Book Lodging

Meant to be a Mandolinist: Jacob Jolliff

Wednesday • June 5, 2019

Most people want to be firefighters or teachers when they're kids, but not Jacob Jolliff. Since he was 11, Jolliff knew he was going to play the mandolin for the rest of his life. 

The Berklee College of Music graduate and Yonder Mountain String Band member spends his days touring with his solo band and doing what he dreamed of - playing mandolin for a living. Don't miss his next performance at the Sheridan Opera House at 9 p.m. on Sunday, June 14. It's the perfect way to get amped up for the upcoming Bluegrass Festival! You've been playing mandolin since you were seven. Why did your father choose the mandolin for you out of all of the instruments?

Jolliff: My dad is a bluegrass musician and plays pretty much all the stringed instruments. According to him, he asked me what I wanted to play, and I said, “the mandolin.” Though I have no recollection of that. At first, I didn’t enjoy it and only practiced my required ten minutes a day. But then, after about six months, seemingly overnight, something switched in my brain and I started playing for several hours a day. And that’s pretty much how it’s been for the last 23 years. You have obviously developed a love for the mandolin... what makes it so different than any other instrument out there?

Jolliff: It’s hard to say why I gravitate towards the mandolin. I think the frenetic nature of bluegrass mandolin does fit my personality, and the logical intervallic layout of the instrument is also appealing. To a large extent, though, it’s the instrument I know best, and that in itself makes it satisfying to play. Can you play anything else?

Jolliff: I sing, obviously, and play some guitar as well. I will say, though, so far, specializing has been what’s paid off for me, though I have a lot of respect for my friends who have cultivated their multi-instrumentalism. You recently started singing with your band - what's that been like? Did you always know you could sing?

Jolliff: I sang a lot growing up playing in a bluegrass gospel band with my dad. But when I was young, I didn’t really enjoy that aspect—it was just sort of needed for the group. I basically quit singing as soon as I could, because I preferred to just play the mandolin. But in my mid-twenties, I started learning lyrics to tunes and realized that bluegrass, in particular, is a lot more fun if you can sing, because it’s such a big part of the tradition. So ever since then, it’s been something I really enjoy. How would you describe your music for someone who has never heard you before?

Jolliff: I would say it’s “high energy progressive bluegrass.” My group plays everything from super traditional bluegrass repertoire to our out-there original mandolin music. We try to run the gamut. You graduated from the Berklee College of Music... which is a super prestigious school for musicians. What was that experience like? How much did it factor into your current skillset?

Jolliff: Going to Berklee was a great experience for me; not only did I learn a lot, but I met a lot of incredible musicians that I still work with today. Also, I joined a touring group, Joy Kills Sorrow, my sophomore year of college, so my initial experiences seriously hitting the road happened during my college years. Where do you currently reside when you're not touring?

Jolliff: I live in Brooklyn, NY. I love it so much. I’m part of an incredible community of acoustic musicians there, and I get to go hear so much amazing music in every genre around town. You've played in Telluride before - what do you think keeps bringing you back to this place? 

Jolliff: I have so many fond memories associated with playing The Telluride Bluegrass Festival—it’ll be kind of wild to play there before the fest starts! It’s such a beautiful town. And I’ll never forget the experiences I’ve had there—getting to play with some of the legends of acoustic music. You still play in the Yonder Mountain String Band in addition to playing with your own band. It is hard to keep both separate? Is there a big difference between both bands?

Jolliff: It is hard to play in YMSB and do my own thing, only because of the limited amount of days in the year. In general, they’re complementary gigs. While both being rooted in bluegrass, they’re actually surprisingly different types of groups, and I really enjoy the contrast. Are you playing music for a full-time job? What's life like as a musician? 

Jolliff: Yes, playing music is my full-time job, and I feel very lucky that that’s the case. What’s it like? It’s a lot of mandolin. I’m usually practicing for several hours a day, in addition to rehearsing and playing a gig. Throw in driving a van and flying in planes, and that’s pretty much my whole life! Did you ever see yourself doing this for a living?

Jolliff: To be honest, I’ve only ever seen myself doing this for a living, probably since I was 10 or 11. It wasn’t so much a question of “can I make a living,” but rather, “I’m doing this no matter what and hopefully that leads to a living.” But I’ll be doing it even if I live in a closet and sleep on the floor, which, coincidently, I’ve done. Do you write all of your own music? Where do you draw your current inspiration from?

Jolliff: I write the instrumental music my band plays, but not the singing tunes. I draw inspiration from everyone from John Coltrane to Chris Thile and David Grisman, and many others. For me, writing is a discipline, much like practicing my instrument. What are your goals for yourself as a musician moving forward?

Jolliff: Pretty much just continue to record and play music that inspires me, and continue to become a more well-rounded musician.