Slaid Cleaves

Quick Q and A with Jenny Reynolds

Plaintive yet pretty. Vulnerable yet valiant. She may hail from New England but she’s sure as hell got a firm foothold in Texas. From what I can see from way up here in Massachusetts, she’s been adopted by many a homegrown Texan and has become an integral part of the music scene there. Jenny’s latest CD, Any Kind of Angel might be the most adventurous album of her career thus far. It shows a wider breadth of Jenny’s songwriting as well as some fantastic guitar chops. Listen and learn, my friends. Jenny and the stellar band have recorded some of the most honest songs I’ve heard in a long, long time. As fellow New Englander turned Texan, Slaid Cleaves, says of this album: “Jenny Reynolds’ pure voice beguiles as she draws you into this finely crafted album of hard-luck stories and dark confessions.”

To learn more about Jenny, check out her website.

Here’s a video of Jenny playing the title cut, “Any Kind of Angel.”

I understand that you learned how to play Latin guitar for this album, in particular the song “Dance for Me.” The fingerpicking is exquisite and it conveys the mood of the song.  Jaimee Harris, on harmony vocals was a fantastic choice.  Your voices entwine as though you are, in fact, doing a dance like the woman in the song.

Thank you! It was definitely a new picking pattern for me, one that is built on a bass line of E (on the 5th string, 7th fret, capo 2) to B (on the 6th string). And it was wonderful to work with Jaimee!

Having the amazing Betty Soo on accordion and vocals on many numbers made me smile. She is an Austin treasure for sure, isn’t she?

Betty Soo is a wonderful friend and musician and I love working with her and hanging out with her. Recording means spending a lot of time together. That is easy when you work with good friends who are also stellar musicians.

I absolutely adore what you did with “I’m So Lonesome.” You totally reinvented that song with that arrangement. There’s lament and sadness unfolding throughout the song but it’s done in such a different way than the original by Hank Williams or any other version I’ve ever heard. Your voice has a tangible vulnerability to it. Has that song always meant something to you?

Thank you for listening so carefully! Hank Williams has meant something to me maybe more than any one song of his. Entertainment is often shiny and polished. Hank sang about sad things, like a broken heart and being lonely. His songwriting is full of unapologetic honesty that everyone can connect with. No polish necessary.

I feel the same way about Lucinda Williams. And I produce a “kinda” annual show called “Williams Nite,” which is a tribute to Hank and Lucinda. I don’t know when the next one will be. We were thinking of fall 2020 but it’s more likely spring 2021. When it happens it will be the 10th “Williams Nite.”

Frankly, the rest of the players on the album are some of the best in Austin.  Tell us about them.

In every case, if I wasn’t a musician, I would hope to be lucky enough to know these people anyway. Yes, they are excellent musicians. And they are also excellent people. I think those two things, being talented at music and being a good person, are connected. There isn’t a single ego on the record, but there are plenty of great conversations, opportunities to comfortably share ideas that we try. Humility, kindness, fun and talent are the blood of this project.

What was it about Mark Hallman’s work on Ani DiFranco’s album that convinced you that he was the best person to produce this album?

I believe Dilate is Ani’s first studio record. And it was made at a time when (I think) people didn’t think her sound could be wrangled on tape, that her in-your-face and unapologetic (like Hank) energy wouldn’t be the same if she was in-studio. Mark gets women’s voices, like Ani’s and Eliza Gilkyson’s. He also gets honesty. He knows how to keep things raw so they sound honest. And he got Ani’s power when they recorded Dilate. Ani’s artistry comes entirely from her. It works well in front of a crowd, but Mark’s knowledge of sound and his ability to get the best performances out of people while recording combined to create a legendary sound.

I am not Ani. But I know the breadth of Mark’s knowledge and his heart makes people (myself included) exceed their own expectations of creativity and honest expression. I knew the material on this record wouldn’t be served well unless we took risks. Want to get better? Take risks. Want the risks to pay off and teach you how much you can grow? Work with good people. I can’t wait to record with him again. 

I’d love to know about your writing process.  Has it changed since you began writing back in your New England days?  

I love playing guitar even more now than I did while I was living in Boston. Riffs and longer musical phrases have a strong influence on the phrasing of lyrics and the topics of songs. This is true for “Dance for Me” and for “The Way That You Tease.” The groove in “The Way that You Tease” told me it couldn’t be a song about anything sad. Groove is flirtatious. So is the song.

You’ve been in Texas since 2003, the year you became known as a Kerrville New Folk artist. You met your wife around that time too. You must have felt that you made the right decision to leave Massachusetts behind….

I felt it no longer mattered where we lived. Kerry and I met in 2001 at Folk Alliance in Vancouver. After a few years we thought she would move to Boston. I was working for a record label called Tone-Cool (Susan Tedeschi, North Mississippi Allstars) and it was a great job. But I got laid off after September 11th and the company eventually went out of business. I moved to Austin thinking I would be here a few years. But my musical interests fit better here. I like Townes. I also like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. They are all part of the history here. I do miss my family a lot though.

However, your life story takes a sad turn when your wife became quite ill in 2010 and you became her primary caretaker.  How did music play a part in your life during that difficult time and how has it helped you grieve and perhaps return to a life that she would want you to have now?

Terminal illness has a way of making people think in the present. The past wasn’t likely to help because we had never experienced anything like her disease (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy), and the future was bleak. Music gave me a way to at least temporarily change the contents of my head and entertain her. It also offered something I could control. I couldn’t do anything about Kerry’s symptoms, but I could learn a song, or write one, or get better at a particular skill.

After Kerry passed, music and physical exercise helped me regain my ability to concentrate. The things I do matter again. 

How are you holding up during this crazy COVID life? Are you able to continue teaching (albeit online)?

I don’t teach anymore. Connecting with people these days happens via livestream shows, which I am getting used to. I am an introvert (if you do Myers Briggs I am an INFJ) so to some extent the isolation doesn’t bother me. But the news does. And I really miss playing with people. I still practice a lot and am staying ready for the moment we can safely play together again. And I am writing. I don’t want to wait too long before releasing new music, so hopefully Mark and André and I can get back to the studio early next year. Until then, music, livestreams and my dog, a rescued lab mix named (Annie) Oakley, are helpful ways of coping.

I also really enjoy hearing other people’s livestream shows like Erin McKeown, Jaimee Harris and Tedeschi Trucks Band. Continued access to music has been very helpful and inspiring, even if we aren’t in the same room or venue.

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson