JENNY MITCHELL: The Courage To Sing Up
An interview by Tim Gruar.
Jenny Mitchell is not afraid to call herself a Country artist. But she confesses that even though she was ‘raised’ on 60’s and 70’s standards, her particular take is less rhinestone and more down home. She’s already turning heads with her pure, honest vocal style and songs that resonate with listeners both here and over the ditch where she’s already built up a bit of a fan base on the festival circuit.
On a cold winters day, I unfortunately interrupted her routine – dropping off CD’s at the Post Shop as part of ‘Release Week’, to ask her about making an album made in lockdown, working with Tami Neilson and watching old TV re-runs.
Her new album, ‘Tug Of War’, her third, has just dropped and has been on our turntable even since. It features the stellar singles ‘Trouble Finds a Girl’ (2022 APRA Country Music Song of the Year), ‘Somehow’, ‘Lucy’, ‘Snakes in the Grass’, and new track, ‘If You Were a Bird’.
“This album,” she says in her press release, “represents years of writing, recording, filming and collaborating. When I reflect on the process now, this collection of songs are so much more than I initially imagined.”
“Like many in their early twenties, my life has been turned inside out in the past couple of years. I’ve lost people, learnt lessons and also had some of the best moments of my life along the way.”
The songs of ‘Tug of War’ were written at a time of big life changes. Mitchell had just graduated from the University of Otago, her musical career went into lockdown in 2020; she had a break-up; her grandfather passed away; she got a new day job and she moved from Dunedin to Wellington. That’s heaps of upheaval – and plenty of material to work with. If you dare!
I can hear Mitchell blushing down the phone, metaphorically, at least, when I talk of the praise, she’s received from Rolling Stone and peers like Aussie country artist Fanny Lumsden (who she just completed a seven date Australian tour with). Lumsden has a great quote: “This album gently takes a hold of you and rocks you and shakes you with equal measure. It’s sophisticated, yet simple and makes you feel like everything is going to be okay.”
The first time I met Mitchell was at Kendall Elise’s gig in Newtown two months ago. I was blown away by her easy, comforting and pure vocals and simple but often deep lyrics. “This was one of my first shows after lockdown and unfortunately I tested positive the next day, so I was back in isolation for a week.”
She says it’s definitely ‘interesting’ touring overseas, with more preparation and Plan B’s to consider.
However, Mitchell did manage to do shows recently in Victoria, Canberra and New South Wales despite the various restrictions of each state. She was grateful to play both city and rural spots. “They are experiencing what they call ‘Covid Hangover’ at the moment. A lot of big-name acts are struggling to sell enough tickets, cancelling due to unforeseen circumstances, not from sickness but from a lack of audience participation. So, that makes it an interesting environment. We were lucky, had good support. So, that was cool.”
I wonder if, for Mitchell, her ‘market’ is more Australian. She acknowledges this but adds that “me and my sisters have always had good local connections, especially down South. But,” she says, “Australia has more opportunities and bigger ‘infrastructure (like festivals and venues that support Country Music).” Things are changing all the time though, as local Kiwi audiences embrace our Country and Folk acts – like Kendall Elise, Reb Fountain and Tami Neilson – and that really helps.
She says the scene here is “moving in a positive direction. So exciting to see Tami Neilson going to number one! I couldn’t have imagined that five years ago.” Perhaps she’s too young to remember acts like Brendan Dugan, Gray Bartlett, Suzanne Prentice and John Hore Grenell (may he rest in peace) who once dominated the charts, albeit it well before her time.
Mitchell started out playing at the Gore Country Music Club at the tender age of 4 years old. “I was a member of it from the day I was born! Dad (Ron Mitchell) was a member, a musician. Mum loves music and was always involved, too, from a volunteer perspective. So, it was very much part of our household and part of growing up.”
The Mitchell sisters have always been a tight unit, working on music together is a natural thing. Maegan and Nicola contribute harmonies and vocals on a number of recordings. “There are plenty of family bands, especially in country music. It is a very authentic thing. It’s a kind of kindred thing and it’s great to have my two younger sisters involved – a great connector. They are twins, now 18 years old and I’m a bit older. So, music has been the thing that has kept up together, despite the age gap. Which I’m very grateful for.”
