"If you listen to some of the legendary country artists and their songs, it's some of the most intelligent music and intelligent thoughts that we can have as humans" In conversation with Jenny Tolman
Once in a while an artist comes along that you just can't help but fall in love with straight away. We've already spoken with Kassi Ashton this month, and now along comes the singular talent that is Jenny Tolman. Her upcoming record, There Goes The Neighborhood, is a funny, modern trad-country inflected run through of the best bits of country music. From the instrumentation to the lyrics and storytelling, Jenny and her co-writers have created a unique place, Jennyville. But we'll let Jenny talk about that, that is, after all, why we spoke to her from her Nashville home.
Hey Jenny, great to talk to you, how's your day started?
It's a pretty one here in Nashville. Sunny, so we've got a good day. My sister is it having her first baby, so it's her baby shower in Florida this weekend.
So I heard your record today for the first time, and the first I wanted to ask is, would you describe it as a concept album?
Yeah it's definitely a concept album, because as I was writing with my producer Dave Brainard, we co-wrote a lot of the songs on there, we started noticing the thread of perception throughout all these songs that we were writing and it was a very character driven and very storytelling driven perception base that I would create this narrative and these characters. Then we started calling this town where we made up all these characters Jennyville. So it really didn't start out as something that we're thinking was a concept record about Jennyville, it was just a very natural organic process that throughout writing kind of revealed itself to us.
We thought that was a really cool creative space that we can go into that we can say anything we can create all these different people and different ideas and characters. It's such a fun place to create from because there are no boundaries, you're constantly evolving.
What was the first song that you wrote that ended up on the record? Where did the genesis of this whole thing start?
Actually 'High Class White Trash' was the first song that we really started to build Jennyville. So I always say that to get to Jennyville you have to take the train, and to get your train ticket you have to have a sense of humor. So there's all of this going on in this little town and when 'High Class White Trash' came to be, it just kind of like hit us like a ton of bricks this is the song that lays the train tracks to Jennyville.
So you didn't necessarily start off thinking of it as a concept record but what was there a particular song or a point you got to that made you think that way?
You know I think it's still definitely with 'High Class White Trash'. Once we finished that and recorded it, the songs that we're writing after that were a lot more in the same vein of this woman and she doesn't really care what other people think, she feels very empowered and it is just a really humorous way of looking at women empowerment because that's such a big topic right now. But I'm trying to do it in a way that is not negative towards men. That's something that surfaces around the whole album, that there are all these very empowered women throughout the record but there are also very endearing men and there's no man-hater-y going on.
So it definitely helped inspire this really unique view that we can really dig into because there's so much women empowerment going on but there's also a lot of men hate going on at the same time. I don't want to see anybody put down and that was a really unique perspective that we found through that song and that we just really dug into.
Songs like 'So Pretty' and 'Love You Too which could be quite negative songs are actually incredibly positive.
Thank you. I definitely try to not wallow too much in emotion. Which is not an easy thing to do as a writer because you're always sitting with your emotions all day. But I think my goal with creating music is to help people understand that there are places to move forward to, because we all go through whatever negative experience that we can compare to another one. We're all going to have our things but they all have similar feelings whatever the situation may be. But there's always a light at the end of the tunnel.
That's something that is really important to me because I know how terrible it can be to feel those feelings and especially as a girl, some of my favorite songs to write are the songs like 'So Pretty' where it's a woman to woman narrative, and it's this moment of extreme vulnerability to another woman because it's an insecure feeling that every girl feels. I think even men relate to it because every person feels that way, so I always try and take the dark and show the light.
There's always light to be found. I take my job very seriously because I know that my songs are playing an intimate part in strangers lives, that I have no idea who they are or what they're doing, but I know that all around the world there are people playing one of my songs and they're having some type of memory to it. And so if I get stuck in this negative place then it just wallow in self-pity even then I'm impacting other people too. Instead of doing that I want to help empower people so be like "you know what, sucky things happen and we get through it". We all go through it and you're going to feel like the end of the tunnel is going to make you better.
That's a great answer, there are so many songs being written right now that are a bit bitchy or wallowing...
There's a time and place for that stuff but I try not to hang out there too often.
I was going to ask you about songwriting. You've got some really clever, and funny, lyrics on the record, how do you go about constructing songs? I know you wrote or co-wrote the whole album.
I was really inspired by Roger Miller and Shel Silverstein. Shel Silverstein is actually one of my favorite writers of all time. A lot of people know Shel through his children's books. You probably know that he wrote 'A Boy Named Sue' and the Bobby Bare songs that he wrote are incredible country songs that are just so wacky and weird and funny, but at the end of them they are such an enlightened message. I'm so inspired by that, and of course when you make people laugh you make them feel comfortable and once they're comfortable with you they're open to hearing the actual meat of the story and what you're trying to get through them.
