photo by Jenny Hwa
Article and Inteview by Matt Douglas, local musician (The Small Ponds, The Proclivities)
I have to begin with an admission. When I heard that Raleigh folk musician Jeanne Jolly's new album was called "Angels," I was skeptical. I thought it was too easy. Like a new jangly folk record being called "Devil On a Train" or an indie pop record being called "Water Bottle Ninja Kitten" or the electronica record called "I Wanna Make You Dance with Glowsticks." But when I signed on to write something about "Angels," I had some alternative theories that made me a believer. Angels are supposed to be messengers, right? They can be messengers of truth and life, but they can also be messengers of death and darkness. They can guide you to the narrowest of paths, but they can also tempt you to make the most questionable of decisions. It's been written that the closest angels to God are like fire; always rising towards the heavens, shaping the world with their heat, and using their light to guide. To me, this means that Angels carry all the weight of hope and possibility, but also the weight of remorse.
There is a dichotomous nature to this record. Good choices versus bad choices. The seizing-of-the-day versus regrets of the past. The way the world contracts and expands around you when you don't have a choice, versus our inability to let go of the idea that we can control it. "All Is Not Lost" is a great discourse on that very contradiction. "Leaves will turn when it's time…" With all of the ways we have to gather and process information, we distance ourselves from certain experiences, which can give us a false sense of control. Maybe it can be broken down to an oversimplified deciphering: It's Fall when the leaves change color. The leaves don't change color because we say that it's Fall.
Jeanne Jolly's voice is a frustrating actuality. When she digs in and detonates her powerful vocals, like on "Long Way Home" or "Angels On Hayworth St." in the spirit of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or even Linda Ronstadt, you never want to hear her do anything but that. Then you hear her crooning on "Sweet Love" and you've thought that Rickie Lee Jones and Anita Baker made a baby that went to New England Conservatory, figured out it was all bullshit, and started singing folk songs. And now that's all you want to hear her sing. The result is a staying moment of satisfaction at the fading out of each track, leaving you waiting and wondering which of your favorite sides of Jeanne Jolly will be presenting itself next.
"Round and Round Again" uses the imagery of a young girl getting playfully swung around in the grass to express the cyclical nature of life and death, separation and reunion. The eloquent pedal steel of Allyn Love sets the tone, and is reminiscent of an antique carousel, lamenting the past but eagerly awaiting what's on the other side. "The Hard Way" is a wonderfully ironic lead-in to "Tear Soup." The first is a powerful big-country song, complete with an unapologetically Brad Paisley-esque guitar solo from Chris Boerner, where Jolly has escaped from under the costume cowboy hat that shades the shit-eating grin of a harlequin, seen the red flags, and moved on. But like every other person in the world who has completely given themselves to love and tribulations at the hand of impulse, we all end up in a puddle of tears on the floor.
"Happy Days Cafe" tells the story of a waitress that sees the same older gentleman everyday sitting and waiting. She finally asks him who he's waiting for. He tells her of a woman he fell in love with over many days of expected chance meetings in that very cafe. He was never able to tell her how much she meant to him. That she had saved him. Saved him from his life of being closed off to love. Saved him from his emptiness. A year has passed since she last came in, but he's there everyday waiting for her.
But that's the tricky thing about angels: Sometimes their gifts leave scars. But alongside those scars are the unyielding powers of love, art, music, fathers, mothers, time, the healing power of self-destruction, and an eternally forgiving place called home.
Matt Douglas: How did you think differently about making this record versus making your first EP?
Jeanne Jolly: I had to learn how to write from a different place for this record. My first EP was born out of a tough time in my life and songwriting became my release, expression, escape, and confrontation of that time. Songwriting quickly became my joy but I think every artist has their whole life to prepare (whether they know they are preparing or not) to write and record their first record, write their first book, shape their first clay pot. After that, your first work is done and you go about your craft differently from that point forward. …I made a choice with Falling In Carolina to not have any vocal harmonies. I felt like it was important, in creating my first EP, to be more raw, stripped down, spacious. This time, I did everything I wanted to without limiting myself…
MD: A lot of people talk about "faith". That could mean faith in a God or in a personal spirituality, or it could just mean a faith in people, family, loved ones, strangers. Does faith play a role in your songs? If so, how?
