A Little Bit of Comfort
by Jay S. Jacobs
There is sometimes a bit of mistrust of actors who suddenly decide to become musicians. And while it is true that some of them are trying to exploit their name recognition, more and more often it is turning out that those actors really are talented singer/songwriters who just became well known in a different medium.
Take, for example, Jill Hennessy.
For years, we have been watching Jill Hennessy as an actress. On TV series like Law & Order and Crossing Jordan, Hennessy has been a funny, loose and likable constant for two decades now. However, she started out in her native Canada, busking and playing music for passersby on street corners .
“Man, I was playing on the street because I loved it.” Hennessy laughed recently, recalling her start. “It was a great way to earn money and not have to depend on anybody else. I started off in Toronto, when I was 18.”
However, it was that musical start which ended up kick starting her acting career and bringing her to the United States. She got the female lead in the Toronto cast of the musical Buddy. The show then moved on to Broadway, and Hennessy went along for the ride.
“I came to New York doing a musical,” Hennessy recalled, “a Broadway musical about Buddy Holly, which is what got me to this country, to be honest. I continued playing on the street here. I’m not really sure what I expected. I played rhythm guitar, electric guitar, for a couple of bands down here. I thought things would continue like that. Just hope to get certain auditions. I was hoping, actually, to hook up with a really good band, to be honest.”
Of course, the best laid plans can always lead into unexpected areas.
“Then Law & Order came along,” Hennessy said. “I had to quit the band I was with at the time, just because the two schedules didn’t really work well for each other. So I stuck with Law & Order and that just kept going.”
She laughed heartily. “The acting thing was working out.”
Thus Jill Hennessy, to a certain extent, put her music on hold, but she never lost the passion and never completely gave up on it. After Law & Order ended for her, she spent several years as the title character of the crime drama Crossing Jordan. However, the new series allowed Hennessy to merge her two loves. Her character of Jordan Cavanaugh, beyond being the coroner of Boston, was an aspiring singer who often performed at her father’s bar. This gave Hennessy multiple opportunities to do a song on the show, and led to an acclaimed soundtrack album in which Hennessy performed Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
“That was great to do,” Hennessy said. “I got to work with [acclaimed music producer] T Bone Burnett. That was a joy. Any time you get an opportunity to cover Dylan and Waits, you get up, it’s a good day. That was a lot of fun.”
Yet, as much fun as it was to perform those classics, her own music was never far from Hennessy’s mind. Not long after Crossing Jordan left the air, Hennessy went down to Austin, Texas to record her first album of original material, Ghost In My Head. That album of folk-based rock was released to acclaim in 2009. She worked on her follow-up record I Do, a couple of years later, though her acting work – most recently she has had a recurring role on The Good Wife and is a series regular this year on Madam Secretary – delayed the release of the record and the tour until this year.
“I’ve been working on Madam Secretary since July, I guess,” Hennessy said. “As luck would have it, when it rains, it pours. I’ve been waiting to release this album. The music has been done for ages. We delayed the release because of other acting jobs we’ve had over the last two years. So we thought: okay, October 5th will be great! Madam Secretary has been great about working with my schedule. I’m on a show-by-show basis with them, too, so they call to see what the schedule is, what works for me. I call back and say I’m booked for these days, so it’s nice.”
One of the other reasons she had been delaying the release of I Do was that she needed to be sure she had the time to tour in support of the album. The tour started slowly, but has been picking up steam steadily.
“It’s nice actually to have a lot of show dates. We’ve been getting all these bookings. We just got… we’re opening for the Indigo Girls in the January…. I’m so psyched!”
Hennessy is also psyched to have finally gotten I Do out there. After all, it’s all about sharing the new music.
“It’s joyous,” Hennessy gushed. “The reception we’ve gotten has been phenomenal. One review came out and said it’s one of the best indie albums of 2015. That was just great to hear. It’s just great to get out and play. It’s supposed to be a micro-tour. We expected, we lined up a few gigs around the October 5th drop date, and we just keep getting more and more days, which is wonderful.
“It’s a little juggling, again, with raising the two children, but that had to be done somewhere,” Hennessy laughed. “Luckily, these kids are so used to being dragged out to smoky bars and venues that they are pretty cool with it. It’s just the school thing that’s kind of tough. And the Madam Secretary dates. But, it’s working out well. We’re doing a day festival in the middle of January, on one of the nights that [Bruce] Springsteen’s supposed to be playing, so that’s exciting. We’ve got like six or seven dates lined up until February.”
So what can we expect from a Jill Hennessy show? Will she be doing all her own music, some covers, or what?
