Debbie Hennessey Discusses Johnny Cash Roots and Songwriting Artistry
A: I was fascinated and obsessed with music and singing as far back as I can remember. I still am. As a kid, I would sing along to the radio constantly. My parents had a record player but only a few records, two of which were the Johnny Cash albums Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin. I played them over and over. I was only 7 at the time, which must have been quite a vision looking back on it now. Then, my grandmother bought me my own little record player, and I would buy 45s of my favorite songs that I heard on the radio. At 10, I received my first guitar and a neighbor gave me some lessons but it was singing – the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics – that I was most interested in. By 13, I was singing in public regularly and just kept going from there.
Q: Who were your musical influences growing up?
A: So many it might be easier to talk styles: rock, country, soul (especially Motown), pop, blues. I was lucky to grow up at a time when radio played everything. It wasn’t limited to one genre per station, especially on AM radio. It was a great way to be exposed to a lot of different styles and especially songs with a hook. Of course, by the time I was a teen it was all about rock & roll and listening to the whole album, not just the single. We had longer attention spans, fewer distractions, and you really wanted to hear every song on the album because it really was the only way – other than a live show – to get close the artists you were into. There was no Internet and they were rarely on TV so the album told a complete story of an artist’s music in that moment.
One of the other things that helped shaped and expand my own style was that I was always interested in the people who influenced my musical heroes. For example, as a teen I loved Steve Perry from Journey and then found out his biggest influence was the great soul singer Sam Cooke. So I bought his albums and learned all his songs and his story, and I could hear Sam’s influence on Steve’s singing. I’m still interested in who influences someone because it’s never a direct line, never the exact same style or sound, and I think that diversity is what helps each artist develop their own style.
Q: Would you describe the songs on your new album, No Longer Broken, as autobiographical?
A: No, not exactly autobiographical. I’m really not a confessional writer though there is something of me and my experience in each song I write. It might be a line or a title, or an overall feeling. It might even be a hope or desire. I have to be inspired by something or someone and I always stay true to that original idea, but at some point storytelling takes over. As a writer, I want to tell a good story that people can relate to, so I ask myself, “Where can I go with this? Will this word or line make it a better story, and does it sing well?” It has to sing well. But the song has to stay true to who I am as a person. I have never been able to sing or say something that I don’t feel or believe. Also, my songs are always co-writes and I am truly lucky to work with some great writers who not only bring their own experiences and ideas to the table, but we bring out the best in each other because we have different strengths.
Q: When were you named AC40 Female Artist of the Year by New Music Weekly? How did that come about?
A: That happened in 2004, and it’s kind of a cool story. I did a radio campaign for the single from my first CD, Rustic Heart, and the song went Top-20 on the New Music Weekly charts. That was already pretty cool for an indie artist with her first cd but when the nominations for their yearly awards came out it was a mix of indie and established artists including: Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and me! Needless to say, I was pretty surprised and excited but thought the nomination was as far as it would go. The awards were held here in Los Angeles, so I went. The first award of the evening was the one I was up for. It all happened so fast; they announced the nominees and then the award goes to, and called my name and I just looked at my friend who was with me, and he was in shock. I think we both were. I don’t remember walking up on the stage or really much of what I said, but I do know I remembered to thank the radio people since they were the ones that voted on the award! The whole evening was pretty surreal but I will always be grateful for receiving that award.
Q: How did you meet your producer Jeffery Marshall and describe the collaborative process with him.
A: Jeff joined my band right after I released my first CD Rustic Heart in 2002. He played on my 2006 CD Good As Gone and then he started producing some of my songs and Christmas singles. I was blown away from the first time I heard him play. He is a top-notch technical player, of course, but it’s his musical choices and the emotional depth to his playing that are something really special. When we finally had the opportunity to start writing together it just clicked right away. We talked about doing a CD for a while and had two songs in particular – “You Can’t Unpull A Trigger” and “Sugar and Rain” – that we knew would work for this CD. “Every Song Is You,” “Whiskey Charm,” “Right For Right Now,” and “No Longer Broken” were written specifically for this CD. The rest are co-writes with other writers and we have one cover song.
We write in a variety of ways, and the first part always happens pretty fast. Sometimes I just give him a title and he comes up with the perfect guitar part to go with it, and that inspires a melody. Sometimes I bring him a whole chorus and he comes up with the chords that fit that melody and then where we can go musically with the verses. No matter how we start Jeff and I both think very visually and bounce story and music ideas back and forth, then he sends me home with a basic guitar and rhythm track to write the rest of the lyrics. I’ll send him scratch vocals of those lyrics and he’ll suggest changes if there is a line that’s bugging him, or I’ll just call and sing something to him if there is a line I’m stuck on. We just go back and forth until we get it right.
Jeff and I are really good friends and we crack each other up and that really helps when he suggests I rewrite a line or part that I have killed myself over and I think, “are you kidding me!” But it works both ways because there are times when I stick to my guns because I believe strongly in the melodic or lyrical choice I made. What is funny is ultimately each of us is usually right if it is a part we feel strongly about – whether it is his suggestion to change something or mine to stick with it – and we figure that out by being open to trying what the other is suggesting. Whoever is right usually doesn’t let the other forget it though, but it’s all in fun.
When it comes to recording we do the majority of the track before I do my lead vocal, he is extremely creative and does a number of guitar tracks and mixes and sends them to me so if there is a part I’m really in love with, I have to make sure it’s on the next version he sends me. Even after I do my leads there have been many times he will surprise me with something or someone he has added and it’s always a good surprise.
Q: There’s so much pain in “Let Me Go.” Is it a true story?
A: “Let Me Go” is the one song on the record that is the most true to my own experience and I think that is why the pain comes through. However, I never tell people the full story behind any of my songs because I want them to be able to put their own experience and meaning to it. That is what makes me happy as a listener and I want to allow people to have that experience too. It is one of the songs that people seem to relate to the most and want to talk to me about after shows or when they hear the recording. I think it is because we have all been in that situation. We have all known that pain and it is one of the hardest emotional situations to go through. “Let Me Go” is a co-write with the very talented Tracee Perrin.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: A nap! No, just kidding, I wish. We just finished editing an extended promotional video for the new cd. It includes an interview along with concert footage and behind the scenes from the cd release party and acoustic show we did at Ultimate Studios, Inc. this summer. That is now up on my YouTube channel. There will be some more videos coming. I am doing radio and web campaigns, interviews, etc. We are doing some shows around Los Angeles but mostly it’s just a lot of promotion for at least the next six months to a year. As an indie artist you have to wear a lot of hats and just dig in and do the work yourself. You have a longer time to work a cd than a major artist but you don’t have the same resources so you have to be creative.