Jenny Mitchell Color / Website // Jenny with mandolin / Photo: Stephanie Renee NZ // Jenny Mitchell Live / Photo: Robyn Edie
In the beginning, when a parent has a child, it’s a little obvious when that child puts on some weight, eats a little more, needs bigger shoes and starts to speak and then miraculously — walk. They can see these achievements. But as a child gets older a parent doesn’t always notice the continuing reshaping and growth. Not at first. Suddenly, a boy has a deeper voice, a girl, well…she’s not looking too ugly-duckling and tom-boy anymore.
One of the joys of listening to a truly well-developing artist is hearing the shifting from simply a good singer and songwriter to someone who has really begun to master the art of what she’s written, as well as, how it should be performed.
I never had doubts about New Zealand’s Jenny Mitchell. From the start, the potential was there – but in truth, many young artists show promise. They have that hunger, the enthusiasm, the praise and are fueled by all the excitement especially when they shine so bright. But it’s a frustrating business, and there are many pebbles and rocks in that road. I’m not a seer, can’t foretell the future or predict who will succeed – and I don’t want to.
Logic will tell us that some truly blessed artists — never made it, only skimmed the surface, became regional celebrities, or burned brightly for a moment and faded. And they didn’t fade because they weren’t any good. It’s simply the toss of the dice. But perseverance also comes into play. Randy Newman released many albums before he finally hit and Bonnie Raitt recorded many albums for years before someone ever pulled out a chair for her at the Grammys.
Happens to actors, politicians, and authors. Happens to anyone who needs an audience – not everyone is going to be John Wayne (though, he too made many, many movies before he made his true masterpiece Stagecoach, and sustain a 40-year career). The biggest actors we know today haven’t sustained their careers the way he did. There isn’t going to be an Elvis Presley every decade like what we thought there would be. A band like The Beatles, or a female singer who can go from hippie-dippy folk music and navigate into the thick waters of jazz like Joni Mitchell.
I enjoyed New Zealand’s Jenny Mitchell’s 2015 album The Old Oak, and it showed an acute originality, a creativity seldom found in an artist of that age. She was only 16.
I was concerned with the attention she’d get, the pressures of being interesting enough to maintain a core audience and fan base and overcome the sophomore slump. I hoped she wouldn’t burn out like a Roman candle. Most young people spend a lifetime thinking about their first album and create it over the years to perfection. Then, if they are signed to a major label, the second effort is on deadline. Now it needs to be produced quickly and this can cause the writing and melodies to suffer. It happened to the rock group The Cars, Dire Straits, Steely Dan — after their amazing breakthrough after several albums Aja. But Jenny wasn’t signed to any major labels, so she was able to absorb what she learned, heard, and saw and eventually she shaped a new collection of songs – a mature self-assured collection of smartly conceived songs on her new collection: Wildfire.
Judging from her excellent video it has nothing to do with a forest fire or a brush fire. And therein lies the beginning of Jenny’s thought process. She is thinking, applying intelligence to a genre of music that can easily slide into clichés, silliness, novelty, and hokum. This is not a woman focused on your dance feet, on a groove, she wants to get a message across, tell a story, and connect. I like that she is not predictable.
Perhaps because her music is more pastel in color than bright — the contemporary, fast-food song does not exist in her collection. Each is carefully garnished with its own sensitivity, fragility and at times — strength. It’s like a spider web — at first something pliable but in reality — quite durable.
Setting aside the philosophy — the opening track is the title song – “Wildfire.” A typically old fashion country lead guitar set’s the theme clearly. A sawing violin (Luke Moller) winds around 19-year old Jenny’s vocal, the guitar interplay is simple but dramatic in low doses. Jenny’s voice is still as rich as ever, maybe even smokier, deeper, mature and remarkable.
Ms. Mitchell has this musical genre melting in her tone. Her song subject-matter is refined, and it’s not scooped from a barrel of reliable subjects. Others will use thread, Jenny uses string, others use rope, Jenny uses wire. Everything is tight, expressively performed and sensible.
I like that Jenny remained in the bounds of traditional melody for her opening song – but, once her acoustic guitar strummed into focus her voice commanded the speakers.
“Your lies fall like honey, off a silver spoon, oh and I’d bet all my money I’ll be running back to you…”
Strong words from a young woman. Imagination rooted in the truth. The memory featured in this lyric — probably not a good one. “But wildfires burn so easily, yes, I know, you’re no good for me….”
