by Tracy Davis
photographs by Scott Sharpe
Jeanne Jolly is a jack of all trades, and also a study in contrasts.
A classically trained vocalist, Jolly’s new record, A Place to Run, takes her deep into country music territory. And while the Raleigh native may look like a composed Southern Grace Kelly, on stage, she gets down, with powerhouse vocals evocative of Linda Ronstadt and the ethereal harmonies of Alison Krauss.
Jolly’s hometown release show for A Place to Run will take place downtown at Lincoln Theatre later this month, and she’ll bookend that concert with three performances as a featured solo vocalist for the North Carolina Symphony’s trio of Thanksgiving holiday shows. Two are performances of traditional holiday songs, and the third, for children, features the music of Frozen.
From soulful country originals to Princess Anna from Frozen’s song For the First Time in Forever–for Jeanne Jolly, it’s all in a day’s work.
Growing up on an oak-lined street in Hayes Barton, Jolly was an entertainer from the start. “I was always on,” she says. “Doing impersonations, accents. I always loved making my family laugh.” Her parents’ favorite was a purposefully out-of-tune rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Jolly would start on pitch but then gradually “make it all go wrong, in ways that were just agonizing to hear.”
She could get the notes right when she wanted to, though. Jolly studied classical voice at Saint Mary’s School, then majored in music at Western Carolina University before heading north to the New England Conservatory of Music. There, she earned a master’s degree in vocal performance. “In classical music,” Jolly says, “there’s a perfection to it – a mark that’s there to hit, or not.”
From Boston, Jolly moved to L.A., where she took a job as a receptionist at a post-production house and quickly picked up work as an in-house vocalist, doing commercial and television spots. In time, she got her big break. The call came on a weekday afternoon, from Grammy-award-winning jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. He’d heard Jolly’s cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold and liked it. Could she perform a song at his show that night?
“I learned the song in my car on the way to the venue,” Jolly says. “I was beyond excited.” The show went well. So well that Botti signed Jolly on for a ten-day East Coast tour. “She called me from the bus,” says Chris Boerner, Jolly’s longtime musical collaborator (and friend since kindergarten at Lacy Elementary). “She’s telling me who she’s on this bus with, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
After the last show of the tour, Jolly recalls, “There I was, saying goodbyes and taking pictures with everyone like it was the end of summer camp.” Botti, puzzled, asked why. “He’s all: ‘What are you doing? You’re hired.’”
Figuring it out
Touring with Botti’s jazz elite for the next year and a half proved heady stuff, and Jolly’s still grateful. “I sang Good Morning Heartache in Carnegie Hall. In the audience was Ervin Drake, who wrote it, together with his wife, whom he wrote it about.” She shakes her head, remembering the moment. “My parents were there for that.”
When the Botti gig ran its course, Jolly found herself back in L.A., waiting tables at a sushi restaurant and working through a classic bad breakup while pondering what to do next. At that point, she recalls, she kept her plans simple: “I decided, ‘I’m going to listen to Waylon Jennings right now and have myself a whiskey on my porch.’ And that’s when I started to peel off the layers and figure out who I was.”
Her mother sent her a baritone ukulele, and Jolly dove into writing her own songs, thinking harder about the kind of music that moved her most. Her love of opera, Renée Fleming – but also Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Aretha Franklin. “I was identifying the source. The strings. Learning the nuances.”
She found stray papers from those sushi days recently, while packing for a move: orders on one side, fragments of would-be lyrics on the other. “It’s all salmon, eel, tuna, whoa!” she laughs. “I remember how fresh and at the tip of my mind those thoughts were. ‘I’m in L.A., but I’m not gonna stay. I’m in love, but it’s not gonna last.’ I was waiting for the universe to tell me what to do.”
What came was a devastating call from Raleigh, giving Jolly the news of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. From the start, they knew that time was short. Jolly packed up and came home.
“When you lose someone,” she says, “your heart rips. Then it grows back a little bigger.” In her first release, the 2010 EP Falling in Carolina, Jolly worked through that grief. Writing those songs “kept me up for days,” she says. “I had to write it. It was my therapy. Then, I realized: I am a songwriter.”
Back in her hometown, writing her own music, Jolly found new purpose. When grief began to lift, she says, “I had to find my joy.” She released her first record, Angels, in 2012. Joy came from other sources, too: Last October, she married her boyfriend of four years, Todd McLean, whom she met after a show at Deep South. The two have a yellow lab, Lucy.
So her latest, A Place To Run comes, quite literally, from a new and different place. That’s reflected in how the record was made. Says Boerner, who produced it: “To make a record all at one time – to me, that’s the definition of a record. Capture a moment in time. Capture where you’re at, personally and emotionally, at that time.”
Recorded over four intense days in Kernersville’s Fidelitorium Recordings, A Place To Run was a marathon sprint. No rehearsals. “You get in the zone,” Boerner says. Both he and Jolly cite as a standout the last night of recording, when they were laying down the final tracks for Circles in the Sky. The song is inspired by Jolly’s mother. They had plans for Phil Cook, the Megafaun musician, to add slide guitar and lap steel after he arrived late in the evening from a session working on his own record. “At around nine,” Boerner recalls, “we send Phil a text. We say, we’re tired. Phil says, Nope! He’s on his way. He shows up and brings this huge energy – and closure – to the session. It somehow becomes refreshing to stay up till 4 a.m.”
“All guitars, in this big, vibey room,” says Jolly. “It was an orchestra of guitars.” Imperfect, captured, a moment in time.
Jolly’s still mindful of the possibility of perfection, that “hit-or-miss mark” from her classical days. Its beauty is sharp, precise – as alluring as ever. What’s different now is that with her own songs – and the stories and experiences she chooses to share through them – she has an ever-longer list of reasons to aim for something different. Something more organic, rougher around the edges, more honest. Because emotions are like that.
“Does the song match what’s in my head?” Jolly nods to herself; that’s what she’s after, and she’s aiming true. “I want to find the emotional place I’m trying to hit.”
A Place To Run release show
November 21; 7 p.m.; $15 in advance, $18 at the door;
Lincoln Theatre, 126 E. Cabarrus St.; lincolntheatre.com
Thanksgiving week performances with the North Carolina Symphony
Children’s show featuring the music of Frozen, November 25, 3 p.m., $23 and up; and performances featuring holiday classics, November 27-28, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday, $42 and up; all performances at Meymandi Concert Hall, 2 E. South St.; ncsymphony.org