Jenee Halstead
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Jenee Halstead

Somerville, Massachusetts, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2016 | SELF

Somerville, Massachusetts, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2016
Solo Folk Alternative

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"The River Grace"

Clear, cool, smooth and full-bodied. This isn't a description of wine, but rather of Jenee Halstead's voice. Her album, The River Grace, showcases Halstead's writing and vocal talents in ten tracks of varying moods and depths. Firmly rooted in the acoustic folk genre, Halstead experiments with instrumentation utilizing mandolins, dobros and some keyboards.

The album starts off with an upbeat ballad, "Before I Go." Halstead's alto voice hits ethereally high and hauntingly low notes in the track "Deep Dark Sea." Intricate instrumentation in the title track doesn't make up for the lack of a catchy melody, and due to the short length, it isn't the most memorable track.

"Nick Drake" is a tribute to one of her influences, and the wistful lyrics float off Halstead's tongue. "How do you dance all night, when your heart won't feel the rhythm, your feet won't take to flight?" On the track "Darkest Day," Halstead narrates the story of a doomed love, some guns and a highway chase. Comparisons to Dolly Parton and Patty Griffin are bound to arise with Halstead's vocal command and versatility.

The whimsical lyrics of "Drunkard's Lullaby" don't quite match the slow melody, but it's interesting nonetheless. A twangy guitar and lyrics alluding to county fairs make an appearance in the very country "Dusty Rose," while the bluegrass influence, reminiscent of Alison Krauss & Union Station, can be heard in "Reach Up."

Halstead sounds very much like a female Nick Drake on the chorus of "Skipping Stones," with the melody drawing inspiration from Drake's Pink Moon. The album ends with "St. Peter," a track with a strong vocal performance by Halstead, sounding more mature than her young years. The stand out tracks are "Deep Dark Sea," "Nick Drake," and "Reach Up." (self-released)

Priyanka Boghani
- PerformerMag: Northeast Performer


"Jenee Halstead—CD release"

Jenee Halstead and her band filled Club Passim with devoted fans and southern lullabies for the release party of The River Grace. Halstead, a Washington state native, mentioned she had first visited Passim two years previously when she first moved to Boston, and was honored to be able to play the room for her release party. Halstead has been compared to such greats as Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. Her sound carried the dusty spirit of old country folk but with a modern, young and fast-pasted twist.

Halstead’s lacy voice, complete with a signature country-warble, lead the band into songs about highway legends and memories of love. Luke Price on fiddle noticeably supported the flow of each song with his tender sound. The night started out with “Dusty Rose” a slow country/folk ballad interwoven with essences of dobro and upright bass.

“The Darkest Day”, which carried her strongest melody, is proof that a story about a run from the police can be bone-chillingly beautiful. Her voice gracefully stretched to capture the perfect notes which sparkled soft and quick like stars in the harmony of the song.

The watery, waltzy blues of “St. Peter” silenced the already focused audience. Halstead’s voice sank dark and sultry as she sang of motivation and life-lessons for a loved one. The steady strum of the guitar and call of the mandolin throughout the song seemed to agree and encourage the message in the sad, but hopeful lyrics.
In between songs, Halstead would joke with her band mates and the audience. The teamwork of all the musicians was obvious. Each member of the group playing gently enough to illuminate the strength in Halstead’s voice without allowing the sound of their own instruments to be lost. Throughout the evening Halstead and her band would start out in different musical locations and find each other harmoniously before the end of each song.

Halstead ended the set by playing a rendition of Gillian Welch’s, “Winter’s Come and Gone.” Ironically, outside was the first day of Boston’s warmth and sunshine since the infamous winter’s end. The band played Welch’s tune as enthusiastic as the audience’s applause afterward. The band returned to the stage with a heartfelt encore of “Keep Me Alive” by Sarah Siskind.

Review by Meghan Chiampa - Northeast Performer Magazine


"A strong debut from the (other) Cambridge folk scene."

A strong debut from the (other) Cambridge folk scene.

Jenee Halstead has sprung from Harvard Square’s Club Passim, in Cambridge Massachusetts, the same fertile ground that has in the recent past set Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna on their way to bigger things. Jenee has a pretty, but fairly traditional sounding voice not dissimilar to Emmylou, like Joni but with fewer acrobatics, she also has an element of vulnerability in her singing that makes her believable, emotionally affecting and very listenable.

The instrumentation on the record is a successful combination of traditional (mandolin, dobro, guitars, pedal steel etc. etc.) and elements of 21st century derivation, the latter being some electronica blips and modern beats here and there. ‘Deep Dark Sea’ for example, has a folk styled vocal over what these days qualifies as a ‘chill out’ backing. The title track is more traditional, leaning towards country, but again beautifully sung. ‘Darkest Day’ is a story song along the lines of Beth Orton’s ‘Stolen Car’, or Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, sample lyric -‘We were drunk and high, doing 95 past a cop, so blown we didn’t see, by the time the chase was underway, one had turned to three, you met my eye, patted your 45 and said they aint never gonna get me’, now that’s some proper grown up writing, not dissimilar to Lori McKenna either.

Calling a song ‘Nick Drake’ is obviously a bit of a giveaway, like the Replacements calling a song ‘Alex Chilton’, you know where this is going, having said that, the song evokes Nick Drake without sounding exactly like him, though understandably the fact that it’s a female vocal does deflect. This is a very strong debut, from an artist with a clear and obvious talent, great voice, and strong songs, everything is in place, but as ever, finding an undoubtedly deserved larger audience is the tricky part.

