By Al Kaufman
Damn, that Jeanne Jolly can sing. All those metaphors comparing her voice to a songbird, an angel, a summer’s breeze, they just don’t cut it. Jolly’s voice is the first day of spring, after the grey dirty snow has melted and the sun beams down on the crocuses that begin to bloom. The birds sing while you sit on a porch swing with your new lover, a glass of wine in hand, gazing at the rainbow out west.
No, that doesn’t cut it either.
Imagine Joni Mitchell with Billie Holiday’s stylings. You’re getting warmer.
The Raleigh, North Carolina native received her Master’s in classical voice performance from the New England Conservatory and also served as vocalist for jazz trumpeter, Chris Botti. But she’s a southern girl at heart, and her first, self-titled, EP, released in 2008, had a strong country/Americana feel to it. She boned up on her guitar and ukulele (and even some piano) skills for her 2010 release, Falling in Carolina, which she dedicated to her mother, who had just lost her battle with ovarian cancer. It is an album that demonstrates great openness and personal realizations without appearing maudlin or naval gazing.
Last year’s Angels, her first full-length album, showcases her vocal prowess in full force. The album is produced by her friend, Chris Boerner, who also plays eight-string guitar on it. Nick Baglio handles the percussion duties. They help flesh out the feel of the songs. Listen to the wistful guitar and happy wood block and triangle on “Sweet Love.” You can almost feel the waves curling up on the beach. It’s sweet, happy and sunny. It’s the perfect summer love song.
Jolly took some time from her recent tour to talk about that voice of hers, what songs mean to her, and why you will never see her on American Idol.
When did you realize your voice was special?
I have always loved to sing so it’s tough for me to name a specific moment in time when it all clicked, because I’ve always wanted to sing and perform. My parents told me I used to stand in front of the T.V. watching Star Search singing into my rattle. I started begging my parents for voice lessons when I was 10 and was told to wait for a couple years since I was taking piano. When I was 12, I asked again and we found a great teacher who asked me to come in and sing the national anthem. I just did the best I could with it and after I was done, she told my mom that I had a gift. She encouraged me to audition to sing the national anthem at the Carolina Mudcats baseball game. I did and I got it. That was my first huge thrill of singing in front of really big crowd. I sprinted off the field from all of the adrenalin. I ran back to my family in the stands saying “I can’t wait to do that again!”
You have remarkable jazz-like phrasings in your singing. Did you listen to a lot of jazz growing up? What did you listen to?
Thank you. I listened to a ton of jazz actually. Ella Fitzgerald was my favorite jazz vocalist to listen to…still is. I also loved to listen to Billie Holiday and the way she would slide around with such ease. Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Julie London, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchell, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee; the list goes on but I played those the most.
As someone who has a Master’s in classical voice performance from the New England Conservatory, what do you think of shows like American Idol and The Voice? Could you win those without even trying?
Don’t you have to wait in line for three days without a shower to make it into one of those? I don’t know about the winning part, but people tell me all the time I should try out for one of those shows, or they ask me why I haven’t already. I take that as a compliment. In today’s pop culture, success is often defined by the instantaneous fame that comes from advancing in those shows. I expect those kinds of questions. Success to me is defined more by the journey. I’m very busy making the music that I feel connected to. I want a career with longevity. I want to grow a business in which I have creative input and am surrounded by people I trust. I have been in a lot of high pressure vocal competitions (mostly in the classical realm) and I worked really hard to excel in them. I found myself totally uninspired after a while, and it’s because I wasn’t able to choose what to sing. I had to fulfill the requirements to advance in the auditions. That kind of platform is just not for me. I made a conscious decision to put all of my energy into singing and performing songs that speak to my heart. I’m grateful for having more control of my own destiny.
Concerning songs that speak to the heart, you, like just about every other great singer with good taste, cover Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That song means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
I have always loved that song. Jeff Buckley’s rendition is my favorite. Everyone that gets into the poetry of this song has a favorite verse that touches them in a special way. To me, the song represents fragility, grace, and the broken side of love. Each verse has enough impact to stand alone. Whenever I sing it, I feel connected to another world and I can picture my mom closing her eyes, tilting her head back and feeling the song right alongside me. I recorded it even though I swore I never would. I released it as a digital download on my website with all of the proceeds going to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. The cause is near and dear to me, as I lost my mom to ovarian cancer 4 years ago. I feel connected to her whenever I sing “Hallelujah.”
There is a certain spirituality to your music, and you titled your latest CD Angels. What do angels mean to you?
Angels take on many meanings; a messenger, the gift of clarity after tragedy, a dear friend, my mom, my inner voice. People come in and out of our lives for different reasons and sometimes you don’t realize their true purpose in your life until they are gone. Sometimes I refer to those people as angels, mainly because a life lesson, or a gift, lives on after they are gone. For instance, the two “angels” in the opening track “Angels on Hayworth St.” are two very dear friends of mine that helped me through a bumpy time in my life. After I cut the tracks for Angels, I realized that pretty much all of the songs on the record either mention an angel, allude to the presence of one, or were inspired by some life lesson.