April 19, 2001

HomeBaked Beats

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In the singer-songwriter genre, few artists perfect the balance that inevitably exists between the two halves of the creative process. Jennie Stearns is the exception. She writes poignant, emotionally charged lyrics, and has a voice that compels one to listen. Her well-honed craft is that of a pondersome poet, a wise storyteller, highlighting the beautifully unappreciated shades of life. With their natural and inspired delivery, her songs are the vehicles of words worth hearing and music that resides contently in the minds of its listeners indefinitely.

Writing music since her teens, Jennie has taken her inspirations and developed a voice of her own and a mature approach to lyricism. “I wore out all of my Neil Young albums years ago,” she says. Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and Jane Siberry have all had a perceivable impact on her songwriting, which focuses on powerfully sparse arrangements. Her own intriguing work has come to be an influence on other musicians, local and abroad. Songs from her pen have been covered by Donna the Buffalo, the Sim Redmond Band, and Amy Glicklick.

Jennie has been in the area since ’82, inspired to stay by “family, friends, the beauty of the area (regardless of the harsh and lengthy winters), the diversity and talent of local music, and the wealth of local support.” She and husband Richie founded the acclaimed roots band Donna the Buffalo, but left that outfit after five years. Richie Stearns is known for his work with the old-time bluegrass string band The Horseflies, and is touring with Natalie Merchant. Of her major collaborator and husband, Jennie says, “Our lives are full. Richie’s on the road the majority of the time, but we’ve been playing together for so long that it all falls together fairly effortlessly now. We don’t write together, but we do add our individual styles to each others songs. His tenor guitar stylings weave their way easily through my songs.”

Songs from Jennie’s 1998 debut, Angel With A Broken Wing, present her lilting folk and pensive lyrics. Her socially-conscious statement on “You Crossed the Line” provides an example of her sensitively assertive writing. The elegant and evocative songs are reminiscent of the country and folk that have rarely been heard since the likes of Joni Mitchell and Ricki Lee Jones. Even when songs move with a slower tempo, Jennie injects an upbeat hopefulness that separates them from the melancholia suffered by many contemporary folk artists. Jennie beautifully employs the 3/4 time signature on her waltzes “Life Is Strange” and “Georgia Pine.” Naturalist themes permeate songs like “Wild Beast” and “Lazy River,” mingling with her emotional images of friendship, love, and loss, resulting in uniquely compelling narratives. The Ithaca Journal named Angel With A Broken Wing the “Best Overall Local CD” of 1998, and the Ithaca Times praised her, saying “Jennie Stearns is a star. The rest of the world just hasn’t found out yet.”

Jennie’s live performances have placed her on stage with the 10,000 Maniacs, Merl Saunders, and Iris Dement. Consistently an all-star cast of local musicians, her live band features Richie on tenor guitar, Sim Redmond on bass, Gabe Tavares from Plastic Nebraska on lead guitar, renowned drummer Bill King, the Hix’s Chad Crumm on violin, and Mary Lorson on backing vocals. “Mary and I had a mutual attraction to each other’s music, and it seemed inevitable that we end up working together.” Jennie has traded supporting roles by guesting in Lorson’s bands, Saint Low and Madder Rose.

To capture the natural feel of Jennie’s performances, she entered the local Electric Wilburland Studio in ’99, and released Mourning Dove Songs in 2000. Her songs have an even earthier, more haunting quality, with her dream-like melodies atop her controlled compositions.

Jennie is currently in the studio coproducing with violinist Chad Crumm. They have completed one song and have more waiting on the shelf. “I’m going to venture into uncharted territory this time around, and I’m getting help from a few local geniuses.” The album, which she plans to have out next fall, is sure to present even more thought-provoking and body-moving music.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas