I interviewed New Zealand singer-songwriter Jenny Mitchell late last year, but waited to post the interview until after I saw her perform at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, where, it’s safe to say, she had audiences spellbound. Her voice, her presence, her songs, her everything captivated everyone who saw her. She’s a fairly regular visitor to Australian shores, so make sure you catch a gig if you can. In the meantime, here’s Jenny talking about her new album, Wildfires.
What a wonderful album. You must be very proud of it.
I am very proud of it, I feel like a proud mum. It’s awesome to be on that side of it. The pressure and stress beforehand is quite colossal, so I’m happy to be celebrating it now rather than worrying about it.
I guess it’s that nerve-wracking thing where you know you’ve done good work but then you don’t know how people are going to receive it.
Yes. You want to have everything as well organised as you possibly can. You want to do as good as you can for your product when you know that you’re really proud of it. So I did feel worried about having all the right things in place and how are people going to hear it and all that stuff. But I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a great team and I think we’ve done a good job.
You’ve done a very good job! I didn’t actually notice whether you’re with a record company or not.
No, I’m not. I’ve opted for this one to stay independent because I just feel that right now where I am in my career, it’s not possibly the best time to sign up with a label, but I don’t know what will happen in the future. It’s really my label, which is called Little Acorn Records.
You chose Matt Fell to produce this album – was he your first and only choice?
He was, yes. I was looking for a long time and he was someone that every time I’d hear a record by an Australian artists that I really loved, it was always Matt Fell. He did Fanny Lumsden’s stuff, and Sara Storer’s and Shane Nicholson’s, and they were three artists that I just loved so much. So I really followed that and I think that’s the best way to find a producer, by the way they produce other people’s records. Then I just had to make sure that he was open to the fact that I wanted to be really hands on and wanted to have a hand in how the album did end up sounding and he was all that there and we had a great time working together.
And along with Matt came some fairly impressive session players like Shane Nicholson and Luke Moller and Glen Hannah. So what was it like working with them?
They were awesome. And Josh Schuberth, who was doing percussion, and those three – Shane and Glen and Josh – were the core ones that were in the studio together. And they were awesome. They work together a lot, so watching it all happen was just like magic. They’re also really lovely guys and really respectful of me and made me feel like I’d been doing it for a long time. And that’s really all you can ask for, I think.
And what’s it like as a songwriter to, you obviously play acoustic guitar and you get to perform the songs your way then, but of course once you put it in a studio with other musicians and a producer, it gets interpreted possibly not in a way you expected. Is it, is it a weird sensation to see that happen?
That’s why picking a producer is so important, because if you get it wrong it’s not awesome, I imagine. Like all songwriters I’m really, really protective of my work and my songs and you just have to make sure that you do vocalise your thoughts and not get worried about egos and stuff. And that was something we had from the get-go and Matt just said, no, there’s no ego here. There’s no room for it in the studio. We tried something and if we didn’t like it, then we just tried something else, and I think that’s all part of the process for me, anyway. That’s how I want to work. So it was a bit scary bu luckily this time around I’m very happy with the outcome.
Songwriting is really personal but it’s a great balance of having those intimate details of your life without it feeling like you’re giving too much information. But on the album there is at least one songs about your family members and I was wondering if they mind being in a song.
They don’t really have much of a choice, I don’t think [laughs]. But there is one track that’s probably one of my favourites and seems to be one that really connects with people when I play it and that’s ”So Far’. It’s about my family, my sisters and my mum and dad, and the way that they have supported me in a lot of ways, but just in general growing up with them and what that was like. And it’s hopefully going to be refreshing for young people to hear that kind of thing because leaving home is hard and everyone misses their mum and dad, but not often [do] people play and sing about it, perhaps. So I really am quite proud of the fact that I miss my mum and dad and I hope that they miss me just as much if not more. So I hope that, you know, young people will be able to find themselves [in it]. And there’s another track that’s about my mum and dad called ‘Let Me Be’, which is very personal to them, , probably not to the outside world but there’s a lot of little details in there that really are very true to real life. And they were lovely about it. They didn’t mind. I love writing about the people around me and my experiences too.
Do you keep your eyes open for people and stories when you’re out in the world?
Yes, and I’d love to one day work on a project that was about all the people that I’ve met. This is an idea that I’m kind of toying with at the moment. It seems to be that when you share … My writing style and my live performance style, I pretty much tell everyone all the details of my life story, especially when it’s an audience that I don’t know because you’ve got nothing to lose. So I do express myself by telling people a lot and being really honest, ao then I think people feel like they know me really well and if they tell me these amazing stories about their lives.
I’m interested that you said there’s nothing to lose because some people would think there’s everything to lose, in that these people don’t know them and they’re forming an opinion. So there’s a certain amount of bravery mixed with that vulnerability you have in revealing yourself. Is that something that has taken a while to develop? Or do you think you’ve always had that as a performer?
I think it’s something that happens to a lot of people, like a lot of artists that I now feel very uncomfortable in general social situations that can stand on a stage and pour their soul out onto the floor. And I happen to be one of those people. I think a lot of people when they see me perform are quite surprised, if they don’t know me well. feel a lot more confident on stage often than I do not, which is a weird thing that lots of artists battle against. I never used to tell as honestly I think as I do now, but I connect with artists that do the same. So really I just thought, how am I going to get people to really get inside my head and understand these songs? And it was crafting a live performance show that really gives more detail than you might pick up on if you just heard the lyrics. Great storytellers always give that little bit extra.
You haven’t been doing this for very long just because you’re young, but stage craft is definitely an art. And that’s something that some artists never learned because maybe it’s not in them or they’re not interested in it. But that’s leading in to my next question, which was actually about the wisdom and maturity in your songs, which feel like they belong to someone older. Has anyone ever called you an old soul or did you feel like an old soul growing up?
Yes, they did. That was a common one. I sometimes get a little bit insecure about my age because it seems to change the tone if someone listened to the songs and didn’t know that. I wonder whether they would react differently. I kind of feel like I can’t help my age. And I think it’s really cool that the songs seem to be reaching people and touching people of all ages, not necessarily just people that are my age. In terms of the stage craft thing, I have always just been so immersed in music and that’s something that did take me a long time to kind of form. But I feel really comfortable in it now. A lot of people do say, ‘Oh, I’m not really into that, I want it to be organic’, or whatever. It’s taken me getting really comfortable in the space that I’m in to enjoy performing more. I think if you were just winging it and seeing how it’s going, it’gets really stressful and that can impact on how you enjoy the performance. And now I get on stage and I just love every single time. So for me it’s better to have a bit of a plan.
Talking to you, I’m reminded of Imogen Clark. You’re both such accomplished performers, but I realise what’s common to both of you is your diligence and your dedication to work and your curiosity about the work you do . With more limited years you’ve actually come to a much further point in your career than some people might who are much older.
I think Imogen’s fantastic. I just don’t really understand why people wouldn’t want to learn everything I possibly can. I’m always so interested in how an artist does this and how they come to that conclusion or whatever. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, the more you learn about other people, the more you can work out how you actually want to present yourself.
On the last track of your album you sing that you have restless travelling bones. And I imagine that you’ve been to Australia quite a bit already, so where would you like to travel to next?
Canada is definitely on my list. I love all the folk music that comes out of Canada. And obviously I’d love to go to Nashville and see what that’s like over there. I don’t really know what will happen next.
Wildfires is out now.