From any point on a map, distances look only as far as the next dot, whether six hundred or sixty miles. Depending on your level of fatigue or hunger and thirst, or how many days you’ve been traveling, that can be far or near. (Also: whether you are traveling towards or away, to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea hero Ged.) For now, singer-songwriter Jennifer Leonhardt is back home in Los Angeles after seven years on the road, on tour, most of those based out of Austin, TX. Lots of that time was spent circumnavigating airports and highways, playing festival stages and bare-bones music rooms and bars. Since opening for Mark Curry’s Hell’s House Band with her daughter Juliet in an acoustic set at the once-was Lingerie Club in Hollywood in August 2004, -six releases later she’s back, retooling her band and prepping several new projects for the new year, and (logging airline mileage aside) she’s glad to be.
Born in Fort Worth TX, home to native sons Townes van Zandt and T Bone Burnett (a band mate of one of her uncles back in the ’60s) to a family of musicians and singers helped develop her flexible approach to interpretation. Her parents moved the family to Washington DC when she was still a baby and she spent her early years on the east coast. With no television or stereo in the house, she spent long hours teaching herself piano and guitar after school, eventually listening to Thelonious Monk on a portable radio in her room late at night. Family time included harmonizing on everything from Appalachian traditionals to old-time spirituals, which gave her a broad musical vocabulary and became the necessary groundwork for keeping in line with her own vision: life-made music for its own sake.
Since she was trained on classical violin since the age of seven and not allowed to listen to recorded music until her teens, Jennifer spent a lot of time onstage in frequent live performances by the time she was eighteen. Drawing comparisons to songwriters as disparate as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Patti Smith, artists she spent little or no time listening to growing up as a per house rules, her live shows deliver a completely unique approach to musical styling, combining seemingly opposing elements like they were meant to be together. She draws deeply from the blues, from old poetry and miscellaneous mythologies, and frank humorous references to current cultural trends. Some of her songs have been covered by fellow singer-songwriters and country bands, included in indie films (the upcoming Leonard Peltier project) and on compilations with folks like John Hiatt, Bobby Bare and yes, even Johnny Cash. Since the Lingerie stage, she’s shared stages, live radio shows and festival billing with folks like Kevin Gordon, Marc Broussard, Andrew Calhoun, Tom Freund, Doug Burr, and Los Lonely Boys, adding up miles on an old Nikon documenting a time of unrest and change in her own life as well as the country, photos she posted on a blog she kept online since 2005.
Completing five recordings in as many years was a necessity since she was writing for survival. The soul kind. Her first recording was a 5-song EP Homeless (2004) recorded three months after the breakup of her marriage. With just her singing and an acoustic guitar accompaniment, Ear Candy Magazine gave it 4 out of 5 stars for “moments of brilliance”. Hard Times LIVE (2005) was taken off the soundboard at a live show in Los Angeles. In the fall of the same year, after performing at a roots music festival in New Orleans two weeks pre-Katrina, she began work on Gods & Nations (2007) in New York City. Compelled by stories of survivors of the hurricane and her own recent visit there with friends who lost their home, she wrote the album in a month and enlisted noted blues guitarist and producer Marc Copely (Tracy Bonham, Jess Klein) who helped her lay down the first three tracks, including the haunting “Homeland”, named one of the “Top 20 Americana songs of 2008” (KRVM Eugene, OR). Marc’s signature guitar work helped to define the sound for the rest of the record, a punch of driving folk-blues mixed with lush atmospherics. Completed by guitarist-producer Matt Brown (Lucinda Williams, Bill Frissell) of Trespassers William in Seattle the following summer, who added some Otis touches, varied instrumentation and modern dream pop layers. Water St (2007), a collection of alt country songs written in collaboration with another Austin musician, was never released. Compilations include ShutEye Record’s United State of Americana Vol 4 (2006), A Taste of Triple A with John Hiatt and samplers from Paste, Pop Culture Press, Waterbug Records and Texas Music Magazine.
In 2009 came Minstrel’s Daughter, released on Chicago-based indie label Waterbug Records. Dedicated to her family’s influence and recorded at the kitchen table at home on Austin’s east side with band members and musician friends, the album was co-produced with guitarist Jeff Rady with whom she co-wrote one of the tracks. The majority of the record got put down on an old Shure 57 mic, keeping the straight-shot vibe of a live band mixed with atmospheric playfulness. They went for a stripped-down, homemade sound culminating in a gentle but gritty referendum on love and survival by an artist clearly thinking for herself. Sovereign (2010) was a live recording of solo acoustic songs requested by listeners who wanted to hear them stripped down. Leicester Bangs Magazine describes the album as “almost primeval in the way it has been constructed. Jennifer’s vocals are perfect, a slightly raw but refreshing voice with belief running through its core.”
What with various prophecies and a wild economy, 2012 was sounding like an interesting year. Recording sessions with the Black Market Band -a clapped-together crew of mostly Seattle-based musicians – originally intended for a soundtrack for an indie film about the life of Native American political activist Leonard Peltier- boiled down to a 5-song EP collection titled Heyday, and was released in the spring. In December, however, as tour dates were being scheduled, Jenn’s mom died. A tribute album, Songs My Mother Sang, was released on Mother’s Day 2013. Old spirituals, traditional and contemporary folk songs and popular tunes from the 20s through the 70s turned up at the live sessions held in Eagle Rock, a neighborhood in east LA. Friends and family joined in the jam-style recordings, and takes were kept live and raw for the purpose of preserving the moment. It was her first time back in the studio since the Heyday sessions.
2016 has Jennifer once again prepping for shows with a new band and completing work on a book and a documentary film. Keep an eye out for updates on the News page of this ‘site, subscribe to her tour dates on Bandsintown or Songkick or sign up for the newsletter to get a jumpstart- and have a beautiful adventure out there. We’ll see ya at the stage.
By A. McCarthy