“Mostly songs from both albums. And a few covers,” Hennessy revealed. In the Philadelphia show on December 2, those covers were “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen and the holiday favorite “A Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl. “By the time I’ve gotten through Ghost in My Head and I Do, that’s already over a two-hour show. So, we had to pare it down a bit.”
Hennessy has described I Do as “a collection of stories about love, relationships and loss.” So, what inspired some of the songs?
“That’s a long story, Jay,” Hennessy laughed. “How much time have we got here?
“I write from my gut, man. I write when something hits me. Unfortunately, with this album, a lot of the songs came about because I lost a lot of people that I really cared about over the last six years. That generated I would say about 60% of the album. Then there’s just other incidents that happen in day-to-day life, man. Stories my older kid tells me. Something that happened in a Valentine’s dance became the song ‘Precious One.’ There’s even a little bit of Amy Whitehouse and her passing in that song. Addiction, and how many people we’ve lost to addiction.”
Mostly it is simple human interactions which inspire Hennessy as a songwriter – for better or for worse.
“There’s a beauty in the unspoken poetry and genius, because of things like racism and things like misogyny,” Hennessy continued. “You don’t have the right skin color to sing in our venue, or you don’t look the way we’d like you to look. Or we don’t like your sexuality, so you’re not allowed to perform this. Things that became the song ‘Real.’ So, it’s a whole bunch of stuff. Every song is so different. It goes song by song, really.”
Another hot-button issue is discussed in her song “Edmonton,” which was originally written in honor of Hennessy’s grandmother, who crossed the ocean to find a new life for herself and her family in Canada. Of course, in the few years since the song was written, it has taken on an even deeper meaning with the recent contentious debate about immigration.
“There has been two waves of hub-bub surrounding the immigration issue, so far, just with the Presidential campaign,” Hennessy said. “There have been people who have been fleeing Syria for the last four or five years. I actually know some people who fled, oh gosh, a year ago. It’s a brutal situation. It’s interesting. I play this song; it is an homage to immigrants, to the courage it takes to leave. To leave the life that you and generations before you have known. To go into the abyss of the unknown. But also into, hopefully, the land of hope and opportunity and potential.
“What’s interesting is I play the song now and because it’s a hot topic right now, I get some really strong positive, passionate reactions from the crowds. Also, everybody here’s an immigrant, anyway. Everybody in the audience is like: yeah! We all can relate, man. Even if our family has been here for like five generations, you came from somewhere else, unless you’re native Americans. So that song has had a lot of resonance for a lot of people so far.”
The title track of I Do is about the work and difficulty of keeping a successful marriage going. As a longtime happily-married woman and mother, it can lead the listener to wonder: as a songwriter, how much of her writing is autobiographical, and how much is based upon more creative imagination?
“It comes into an arena of: you take something that you feel, but it becomes very universal,” Hennessy explained. “When I’m acting, too, I’m taking somebody else’s words and personalizing them. I take my experience, but I also try to make it as universal as possible. I also think the more honest you are, and you really simplify and distill things down to what’s the most authentic, that’s what’s going to resonate most with an audience. Everybody’s been there, man. Everybody’s got a story. Everybody is one of the walking wounded.”
Sometimes people forget, just because we’ve been watching Hennessy on television for years, that she really is just another person out there looking for happiness.
“I just read something on my Instagram feed,” Hennessy said. “I’d written something and somebody wrote, ‘Wow, celebrities really are like us.’ It made me wonder. I wanted to ask this question: Well, what did you think they… we… are? I hesitate to even use that term for me. I have two kids. I walk them to school. I make lunches and dinners. I try to find work.” She laughed. “I try to put out my music, which I’m lucky I can even do that. But I guess there might be people out there who think, wow, maybe I don’t even know how to go grocery shopping. I don’t know. It’s interesting. You become a projection board, I guess, for other people.”
Like the first album, I Do was recorded in Austin, Texas, with mostly the same band as before. Hennessy just felt a musical connection to the place and to the people, so she moved her family down there temporarily from their native New York to get the recording done.
“We love it,” Hennessy said. “Our base musicians are there. The cellist [Brian Standefer] who worked with us on the first album and engineered [the last album] co-produced with me. It was going back to the familiar, to be honest.”
That going back to the familiar also extended to the musicians with whom she played. Many of those same musicians are also accompanying her on tour.
“A lot of them are the same ones,” Hennessy said. “To be honest, it depends a lot on availability. These guys are all on tour with other bands, or working sessions. So a lot of them have played on this tour. There are some new New York musicians we’ve been working with off and on, too, again based on who is available. I’ve got a guy named Bill Dobrow who has been playing drums, who is phenomenal. He’s been playing a lot with Joseph Arthur and touring with him. And Dony Wynn [who played on the album] is back in Austin. So it’s tough.”
