Mary Jennings is an artist based in Nashville whose music seamlessly blends electronica, folk, and singer-songwriter elements to create her own unique voice. She draws on her own life experiences and weaves them into deeply poetic images, pulling listeners into her lush, at times dark yet ineffably hopeful world. Her latest album, Metamorphosis, chronicles a time of personal and professional change in her life, and she illustrates this with grand images like tectonic plates and post-apocalyptic scenes and with her arrestingly evocative and nuanced vocal delivery. She even released a remix album to accompany this one, Metamorphose, to demonstrate that even her music is ever-changing. I had the opportunity to ask Mary about her music, her life, and her message, and she is absolutely one of the most authentic and sweet artists I’ve ever met, with an evident wisdom and insight beyond her years. Check out her responses below, and take a listen to her music while you read!
Stream her latest full-length album, Metamorphosis, here: http://www.maryjennings.com/music/
Stream her remix album, Metamorphose, here: https://open.spotify.com/album/0RnaQepGHDgSerXrvjYfkG
Metamorphosis, your latest album, was released in 2015—what was the inspiration for the album?
So, the last album I put out before that, I put out a live album in 2012, and the last full album I put out was Collapse, Collide (2011). I had to put all this pressure on myself to tour, after those records, and kind of got a little bit burnt out, and I wasn’t writing anymore. And then, I gradually started writing again—I guess out of that bunch, I think “Home” was the first one I wrote. And it was during Hurricane Sandy, actually. I was in New York in my apartment during Hurricane Sandy, and I’d just started watching The Walking Dead, and the whole idea of apocalypse and things like that, that’s what inspired that song. Like, what is home? It’s not a thing, it’s not a place, it’s not even people because people could become zombies, but it’s more like your ability to survive, and have your wits about you. So that was kinda what started it. And then, I gradually started writing some other songs, and all during this time, I moved to Nashville, I got married—everything was changing in life. In a good way! But it was weird, you know, I’m now in my thirties, not in my twenties, all these things were just different. And so, all the songs that I was writing somewhat had to do with change, whether it was change in relationships, or change in planetary stuff, change in growing up, everything just had this undertone of change.
The production of your album is really fascinating, and I’m wondering how your process goes with that. Do you think about the eventual production of it when you write, or is it more of a collaborative effort to get there?
I think it’s a little bit of both. So I met Nathan Rosenberg, my producer, through my guitar player who was playing for me at the time, and Nathan produced Poe, who was brilliant. I listened to her in high school, and she had kind of this trip-hop, industrial vibe to her. So I found out that he worked on that, I was like, “This could be my dude!” And I went in, and we just talked a lot, and I liked the way he talked to me through my music. Then we started working on “Home,” and he just got it. We started adding the electronic elements, and then we sent it to one of my best friends, Ian O’Neil, who is a drummer and he was living in Nashville when I was in New York. He went into his studio, and kicked booty on drums and sent it back to us. It was a lot of back-and-forths, and that elevated it and changed it. So the process with this record was, I would say, different than any other experience I’ve had. Sometimes songs had a very direct path—but others, like “Love You Best,” it changed tempo and keys probably ten times—we couldn’t find the vibe. And “One Brick” was that I had written that I was kind of like, “I don’t think anybody’s gonna think it’s any good.” And Nathan was like, “Oh my god, that’s my favorite one!” I just had no concept of what it could be until he got a hold of it.
I love when that happens, when someone else shows you what your song could be!
He totally showed me what it could be! And “This Means War” was probably the biggest fight, because we knew we needed one more, the sixth one, and he said, “Play me through some of the stuff that you’ve got.” And I was like playing through some songs that I had and he was like, “No, that’s not it, mm-mm, that’s not it. Do you have anything that’s not finished?” And it was making me really mad (laughs) so I was like, “Ok, fine!” So I had literally only lyrics to this song that I had started writing in the car when I was driving up with my bassist friend. And [Nathan] was like, “Well, sing it for me,” and I begrudgingly sang the lyrics to it and he said, “That’s the one.” And it was “This Means War.” And it’s one of my favorites now, and I just, I didn’t have the visual for it.
Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Well I have my artist influences and my people influences. Musical—I mean it’s so cliché, but I can’t help it, she’s a genius—Tori Amos is one for me. I listened to Tori Amos for the first time in eighth grade Latin class. My friend Amy Schwarzbaum had Boys for Pele, and she was like “Mary, you need to listen to this.” And I listened to it, and it was like my eyes were opened. I was like, “Wait music like this exists, oh my God!” But you know, I very much grew up in that Lilith Fair era, so Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, all of that was in my wheelhouse. I love Bjork—something that I love so much about Bjork is, you wanna talk about somebody who just says what she wants unabashedly—love it! She wears a swan dress, cool! So you know, those kinds of powerful women really inspire me. I also used to listen to Celtic music all the time—I don’t know if you remember the days of the store called The Nature Company? It was a store in the mall that sold wind chimes and celestial shit. But they also had CD’s, and you could listen, and it was like all this meditative and Celtic stuff. I loved that, I couldn’t get enough of that. It was like, that and the electronica, like Orbital and stuff, I loved.
But then just in terms of life influences, my grandma was a piano player, so she always had me at the piano playing whatever I wanted to play. She always listened if I had something new—always! And then my granddad’s an amazing singer, so he taught me harmonies when we would ride in the car. We would sing songs, and it started out with me singing the melody and him singing the harmony and he would challenge me to flip it. So I learned how to sing and do harmonies from him.
