Jenee Halstead has made an indelible mark in the Boston music scene. She has performed at all the key venues in the greater Boston area and has shared her forays into a variety of different kinds of music—all with exceptional poise and professionalism. It’s always exciting to see what Jenee is up to next as she continues to evolve as a musician. This interview cites many of the musicians who made an impact on her sound — ranging from rock to soul to singer-songwriter. She’s made her own sacred and secret potions by combining all these key influences into one darn tasty musical brew.
To learn more about Jenee, visit her website.
Here’s a video of Jenee singing “Raised by Wolves.”
What was it like to grow up in Spokane, Washington? Were you exposed to much music during your early years?
Growing up in Spokane was magical and bizarre at the same time. I have literally joked that living there is almost like a scene from Twin Peaks and I do believe that David Lynch got some of his inspiration for the show based on spending time in Spokane. It was, for the most economically challenged, at least where I grew up. I grew up in what is now called the City of Spokane Valley. There were absolutely strange people and situations around me in the neighborhood I grew up in. Also, it was the early 80’s and my parents were pretty young. We had the run of the mill on our block, which was near a boarded-up mental ward, a gorgeous set of woodlands called the Dishman Hills and lots of places to roam and get lost until dinner time. There were a large number of abductions in Spokane during the early 80’s. It was a sad and strange place and the country was also in a strange place. Culturally it was phenomenal, but the political landscape sucked: the Reagan Administration, the War on Drugs, the moral elite were running the country and people were broke or struggling to get by. As far as it went for me, growing up there suited my wild nature and curiosity. I was an untamable child and my parents were definitely put to the test. Nowadays I would have been put on Ritalin and forced to drool in a corner. I was lucky to be brought up by two fun-loving, creative and passionate people who allowed me to be free to run, dance, sing, cry and express myself in whatever way necessary. My dad lives for music. It was always on when he was home. He had the best record collection and would bring home the coolest sounds. On top of dancing to James Brown, Stax Records, The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, he brought home all the great music that was coming out at the time: The Police, Cindy Lauper, The Call, Dire Straits, R.E.M, Sade. And he was so passionate to share with us…my brother and me. It was like he was letting us in on this great secret. My Mom loved all the folkies: Bob and Joni and Phil Ochs and Prine. She also loved Michael Jackson, which was so funny to me because she loved the folkies and then had this huge crush on Michael. It was pretty cute. Between the two of them, I got about the best music education one could get.
When did you first feel music take a hold of you and lure you into its spell?
Music first took its hold very early on … around age two or three. My mom and I would listen to Michael Jackson’s Thriller over and over. That album cover with the white suit. He was so handsome. I remembered thinking early on that I wanted to grow up and be a singer. Like I said, my parents introduced us to a vast array of musicians and musical styles. I can remember listening to Ben E. King “There Is A Rose In Spanish Harlem” one minute and then The Jayhawks the next. My parents took me to concerts from a very early age. I remember seeing Santana and the Moody Blues when I was eight or nine. Many times it would be just my Dad and me. It was always great music too. I wasn’t really going to see hair bands at the stadium…although, I am sure they put on great shows, but my father would not have me going to a concert like that as a child. I will say, Guns and Roses is my favorite band. I can’t help myself. As I got older, I was devouring and collecting music and making mix tapes for my friends (the first type of mixed tape) and going to live shows on the weekends. I loved everything from hip-hop to sad indie Emo bands. The culture of music and sharing music with friends was a critical way of expressing myself. Spokane had a great all-ages music scene and I feel really bad for kids nowadays because this doesn’t seem to be the case. There are too many laws and rules now. It is stifling.
Were you like a kid in a candy shop when you first moved to Boston and saw and heard the vast amount of music there?
I was totally a kid in a candy shop. A very expensive and pretty candy shop! Ha! I loved it. I went out every night of the week. My jaw was on the floor for the first two years I lived here. I am literally so ruined now because when I tour or go to other cities I cannot enjoy the music. I have not been to a town yet that can touch the Boston music scene. It is literally insane. I don’t think Nashville holds a candle to the talent in Boston. I mean, everyone tells me how talented Nashville musicians are, but I gotta say I feel like there is something missing there.
