Jennifer Brantley: On the Other Side And Beyond
Jennifer Brantley says she is obsessed with writing great songs. It shows. On the Other Side, her compulsively listenable new CD for Blue Room Records, demonstrates that the young Nashville-based singer and songwriter is equally committed to the craft of making great records.
Produced by legendary guitar man and studio ace Tommy Spurlock (George Jones, David Olney, the Band, Delbert McClinton), along with Scott Partridge and Jennifer's husband and songwriting partner, David Hand, On the Other Side showcases Jennifer's mastery of a range of tempos, moods, arrangements, and vocal dynamics. It mixes classic country instrumentation (acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, pedal-steel, bass, and drums) with a soaring vocal range that is equal parts country, rock, and pop.
'You Left Me Crying' presents a perfect example of her mature song-craft. It starts with a plaintive "Oh baby" backed by strummed acoustic guitars and builds to the shimmering chorus of the title phrase. It's the kind of record that the Mavericks at their best used to make. No wonder 'You Left Me Crying' has found a home on Americana radio and internet sites like MP3.com and GarageBand.com throughout the country.
Other tracks on the Other Side offer strong competition. 'She Will Survive' rocks with a John Mellencamp meets the Bangles fervor; its chorus "She will survive/she'll see the changes/she will survive/the rearranges" exemplifies Jennifer and David's way with lyrics: catchy, clever, and meaningful.
Another standout track, 'I Need a Place' has a sinuous rock beat, spurred by the terrific Rick Lonow on drums, while "She's Just Fine in Her Mind" and the bouncy, mandolin-driven "Why Did It Take So Long?" have an almost Beatles-like vibe, in keeping perhaps with Jennifer's side project, the Folkswagon Beatles, an Opry-affiliated roots offshoot. In fact, many of the cuts on the CD could fit into a classic rock format as easily as a contemporary country or Americana rotation.
I asked Jennifer about her obsession with the craft of songwriting: "It's simply the challenge of taking a thought, idea, belief or what have you, and condensing it to lyrics, melody and chord structure. It's a process I work on all the time. I have been through a lot and it's very therapeutic as well. Being around so many good songwriters has helped tremendously. I have been listening to great songwriters for years on my stereo but nothing beats seeing some of the writers on stage right in front of you with nothing but a small band or just a guitar."
Many singer-songwriters feel obliged to be poets and end up writing too many lyrics and neglecting the music; but Jennifer leave lots of space in her songs for the music and instruments to stand on their own.
"In Nashville, industry people always say that someone is either a great singer or a great songwriter. I work on trying to be both. I do make an effort to try to economize my words. Harlan Howard once pointed out to a friend of mine that he needed to decide if he wanted to be a songwriter or a poet."
Jennifer credits husband David Hand for helping her fine tune the songs and the recordings: "David helps me a lot when I get stuck on something. He's also added a lot of the bluesy tones and vibes to the songs, and he's good with guitar riffs and bridges and other finishing touches."
Still, song-craft alone does not explain the pull of On the Other Side. The emotional honesty of the vocals and lyrics reflect hard experience - with relationships, with society, with life – and hard-won wisdom.
Some of your lyrics portray deep attachments ('Did It for You'; 'You Left Me Crying') while others celebrate independence or triumph over the pain of a former attachment ('I Need a Place;' 'She Will Survive'; 'Cowboy'): do you consciously explore these themes in your work?
"Yeah, both 'Did It For You' and 'You Left Me Crying' are about some bad relationships I have had and some of the martyrdom I experienced at the time. I was always looking for that perfect someone else to make me happy and save me, so to speak, and of course I was let down. When I met David, my husband, he told me early on that he didn't possess the power to make me happy, that it was up to me.
"I also try to reflect on the wisdom and strength one can get through working through adversity and turning things around and helping others through the same difficulties. That is basically what 'She will Survive' is about. It's also a spiritual song. 'I Need A Place' is kind of where I am in life. 'She's Just Fine In Her Mind' is about a combination of people I have known that were on very destructive paths and refused to see it or do anything about it."
Jennifer cites Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline as vocal influences, but listeners may also be reminded of Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, and in songs like the title cut and "I Need a Place" the ethereal voice of the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins. The lovely, lilting 'Did It for You' evokes the harmonies of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but there's not a cut on the album that sounds like an imitation of someone else. That might be because her interests and influences – from John Lennon to John Coltrane – are as wide-ranging as her background. I asked about her personal as well as musical roots.
"I didn't have a very stable childhood. We moved around a lot. When I was very young we moved out to California from Mississippi. and then later we moved back to Mississippi then back to California and repeated this pattern for many years. So I spent a lot my youth in some dramatically different cultures and I had to face a lot of varied and often chaotic environments. My family was almost run out a small Mississippi town because I had invited some black families to the Baptist church where we were members.
"We also were always performing in church and my mother was the typical show biz parent and insisted on me performing contemporary Christian music with my two sisters when I was younger, which I didn't really want to do. I did like the old gospel music that was rooted in the blues. I saw a lot of the Mississippi Delta and this is where Robert Johnson, Elmore James and B.B. King came from.
"Out in California I discovered the Beatles, Beach boys, where I learned harmony, and Gram Parsons. I lived around San Francisco for a while and saw Haight Ashbury; I spent a weekend at Dana Carvey's house, who is not only a great actor and comedian but also a talented drummer. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am today in my music."
What's next for Jennifer Brantley? "I have already written about four or five songs that are going to be on the next CD. I have co-written one with Jesse Bellamy of the brother duo Jesse and Noah and Ava Larkin, a singer in my band. I'm also going to cut a song written by a friend of mine named Mark Alan. We start recording in July if all goes well."
In the meantime, On the Other Side has arrived and so has Jennifer Brantley.