Jenny Mitchell released her third, and surely best-yet album in mid-2022. Bringing a sense of peace amongst the chaos, ‘Tug Of War’ seems to have arrived with perfect timing. Both romantic and heartbreakingly melancholic, it begs to be played on repeat. Chatting with Kat Parsons, Mitchell looks back at the origins of the album, contemplating how the Covid-delayed timeline changed her creation process, perhaps for the best. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.
“I think that I just let go of how it was going to translate live. ‘Am I gonna be able to play this with just a guitar? Is it gonna sound lame or whatever?’” starts Mitchell. “I was making music for people to listen to from home. I always hoped that I would tour it in the end obviously, but I wasn’t worried about those things so much.”
Hailing from the heart of Southland and the country music heartland township of Gore, Jenny Mitchell grew up surrounded by nature and music. It’s very much a family affair; not only are her younger twin sisters, Maegan and Nicola, graced with musical talent, their father Ron Mitchell is a respected country artist in his own right. Indeed, one of her earliest musical memories is of her father.
“I think I would have been about four and a half or something,” she reminisces. “And my dad was recording an album. It was him and a lot of his friends so it was a really fun studio environment. It was in rural Southland so it was this beautiful home studio in the farmland. I don’t even remember much about what the music sounded like, but I can remember that everyone was having fun!”
Mitchell has come a long way since. After a strong third-place performance in 2013’s NZ Got Talent, the country singer-songwriter has gone on to release three studio albums, play numerous festivals here and in Australia, touring with Australian alt-country artist Fanny Lumsden, and opening for leading locals like Tami Neilson and Nadia Reid.
She is a multi-award winner herself, her numerous accolades including the 2019 Best Country Music Artist Tūī for her 2018 sophomore album ‘Wildfires’. That same project was also nominated for Alt-Country Album of the Year at the 2020 Australian Golden Guitar Awards. More recently, Mitchell’s song Trouble Finds a Girl, co-written with fellow Kiwi star Tami Neilson, was named the 2022 Country Music Song of the Year. ‘Tug Of War’, the album it is found on, is a Tūī finalist nomination for Best Country Album – alongside Neilson and Kaylee Bell.
Released in July this year, ‘Tug Of War’ maps out many personal changes in Mitchell’s life, including her migration from Dunedin to Wellington, graduation from university, a breakup, and the passing of her grandfather.
Produced by multiple Australian award-winning Tasmanian-based engineer/producer Matt Fell, her album is full of wonderful soothing melodies and stunning tapestries of vocals and instrumentation. It’s most certainly country yet wholly unique, hinting at influences of soul and folk, and ruffling the rafters with her vibrant and distinguishing voice. Country Music Capital News wrote that it is, “… a pleasingly deep, raw, and honest mix that shows her maturity as a woman and as an artist.” Some of that maturing observed likely happened over the timeline of creation of the album.
“The process was long,” Mitchell chuckles. “The first couple of tracks were recorded in 2020 when it was that first lockdown period. It actually started when I got the NZ On Air single grant for a song called Somehow, which was one of the first that we released. So I started recording that one and then just moved on to doing a few more.
“In and out of all of the lockdowns was basically how the record was made. Sometimes it was made from my bedroom and I did most of the final tracks in Christchurch. It wasn’t just one-week-in-the-studio-and-it’s-done kind of a process – which was really good. Initially, I thought that it would be a bad thing because it was going to feel disconnected, but I think that time allowed me to listen to all the tracks and have the luxury of being like, ‘Actually, that song doesn’t fit’, or ‘…that instrument doesn’t need to be here’, or ‘…we need more of that’. So yeah, that’s kind of a little insight into the process of it.”
Sweet soaring vocals captivate from their first utterance of the album’s opening track If You Were A Bird. The beautiful narrative tells a story of love, her younger sisters Maegan and Nicola adding a vibrant, bluegrass-like feel with their soft harmonies. Cellist Monique Clare also lent her skills to the track, complimenting the sparse acoustic instrumentation with orchestral warmth.
“It was a lockdown song and in the first month or so I was trying to write as much as I could every day; even if it was just like a verse here and a verse there,” Mitchell says. “I was living in a flat of seven in Dunedin at the time and there’s a beautiful big botanic garden right beside the flat. So at least once a day I would go for my walk in that garden where there are beautiful birds and stuff, and so that was basically where that song came from!
“I came home from the walk, recorded a little part of it, and just kept working on it for a few days,” she continues. “I knew that it was definitely a harmony song and when I eventually did get to see my sisters again we started playing it in our shows. I guess it’s quite a traditional, bluegrass, country harmony – which they are amazing at – so they just kind of jumped on and as soon as we sang it we knew that’s how it should be.