What makes this all unique? The woman knows the relationship is bad, yet she remains – how many throughout the world have been in these situations? How many women can relate to this? Yet, Jenny doesn’t perform this with the standard striking country angst of Nashville, the sour notes, the betrayal yarn, the vengeful attitude. No — Jenny unfolds her tale with grace and a nip of vinegar. No clichés here.
“…light it up, let it burn, pray that I’ll live through the hurt.”
It’s hypnotism. And she says its so. “You’re the prize and the poison…”
This is not for the faint-hearted. This couldn’t possibly be coming from a 19-year-old? But she has wisdom and that makes all the difference between a modest well-shaped country singer and someone who must have a muse. It’s poetry that dominates a beautiful melody. It’s country at a level few approach. It’s where you’ll find: The Buddy and Julie Millers, the Richard and Linda Thompsons, Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (“Blessing In Disguise”), Kris McKay (“If Ever You Need Me”), Kris Kristofferson, Lee Hazelwood, Tom Rush (listen to Scott Walker’s cover of Rush’s “No Regrets,” and get tissues).
What did singer-songwriter Tom Waits once say about some of the best songs: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” How true. His classic and beautiful “Martha,” is a testament to that.
“Puppet,” continues where “Wildfires” leaves off — with pensive guitar strains and Jenny’s voice which remains strong and warm – most importantly, warm. Her tone: embracing. She sings poignantly, but when she comes to the word “free,” in verse three she drops her voice into a whisper with such sincerity — this more powerful than all the rest of the wonderful lyrics.
The subject is still someone who is obviously being controlled. A sad subject for a person, any person. Jenny’s voice throughout is untouchable. Nothing I could suggest would make it better. It’s classy. I’m convinced at this juncture that if she wanted to Jenny could also sing jazz or blues. Could easily perform standards, saloon songs. and middle-of-the-road ballads. What am I saying? She doesn’t need to confine herself to just country and folk. She is that diversified and dare I say it – cool, classy and sophisticated.
This is a mature artist who has done so in a miraculous way in just a few short years. These are confessional songs, deep in the nature of the late Laura Nyro, and Dory Previn. Little novellas of angst, sadness and with her gift of words Ms. Mitchell paints her lyrical pictures with intensity and simplicity many other songwriters would die for.
In her third track “Worth It All,” her sadness tip-toes along the ledge of Toni Childs’ – who sings equally challenging songs – “I’ve Got to Go Now” being one of her classics about escaping spousal abuse with her child. Powerful stuff. This Jenny Mitchell tune is another song strung with poetic images – with strong ending lines: “thought it would perfect, thought it would be worth it all.”
How many young women are writing lyrics like this today? On paper, it reads simplistic but when Jenny’s voice sings these words, the pathos becomes evident. Jenny is of a generation far removed from the artistry of a Joni Mitchell, Cris Williamson (“Last Sweet Hour”) and Bob Dylan. But she has taken her music beyond mere country, folk and ballads now. So, she is closing in on this fraternity and sorority of some heavyweights. It’s only a matter of time. She is indeed slowly beginning to shape her own distinctive style – away from any comparison to the past.
Oh, there will be impressions of others, that goes without saying, but Jenny is beginning to mold something from her musical clay few have heard, and I continue to be impressed with. I can listen to a Jenny Mitchell album straight through and not tire of her showcase.
“Let Me Be,” is the fourth track. Wow. I listened to this song five times in a row. This is the song that has me misty. With lines that poke your heart: “…. then let me be your wine in the evening when the day takes away your dignity, let me, let me be…honey just let me be.” Not many songwriters write like this and if they do, they knock off one brilliant lyric and the balance of their material is standard. Not evident here.
This IS a first-class song. Excellent arrangement, driving, powerful and Jenny’s velvety smooth voice controls every nuance and if ever you needed a positive song in your life – this could be the one.
“One Day,” is more standard and upbeat – a little reggae influenced and it’s good because we hear Jenny Mitchell’s diversity. More importantly, it shows Jenny’s sense of humor – “…that the reason you like coffee so much is cause it matches my eyes…”
What did I say about diversity? “Arms,” has one of the most warm and tender vocals I’ve ever heard on any album by a woman as young as this. All delivered expertly with finesse. This is simply lovely. “Somehow in-between your sheets, I found part of me I didn’t know I’d lost till now…And I thought I was doing fine on my own…Till your arms felt like home.” Those are good lines. The slight vulnerability and the reliance on someone – stunning.