I'm definitely taking notes from Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Brandy Clark. I love all of these writers that have found ways to make people laugh or make them hear something differently. I love being different in that they're not trendy and happening like that in country music right now. It's funny to me because that's what country music stems from and grows its roots.
If you actually listen to some of the legendary country artists and their songs and the words that they're singing it's some of the most intelligent music and intelligent thoughts that we can have as humans.
You're right, there's not a lot of mainstream country music these days that sounds too traditional, it's very pop or rock oriented, so it's refreshing to hear what you're doing. I was going to ask about 'My Welcome Mat'. The first couple lines of that are some of my favorite lines in any song from the past few years. How did that come about?
I co-wrote that with Dave Brainard and a friend, John Goodwin. We were sitting around at John's and after two or three hours and we hadn't gotten anything, we had gotten into one of those crazy existential conversations talking about the meaning of life in the world and all that stuff. Somewhere along the line we just started talking about all of the different people that we knew and loved, and how different we all were but that we all accept each other for being different. There are a lot of unique people in the world that we live in.
So we just kind of started rambling, I don't smoke weed, I've never tried it, but John was definitely not naturally high. And so "I got friends that love the cult" because I went to Catholic school growing up and then "I got friends that love their dope / They're all just trying to find a higher place" and that is really just started falling into place as soon as we started our first couple lines because every line in that in that song is about somebody that I know or somebody that John or Dave knows, and that is a true character in our lives. It was a pretty easy song to write once we got going.
On a side note, I just got back from L.A. a few days ago because our co-writer John Goodwin is childhood friends with Jeff Bridges, he grew up in L.A. with him. They are still best friends to this day, and John played 'No Welcome Mat' for Jeff and Jeff fell in love with it, and he actually opened his set at Lebowski Fest with 'My Welcome Mat'. We went out there and saw him perform it, so that was a pretty crazy surreal moment.
I was shaking, oh my gosh, I was such a nervous wreck. I was shaking and crying! It's so crazy, we ended up finishing the song in my kitchen, it's pretty crazy how easy it takes on a life of its own that gets out and reaches people.
Were there any songs that sounded really different when you'd recorded it from when you were writing it?
Whenever I'm writing with Dave we generally talk about what the production will be like as we're writing it, but one of the songs that is actually one of my favorites on the album, and was a late addition, is 'Tulips'. That's one that was just a straight-ahead country song, still very unique and quirky but it didn't have the can-can section or the horn section. It wasn't until we went to record it that Dave said "I feel like this needs something else and it's time to dig a little deeper". We had just watched "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" because my dad actually has a connection with Burt Reynolds, and I love Dolly. We had never seen this movie and so we watched and I fell in love with the song 'A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place'. It's the song Dolly and all the girls are singing together and so we honestly modelled it after that. We were like "what if we did some like crazy tempo changes" and Dave was like "let's do a banjo solo and like a double-time banjo solo" and I was like "what if we added in a can-can section too". We just threw everything at that song and it turned out so fun. It's one of my favorite songs because of it I never imagined that that's what it would have turned into when we wrote it.
There's a lot of similar sounding music in country at the moment, do you think that makes it easier for you to get played, or get a record deal, because you do sound a bit different?
Oh yeah it's definitely scarier to people. I understand that because their job is to make money and sell what's working, so I understand that it's a risk to do what I do but I've also found that it's a huge plus for me when I'm talking to people or when I'm playing shows for people that have never heard me before. Like you were saying, not in an egotistical way at all, but people come up to me all the time and say it's nice to hear something that doesn't sound like everything else.
So I think there are a lot more people that are excited about it. There are people that are scared but whenever I go on tour and I play outside of Nashville it's always an amazing response. The people that I meet are just so excited and can't wait for the record to come out, so it gives me a lot of confidence knowing that the audience reacts well to my music because that's the most important opinion. If if I was going up and playing all these crazy wacky songs and nobody was reacting to them, then I would come back in Nashville and have to re-evaluate. Being different is a good thing because if you look at any legendary artists like Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton, she did '9 To 5' and she had 'Coat Of Many Colors', all these artists have so many different sounds.
Last question then... and it's kind of related to that... do you think that the lack of radio support for women has been a challenge for you as well?
I suspect certain parts but I wouldn't say that it's all bad to me. I take it as a compliment sometimes that there are not as many women because to me at least the way that I take it is that they expect more from women. So it's kind of that challenge, being better, expect more from a woman, all these guys sound the same. That kind of confirms what I was saying before, to be different and to make your own path, because you're going to succeed no matter if you're a girl or a boy. But there are so many amazing people that are doing things to help support women right now like Leslie Fram over at CMT, they're doing a great bunch of stuff over there like Next Women Of Country. It's just weird. I don't understand, is there some decision maker at the very top that that holds the magic key to radio? And so to me it's just that whoever is up there in control to get it together.
To find out more about Jenny including tour dates and info on her upcoming record, There Goes The Neighborhood (due July 19th) , you can visit her website. You should also check out her variety of social media.