“It’s a little love song. I actually thought that the whole album was going to be an extension of that relationship and that love song, but that’s not how life turned out for me. So it felt right to have it as the first track, as kind of like the start of that ‘tug of war’ journey.”
Matching the song’s lyrical and vocal directness, the simple music video which accompanies the track was filmed at Acorn Studio in Dunedin, directed by Wade McClelland. Mitchell and her sisters perform together amongst various set designs including an exquisitely built indoor forest. The video’s gentle warmth well captures the feel of the track and the Mitchell sisters’ evident bond.
“I kind of knew what I wanted the album cover to look like, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with If You Were A Bird. I guess we were playing with the idea that we were the songbirds, rather than having literal birds in the video. We did it in two days. We did the plain brown backdrop part which was quite simple, and then everyone else went home and Estelle Flowers came in and built that set. It was so amazing to watch. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!
“It was mostly pretty simple filming. A lot of it is one take, which means you have to do some things over and over again, but it kind of has a cool feeling with the movement. The moment when the song talks about the farmers taking it all back when they see the second drop of rain, and the camera moves up to the start of the floral installation – when I started with the idea, that’s what I want to happen. I want it to be this big moment of growth and beauty. I wanted it to be really barren and then I want it to be like this beautiful kind of forest thing.”
A call and response between Mitchell’s vocals and stunning cello in her ‘Tug Of War’ album’s title track similarly epitomise the theme of the song, and indeed the album itself. Softly weaving between the melody there is a feeling of push and pull between Mitchell and the strings. Guitar and banjo gently introduce a little rhythmic drive without losing the sense of contemplation the song embodies. Long-time friend Liv Cochrane lends her voice and production skills to this track, helping Mitchell achieve a very particular goal.
“Tug Of War was one of the first songs that I wrote for the album, and it’s about running into an old flame and having to decide what to do. When I was trying to summarise what all these stories were about, that idea of being pulled in lots of different directions made sense.”
“My vocal producer, Liv Cochrane, is on that record singing the harmonies. That was one of the first songs that we tackled and I brought her into the studio in Christchurch to help assist me to sound more like my live show than a studio recording. When I was starting the process and listening back to my old work, I just thought that I needed to stop trying to make it sound perfect and pristine. I think you can lose some of the emotion and stuff when that happens.”
Make Peace With Time is the captivating second track on the album. The varying inflexion of Mitchell’s vocals and interwoven use of space and sound allow for contemplation of her words. Minimally supported by guitar and peaks of banjo, the production almost holds the instrumentation back, letting her voice soar above and emphasise the pure emotional energy.
“I feel proud of the production and the way that the song builds. Yeah, that’s one of my favourites. Playing it live has been really fun and well…,” Mitchell pauses, “maybe not fun. Rewarding is the word because it’s very, very honest. It was pretty much about the fallout of not knowing if we were going to be able to tour again or what was going to happen.
“I was getting a bit fed up with people saying: ‘Oh, well, we’ve got to be grateful for what we have,’” she re-enacts with hilarious sarcasm. “I had wanted to be in this music thing in the States and I just wanted people to say, ‘That must suck!’ But everyone was coming at me with toxic positivity saying, ‘Oh, but look where you are’, and I was like, ‘I know… but this is not where I want to be…”
The simplicity is what makes Love Isn’t Words so superb. Sweet and soft instrumentation supports the painstakingly poignant lyricism that is an honest insight into Mitchell’s family dynamic. The arrival of banjo and slide guitar creates a comforting home-bound sound that fills it with warmth, even though melancholic, it still breathes light into the moment.
“Love Isn’t Words is a song about watching my dad lose his dad,” Mitchell explains. “There was no tragic story, he had an amazing life. I think I, as a somewhat adult, realised the weight of that moment. I was aware of the impact on dad and my aunties and uncles. We all spent a lot of time together at my family home in Gore, so there were just a lot of emotions, and we were lucky that we got to go through it together.
“Throughout that time, I just started thinking about how we’re a big family. Dad’s one of six so there are heaps of kids, and we all clearly and undoubtedly care about each other. But we are a bit Kiwi in the sense that we don’t say those things all the time. So that’s sort of where Love Isn’t Words came from.
“I was just thinking about all the actions that we do for each other and how we’re always there for each other, but we don’t have to tell each other. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t say that they love each other, but I always just feel sad when I hear people say, ‘Oh, I wish I had told them that I love them more’. Really, I think, people probably know.”
With the arrival of vinyl pressings in mid-October a hauntingly euphonic bonus track The Bush & The Birds, was revealed.