Not an ounce of fat on any song and they are conceived with emotion, brilliance, and versatility. Matt Fell’s deep piano notes start “The Ocean,” and Ms. Mitchell is yet, in another realm. She is beyond mere country flavors, performs with a wealth of emotion usually reserved for Sarah McLachlan. These are serious lyrics and Jenny is successful with this voice – her sad yet poetic voice. “But when you look out at the ocean, I hope you’ll always think of me.” Pensive, her tone is especially impressive, and I like her intonation, phrasing, and inflection.
Singing ideals often ignored by the showboaters who have strong voices, yet lack soul, clarity and have no idea what they are singing about so long as they hit all the notes. Usually with the aid of autotune. Then, along comes a Jenny Mitchell and people wonder why she is so focused on warmth and sincerity. Because she means every word she sings. And she does indeed duplicate it all, live in front of you. Simple.
I listened bravely to this song late at night with headphones and damn if Jenny Mitchell wasn’t inside my head – it’s like an angel singing. Don’t believe me? Try it. Headphones. Closed eyes. Darkroom. You’ll cry.
The journey continues, and I have listened several times before writing. As of right now, this is probably my year’s best album. “So Far,” features the dobro and lap steel of Sam Hawksley, and though it’s more country in feeling, Jenny is nurturing through her music. There is nothing that rings the same – every tune on this collection has its boundaries and brilliance. Each tells a story. And it’s Jenny’s voice that is distinguished. You trust her words, she has a presence.
“You can feel so lost and know…exactly where you are, and that’s what I’ve learnt so far.”
Wisdom from a young lady sung without that standard whiney, yet fashionable, millennial voice. Jenny has a commanding vocal now – not because of power – because of all its sincerity and a clear musical identity.
Jenny’s band is exceptional – all the players are quite accomplished and lend just the right feeling. The tale of “Ends of the Earth,” I believe, and hope is a true story. It seems Ms. Mitchell only needed inspiration from an old sepia snapshot of – her grandparent’s? Probably. This is a jewel of a song. These kinds of songs build a wonderful songwriter’s reputation and songbook as the years go by. Jenny wrote it in a manner that anyone could relate to. Even if the photo isn’t a relative – the lyrics work with it. That’s everything.
Jenny continues this rich storytelling through a song with the gentleness of her “Troubadour,” — a haunting country ballad. “And when the lights go down, and the curtain calls, and you’re alone…When the crowds disperse, after your last verse – do you miss home?”
Disperse? Great word. Wonderful lyrics. No sophomore slump for this young lady. None.
“Thing Called Love,” is sung exceptionally well – a near bluesy, country style that is poignant and her father Ron Mitchell sings with her with his deep seasoned and formidable voice. Great pairing. The band just beats along in the classic tradition of Bob Dylan’s old backup group — The Band: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Robbie Roberson, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. It has that rustic traditional and true blend of emotional mountain music. The people in Appalachia, Kentucky, West Virginia here in the USA would embrace this young woman from New Zealand and her Dad too. Break out the Jack Daniels and pass around the glasses…lemonade for Jenny. Sorry.
The quality of this 12-song collection is collectively well conceived. Jenny Mitchell plays acoustic guitar, Josh Schuberth plays drums and percussion, Matt Fell is on bass, acoustic and electric guitars, ukulele, percussion, drums, keyboards and he probably swept out the place. Shane Nicholson picked the acoustic guitars and banjo, Glenn Hannah added electric and acoustic guitars, Sam Hawksley performed on the dobro, lap steel and added backing vocals, and James Church (dobro) with Luke Moller (violin) round the ensemble out.
The final track is a slow, positive sounding “Travelling Bones.” Jenny sings in her warm, mature voice and her 46-minute album is a journey that is sad, uplifting and takes a listener full circle to a tune that can only suggest someone who is grateful…needs to travel on…but knows she will always return. What more can a person ask for? Especially a person who knows where they came from…and where home always will be.
It’s Christmas – and I’m grateful for Jenny Mitchell’s Wildfires – it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
She is one of the youngest artists I have written about, and I think she is an artist worth watching and listening to. Not many singers have much to say because it’s all about the showboating performance and quite frankly, they haven’t lived long enough to accumulate any stories. If Jenny were a painter she would know what colors to use, what brush gives each effect, and because she is a singer-songwriter she knows how to melodically tickle a stranger’s ear.
Jenny Mitchell has something to say, and the bonus is this: she knows how to tell a good story. The album was excellently Produced by Matt Fell. The CD layout & design by Dan Stanley Design Studios was also in keeping with the style of music Jenny Mitchell had recorded. There is a beautiful full-color stitched lyric book included.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / December 2018