With a career beginning from her early teens, singer/songwriter Jenny Mitchell already has two albums behind her, a Gold Guitar Award on her mantelpiece, and is a graduate of the Australian Academy of Country Music. As Bridie Chetwin-Kelly discovers, she credits much of her success to the little town of Gore, where the support for her story-telling, acoustic-styled country music originated.
All in all Jenny Mitchell comes across as a country girl who wants her audiences to be able to listen to the words of her music, understand and potentially identify with the stories she tells.
“I remember when I did New Zealand’s Got Talent and the whole town of Gore got behind me. They had shop windows with signs saying ‘Vote for Jenny’ – and you don’t necessarily get that in the big city!”
It’s not just the fact that Gore is a small tight-knit rural community, the Southland township is the epicentre of the annual Gold Guitar Awards and known across Australasia as NZ’s home of country music. Admitting that it can be isolating, Jenny says emailing people can be done from anywhere, and as long as you are happy to travel being based in Gore works just fine.
“I’ve grown up with and always listened to country music, so it seems all quite normal to me. It’s not the same as the Auckland or Wellington scenes, but I think making music in a rural country town has really helped me.”
In the three years since releasing her debut album, ‘The Old Oak’, her sound has changed a lot, spreading to embrace a range of influences that include folk and Americana – but above all, music that tells a story.
“I don’t listen to just purely country. Nora Jones has been a big influence on me. The Lumineers, which was more like folk rock… I listen to a lot of folk music, but I like stuff with an acoustic vibe the most.”
Talking on the country music scene in NZ she references Tami Neilson and Nadia Reid, saying that whilst their sounds aren’t the same they’re part of a community of female singer/songwriters that branch off from the country genre into folk, Americana and beyond.
“It was always something I was scared of. If you are looking at the industry,the ones who are winning awards are always pop country – it was a little scary straying from that because if it’s not mainstream country you are kind of worried about how people will respond to it.
“I think of people like Mel Parsons who would get asked all the time, what sort of music is it? She would answer ‘singer/songwriter’ – and that’s kind of where I fit. There are elements of folk, elements of country. Genre is a hot question and no one knows the answer.”
Her newly released sophomore album ‘Wildfire’ was crowdfunded, as was her first. It was produced and recorded by an all-Australian group of musicians including ARIA-winning producer, Matt Fell. It’s an assured album of honest, often bittersweet tunes, sensitively produced and richly ornamented around her equally assured vocals.
Jenny credits making her first album so young in helping her understand the whole process of recording and learning her own mind.
“I felt like this time I knew more, and had the confidence to know what I do and don’t like. That and actually having some experience working with other bands, so there was a lot more thought behind why things went certain places.”
She hopes that ‘Wildfire’ will be an album every listener can take something away from.
“I grew up with country music and this, by all means, is an alternative country album, but maybe not the typical country sound people are used to. On the first album, my country influences were quite prominent, and that was really the sound I was trying to create. Now, the sound I have created is one I used to be scared to express. It really is storytelling from start to finish, there are songs about leaving home and relationships, travelling… there’s even a song about my grandparents migrating from Ireland!”
In Troubadour she tells a story of the man with no home.
“That’s about another NZ songwriter called Adam McGrath. It’s about a conversation I had with him when I was really young and he was telling me about life as a musician. He said he hadn’t been in the same place for three years and didn’t really have a home or a fixed abode, and I couldn’t understand. I did not get it at all. Then as I got older and did a bit more travelling I’ve found it’s quite addictive being on the road. It really reflects where I am now. It’s stripped down and really is what I sound like when I play alone.”
Having released the new album in October and toured in Australia since, she intends touring NZ properly in 2019 – in a very country manner.
“I do a lot of house concerts, so I play these acoustic sets and then I get to talk to people and hang out with them. I have built great audiences this way because it’s so organic. It’s really cool in a house, and a good way to experience it.”
This seems in line with her narrative and concept behind her music.
“It helps me connect these stories with people, through something intimate, and be able to catch people’s eyes. Bigger stages I don’t get the same buzz. Touring for me is about meeting people and having that cup of tea afterwards.”