When Jenee Halstead entered the studio to record her third album, Raised By Wolves, she made a decision that allowed the her to express some deeply-held feelings and beliefs.
She determined that almost all of the existing material she had been working on for this record had to go. She started fresh.
In its place is a raw, improvised collection of music that has taken Halstead out of the more familiar Americana genre for which she’s so well known and into the realm of dark pop music. The result of this decision is an album of incredible diversity, skill and emotional buy-in from Jenee and the artists she collaborates with— Danny Barnes (banjo), Joel Litwin (drums), and Colby Sander (Dobro). Halstead credits Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris as influences that helped her explore the darker side of her music.
Raised By Wolves shows a breadth of paces, but it’s a range that Halstead conquers, whether it’s “Heart Song,” which uses a steady, pulsating beat, the more lighter tones of “Garden of Love” or the more-rootsy melodies of “Bitten by the Night.” The decision to start this album over from scratch wasn’t an easy one for Halstead. In the past, to just toss out so many songs, especially those that really stuck with her, was difficult, if not impossible. As a result, Halstead tells us she is more willing to take chances on new material and techniques today.
MAX BOWEN for RSL - Thank you for this opportunity Jenee. This new album is quite an achievement. Now that it's complete, how would you say your music has progressed or changed over the years?
JENEE HALSTEAD - I think in some ways it is less precious and at the same time more personal. Less precious because I don't take songs or the writing process as seriously as I did when I started writing in 2006. I know that for a song to become good or great it may really need to be torn about and rewritten and sometimes there is only one phrase that gets taken from the initial writings, but the phrase is the gold nugget from which you build the song. This requires really taking ones ego out of the process or at least putting it aside temporarily in order to serve the song.
A lot of songwriters just get stuck on a phrase because they think it sounds so good on their tongue and refuse to let it go, yet the phrase might be lame or make no sense at all. I used to be like this when I started writing. Now I am willing to throw out just about anything and start over because you know when something isn't going to line up or be interesting for a listener—not that I am writing for the listener, but I am the listener and I can really sense when something doesn't quite do it for me.
RSL - So you were learning about yourself as much as you were about the music...?
HALSTEAD - Yes - In fact, the entire record was a discovery on how much I could put my ego aside because when I got to the studio I decided to scrap the entire album I thought I was going to make with Evan. After several days of milling around the songs just didn't seem interesting to me. I was in the kitchen with Evan and I we sort of looked at each other and realized what needed to be done. I think I said "I need to throw all these songs out and start over" and he agreed. It wasn't like I had anything I was in love with anyway and I was writing on guitar, which was creating similar songs to the first two releases.
I bought a ukulele and spent time on my friends piano. I think three songs were written on guitar and the rest uke or piano. It was so great to stretch myself on instruments I didn't know because it changed everything—the writing, the melodies, where I was singing in my range, everything. I think I am also much more interested in writing pop songs or at least serving the song and not worrying about where the genre lives. I like the idea of stretching out more and writing songs in all genres and letting the production be the glue that brings them together, since I still believe in making albums.
RSL - “So Far, So Fast” was one of my personal favorites of this album. What's the back story behind this song?
HALSTEAD - This is the first song that I wrote for the new album and I had been holding on to it for a couple of years wondering what it meant. I had the feeling and the idea, but I actually had too many lyrics and didn’t know how to pare them down. This was during a time when I was obsessed with Richard Buckner.
I wanted to write a song that was as bold and daring and as fucked (pardon my language) up as a Buckner song. I kept thinking about his song “The Last Ride” that starts out, “Gone somewhere in Texas, Where the cars can run all day. With the doors on the garage shut up and his wife and daughter away.”
The character locks himself in the garage of his house with the car on and thinks about this woman that has obviously haunted him for a long time—the fact that she is not in his life is clearly the characters greatest mistake of his life. He can’t get her out of his mind and he is so tortured by this that he “wonders how long he will wonder about her,” and decides to kill himself.
This was the feel I wanted to bring to this song. I also wanted to bring a feeling of the desolate and stark desert environment of where I grew up in Spokane, Washington and some of the back roads that go into Idaho where I spent a lot of time growing up. I was particularly meditating on the stark winters and what that dry and freezing snow can look like blowing across the prairies.