Her whanau are Gore based and she pays homage to them through out the new album. The concluding song ‘Love Isn’t Words’ is a dedication to her father and grandfather Bruce, and she also honours the life of Bruce, ‘The Bush and The Birds’. When you hear it, with the voice of the three sisters lifted up together, in a warm harmony, with Jenny’s aunty Jill acknowledging the family’s heritage in te reo Māori, you know that this is music about something deeper and more enduring than simple pop songs.
She’s also done an ep with her dad and whanau called ‘The Grainstore Sessions’. Whanau is important and present in nearly all of her work.
Right now, we are all discovering and rediscovering our own whakapapa – both our Māori side and Settler/Immigrant sides and it’s OK to acknowledge those stories and details, to own them, as Mitchel does in her songs.
“Like many people in Aotearoa, I have a mixed history. My family on my mother’s side came from Ireland and I have Māori whakapapa on my father’s side, which goes back a long, long way. It’s definitely been a journey for me. When we lost Grandad, since then, I’ve felt a real connection to my whakapapa. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen more when they are alive…My sisters have guided me – kind of interesting as a big sister. Being five years older, school was different with no presence of any kind of Te Ao Māori, so I wasn’t exposed to or aware of the importance. But my sisters are leaders of kapa haka groups and have got all these amazing leaders that are guiding them and they are guiding me. We are going through this journey together.”
The new album, ‘Tug Of War’ went through quite a ‘gestation period’. “We started working on the first song back in 2020, in the first stages of the initial lockdown. I knew I wanted to start working on something and so I needed to make the best use of the downtime at home. My producer, Matt Fell, is based in Tasmania, so I wasn’t sure how that remote process would feel. I’d usually been in the studio with for these things. There’s something about playing together in the room. On the other hand, it was such a luxury not to have the time pressure studios have, making a decision on the spot. So, overall, it was a different but great learning experience.”
But even when you listen this, it still feels like everyone is together. Fell’s production is a light touch.
“Yeah, I was fearful of it being overproduced. But, even we were all working from our houses here and around Australia, it still came together like a cohesive production.”
I’m always blown away how musicians are so intuitive as to where they fit in and which parts need their input “…and which ones don’t, too. They just know where the right places are.”
“I chose players I already knew… some I’d played with before. Like Monique Clare, who plays the Cello. She’s based in Brisbane. I’d been in a few festivals with her (playing separately) and we were friends who kept in touch. When I saw her play, I thought, she is going to be on my next record!”
Then there’s the banjo player, Rod McCormack, who’s a bit of a legend in Aussie Country music. I didn’t know him until we started this project and got to know him over the course of recording.
In both cases I knew their style, before we actually ‘did a deal’ and started. Also, Matt (Fell), my producer, had a big hand in helping choose these players, too.”
The material on the album was a mix of songs she already had and new ones – all written from mid 2020 -2021. “Some songs were written quite close to the recording time, the feelings were still fresh, as opposed to a song with feelings from a long time ago and I don’t feel like that now.”
If you listen carefully, these is some continuity between songs on her previous release, ‘Wildfires’ and ‘Tug of War’. The song ‘Snakes in the Grass’ has that same mid-tempo country swing. But then, there’s these incredibly powerful turns. ‘Trouble Finds Girl’, being a case in point. This has a much more poignant, thematic, cinematic in its brevity. “This was written with Tami Neilson, obviously influenced by her style. She also produced this song, which also features her band.” And even though this was a departure from Matt Fell’s production efforts elsewhere on the album they knew it would still fit the album. “I think she gave me the courage to sing up, with the vocals being a lot bigger than elsewhere (on the record). The subject matter calls for that style, letting me lead into that style.”
Lyrics on this song are very straight up, not buried in poetry. They are in your face: “Trouble finds girls, walkin’ home after midnight / Trouble finds girls, singing in a Sunday choir / Trouble finds a girl at her own damn kitchen table / Trouble finds a girl and calls that girl a liar / If trouble’s gunna find you, it’s gunna have to find me too.”
