it's not in my nature to be like, 'Would you like a bite of my ice cream bar?' But I felt so awkward that I offered him a bite," she recalls. "And knowing him and that he's a slight germaphobe, the fact that he took a bite of my strawberry shortcake is weird, but we've been together ever since."
She adds: "I saw them play at the Wiltern [before we met] and leaned into my best friend and said, 'I think I believe in rock and roll again.' They were electric, and I still think they're electric. Like any long-term relationship — we're together 16 years — it is full of many colors, and I wouldn't change a thing."
At home in Nashville, Baylin and Followill's kids have inherited mom and dad's musical genes. Violet is "obsessed" with the lessons she takes at School of Rock, while Oliver is really into "emo music," and often requests Jimmy Eat World ("He's just an emotional little Aries dude, so it kind of fits him," Baylin says.)
With two working musicians steering the ship, Baylin says that mastering the art of the balancing act is "a dance that we're still figuring out in real time."
"I would say that I am a nurturing person and a caretaker by nature, so this has been an exercise for me, in a way, in finding balance in my life," she says. "My priority is absolutely, number one, my children, my family, my husband, and carving out time for them. But also, for myself. That's been the most wonderful thing. I've kind of realized that I need to feed both parts of myself because that's when I'm at my best. I can't be one without the other. Otherwise, I'm not as great a mother in a way."
Adds Followill: "Our work/home balance wouldn't be possible without her being so supportive of me and my career. I can only hope that I can do my part and return the favor. I love being able to charge my daddy batteries while she gets to create amazing music. Although, I'm still not allowed to help with the laundry… I shrink one fancy shirt…"
Baylin knows that in sharing Jersey Girl with the world, she's sharing a piece of herself. But it's a leap she's ready for.
"I'm nervous about sharing it, but I'm thrilled to share it and share my truth," she says. "I haven't had a response like this maybe ever from a release, so it feels exciting and it feels like fans are excited and already feel connected to the stories I've shared. It's a record you can cook to, put on in the background at your home while you're having a party and connecting with your friends; but if you want to dig deep, it's all there."
Jersey Girl is out now.