From any point on a map, distances look only as far as the next dot, whether six or six hundred 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. For now, singer-songwriter Jennifer Leonhardt is back home in Los Angeles after 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 listening rooms and bars.
Since opening for Mark Curry’s Hell’s House Band in an acoustic set at the once-was Lingerie Club on Sunset Blvd (Dwight Yoakum, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana had all previously played the same stage) in August 2004, Jennifer has been alternately recording, touring and retooling her band, prepping new projects for a new year, and (logging road and airline mileage aside) she’s glad to be back home.
Born in Fort Worth TX, home to native sons Townes van Zandt and T-Bone Burnett (a band mate of her uncle’s 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, not allowed to listen to recorded music or watch tv; the only record she remembers in the house was her mom’s first edition LP of Judy Collins’ Wildflowers and her dad’s Mozart horn concerto with a Fat Angel on it. Family time included harmonizing on everything from Appalachian traditionals to old-time spirituals, Woody Guthrie protest songs and madrigals to old-time-y ragtime and jazz, which gave her a broad musical vocabulary and became the necessary groundwork for keeping in line with her own vision: music for its own sake.
Trained on classical violin since the age of seven, Jenn spent long hours teaching herself piano and guitar after school, eventually listening to her favorite Thelonious Monk on a portable transistor radio in her room late at night. She put in lots of time in live performance onstage by the time she graduated high school, eventually performing with several of her own bands- the Lubbock Street Band, Leonhardt, Jenny & the Whalers, and more recently the Pattycakes, a mix of bandmates and family pro musicians.
Drawing comparisons to other songwriters as disparate as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash (she earned the nickname ‘Jenny Cash‘ on tour in early acoustic sets) and Patti Smith, artists she spent little or no time listening to growing up (per house rules), her live shows delivered a unique approach to musical styling, naturally combining seemingly opposing elements. Her sound draws deeply from the blues, old poetry and miscellaneous mythologies, and homage to multi-cultural themes. Her songs have been covered by fellow singer-songwriters and country bands, included in indie films (a project about Native American activist Leonard Peltier) and on terrestrial radio playlists and compilations with folks like John Hiatt, Bobby Bare and, yes, even Johnny Cash. Since the Lingerie stage, she’s shared billing, live radio broadcasts and festival billing with folks like Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, Doug Burr, Kevin Gordon, Mike Doughty and Tom Freund -adding up miles on an old Nikon documenting a time of unrest and change in her own life as well as the country’s, photos she posted on a blog she maintained online since 2005.
Completing eight recordings in as many years was a necessity since she was writing for survival. The soul kind. Her first recordings are out-of-print: the first was the 5-song EP Homeless (2004) recorded three months after the breakup of her marriage. Hard X (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-FM 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 complemented by guitarist-producer Matt Brown (Lucinda Williams, Bill Frissell and others) of Trespassers William in Seattle the following summer, who added some Otis touches, varied instrumentation and modern dream pop layers. The record was well received by music critics: “The arrival of a major new talent. Leonhardt is a gale force to be reckoned with.” (Luke Torn, Pop Culture Press).
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.” Compilations that followed included (now-defunct) ShutEye Record’s United State of Americana Vol 4 (2006), A Taste of Triple A with John Hiatt and samplers from Paste Magazine, Pop Culture Press, Texas Music Magazine and an anthology of Waterbug Records artists.
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, a re-release of the 2013 album with selected and new tracks, is forthcoming in 2022, a mix of old spirituals, traditional and contemporary folk songs and popular tunes from the ’20s through the ’70s following an eight year hiatus from the road. Initially recorded during live band sessions 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, in keeping with a traditional Irish wake. It was her first time back in the studio since the Heyday sessions.
‘Retooling’ is vague but close enough to describe the transitions and changes she has been working on in the in between years regarding her music, and 2022 will be no different. It has Jennifer once again prepping for shows, working on the re-release of Songs My Mother Sang, with additional selections of her mother’s favorites, and next year? A new record, unCovered, a collection of her own favorite covers to be turned ‘upside-down and inside-out’. the way Jenn has always sung popular songs.
Keep an eye out for updates on the News page of this site, subscribe to get news about her tour dates on Bandsintown – and, as Jenn says, “have a beautiful adventure out there and we’ll see ya soon at the stage!”
By A. McCarthy