JJ: Faith plays a strong role in my life so naturally, it plays a role in my songs from time to time. I think faith and trust welcome strength and allow you to take more risks whether it's with people, life decisions, or writing songs. I think, for me at least, the ramifications of not writing from a place of vulnerability would equal a very stifled and contrived collection of songs.
MD: Who did you write "Good Man" about? You don't have to name names if you don't want to, but maybe you could describe that person a little more?
JJ: Good Man was inspired by someone very special whom I feel very lucky to know. This song points out some simple basic values that I admire in him: His appreciation and love for his family, his ability to express gratitude, his honesty & his desire to always put his best foot forward. If you want to know more, he's a Wolfpack fan and a cat whisperer. Everybody should know him.
MD: You have one cover song on the album, "The Kiss" by Judee Sill. How did you come across that song, and how did you decide to do the arrangement of it that you did on the record?
JJ: Allyn Love sent it to me one day saying that he thought i'd really love it. We were having a conversation one night when we were rehearsing at his house. I told him how I really enjoyed folk music from the 70's and bam, this song was sitting in my inbox the next morning alongside a killer Shelby Lynn tune. We don't call Allyn "The Professor" for nothing. Once I heard it, I literally looped it for an entire day on my computer. The lyrics are so full of ethereal imagery. I immediately wanted to record it a cappella with drone like humming to cover the chord changes. I recorded a demo of this on my laptop. In my mind, I immediately started thinking it would be cool with harp, then, decided that another melodic instrument would take away from all of the stacked vocals. It was one of those whacky ideas that I kept to myself for awhile until [Chris] Boerner forced me to play it for him. Sometimes he has to do that. Force is strong word. Gentle push is more like it. I played it for him after a gig we had down in Swansboro, NC. He loved the idea and ran with it. Chris, with his producer magic, came up with the idea to add a drum and bass dimension to it. I recorded the vocals first using a drone to sing over, he added a bassline with organ & synth. We then brought in Matt McCaughan, who also played drums on Falling In Carolina and is now touring with Bon Iver. We were lucky to catch him while he was in town. It was meant to be! Chris really didn't give Matt much direction other than we needed to give the song more of a consistent groove. Matt dove into this and blew us away in the studio. My face was literally frozen into a giant smile for hours. Matt created a groove from nothing while staying completely out of the way of the vocals. He played to the poem. I was in awe. I felt so lucky to be in there witnessing Matt and Chris's interpretation of the song. When we finished in the studio that day, I just couldn't shake this... cinematic feeling of a tribal wedding. I never could have come up with that on my own.
MD: What do you like best about working with producer Chris Boerner? Producers tend to wear lots of hats in the studio. What is Chris's strongest asset?
JJ: His strong understanding of the importance of space. He respects the spacious and raw nature of each song and never tramples it with over-production. He is obviously very skilled on the guitar but as an engineer he also REALLY knows how to capture good sounds and mix them well. I like watching him when he gets in that zone. You can tell he truly enjoys creating sounds to accomplish the exact feeling he's going for and he won't give up until it's achieved. He is always open to trying anything in the studio to make this happen. I love working with Chris. We're good friends so I've been able to watch him develop this over the years with all of his various bands and projects. I'm so happy he is finally getting more recognition for production. He is extremely talented and being a producer is a thankless job at times. People don't realize that it will make or break a record depending on who is producing it. We both feel comfortable enough now to push each other's limits...this yields new discoveries that really work sometimes! He is one of the most dedicated people that I know and has made a lot of sacrifices to give this record the "lift" it was calling for.
Jeanne Jolly's record release show is this Friday October 5th, 7pm at the Lincoln Theatre