A new musician she got to work with on I Do was acclaimed singer/songwriter Will Sexton.
“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” Hennessy said, enthusiastically. “He’s very professional, very sweet. I would have to say maybe not quite as crazy as the rest of us. The guy was a pro. He’s funny, classic, beautiful to listen to. The rest of us can get pretty buck wild.”
In the long run, it comes back to a connection, which is why Hennessy tries to work with musicians regularly.
“You work with whoever you can, but whenever it’s at all possible we try to fly up the guys we’re most familiar with,” Hennessy said. “Plus, to be honest, they know the music inside out. We can mess around with it. We can open up breaks and do these huge jam sessions. Also, we just have a good time. Although, it’s always cool rehearsing with new musicians and hearing their take and then running with that.”
Of course, in recent years, the music business has taken a series of hits, including piracy, low download fees and diminished sales. Hennessy realizes that it is a difficult time to get her music to fans. However, she also knows she has to try.
“You can certainly get your music out there,” Hennessy said. “The question is how you get people to actually listen to it. How do you draw attention to it? The market is flooded, because it is easier now to get indie albums out. The problem, the challenge is drawing the listeners to your stuff. And then how you sell. How do you get people to download singles, or the album? Again the music business and the landscape has changed so much on a monthly basis since I started putting out music seven years ago. At this point I have no expectations.” She laughed. “I’m just trying to make it so that we’re not too much in the red, basically. We’re just getting out there because I love playing. It’s just part of what I have to do. It really makes me incredibly happy. I don’t really see it as a choice. It’s just something that as long as I’m able to do this, I’m going to keep doing it.”
In the meantime, don’t expect Hennessy to disappear from our TV screens anytime soon. Earlier this year, she joined the second season of the hit series Madam Secretary, the latest in a long line of memorable TV roles.
“It’s fun to join a new group that is fresh,” Hennessy said. “They had been together for a year. A lot of the crew actually worked on the original Law & Order with me, and on other offshoots of Law & Order, so there are a lot of familiar faces around. It’s just a really warm, down to earth group of people working in and around New York City. I love political dramas. It’s kind of fascinating. I love to how Barbara Hall balances this myriad of plots, that are so intricate, so tensely written, and dealing with a lot of stuff that’s incendiary right now, in terms of world topics and current events. It’s a fascinating show to be a part of.”
Of course, this time out, she has the benefit of not being the face of the series, like she was in Crossing Jordan.
“I get to do the light lifting on that show,” Hennessy admitted good-naturedly. “I waltz in. I do a couple of days of work. Have fun with Tim Daly, who is one of the nicest actors you could possibly work with. And Téa Leoni, who is just spectacular, and funny as hell, and beautiful, and down to earth. [Then] I get to waltz out, while these guys are working a lot of scenes, fairly long hours. They make it very manageable, thank God. That crew is hilarious themselves, in fact they should be in front to the camera in a lot of situations. They’re hilarious like that.”
Another political series that Hennessy has been on recently is The Good Wife. Last year she had a recurring role as a political operative. Will that character be revisited as well?
“I don’t know,” Hennessy admitted. “They never let you know. I talked to some other actors on the show who said they worked a couple of seasons and then they did not work a couple of seasons. Then they were called back two seasons later. So you never know. But that show too, again, it’s such a tightly-knit cast and crew. They’ve been on the air for quite some time. What are they on their eighth season or something? Eight years. That’s a different situation. That’s a wonderful, wonderful set to be on, too. They shoot not too far from Madam Secretary. I hope they bring me back. That would be great.”
However, she does not consider it that she is juggling her time between her acting and her music.
“I’m basically devoting all of my time to the music,” Hennessy said. “The acting has been fitting in quite nicely. But, to be honest, it’s whatever’s happening in the moment. It’s not a question of me saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to do more music. 70% music and 30% acting.’ It just doesn’t work out like that. Basically you’re lucky if you’re working and you get a job. I’m always hoping for that, too. I’m always hoping for opportunities to play my music. So far I have not had to make any kind of decision as to which I should do. Should I do one over the other?”
It seems, though, that one of her arts comes slightly more naturally to Hennessy.
“To be honest, I find I’m more comfortable playing guitar on stage than I am acting,” Hennessy explained. “With a guitar, all I have to focus on is the guitar. The singing just comes with that. Maybe because that’s the first thing I ever really did in front of audiences, stand there with a guitar and sing. That just feels really more comfortable for me. It’s very emotional, because I’ve got this wooden instrument that I’m holding, and in some ways it gives me a little bit of comfort, but also because of that comfort you allow yourself to go pretty deep sometimes. That’s why I love it.”
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 12, 2015.
Photos by Jim Rinaldi © 2015