A Q&A with Jeanne Jolly
By Geoff Gehman
Jeanne Jolly loves old-time over-the-top country heartbreakers; the bigger the break, the better. So when it came time for her to write a tribute to honky-tonk humdingers like “Stand by Your Man,” she naturally poured on the pity. She made “Tear Soup” a spicy stew of he-done-me-wrong retaliations (reversing his pictures on the wall, trashing his records), a deliciously crooked waltz where a quick yodel of grief slides into an instant aria of anguish.
“Tear Soup” is a packed track on “Angels” (+FE Music), the first CD from Jolly, who grew up in Raleigh, N.C., on the magnetic melodrama of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. The record showcases her vibrant, versatile, operatically trained voice, her playfulness, her fondness for edgy textures. She’ll display these dynamic qualities on Feb. 23 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House when she performs with guitarist-producer Chris Boerner, an old friend who helped make “Angels” devilishly adventurous.
Jolly has made the last seven years a true-blue odyssey. She’s sung stardust standards with trumpeter Chris Botti and hip-hopped R&B with The Foreign Exchange, a partnership between American rapper Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay. She’s written songs to cope with her mother’s death from ovarian cancer and bonded with listeners who have lost loved ones prematurely. In the interview below she discusses turning pain into poetry, the natural paradox of falling down to get up, and the biggest accomplishment of all: making the mawkishly lite-metal hit “Here I Go Again” not only listenable but enjoyable.
Q: You and your mom listened to a lot of songs together when you were growing up. What were a few of your mutual favorites?
A: We listened to a lot of ’80s-’90s country like the Judds’ “Mama He’s Crazy” and any old Dolly Parton tunes. We loved Aretha Franklin. Our feeling was: When in doubt, put on Aretha. We spent a lot of time listening in the kitchen, where she’d be cooking, or in the car, where we’d be running errands in her red Toyota hatchback. We liked singing songs where we could harmonize. My mom had a sweet little voice and a good ear; she could tell when somebody was out of tune.
Q: You like to test your new songs on your dad before you present them to your band members for tougher testing. Why is he such a good judge? Did he ever give you a piece of advice that radically changed, or improved, a song?
A: He’s such a good sounding board because, first of all, he likes everything [laughs]. At one time I was so shy and scared to share anything I had created musically. I had a really hard time shaking the perfectionism that goes with going through the classical route. My biggest battle was letting the music out of my heart.
Four years ago I was living in Los Angeles, totally paralyzed by everything that goes on in Hollywood. My mom got sick with cancer and I moved back to Raleigh to be home with her. She passed away just five and half weeks later. So there I was with my dad in the house I grew up in; we were two sad sacks. My songwriting became the release to this grief, my therapy. I’d sing these poems from my journal for my dad about my mom and these really awful relationships I was in [laughs]. He would cheer me on, tear up, and cry with me. He would always tell me what my poem-song meant to him. And then he’d tell me to read it back to him, so he could listen even closer and understand it better.
One day I was having an afternoon of being overwhelmed by loss. My dad just gave me a hug and said: “All that’s lost is really all in your mind.” What he meant was: You always have your memories and nobody could take those away.
Well, what he said was so meaningful and so good, I just had to write a song around it. So when he went to Trader Joe’s, I spread a blanket out in my backyard, made myself a screwdriver (I rarely drink cocktails in the afternoon), and wrote [“All Is Not Lost”] in an hour. That’s never happened to me since. It’s a good example of when something tragic happens, the scrim sort of lifts.
Q: What were two highlights from your touring with Chris Botti? Hell, I would have broken into the hall just to hear you sing “What’ll I Do?,” a favorite stardust tune I first heard in the Robert Redford film “The Great Gatsby.”
A: That was the first song Chris had me sing with him. It was on his  “When I Fall in Love” album—Paula Cole sang it—that he was promoting at the time. I thought I was filling in for someone but he was really auditioning me. What he didn’t know is that “What’ll I Do?” was the first standard I ever learned. When I was 14 I was obsessed with the Linda Ronstadt-Nelson Riddle Orchestra version.
I loved singing “What’ll I Do?” with Chris. It was the encore in our  concert in Carnegie Hall, which was definitely the ultimate highlight of my time with him. The show was sold out. My parents had flown up and were sitting in the balcony. I knew I’d be singing “Good Morning Heartache” with the composer, Ervin Drake, sitting in the audience with his wife, who inspired the song. Singing that and “What’ll I Do?” in the venue I’d dreamed of since I was a little girl was a dream. I could feel the spirit of everyone who had sung there, especially Judy Garland.
Q: What did touring with Botti teach you to do and not to do as a musician on the road?
A: I learned much more about the importance of perseverance. That it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep or you’re tired from the time-zone change or you’re feeling bloated. You have to remember you’re singing for a whole new crowd, for people who maybe never heard a certain song or a certain album, for a child who’s never been to a show. You start to realize that all the downs of the road aren’t important. What’s important is what happens as soon as you step up to the microphone. It was inspiring to watch Chris being so charismatic, to see him light up while telling the same stories night after night, to add something different or tell the story as if it was the first time.