“The Bush & The Birds is an ode to my grandad’s life”, Mitchell offers. “It’s not a sad song. It’s literally about who he was and the love of nature and birds that he gave to his kids, and his kids then gave to us – a lot of my family work on the land or have a special connection to it. It’s got my sisters, a trio song rather than them being in the background, so that’s exciting. It also features my auntie. She has this beautiful piece of spoken word te reo in the middle that was written by friends of the family for grandad when he passed away. It feels like a real personal sort of project.
“I wrote The Bush & The Birds years and years ago, for grandad. He heard it and he knew it and everything. I think when he did pass away we started talking about it a bit more and playing it just for us in our house. Then we played it a couple of times out and about and had lots of people saying,‘Oh, it’s just like my grandad’, or ‘just like my dad’ etc.”
As she talks it’s very evident that she derives much joy from playing her music to people, and celebrating of the release of ‘Tug Of War’ Mitchell embarked on an 8-date tour around NZ. Joined by her sisters, and a band, Mitchell gushes as she talks fondly about some special moments from her shows.
“I think the biggest thing about this tour is that I have a band with me, which I haven’t had before. So I’ve got Joe McCallum on drums, Jess Hindin, who is an Auckland-based fiddle player, my sisters are with us, and I’ve got Aaron Stewart as well, who’s a bass player. Just being able to have the band play how the record sounds – I haven’t really had that experience before!
“My sisters have been opening the show, which has been emotional and cool because we’ve been playing together for a long time and toured together before, but they have just written this little collection of their own songs. They co-wrote them with Tami Neilsen, which was a really beautiful little thing. It’s been cool before the show every night standing on the side of the stage and watching them,” gushes Mitchell proudly. “It sounds cheesy, but it is a highlight!
“I feel very lucky to be touring again,” she smiles. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for that for a long time. I’m kind of right in the depths of touring at the moment so I’m just really grateful to be able to share the songs in a real person situation, not a ‘behind a computer’ situation. We literally have 70-something-year-olds, and then we have these beautiful wee girls as well. I think it’s really cool to see that it can be someone’s first show and also be for someone who’s been a music lover for decades and decades.”
Leading on from the topic of tours and in light of the album’s hit song Trouble Finds a Girl, Mitchell shares some useful insights for any solo female performer planning on embarking on one.
“I think that it’s tricky because it’s not a young girl’s job to work out how to be safe,” she says firmly. “It shouldn’t be. I’ve done a lot of solo tours, especially in Australia at festivals, which generally have wonderful people. I worry that I paint this horrific picture and it’s not always like that, but things like making sure that you do have the ability to get a ride to where you’re staying, or make sure that you find or ask the festival to provide someone who will walk you home. Those are the kinds of details that when you’re going on your first tour you don’t think about.
“I would never say that you shouldn’t ever tour on your own. Touring on my own has been some of the best experiences of my life. It’s been so fun and challenging in a good way.
“I think there are lots of really good conversations happening and there have been some great changes,” she considers. “But I honestly think that when people call others out more, including men calling other men out, that’s when there will be real change. I hope that at some stage, we won’t have to have ‘five steps to staying safe at a festival if you’re a young girl’.”
The very powerful Trouble Finds a Girl speaks to a topic that Mitchell believes is incredibly important to speak on.
“We co-wrote the song at a SongHubs event. It was my name and Tami’s on the whiteboard, and I knew straight away what we were doing that day. I’d tried to write a song through the lens of thinking about my sisters. A song about my fear for Maegan and Nicola – worrying about them growing up, moving away from home, touring, and being on their own. It’s a lot scarier when it’s someone else rather than you doing it for some reason!
“I’d tried to write it before but it just wasn’t right and ended up being like a really sad song, which I didn’t want it to be,” she reveals. “I wanted it to be powerful and about standing together, so I knew that Tami was the one to help me do that. We wrote it together and then at the end of the day, we had to share with everybody what we’d written. When we played it, just from everyone’s reaction, we both knew that we needed to do something with it.
“Tami ended up producing it with her band playing, and we tracked it all in one night. The choir vocals at the end is my sisters and my dad, plus an Australian artist called Fanny Lumsden and Kaylee Bell. We just got them all to send in their vocal bits and layered them all up.
“I’ve had really interesting conversations with people since we released this song,” she reflects thoughtfully. “Some of those conversations were with other women who have experienced awful things. Some of them are with people who are completely naive to it – they can’t believe that it’s happening in NZ.
“My dad just cried and cried. He loved it, but I didn’t know how he would respond. So seeing him, a southern farmer man having that response and completely understanding the message, I knew that it’s not just a thing that me and Tami understand. Everyone knows what this is about. Everyone has seen it happen or knows someone it’s happened to. I think he and a couple of other men – in the band and Tami’s band – their support of it made me feel like, ‘Okay, this is actually a universal thing, and everyone should be able to understand it.’”