Drums brush like a train while a dobro weeps on "Desert of My Mind." Rather than jumping on that train, Jeanne Jolly escapes from the world: "Lock the doors and leave the world outside / Pray for rain, close the shades, and hide," she sings, her voice full of beautiful sorrow touched by a slight, soulful drawl. Momentarily beaten, but resilient, "Desert of My Mind" is a respite from the hardships of life.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You're a professionally trained singer, and you have experience singing opera and jazz. What does singing in the Americana realm do for you that other genres don't?
JEANNE JOLLY: It feels like home. I grew up here in North Carolina. My family was real big into camping and stuff in the mountains, and so they loved bluegrass. I just love the acoustic nature of it, and the lyrics just really speak to me. It feels raw and real in a way that dates back for a long time. I like the folky nature of it. I feel like it's music for the people. It's comforting to me.
A lot of the songs that you sing are about relationships. Why?
I think a lot of songs are about relationships in general, especially country songs. In the stuff that I'm writing now, there's some heartbreak songs in there. I also wrote one about losing someone close to you. I think when you are in a relationship, you're stimulated by either the love or the heartbreak, and it just sparks creativity if you're an artist. I would love to write about something else. I try, trust me, I try all the time. [Laughs.] I'm always trying to write about something else, but if what's coming out is all about relationships, then that's what's got to be written about.
So when you're singing about relationships, are you thinking about specific relationships or just relationships in general?
Both. I think with each one you learn something, so it's got to be specific at some point. But it's important to make sure what you're singing about doesn't just pertain to you—that other people can interpret it and relate to it in their own situation. It's more about the emotion of what you're dealing with than the actual, specific event that caused it.
What are you thinking about when singing "Desert of My Mind"?
That song's different 'cause it's not specifically about a relationship. It's more about a state of mind and it being OK to say, "Today, I'm feeling lost and totally clueless as to where to go from here. So I'm just going to lock myself away. But it's also not where I'm going to stay." It's just allowing yourself to be confused. [Laughs.]
I hear that in the lyrics, but the drums have this shuffling, train-like movement to them.
Yeah, it's like traveling.
So even though you're locked away, you're moving somewhere.
That train beat, which I use on pretty much all my songs, it is like a forward motion. I think it provides a cool visual for that song. You can picture yourself moving through the desert or whatever it is.
What do you like about the train beat?
The percussive nature of it really goes along with the way that I strum the guitar. I've started to try to write other things like waltzes or something that changes meter in the middle, but this train beat is real Americana/ country/ folky. I just always hear it. I really like it because of the forward motion. It just keeps rolling, like a train. [Laughs.]
You didn't write, "Desert of My Mind," though, right?
I didn't write this song. Shawn Davis wrote this song. He's a guy that wrote songs for me when I was living in L.A. He kind of just took off writing for me because he liked my voice, and he knew exactly what I wanted to sing about. We had a cool relationship that way. We actually haven't written anything together in a couple years, but this seems to be the song that people dig. It's funny 'cause that's everybody in the band's favorite song to play, too.
But you have started writing your own songs now?
It's kind of a new journey for me. I've been a singer my whole life, but not a songwriter for very long at all. It's really daunting, and I'm completely humbled and feel extremely vulnerable about it. Now that I can play the guitar—'cause that's been a new thing, I just started playing in March and just started taking lessons in May—it changed my whole world songwriting-wise. Now I have something to do besides sing and picture other people playing. I'm really enjoying doing it on my own right now and trying to see what comes out of me and me only. Just to see what happens and how it comes across.
What songs have you written recently?
I have a new one called "Falling in Carolina" that I'm going to play at the Christmas show which I'm really excited about because it's not about a breakup or heartbreak. [Laughs.] It was a huge relief for me to get that out. I was like, "Yay! I did it!" And then there's another one, "In Between," and another one called "Trail of Broken Hearts," which is about a broken heart. [Laughs.] But those three, I'm really excited about.
Is there a difference between singing your own song and singing one someone else wrote?
It's so different. I feel it different. Period. It's me in my rawest form. People could love it or hate it; I have no idea. I'm just putting it out there and hoping that somebody can relate to it. When I'm singing a song that I wrote, I just feel it deeper. And I get really nervous 'cause I don't know if people like it. I end up feeling good that I did it. It's very freeing, and I feel that I'm actually sharing a part of me with the audience in a way that I can't if I didn't write the song.
Are you moving to writing all of your own tunes?
I'm always open to sing other people's songs. I'm just going to include some of mine. I kind of shifted gears from always having songs written for me to trying to write some on my own. It's been a huge new journey since moving back to North Carolina. It's a really inspired area full of a lot of talented, cool artists, and a really supportive community. I feel really lucky to grow in that way and have a warm, home crowd to try out my new stuff. It's forward motion. [Laughs.]
Are you planning on playing any Christmas songs for your Dec. 17 show?
Oh yeah, man. With my Jeanne Jolly and The Mistletoes name, I kind of have to. We're going to do country-style Christmas, and rock 'n' roll, and one that's kind of jazzy, actually. We're going to toss in four of them, I think. I want the bar to serve eggnog and brandy in little Dixie cups and pass it around on trays. [Laughs.] It'll be fun.
Jeanne Jolly and Her Mistletoes play Berkeley Cafe for a Holiday Show Thursday, Dec. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.