Jessie Iris was born in Florence, Italy, in spring 2018. Now, just a year later, he’s performing as a headliner on local stages, and his debut album “Iris” is racking up thousands of streams online.
But Iris isn’t a real person — he’s the musical alter ego of Elon University senior Tanner Mead. Raised far away from Italy in Burlington, New Jersey, Mead was a theater kid growing up. But he found his rhythm and inspiration while studying abroad last spring. Troubled by doubts about his path as a musical theater major, he set off for Tuscany, open to transformation.
“Florence was my way to get out of that and put myself in a completely new setting where I knew no one,” Mead said. “And I didn't know the language, and it's a whole new lifestyle. And just to see, who am I? Who is Tanner, and who is going to come out of this experience?”
And what came out was Jessie Iris. Somewhere between a nickname and a stage persona, the pseudonym is mashup of Mead’s favorite movie character and the flower that symbolizes Florence. Just as the iris has left its stamp on Florence — adorning the surrounding hillsides with a vibrant springtime purple and finding its way onto the crest of the local soccer team Fiorentina — Florence left its stamp on Mead.
The city of cobblestone streets and striking terra-cotta rooftops is steeped in a creative energy that’s been humming since its central role in the Renaissance. Mead says he felt that energy through the people he met there. He recalls one moment in particular — an intimate gig at a friend’s photo exhibition — where he felt a deep connection with his audience.
“There were like 20 people there,” Mead said. “But it was the best crowd I've had. Because every person was being personally affected by the song. I could play a show of 1,000 people, but I don't actually know if anyone's listening to what I'm saying. And I think that's really the big difference between Italy's artistic culture and the U.S.”
Mead, who mostly dabbled in covers of popular songs before his artistic rebirth abroad, joins the modern legion of genre-bending independent artists whose music doesn’t fall into a natural category. He says it leans in the direction of R&B but draws from a disparate variety of influences that have melted into something entirely unique.
His songs blend the plucky bounciness of old-school funk, the playful synths of early-2000s pop and a healthy dose of sultry crooning that wouldn’t be out of place in a romantic indie ballad. In his lyrics, Mead waxes romantic about the vignettes and feelings that defined his time in Italy, and he says he tries to use his writing to explore the depths of the emotions he felt.
“It's very cool to be angsty,” Mead said. “It's very cool to say, ‘Oh, I don't care.’ Which is I think the theme of a lot of music today. But sometimes it is cool to care. Sometimes it's cool to really care about something, someone, a place, a memory. And I want people to be able to think about those things, and I want people to be able to have a good time thinking about those things.”
That idea of having a good time is a common thread with the songs on “Iris.” It is largely a feel-good album. With some tracks, such as “1970 Something,” a sappy duet about the carefree joy of a new relationship, that feel-good tone is an obvious choice. But with others, such as the jaunty breakup song “Bloom,” it’s Mead’s way of putting a positive spin on things.
“There's enough songs for people to feel bad and depressed about their breakup and relationship,” Mead said. “And I really want people to have the mindset that I had about it. And I actually don't have that mindset about everything because a lot of my music is very down in the depths of the emotional abyss. But that was one I was like, ‘Let’s just be fun with it.’”
Whether he’s painting a rosy memory of a romantic fling or venturing into that emotional abyss, Mead has chosen to do it all through Jessie Iris. He talks about Jessie in the third person and says he’s almost like an imaginary friend who’s always by his side.
“Jessie is the best form of myself,” Mead said. “I have days where I'm really open and I'm really eager to meet people and I'm really eager to create things. That's the version I really want to be. And I'd say 90 percent of the time I’m Tanner — I’m introverted, and I'm in my room and don't have the best outlook on the day. But every once in a while, Jessie will come out, and I always feel better after that. I'd say since I've created Jessie, I've had him come out a lot more.”
Mead describes Jessie as a mask, something he can hide behind when he’s on stage. If he’s assuming an alter ego while performing, he can pass some of the blame for his missteps onto someone who will take them in stride.