Ultimately, I had to cut a lot of this, but the song is about a man who is obsessed, and angered by a girlfriend or wife or maybe even a sister, hence the final verse of the song, that has flown the coop to L.A. or some other glamorous city to escape him and escape the boring life that some of these small Northwest farming towns can bring. None of this is actually brought to the lines of the song. This is the just the back story that I was meditating on while writing. The songs is more of like someone’s obsessive internal dialogue and the things they are telling themselves to justify their actions.
RSL - What was it like to record “So Far, So Fast” ? Were there any special recording techniques, instruments or equipment used?
HALSTEAD - This song was really intense to record. I had never sung a song with such forward drive before, and I didn’t want to push the vocals in a way that made it sound oversung or too much like I was straining, but I really wanted to get the intensity across.
When I wrote the song I was experimental with several keys and I think we opted for a key that was a few steps higher than the one I was originally singing it in. We were also listening to a lot of different 80s and current pop and decided we wanted something really stripped down. Evan set the drum tracks and recorded the guitar part on an electric. He made a joke that this had to be shitty guitar playing and that anyone who played the part too clean would ruin the song. “It’s just shitty enough” he stated. After he laid the drums, guitar and bass I came into sing.
We had changed around a few phrases, especially towards to end, so relearning the song in front of the microphone made it a bit of a challenge. I didn’t want to come across like I didn’t know the song because of it’s intensity. By the end of vocal session I was hoarse.
RSL - You’ve listed Sam Phillips, Tom Waits, Richard Buckner, and P.J. Harvey as influences. What role did they play, in your mind, in the formation of this new album?
HALSTEAD - All of these artists influenced this album and have been working on me secretly through the years—in my listening, loving and worshiping of these artists.
I think I always really wanted to write songs that were influenced by them, but didn't really give myself permission or find my own creative footing until this album. With The River Grace, I had some of those songs for 10 years and they were influenced by the artists I loved when I started (Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris). I always listened to the former artists, but felt I needed personal permission to get to the darker places that these artists tend to go.
There are songs on the album that are direct influences from these four artists. For instance, “Bitten By The Night” was hugely influenced by Sam Phillips. In between writing I was trying to play some of her songs on piano to get a feel for the chord choices she uses. I was obsessed with Sam's album “Fan Dance” that a friend had given to me back when I started writing in 2003 and I thought “If I could write one song as good as any of these I would be forever happy.”
P.J. Harvey's 2011 masterpiece Let England Shake sort of blew my mind as well, and I thought this was where I wanted to go. She is doing a dark folk thing with the auto harp and the band instrumentation and the writing on that album is superb. She just keeps getting better and more brilliant, but I felt like I could access her with this album and relate to her in a way I couldn't quite reach before. Richard Buckner directly influenced “So Far, So Fast” and the overall feel of production and darkness is a desire to do anything in the realm of Tom (Waits)... What a well to draw from!
RSL - Do you usually perform alone, or with other artists? Do you see yourself doing anything new now that you have a new outlook and approach?
HALSTEAD - I usually perform alone, but if I do play it is with a four piece band. I have been playing with Russell Chudnofsky on guitar, Jared Seabrook on drums, Karen Sarkisian on pedal steel and the bassist usually varies with anyone I can get. Zach Hickman played for the CD release and sometimes Sean McLaughlin or Jeff Charland play with me. I want to branch out on this album and find a way to incorporate a laptop and some live instrumentation to the show, I just haven't quite gotten there yet. I love the idea of looping and building tracks with my voice and singing on top of that.
RSL - You’ve moved around a lot over the years. How did you come to Boston, and what did you think of the music landscape here?
HALSTEAD - I came to Boston in 2006 to attend the songwriting program at Berklee. I had been going back and forth for years on whether or not I should go to Berklee. I finally moved to Boston and decided during the first three days that I did not want to attend, but instead spend the money on making an album.
Boston is an amazing music town. I am constantly in jaw-dropping wonder about the amount of talent coming out of this city. You get the sense that there are so many lifelong musicians here that come to this city to hone their craft. People are schooled and skilled and amazing in this city.
RSL - Locally, are there any artists you regard as influences or that you particularly enjoy performing with?
HALSTEAD - I love Audrey Ryan and Sarah Blacker as far as women songwriters that I think are incredibly creative and fun to listen to. Dan Blakeslee rocks (he did the opening set at my CD release). Jess Tardy just plain blows me away and needs to be given an award this year or something because she is truly one of the most gifted singers and entertainers in this town. As far as playing with people, there is no one I like to sing with more than Olinde Mandell and Mark Lipman, both great friends and incredible songwriters in their own right.