â€œI felt the fear fade awayâ€ With THE RIVER GRACE Jenee Halsteed (34) gave us one of the most beautiful Americana records of the past year. Recently the not-so-famous American traveled through Holland. From Delfzijl to Bergen op Zoom and from Heerlen to Spijkerboor she performed in all kinds of bars and venues. â€œItâ€™s hard to perform for people who donâ€™t especially come to see you.â€ by Eric van Domburg Scipio Small and delicate, with a fun and fresh look - cute but not sugary. That is Jenee Halstead. She grew up in Spokane, Washington, in the Northwest of the United States, where her love for music was a big part of her upbringing. â€œMy father was a huge fan. At home music was always on. From James Brown, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape to obscure acid rock and garage rock from the sixties.â€ The soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? with Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris awakened her interest for country and especially bluegrass. Patty Griffin, however, was the one who inspired her to make music herself. â€œThe story goes that everyone who heard the first album of the Velvet Underground started their own band.â€ Something similar happened to her after hearing Living With Ghosts by Patty Griffin. â€œThat album led to a new wave of female singer-songwriters. One of them was me.â€ â€œItâ€™s better to just rely on myselfâ€ Discovery In the late nineties Jenee Halstead settled in Seattle where she did not succeed in building a career as a singer-songwriter. â€œThere where several places to perform and the audience was not unfriendly towards me. But I mainly performed country classics and a few Alison Krauss songs because I was simply too shy to sing my own songs.â€ Heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, Jenee saw herself primarily as a folk artist. This was one of the reasons her decision to move to the East Coast seemed like a good one, because for decades Boston has been considered the American epicenter of folk. In Cambridge, manager Matt Smith from the legendary Club Passim (previously known as Club 47) was impressed by Halstead. He quickly informed Evan Brubaker, a producer from Seattle, who instantly offered his services to Halstead. â€œHe didnâ€™t know who I was, but I knew him. An accomplished and creative person, so I had no second thoughts about working with him.â€ Accompanied by an acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, bass, keyboards, and an electronic percussion Halstead took eleven days to record The River Grace. â€œOver the years I had written many songs. Half in the vein of Nick Drake, the other half more country and bluegrass. Together with Evansâ€™ wife, singer-songwriter Megan Peters, I critically studied the whole bunch. That resulted in a nice selection of which I am very proud.â€ The River Grace tends towards folk and bluegrass. The recently released mini-album Hollow Bones has a noticeable roots sound with clear country influences. The small but powerfully-voiced Halstead keeps her music, in the words of the Club Passim Manager, â€œfresh and new, yet familiar and timelessâ€. Agony For the debut of a relatively young singer-songwriter The River Grace surprisingly contains many songs in which death plays a role. Even more remarkable is that the death on the album doesnâ€™t have a morbid purpose, but is presented in the light of salvation. Jenee Halstead crawls into the shoes of fictional characters that face the hurt and anger of troubled outcasts. Consequently, they are more likely to die young, which gives Halstead the opportunity to deal with her own fear of death. â€œItâ€™s not that I want all my main characters to die, but sometimes you have no choice of how some things end.â€ Achievement Not many people have come to the double bill of Jenee Halstead and Joe Iadanza in Cafe de Rode Pimpernel in Den Bosch. Moreover, both singer-songwriters have to deal with the regular customers in the bar, where smoking is not yet banned. However, partially due to her charming presentation Halstead wins the audience over, though is seems to go wrong towards the end when someone requests a song, and she is then overwhelmed with requests she doesnâ€™t know - â€˜play something by Ben Harperâ€™. But, after she improvises Jolene, a Dolly Parton classic, the night cannot go wrong. How good her performance is doesnâ€™t become clear until the set of Iadanza (who brings Cat Stevens to mind). With a few catchy songs the New Yorker almost gets the whole bar to sing at the start of his performance, but along the way the ordinary songs canâ€™t hold the audiences attention, causing his performance to diminish. A week later in Culturhuis Patronaat in Heerlen, Iadanza gets the sad news that his grandfather has passed and he suddenly has to go back home. â€œIt was very sad even though, in a way, it turned out to be good for me,â€ Halstead says. â€œUntil then, he took care of almost everything â€“ from the transportation to the contact with the bars. Now I have to take care of everything on my ownâ€. Conviction Joe Iadanza is not yet on the plane to New York when the European air space is closed because of Icelandic ash clouds, making it impossible for other artists to reach the Netherlands. For Halstead only CafÃ© Briljant in Haarlem and Vestzaktheater the Zwijnshoofd in Bergen op Zoom are left on her tour schedule, but now singer-songwriters canâ€™t make it to the Netherlands, and she is asked to perform in The Stables in Boskoop and at Taverne De Waag in Haarlem. The latter situation is quite delicate because, when planning her tour, De Waag wasnâ€™t interested in Halstead at all. However, after her convincing performance the manager personally admitted his mistake and emphasized that the doors will always be wide open for Halstead. A few days later at a mini-festival in Bergen op Zoom, hosted by Crossroads Radio, English folkie Emma Black and American Steve Noonan â€“ an old friend of Jackson Browne â€“ cannot stand in her shadow. The highlight of the set is Nick Drake, her beautifully and intensely sung tribute to the British melancholic who died almost forty years ago. Without naming him or even giving a musical hint, she captures his essence in heart-rending lines such as How do you dance all night? When your heart wonâ€™t feel the rhythm, your feet wonâ€™t take to flight. How do you put meaning into something that is not there? I am so lonely now, so lonely now, I just donâ€™t care.
© 2013 Jenee Halstead. All Rights Reserved.