Hello, Jennifer. Can you share the inspiration and creative process behind your latest album, “Yes, I Do!”? How did the blend of New Orleans and Memphis Blues, coupled with the influence of 1970s Memphis soul, shape the overall sound of the album?
Well, I must confess, I didn’t start out with anything particular in mind, other than that I wanted this album to lean towards more traditional blues than my other albums. I found a wonderful co-producer in Jonathan Wyman, who could see what I was going for, which was great. Other producers I’ve worked with have been very talented, but have always tried to pull me away from the roots music that my songs are based in, as well as the styles of music that I perform when I do live shows. I didn’t even set out to write all of the songs that are on “Yes, I Do!”, with the idea that all of them would make up a specific album, per se. I was intending to just put out a few singles with the two songs that I recorded first: “All I Needed Was You,” and my cover of Leroy Carr’s “How Long.” While recording them, I soon realized that I had a group of songs I had written that fit nicely with those first two and so I changed course and decided to record a whole album. The title track, “Yes, I Do,” was a song I’d been playing around with but hadn’t yet written words for. Recording with the band went so well that we ended up having two extra days in the studio. Jonathan asked if I had anything else up my sleeve, song-wise, and I said I had this song that I really liked, but that I hadn’t written words to yet. I played him the song, and sang the grooves that I wanted the bass to play, and he got very excited. We recorded the song in two takes. The next day was Christmas Eve, and I knew I would be back in the studio in two days to record the vocals, so I got down to the task of writing lyrics. There was a huge storm and we lost power at our house and Dana Packard, my drummer and husband, came down with Covid. While he isolated from me, I sat in my music room, bundled up in my winter parka and wool hat on Christmas Day and wrote those lyrics. I usually write lyrics by singing nonsense syllables to the melody while playing piano. Eventually words seem to evolve out of those syllables, of their own accord. The words, “Yes, I Do” were the first to appear, followed by “I love you”. The rest of the song’s direction came from those two phrases. The New Orleans and Memphis influences of the songs on “Yes, I Do!” come from the music I’ve always enjoyed listening to and that I find the most natural to write. I chose my band mates for their ability to bring these styles to life with the right combination of authenticity and originality.
Your new album features a stellar lineup of musicians and special guest appearances. How did you go about selecting and collaborating with artists like George Naha, CJ Chenier, and Cindy Cashdollar? What do you feel each musician brought to the project?
So, yes, speaking of my band mates, I met George when Bernard Purdie asked him to play on my last album, “Sun Come And Shine.” We really hit it off, and George went on tour to Europe with me in the summer of 2022 to promote the album. He is an amazing player and a very funny person. He settles the groove. He’s the master at doing that and his improvisations are without parallel. Steve Jankowsky, who played trumpet and wrote the horn arrangements, was another person I was introduced to by Bernard. Steve played on “Sun Come And Shine,” too, and also did the horn arrangements on that album. He is a great player and his arrangements are always stellar. Damon Banks, who played bass, was someone I met through Ira Coleman. Ira played bass on my 2018 album, “These Years,” and when it came time to tour, he was already touring with Sting, so was unavailable. He suggested I call Damon, and I’m glad I did. He went on tour with me to Europe in 2019. Cindy, I met when she played at Saco River Theatre, where I work as Artistic Director of the resident theater company. She is an amazing musician and a very cool person. Nobody can play Pedal Steel like her – so melodic and driving at the same time. CJ played at the theater as well, and asked me to sit in with him on piano. I thought it would only be for one song, but when I got up to leave the stage, he motioned for me to stay, so I played the whole show with him and had a blast! I now play with him whenever he comes to town. He’s a great person and musician and has made a guest appearance on my last three albums. It’s always such an honor to have him! He IS Zydeco.
“Yes, I Do!” follows the success of your previous albums, including “Sun Come And Shine.” How do you approach each new project, and what do you believe sets this album apart from your previous works in terms of musical style and thematic content?
Well, as I said, this album leans more heavily into the blues and roots music that I adore. I knew I wanted that sound on the first two songs I recorded, and I made sure my co-producer would be aligned with me on this. But when I start a new project, I often don’t have a complete vision at all. I just have vibes / leanings. I let the project tell me what it wants to be. For a while I let the project dictate the shape it wants to take until I feel that something authentic to me is emerging and / or a group of songs is gelling together. At that point, I follow the path that has revealed itself. I’ll continue working on an arrangement until it “just feels right.” I’ve tried at times to set out with “a vision,” and it has never worked for me. I find that it can sometimes force the songs to be something that doesn’t actually suit them, in the name of keeping one’s “vision” pure. The project then begins to feel inauthentic to me. I guess what I’m trying to say is I am an intuitive creator. I can get technical and fine-detail oriented when there is a problem that my instincts can’t seem to solve, but that is the only time I allow intellect over intuition in my artistic endeavors. Sometimes not having a vision all worked out ahead of time has made me feel like a fraud, but I’ve learned to accept that this is just the way I work.
Your track “Lucky Dust” features Vinnie Raniolo on guitar. Could you share the story or inspiration behind this specific track, and how Vinnie’s contribution added to the overall feel of the song?
I had written the music for “Lucky Dust” a few months before I wrote the lyrics. I was singing my nonsense syllables as I began to work on lyrics and the words “shining through” popped into my head as a refrain. That night, I watched an interview with a famous astrophysicist who said that we are all made from the elements in the dust of long ago exploded stars. That thought stuck with me. The idea that but for the death of a star we wouldn’t have life. I realized that the words “shining through” worked perfectly to form a song around this theme of stars and being stardust.
I also met Vinnie when he performed at Saco River Theatre with Frank Vignola. They asked me to sing with them, which was a lot of fun. Vinnie then played on my second Jazz album, “Easy Living.” I knew I wanted a jazzy sound for the guitar part on “Lucky Dust,” and I knew Vinnie was the guy to go to. He plays that style of music beautifully.
As a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, SAG/AFTRA, and Actors Equity Association, you have a diverse background in both music and the performing arts. How do these experiences influence your songwriting and overall approach to creating music?
I’m not sure they influence each other, though I approach acting the same way that I approach songwriting and recording — that is to say, intuitively. Again, if there’s something I can’t figure out intuitively, I’ll resort to technique and detailed sleuthing to discover a solution to the problem, but I only do this if I absolutely have to. I let my body tell me when something is right. I’ll either feel comfortable in my body on stage or I won’t. I use that to guide me towards the place that the character wants to live. I’m sure that sounds esoteric, but it works for me!
I was a musician long before I was an actor, but I soon discovered I enjoyed acting immensely, as well. I’ve had two full-time jobs: Musician and Actor for a long time, and really, how lucky am I that I’m able to make a living in two such cool vocations?