“We are both quite honest and clear in our song writing. Tami says just what she thinks helped me to navigate the subject. I knew what I was trying to say but found it difficult. I actually tried to write it a couple of times before we got to this point. I was focussing too much on the gut-wrenching element of the issue of women’s safety. But through this collaboration I thought “Ah, this is what we need!” It calls out all the bad behaviour but it doesn’t victim blame but it also has quite an empowering feel when I sign it. So her confidence and sass and all that helped me craft it into the way it’s meant to be.”
Discussing the single ‘Lucy’, Mitchell says, “I spent some time studying the 1950s hit TV series, ‘I Love Lucy’, while doing Arts Degree at Otago, with Gender Studies being one of the subjects. We wrote a lot about the role of women in the 50’s and 60’s and the role of women in music. How gender impacts how music is performed. And we also looked at film and the social impact of that, reinforcing the stereotypes. And then there’s Lucille Ball, who’s so unconventional for the time.”
In the show Lucille is a single women, working in a large office, with independent income, not reliant on a man to get by. She was nominated for 13 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning five times, and was the recipient of several other accolades, such as the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even though she was twice married, Ball was in charge of the production of her show, made all the main decisions and her husband was an equal partner. This was very rare in television and Hollywood at the time.
“She was very much a feminist iconic and although I’m to young to know her in and ‘authentic’ way I kind of fell in love with her. When you realise that those characters in ‘I Love Lucy’ just didn’t exist before her. All the women that we now see on screen were all influenced by her. Through the lens of my age group, I would not immediately jump to the conclusion, that she’s such a strong feminist character. Even the way she talks about wanting a life outside the home. Some kind of entertainment career, it was so refreshing. She was one of the only female production heads at the time. For someone like me, I had to watch carefully to understand the impacts on her female audience of the day. So I found that really interesting.”
I can, in some ways see comparisons between ‘Lucy’ and ‘Lorde’s ‘Royals’, comparing different lives, those on screen and off. When Mitchell wrote the song, she say she was touring at the time. “I worried I was missing out on things back home. It made me think about how often we’re all looking over each other’s fences and wishing we had what another has” she said in her press statement, “and so, ‘Lucy’ was written essentially as reminder to myself to be more grateful for the gifts in my life. Rather than worrying so much about what other people were doing or had.”
The song starts with just a simple acoustic guitar part and Mitchell’s soft vocals but then builds and builds with the addition of one of Mitchell’s ‘dearest friends’, Liv Cochrane from Invercargill. “She was the vocal producer on the new album and you’ll hear her backing vocals on a few of the tracks too. When we were in studio, she was singing her part of this track and I suddenly had this realisation that it was almost as if her backing vocal was Lucy – this female character from another decade.” It also features backing from Jenny Thomas adding a viola instrumental for added effect. One presumably also done by remote control during lockdown.
Another song, ‘If You Were A Bird’, appears to be one of the simpler tracks on the album, yet there’s so much packed into its sparse lyrical structure. “It’s that age old story. You, know. Finding new love, all those good things, feeling loved and valued, but like a bird, they are still free.” So not possessed or owned. A twist of the old phrase “If you were mine”. This is a change. Past relationships didn’t feel like that. Like a lot of the arrangements on the album it starts with just guitar and voice, then builds into warmer, fuller sound thanks to some lovely cello parts from Aussie Monique Clare.
“I was one of the earlier songs I’d written, but as it feels like ‘a new chapter’”, Mitchell says in her publicity, “it ended up as the opener for the album.”
Jenny Mitchell will be one to watch, with music that she calls ‘Country’ but really does defy easy categorisation. It’s a little bit Emmy-Lou Harris, a smattering of Kasey Chambers and possibly even a hint of Patti Smith. But it’s wholly Jenny Mitchell. It was a pleasure talking with her and will be an even greater pleasure seeing her live again when she goes on tour this month.
Jenny Mitchell kicks off her nationwide tour supporting the new album ‘Tug Of War’ on Friday, 26th August in Christchurch, before winding her way around the country, finishing up in Gore on the 20th October. For more information on the tour and where you can purchase tickets, check out jennymitchell.co.nz – but get in quick as these shows are selling fast!
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