“If Jessie goes up and flubs on lines, that's not my fault — that’s Jessie. And also Jessie doesn't care. Jessie can make every mistake in the book, and he would come back swinging the next day.”
Jessie Iris came to life in a world of European adventures — long nights with friends fueled by Italian wine, spontaneous romances and the types of experiences that make the perfect kindling for songwriting. But once that semester in Florence ended, Mead had to find a way to keep Jessie Iris alive in the soulless New Jersey suburbs, and he is still fighting to find ways to keep him alive here at Elon.
“There was actually a couple of months when I stopped writing again and had to pick myself up by my bootstraps,” Mead said. “That was another big learning moment. I have to be my own biggest fan. I have to be the person who's going to kick myself in the butt, and I have to be my own manager.”
Mead said the inspiration for a lot of his songs came from his time abroad, but he’s trying to reframe his understanding of his own role in the music creation process.
“It's easy to get into the mindset of ‘I was in this beautiful countryside, and I had the option to just take a train to any Italian city and, you know, history and culture and all this stuff,’” Mead said. “And it's easy to get into the mindset of, ‘That is what made the music.’ And I didn't take enough credit.”
Now that he’s back at Elon, he’s settling into a campus environment far different from the sun-soaked Tuscan countryside and a life far different from the four months he spent exploring his emotions with songwriting between sips of espresso. Mead said Elon isn’t exactly a place that stokes creative energy, and it's part of a campus mindset in which otherwise talented people shy away from exploring their own expressive abilities.
“There's a lot of creative people that I've met,” Mead said. “But there's not many people who like to create.”
In regard to his own work, Mead is candid about the amount of failure he has to weather on the way to finding personal success. He said he thinks fear of failing is part of what’s holding his Elon peers back from trying their own creative exploits.
“I have 10,000 songs that I've written and just trashed, and that's fine. If you make something and you don't like it, you don't have to share it. And that's the great thing about creating," Mead said. "But I think there's a pride in creating, and I think that there is more experience in creating then going to a class.”
And now he’ll have to put that fearlessness to the test. After graduation, he’ll be taking a great leap of faith — moving to Nashville, Tennessee, and trying to pursue a career as a musician. It’s uncharted territory for Mead, but he’s setting reasonable expectations for what those next steps might entail.
“I think Nashville is my proof to myself,” Mead said. “If I'm really dedicated to this, I have to just make the decision, and whatever comes along comes along. I'll get a coffee shop job. I've been a barista for a while. I'll be the classic musician.”
In Nashville, a city whose reputation as a springboard for country music artists has attracted aspiring musicians of all kinds, Mead will be joining his friend and producer Zach Manno. Since meeting through theater in high school, the pair have been musical collaborators. And since the birth of Jessie Iris, Manno has been a pivotal behind-the-scenes part of bringing Mead’s songs to life.
“Without Zach, I could not be doing this," Mead said. "I'm not a good enough engineer — I'm just getting good enough to play my own instruments. I've always heard it in my head, but he's been my outlet.”
Manno, who just finished a degree in audio engineering at Belmont University in Nashville, is also making a foray into the uncertain life of making music for a living. But he gives high praise to Mead and says that the process of working with his longtime friend is an energizing first step.
“It's an absolute blast because Jessie Iris — this whole project — brought us together making music again and we picked up right where we left off,” Manno said. “It's a ton of experimentation, a ton of creativity, just completely uncensored. It's really great.”
In just a few months, Mead will be heading to Tennessee and making a leap into the great unknown. But he’ll be doing so armed with a collaborative relationship with his producer and a head full of steam from his time abroad and the efforts he’s made to stay creative at Elon. Even as the road ahead is full of challenges, Mead says his music will help him push through.
“Even if it's really terrible experience, I can make a song out of it," Mead said. "I can turn anything into a positive now.”