One of the most impressive emerging country music artists in the Southern Hemisphere is New Zealand singer-songwriter Jenny Mitchell. She recently released a new album, Wildfires, and before that the title single. She’ll be appearing at the Tamworth Country Music Festival and is currently on tour in Australia; if you need a reason to see her perform, simply watch the video below. I spoke to Jenny recently and found a clear-eyed artist and performer who is passionate about music and working hard to bring it to audiences on both sides of the Tasman.
You’re nineteen years old and you’re already about to release your second album, incredibly. When did your musical life start?
My dad is like a real traditional Hank Williams, Johnny Cash man. So when I was growing up my life soundtrack was the Dixie Chicks and stuff like that. My first on-stage performance with Dad was when I was four. So it has always been something that we’ve been involved in. In 2013 I did New Zealand’s Got Talent, so that kind of started a whole new sort of chapter … I think it’s a really hard transition from being sixteen and having it as a hobby to fulfilling it and saying, ‘Actually, I am going to try to do this.’ So it’s been an interesting time.
At four years of age you were probably too young to be nervous, but at thirteen, what was that like going on a national TV show?
I think it was really good. I think probably if it was a few years later, I would have been really stressed about the big picture and worried about all that stuff, but at the time I remember some of my biggest concerns was things like the different outfits that I didn’t like, and my friends at school will think I’m such a loser and stuff like that. So, I think it was almost good that it was so young, because it one, prepared me for those nerves, [which] were quite horrific. You don’t know what the judges are going to say, so I think it was quite good because it kind of put me through the boot camp of learning how to deal with stress and now I’m like, okay, nothing is as bad as that.
Yes, context is good to have. And that’s you as a performer, but at what age did you start writing songs?
My family are Irish, Mum’s family, and I went back there with Mum when I was eleven … I knew people wrote songs but I’d never really thought about writing my own and then I was so overwhelmed by going there and meeting people who looked like me, it just blew my mind. So I came back and I guess I really missed them and then started writing all these really emotional sad songs about missing them, and that’s when I started writing. Ever since then I write, try to write most days.
Do you set aside time to write or do you think, Something has come up and I’ll write now?
It’s always different. I really like to put aside time each day to just do music and whether that means writing or just playing guitar, but I think it’s a really tricky balance between it becoming a chore, that I need to write a song today. So I like to keep it quite organic and always tend to write songs after something pretty much dramatic that’s happened to me or someone around me.
One of the things that’s impressed me about your songwriting is that you’re a very clear communicator and that something than can take a while to get to. Whether you’re writing songs or writing prose or whatever it is, there’s a temptation to express emotion rather than tell a story, but you seem to have a really clear sense of the stories you want to tell. Is that something that came about naturally or through just experience of writing lots of songs?
I think it’s always been kind of part of my style. I think when you grow up listening to people like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams – and I don’t just mean the classic ‘Folsom Prison, ‘Ring of Fire’ songs – they’re all story songs. So I think without even realising it, by the end of a song I want people to have understood something or heard a story about something that they haven’t heard before. I guess it’s kind of a natural thing but also I think if I write something and I think, That doesn’t really get the message across, then it’s probably not for me.
It sounds like you write a lot, so you must have a cache of songs there to work with. When it comes to constructing an album, is it the case that whatever is most on your mind, they’re the songs that go on the album, or do you quite methodically go through what you have and think what’s going to be appropriate for this work?
This time around I thought about things a lot differently. When I recorded the first album I was fifteen years old, and that was really, it’s just a collection of my favourites at the time, which is really cool for me to listen to now because it’s like a little time capsule of where I was in my life. But I think this one is very much too. But when I started picking out bits … Those ones are written over a period of three years of time, and there was a couple that when I wrote them I knew, That’s going to be on some project soon, and then when I started collating them, I realised that it was literally a narrative of my life and my experiences but also my grandparents’ experiences and my mum and dad’s. It’s hard to sum up an album because there’s always like so much going on, but I definitely think the songs I picked for this have a real coming-of-age theme. And, yes, all that leaving home and stuff, I think initially I didn’t know it but I was picking out a narrative that has, in my opinion, stuck together really well.
And when it comes to you as a singer, who do you think your influences are in your singing? As a singer you start off being influenced by others and it takes a while to develop your own style. You have a very distinctive sound but I’m just curious about your lineage as a singer.
[When] I grew up I wanted to be Dolly Parton, and I guess she’s one who really tells stories really beautifully, and her voice is a really big part of that. So I love Dolly, and then I think Miranda Lambert is one that stuck with me, particularly her album Revolution, which came out when I was twelve-ish or something. Still now I listen to a song off that album probably once a day. Then I also loved Gillian Welch – you can’t get better.
And you mentioned the Dixie Chicks as an early influence or early sound in your house.
Yes, definitely, I think like my lifelong goal was, and probably still is, to be the fourth Dixie Chick, so I’m just waiting to see how that works out for me [laughs].
You travelled to Australia to attend the CMAA Academy. A lot of artists go through that, but that is a big commitment because you are from another country. Why did you want to attend and what did you learn there?
I actually got some financial support from my local country music club that I grew up with. I probably didn’t understand it at the time but it really opened my eyes to the community in Australia, because we do have a community here, and I don’t mean to negatively speak about that, but it was probably the first time that I’d been around people who were my age and had very similar like dreams and goals. And I think that’s really what helps you survive the fickle industry sometimes, it’s having people to call and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ and just to be excited about it … Something everyone is talking about this year is how isolating being in music sometimes can be, and I definitely found that with my friends. I have wonderful friends and family but sometimes they just don’t quite understand it to the degree that I am going through stuff. So [the academy was a] great experience, learnt a lot but I think the biggest thing out of the academy and anything like that is always the community and the friends that you make from it.