And where are you from?
I am originally from here. I was born in Nashville Tennessee, but I only lived here until I was in first grade. I started second grade in Gainesville, Georgia. My parents got divorced and I moved to Gainesville, Georgia with my mom, so I would say that’s more where I grew up. My dad’s always lived here, so I would always come back and forth. And then went to college in South Carolina, and then moved back to Nashville afterward, after my mom passed away.
How old were you when your mom passed away?
I was eighteen. She—I’m an only child, and my mom was my best friend, I mean—oh man, talk about a weird person! She walked to the beat of her own drummer, she was awesome, and super inspiring. But she had an accident. I was in college my freshman year, and she fell off of a ladder and suffered massive head injuries, so uh… yeah, life went upside down after that. I knew that after I finished college, I wanted to be still close to family, so I moved back here to be closer to Dad and, you know, try to do the music thing.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in the music industry? Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced? How do you perceive your role in the industry?
I mean, it may sound anti-feminist, and I don’t mean it to, but I just wanna be seen as a person in the music industry. I don’t need to be seen as a woman—I’m no different than any guy out there. I think it is a very male-driven industry, which, you know, it just is what it is. I don’t love it, and I wish that it was more female-driven. But I don’t want, within music, I don’t want to be told what I can or can’t sing, what I can or can’t wear, what I can or can’t do, based on the fact that I’m a female. If I want to go out and dress in the sluttiest clothes, that’s my prerogative. Or if I want to dress like a boy, that’s my prerogative. I’m tired of the gender split, like I’m just a person. I don’t feel extremely different than any of the rest of you. We all suffer from some of the same issues, and go through the same things, and have similar highs and lows.
But you know, I stick to what I’m doing, and stick to my own personal path, cause this is nobody else’s path but my own, and if anybody makes any sexist remarks, I brush it off and I say, “Ooh yeah, I’m not gonna deal with that person anymore, I’m out.” I don’t have the time or patience for that, and that person’s mind is probably not going to be changed with anything I can say, so see ya! I don’t know if that’s very women-empowering.
It totally is!
But I think the most empowering part of being a woman is not being seen as a woman, but being seen as a person.
And what’s cool too, is I think when you have that perspective, when you want to be treated like an equal, I think you tend to surround yourself with people who will do that. And you seem to have found collaborators that really appreciate what you do and there’s a give and take, a back and forth…
And what’s so interesting too is that it’s accidental, because most of them in the industry have been men, like my producers are all guys. Not that I seek them out, that’s who understood it the best. My musicians that play drums, or guitar, or bass, or cello, are all men, and they have had absolutely no problem with me saying, “This is what I want.” They see me as a person, as an artist, not as this chick over here (laughs). No, they’ve had no issues with me, there never were power struggles in that way.
If you had one message that you hope listeners receive from your music, what would that be?
You know, my music has always been really selfish. And it is my therapy, it is my way of getting out my thoughts, my feelings, what I’ve been through—it’s really for me, and if anybody else can pick up on it, that’s awesome! So I don’t expect anybody to take any particular message from it, but if it helps you at all, my job is done. I am even hesitant sometimes to say what the songs are about, because that song might be different for you than it is for me, and that’s ok. I want you to take from it what you want. I have a couple of songs that I’ve put out there where people have been coming to me crying afterwards and saying, “Thank you for this, you spoke words that I haven’t been able to, put words to feelings that I haven’t been able to…” Oh my God, I could quit tomorrow! Nothing means more to me than that. I did for myself [laughs], and I’m glad that you could pick up on it as well.
If anything, my personal message is that people just need to be whoever they wanna be, and not be ashamed of it, and not hide it. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, like just do it! Dress how you wanna dress, speak your mind if you want to, but don’t feel like you have to.
Lightning Round! Peanut butter, smooth or chunky?
Smooth! I used to think of chunky peanut butter like it had bugs in it, and I’ve never like in my brain been able to get out of that [laughs], so I have to have creamy peanut butter all the way.
Chocolate—milk or dark?
Depends on the day, but more often than not, milk. I love the sweeter kind—the kind that’s worse for you.
Vinyl or CD or cassette?
Ooh God that’s so tough! I would probably have to say the CD, because I grew up in the CD age, and you could put them in your car with you! If you could put a vinyl in your car, then okay maybe, but I still go through my CD’s and put them in my car. So, I would say CD’s—definitely not cassettes! I remember the days of having to fast forward and rewind to get to the right spot. But with vinyl, there’s nothing better than putting it on and listening to it start to finish. They’re just for different experiences, but on the whole, I’d say CD’s.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
There are so many! Um, the power to make somebody feel better in an instant. So if somebody was crying or upset, then I could just be like, “Nope it’s gonna be okay!” Not that hurting isn’t healthy and healing—and this is also, again, really selfish, cause when my baby cries, I wanna be like “POOF!” No more tears! Happy baby! (laughs)
I was just thinking that’s such an unselfish thing to wish! I’d be like, I wanna fly, or walk through walls! Last one—if you could have lunch with any person, living or not, who would it be—
My mom. Easy. My mom. I miss her so much, and I would probably give almost everything away to have five minutes with her again. I don’t know what all I would say, I’d probably just—I probably wouldn’t say anything, I’d probably just wanna hug her and cry for a while. So, that’s easy.
Stream Mary’s latest full-length album, Metamorphosis, here: http://www.maryjennings.com/music/
Stream her remix album, Metamorphose, here: https://open.spotify.com/album/0RnaQepGHDgSerXrvjYfkG