How would you explain the evolution of your songwriting style?
Throwing stuff at the wall? Ha ha ha! No really, I am not sure if there has been an evolution. I would say there has been an evolution of sound. But, I have tried to become more of a personal writer…to write more from personal narrative. I started out writing character-based songs. I don’t think I was really able to touch base with my own emotional world when I first started writing. Now, I feel like most of the songs I am writing for the new album are entirely personal. I think you really have to get your heart torn out to feel emotionally raw enough to write good first-person songs. I could be wrong about this.
It’s interesting to note that music critics had the same impression as I did upon listening to your most recent release, The Edge of the World. The songs are very ethereal and atmospheric. I feel that each song has a long story behind it. I sense characters and plot all swirling around a musical landscape. This may seem like a weird question after such a long intro…but do you “see” songs as you write them or do you just “hear” them? I hope you know what I mean! 😉
I do know what you mean! I love this question! I see songs for sure. I think some of the better songs I have written came to me almost in movie scene format. Juarez, Darkest Day, Edge of the World, Deep Dark Sea, Sophia are all examples of this. That is usually when I know I have a good song or at least a good idea. The colors and scenes are swirling around vividly in my mind. I have to chase it and try to put words to the pictures.
There’s more experimentation on this album than your previous ones. How long have you been playing electric guitar? What do you like about using the electric guitar rather than an acoustic? Are you able to do more with it?
I guess I am just starting to play electric. I am still such a sucker for acoustic and have had a really hard time making the transition. I like to hit the instrument hard and I rely on the resonating feedback I get from acoustic. I don’t get that same satisfaction from electric. I had two very skilled electric players on that album: Hugh McGowan and Tony Savarino. I also had Karen Sarkisian playing Pedal Steel, so that would create much of the ethereal sounds and swirling landscape. I will get back to you about the electric guitar in a year!
I absolutely love the last song on the album, “Sophia,” that you co-wrote with Susan Cattaneo. The string accompaniment and the background choral singing is brilliant and really enhances the spirit of the song. Did you both come up with that idea or was that a contribution of your producer, Sean McLaughlin?
Thank you so much. I had written “Sophia” and “Juarez” years before but I wasn’t sure what I was doing with either of those songs. I brought the music and lyrics for “Sophia” to Susan and she said “this feels like a prayer” and that was exactly how I felt as well. She helped structure the song and helped create the tonal centers. I had the chorus in a major sound and the verses in a minor sound and she suggested I switch them. This was absolutely brilliant. We then co-wrote the lyrics for the end of the song. I sang sacred medieval music in college and I wanted an almost Gregorian chant sound at the end of the song to really make it sound like a prayer. Mark Lipman and Olinde Mandell sang the harmonies. Sean then asked string and horn arranger/mastermind Chris Barrett to write some string pieces for Eva Walsh and Jonah Sacks, who interpreted the string parts stunningly.
Tell me about the influence of John Prine’s music in your life. Favorite songs? Favorite lines?
I had a pretty steady diet of John Prine growing up. He was a staple in our house. I remember as a child enjoying the visual nature of his songs, even if I didn’t understand what he was singing about. For example, “Please Don’t Bury Me” has some of my favorite imagery and probably my favorite first line of any song. ” Woke up this morning, put on my slippers, walked in the kitchen and died.” He proceeds to make hilarious requests on what to do with his individual body parts after he has perished. I thought this was so funny when I was young and would imagine someone throwing his brain into a fiery volcano (because I didn’t know what a hurricane was and thought it was similar to a volcano). I still chuckle at it. It is so witty. I also loved the song “Sam Stone” when I was a kid, but again I didn’t understand what the song was about. I loved the sad melody and the pictures the words created in my mind. Today, the lines in that song that haunt me are “Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon, climbing walls while sitting in a chair. Well, he played his last request, while the room smelled just like death, with an overdose hovering in the air. But life had lost its fun, there was nothing to be done, but trade his house that he bought on the GI bill, for a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.” I could go on and on about all of my favorite John Prine songs and lyrics. He is just a brilliant, heart crushing, funny and poignant songwriter. Truly an American treasure.
For a podcast about this John Prine tribute show, visit us here.