Quick Q and A with Jenee Halstead

Watching the blossoming of Jenee Halstead’s music career since she first burst onto my musical radar in early 2008 has been as exciting as it has been educational.  Discussions about creativity and the process of writing and producing new music is something that thrills my soul in a deep and profound way — probably because as a non-musician I am always most curious about what it is that moves someone to take an idea….and actually turn it into something that others can appreciate.  Music heals.  Music elevates the spirit.  Music soothes the soul.  Speaking with musicians like Jenee is like talking to Harry Houdini about his magic tricks…

I’ve had the pleasure of presenting Jenee a couple of times at the me&thee coffeehouse and have seen her numerous times at venues, conferences, and festivals.  She never fails to entertain, inspire, and perhaps most of all inhabit her music.

Here are some questions that I recently posed to Jenee about her newest CD Raised by Wolves and about life on the road across the pond.

 Raised by Wolves had an interesting genesis, I understand.  It is an album that came together pretty quickly when you arrived at the studio.  You’ve said that you followed your creative instincts and out popped Raised by Wolves.  The sound is definitely different than anything you’ve ever done before which is exciting but probably very perplexing to some of your fans.  What kind of reaction have you gotten thus far?

I think overall the response has been very positive.  I think people who love all types of music see it as a natural progression from my last album.  I think the reaction has been positive because the essence of who I am as a singer and songwriter is still there.  It is my voice that drives the album.  The phrasing, the emotional and vocal stretch is just so much more expressive on this album, and I think fans appreciate this.  I have had a few people come to me and tell me they would prefer I do a more Emmylou Harris country style album and stay on that track.  I may do this in the future, but for now following a path that is a little more pop or rock is just essential to me.

Because the music is so different, are you perhaps gaining fans who might not have paid attention to your music in the past?  

I really hope I am gaining fans!!  It is that funny thing you know.  You hope you can reach more people, become more accessible.  The River Grace certainly wasn’t for everyone.  It was retrospective and dealt with a lot of uncomfortable subjects in a quiet, delicate way.  I do think that it sort of has a cult following.  People who love it REALLY love it, and these may be the people who don’t like the new album as much.  I just see this as that start of something huge for me…  Hopefully I will look back after the fifth or sixth album as see a beautiful thread woven through them all.

Tell us about your producer, Evan Brubaker.  He plays quite an assortment of instruments on the CD as well as “programming”….  The computerized rhythms are probably what makes this record stand out as not just another singer-songwriter folkie album.  What was his vision of the album?

Well, I don’t know if Evan had a vision per say.  I showed up with about eight songs that I wasn’t really wild about, so I think it initially made for more of an open space of thinking “what is it that we really want to do.” I think we both came to the table listening to some really cool stuff that spring and we were of the same mindset that it could and should be something really different from the previous album.  The first day I got there he played me James Blake’s debut album and it rocked my world.  Evan and I have a very similar aesthetic and a great imaginative space together.  Basically we knew we wanted to take those electronic elements and incorporate them into the organic world..(sort of like The River Grace on steroids).

As far as a singer-songwriter “folk” albums are concerned I think there are a lot of semantics around this and it is tough to qualify or really know what that is.  A lot of “folk” singer-songwriter albums rarely interest me.  Albums that don’t feel incorporated or that don’t seem to have a vision or a sound really bore me, unless the songwriting is just so good that I am knocked off my chair by it.   I have listened to a lot of great singer-songwriters, and I think they probably kick my ass on the songwriting or wordsmithing  front, but the albums sound like musicians just came in and layered stuff and it is so predictable…even if the playing is really good.  Those are just my two cents…

“Havana Dress” reminds me of a sultry Kate Bush or Diana Krall song.  It’s the perfect first song for the CD …  The song transports the listener into a dark, very mysterious and very sexy place.  Any idea where that particular song “came” from?  

Oooh thank you!!  Yes, I have very visceral and deep feelings about where this song came from…and unfortunately, I can’t really speak about the “who or what” of this because it would probably horrify the person that this is about.  All I can say is that I utterly fell in love with this man (and it wasn’t reciprocal) and I became sort of unhinged by it.  The song really holds my own tension between trying to keep myself together and just falling off an emotional cliff into desperation, love and longing that I am in all honesty took me years to recover from.  Oh my goodness I can’t believe I am admitting that.  This is why falling in love can be so painful.  It is even more so when it is unreciprocated and you don’t’ really understand what is happening.  In my case, I had never really been “in love” like that before. Devastating.

The title song “Raised by Wolves” is a haunting song.  I don’t think I’ve heard your voice so pure and crystalline.  You were definitely in the zone during that take.  The very simple instrumentation adds to the wonder of the song.  I want to know how the song ties in with the cover of the CD.  

Well thank you so much.  Yes, due to the nature and delicacy of the song and the personal back story I felt like I owed it the most pure and straightforward approach.  It was challenging to sing at first and I really needed to get the feeling in my bones and my nervous system -the feeling of being safe.  I wrote this song about child abuse, but it can mean anything to anyone.  For me I think I carried a subtle form of low grade anxiety around for years that was a direct outcome of what happened to me as a child.  I am unraveling this and trying to find ways to cope with my nervous system being taxed due to stress at an early age.  I really sort of checked out for a long time and am finally coming back into my own.  Much of the album overall, and what I am trying to convey on the cover, is about reclaiming that deep and fierce/creative side of human nature that relates to the subconscious or the Yin aspect of the self.  It is about capturing and owning our emotions: our rage, our fear, worries, love, etc.  In order to do this most of us have to channel or funnel it through the dream state.  In our society I feel the wild or true aspect of our nature get denied, the feminine aspect of our natures get denied.  Anger and love are misconstrued and expression gets bottled up and sealed for a clean sterile environment that can be controlled.  The true aspect of who we are before we bury emotions, and bury feelings is what excites me.  The power of expression we all have inside of us is what excited me.  Giving people a platform or holding a safe space for this is almost unheard of in our society.  Thank God art, drama and music are a solid platform for this.

I know that you’ve been playing overseas fairly regularly the last couple of years.  What’s it like touring abroad?  

Touring abroad has been a really positive experience for me.  I feel that the European crowd has more patience and love for the singer-songwriter.  They seem to have a lot of patience and love for the craft of song that is rare in the U.S. and they are great listeners (except for places like Me and Thee Coffeehouse, which are rare gems).   They value this and are willing to pay for art and music and see it as a vital part of a healthy society.  It always feels great to get paid well and have people stand in line to buy your CD’s after a performance.  It sort of makes what feels sometimes like schlepping it out in the U.S. (where everything is saturated and no one wants to pay for music) part of the reason I keep going with it.  If I can go over there once a year, it rejuvenates my spirit and gives me hope.  I have a great tour coming up this year with the Canadian songwriter “Oh Susanna” that I am looking forward to!

For more information about Jenee Halstead, click right here:  www.jeneehalstead.com

Photo by Caleb Cole.

Jenee will appearing at the me&thee on Friday, December 7 along with Irish indie-folk-rock duo, Guggenheim Grotto.

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