There’s a high level of professionalism of people who come out of that academy. I know the course doesn’t run for very long but it seems like they’ve now honed that so that you get what you need and you get some skills, you can really apply and, of course, those relationships.
Yes, and I think it’s also just like a real injection of inspiration. I just recently went to the Dag Songwriting Retreat [in Nundle, NSW] this year and had a very similar experience of making all these wonderful connections and friends. I think it’s the only time, really, that artists get to come out of the chaos of their real life and just be around people that totally get it and totally are on the same path and that’s like the best gift that anyone can ever give.
Did you do some writing with any artists while you were there?
Yes, Felicity Urquhart. Beautiful, wonderful lady. Shane Nicholson was there and Aleyce [Simmonds] was there and a whole bunch of them, it was great. Kevin Bennett was there as well. It was really cool. It’s very much a retreat in all ways, there’s light and stuff but there’s no phone reception, and that was just the best.
I suppose part of the challenge for you as an artist in New Zealand is that it’s necessarily a smaller country music community, I don’t know enough to know how developed that community is, but also there is a lot happening in Australia. So I suppose that’s an extra thing for you to consider is how much time you spend over here.
It’s something that’s been playing on my mind a lot, because a lot of people do move over. Kaylee Bell is a really good friend of mine and she moved over for a time but she came back. I think here it’s growing, I’m really glad that I’m part of it now perhaps as opposed to two years ago. I think I’m in a much more supportive and positive place, and that the old country stuff is really growing, I think as it is in Australia, it seems to be like a theme. One of my closest industry pals is Jamie McDell. She and I are very aligned with the kind of music that we’re making and that’s really great, because there’s just less of us. There’s less people that come to the shows and less artists than you guys have, so it can be a wee bit, I don’t know, disheartening at times. But it’s definitely growing and getting better, I think.
I guess for anybody coming to a show it’s a risk, so they’re spending their night out, are they going to get a good show, are they going to be entertained, and I guess it’s just that word-of-mouth thing that takes time.
Yes, and probably in Australia as well, but I think you guys probably have a lot more platforms than perhaps we do at times. Here, a lot of people still cringe at the word country – it’s a real problem that’s engrained in people’s minds – but every show without a doubt someone will come up and say, ‘I don’t really like country music, but your stuff I like.’ I’m, like, do you hear yourself? But I think that happens everywhere, I don’t think that’s just in New Zealand. Jamie is a perfect example. She was a full pop pop radio princess, but she came from like a really country background and has found it really hard to transition, whereas I’ve kind of always been fighting the battle. But I think this release is like my proudest work, so I’m really hoping that it will put a new package around the word, country, and hopefully it will go okay.
Both of your albums were crowd funded and I know that that would give you more control over them but it always means you’re kind of running your own little record company. What are the biggest challenges are about doing everything yourself?
That’s a good question. At the moment I feel like independence was the right choice for me. I don’t know if it’s half because I’m a bit of a control freak. No one will care as much about your album as much as you do, and that’s the reality that you get to face. At the moment, obviously, there’s no kind of 9-to-5 type scenario. So I am up all hours of the night and it’s a lot to deal with but then I think it’s also really, really rewarding. And I think you get out what you put in, and for me, career wise, people like Fanny Lumsden are my career idols, and I just love the way that she’s done everything with her career. So, yes, I like being the boss lady, but I think there definitely are challenges and I think once again that comes back to having community. People like Gretta Ziller and Andrew Swift have been so important to me in this journey because I’ve been able to call them and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to explode.’ And they say, ‘You’re going to survive, it’s going to be okay.’ So I think the challenges are just putting so much in, and meeting deadlines. And I think this is probably a huge thing for anyone regardless of whether you’re independent or not: I recorded in February, [and] so much has happened between February and October, and people release things and you think, Oh my goodness, why does mine not sound like that?And the climate changes and it’s just a whole process of emotions. But unless you end up with a really great situation with a label, I think independence is probably good for your soul, and also I’m really proud to be like a business owner.
As you should be. I interviewed Jody Direen a while ago and the two of you sound very similar in that you’re both really practical, you both take charge of things, you’re passionate about what you do, and I found her really impressive as well. And maybe it is partly because you’re both from New Zealand that you’ve had to take on a lot of this because there is not the bigger industry there. But in the end, yes, you get to do things the way you want to do them and make the decisions. And also I can tell from the quality of your work, you want a great standard, so you can apply that to yourself.
Jody and I definitely make completely different music, but we have so much in common and I think that’s so true. She’s the only one really in New Zealand that is self-sufficient in her music and she works day in and day out to make that happen. But I think if you had a label here, they would be not so keen on perhaps the type of music that I make. So, for me, it’s way more important that I’ve got creative control and that I’m making music that I like than to be with a label at this point in my life anyway.
I see a lot of independent country music artists now and because the audience is there and they define themselves as country, it actually makes it, I think it’s more feasible for country artists to be independent because you can access that audience. They’re not diffused across a whole lot of radio stations or anything like that. They’re sitting there waiting for more country music.
I guess if I had a philosophy, it’s that I really want to build a career from the ground up and I’ve had lots of really small house-concert venues and really intimate shows, which is kind of the best way to showcase my whole storytelling live. I find them really rewarding because I get to meet people and I just love doing it that way. But I really think that having that connection, even if it’s only twenty people in the audience, is sometimes ten times what playing in the big festival can create like in the long run. So everyone does it differently, but I really love the cute little cosy get-togethers.
Wildfires is out now.
Wednesday 7th November: Ararat Live – Ararat, VIC
Thursday 8th November – Porch Light Sessions, PetershamBowling Club – Sydney, NSW
Friday 9th November – The Acoustic Picnic – Brookvale, NSW