Chris and his people were really into yoga and eating healthy, so I learned to take better care of my body on tour. And I learned to take a joke. The guys on the bus told me to sleep on the bottom, which turned out to be over the gas tank, with the gas sloshing around. The next day they asked me: “How did you sleep?” And I said: “Ohhhh–not so good” [laughs].
Q: Every musician has a favorite venue/laboratory, and yours seems to be the North Carolina State Fair, where you broke in your 2009 EP “Falling in Carolina” during 29 shows over 11 days. What are the attractions of the Fair, besides getting to know the resident clown?
A: I would say the people, who are the salt of the earth. They come from all over the state. They come every year with their entire family. They come multiple times and they spend entire days. They’re there to have their annual fun day, so the spirit is good.
We perform during the day, so I get to see how my songs connect with everyone from toddlers right up to retirement age. And the drag race is hilarious. We’ll be starting a song and all of a sudden you’ll hear [simulates the bombastic white noise of revving engines and tire squeals] and you’ll have to stop. That’s the signal for all of us to put our hands in the air.
I love that the fair showcases talent across the board. I love that it’s so North Carolina; it makes me proud of my state. And I love the roasted corn; it’s my addiction.
Q: Why have you gotten out of working with Nicolay and Phonte in The Foreign Exchange? Did performing with them influence the electronica effects and floating rhythms on “Angels”?
A: It’s reminded me how much I like to sing jazz and R&B/soul. And it’s freed up my voice and given me other tools, other dimensions. Nicolay is a fantastic producer and writer, as is Phonte. Like Chris Botti, he’s an amazing entertainer. Being onstage with him, keeping at his high-energy level and the level of an open-minded, lively crowd, has brought my performance up a notch. It’s good for me to really shake it some; you look silly if you just sit up there looking wooden.
Q: One of the tracks on “Angels” that really bends my senses is “Tear Soup,” which makes me think of a loopy waltz in heaven between Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison. What were you and Chris Boerner, your guitarist-producer, shooting for?
A: We didn’t have to talk about it too much since the song is so ridiculous, with the opera chops thrown in there after that little yodel sequence. Every time I sing that onstage, I make a horrible face as if I’m weeping [laughs]. It’s sort of my tribute to all those old-country honky-tonk angels I grew up on like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette—or Wammy Tynette as my dad called her. Just listen to the lyrics of “Stand by Your Man”: they’re piteously sad. But you get so caught up in the way these amazing singers wail and whine that you don’t really care.
Q: Why did you decide to tackle Judee Sill’s “The Kiss”? I think it’s the first time I’ve heard an electronica a cappella hymn-prayer.
A: Well, I’ll tell you, Allyn Love, my pedal steel player and my dear friend, he’s 60 years old and he has such a broad love for music (He’s also director of operations for the North Carolina Symphony). I love it when he recommends music to me. We were talking about ’70s folk music—in high school I geeked out on my parents’ records by Cat Stevens, Judy Collins and Laura Nyro—and he told me about “The Kiss.” I had never heard of Judee Sill. “Check out this song,” he said. “I have a dear friend who’s a musician who thinks it’s the best song ever written.”
So I listened to it on a loop for hours while I was doing other things. I loved Judee’s melody, her harmony. And then I sat down and really dissected the poetry. And I realized she’s not just writing about a physical kiss, she’s writing about a spiritual kiss—a unity of two souls coming together.
I decided to record it a cappella, and to make my voice drone like a structured chord. I played the track for Chris and he said: “Oooh, this is a song I could get into.” He brought in Matthew McCaughan, who plays drums with Bon Iver and who played with me on “Falling in Carolina.” We ended up with an earthy, tribal, wedding-ceremony type of vibe.
Q: You have a refreshingly stripped, romantic take on “Here I Go Again,” which was a big-hair hit for David Coverdale and Whitesnake. So is there a chance in hell that you would team with Mr. Coverdale and do a Robert Plant-Alison Krauss “Raising Sand” kind of project?
A: [laughs loudly] You know, I don’t have a word to describe what that would sound like. I’ll tell you, though, I love the production of “Raising Sand”; it’s always a reference to use in recording. And I love Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant, and Alison Krauss is an absolutely freakin’ hero of mine. I saw their “Raising Sand” show two straight nights when I lived in LA and it was great how these complete opposites related so well and brought each other to another level. So if a collaboration like that came through, I’m down.
Jeanne Jolly: The Scoop
(1) First song she couldn’t forget: Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All.” Then an elementary schooler, she sang it in the bathroom with a hairbrush microphone. She cried when she heard Houston sing it live while descending a staircase in a white gown with sequins and a train.
(2) In high school she made physics more palatable with a music-swapping independent study. Years later her teacher, who introduced her to Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and other great female singers, took a 45-minute cab ride to hear her perform with Chris Botti at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
(3) She received a master’s degree in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory of Music.
(4) She donates proceeds from MP3 downloads of her recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to fighting ovarian cancer, her mother’s fatal illness.
(5) She wrote her first significant song, “Falling in Carolina,” to help her deal with her mom’s death and honor her mom’s battle.
(6) Her best songwriting tip came from Dan Navarro, a musician and musical partner. “He told me that when you feel you’re revealing too much, that’s where the song should begin. And then you have to take it further.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison are among his favorite singers; he really does think they’re waltzing together in the afterlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.