Patrick Wilkins
- Americana UK


"The River Grace"

Firmly yet buoyantly set against dark hollow melodies and a strong Emmylou vibe, The River Grace reveals Jenee Halstead as a keenly observant and focused singer/songwriter performer to listen and watch for.

Blending backwoods instrumentation with Boston beats and a tenacious and tender alto, Halstead's songs reverberate through the hills and the heart. Serving as the disc's emotional core are the daring modern day murder ballad Darkest Day; Drunkard's Lullabye ("I married you 'cos you're a good man/But the devil has his eye on you") and Dusty Rose (easily one of the best country songs of late). But it is the title track, Reach Up and the quietly resonant Skipping Stones that fully displays a spirit and voice that's been around this block before, and they'd like to tell us something.

Mike Jurkovic
- FAME


"The River Grace"

Effortlessly unifying the realms of delta blues, folk, and the popular idiosyncratic female pop genre, Jenee Halstead is as much a product of contemporary times as she is of the tumultuous ‘60s when folk and pop music took on the heavy task of providing solace and escape to an entire generation. Halstead’s voice is as beautiful as her music is gracefully crafted. “The River Grace� may well be the first movements of a rising star.

Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
- On Tap Magazine


"The River Grace"

This is one gorgeous debut CD. Jenee Halstead's voice has a country/folk cutting edge that slices into you the moment you hear it. Songs with a timeless feel like "Deep Dark Sea" utilize her sharp tone (yet smooth delivery) to great effect. Judging by the superlatives among the critical responses on the CD Baby web site, I'm not alone in my assessment. A consummate writer, her song "Nick Drake," sounds directed at the famous writer and someone else as well.
"How do you put meaning into something that is not there? I'm so lonely now I just don't care." I don't recall seeing other songs in tribute to this late, great songwriter. It's a stroke of genius to use a style that reflects Drake and use him in the title. This one is definitely iPod bound.

Richard Cuccaro

- Acoustic Live


"The River Grace"

"The River Grace" opens with sandpaper percussion and producer Evan Brubaker's high-strung guitar, introducing a sound one step left of typical roots music. Sure, you'll hear dobro aplenty and down-tempo tunes throughout. You'll also find keyboard effects and a song called Nick Drake. But it's Halstead's voice that makes "The River Grace" stand out. She treads in Alison Krauss/Patty Griffin territory with vocals that ache, whisper, and resonate. The album's strongest songs contrast dark tales with the vulnerability in Halstead's voice. "Darkest Day" spins a yarn about young lovers, petty criminals rushing headlong into tragedy. The I in "Drunkard's Lullaby" tells her man to sleep it off in the tank until "you know what your name is." The narrator of "Dusty Rose" smells a fragrance on her man she recognizes from a woman they'd run into at the county fair. She sends him away with this brutal gotcha song, despite their 25-year relationship and her fondness for the scent. Such surprises help make "The River Grace" a strong debut.

David Kleiner
- Minor 7th


"Lone Rangers"

Le Cri du Coyote (translated):
Jeene (sic) Halstead has decided to take full advantage of this "River Grace," she has thrown herself in the water on this CD. Hailing from Somerville, US, Jeene (sic) is unique for her voice as well: delicate, intricate, a perfect marriage of Sam Phiillips (sic) and Emmylou. A beautiful, acoustic, dream-like, country-folk album. One doesn't know much about her but there is, on "The River Grace" details which don't lie: she will go far …

Eric Supparo
- Le Cri du Coyote


"Review of The River Grace"

The amazing power of an arresting voice and simple instrumentation knows no limits. Throughout the annals of music history there is a laundry list of inspired, folk-poets who seem to have an inherent and incurable ability to weave spirited stories through just a voice, an acoustic guitar and deft instrumentation. Boston-based singer/songwriter Jenee Halstead has that aura of legacy on her debut record The River Grace. Raised in the Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest, Halstead moved to Boston in the mid 90s in an effort to flee a wrecked romance and to join the ranks of the city's vaulted singer/songwriter/folk scene.

The musical landscape of The River Grace is muted, tame and calm. Don't expect anything flashy or uplifting. Everything is delicate, balanced and intricate. The album opens with the introspective "Before I Go," and establishes the mood from the very start. As an opener it's not entirely inspiring but rather dark and hollow and sets the course for the imminent adventure, which is both bumpy and unfailingly honest. Second track "Deep Dark Sea," is the kind of song whose simple audacity can reverberate around rooms and penetrate hearts for days. When she sings, "March out of the water, rowing oars that heave and falter, giving into the crash of a wave, seals to serenade the brightly beating wings of a seagulls’ parade, if anyone asks me, this is where I’ll be," it's hard to turn away or not pay attention.

More to it than that, the song seems to come from a place that reveals the story may indeed be based on fact. There's a guttural pull and lure that seems too hard to fake. Title track "The River Grace," seems to go after the same things as its predecessor but in a slightly more inspired manner. "Nick Drake," never once mentions the ill-fated British singer/songwriter, but the song's steely chilliness resounds with the trappings of his craft, most especially when she sings, ""How do you dance all night, when your heart won't feel the rhythm, your feet won't take to flight? "How do you put meaning into something that is not there? I'm so lonely now I just don't care."

Easily the album's best song, "Darkest Day," is a daring, percipient and unconquerable murder ballad that penetrates, probes and pushes the listener to feel tenderness and sincerity despite the protagonist's undeniable transgressions. Hard to argue with lyrics like, "We were drunk and high, doing 95 past a cop, so blown we didn’t see, by the time the chase was underway, one had turned to three, you met my eye, patted your 45 and said they ain't never gonna get me." Building on that sense of disappointment is the forlorn "Drunkard's Lullabye," in which a farmer's wife concedes that despite his weaknesses, her husband is still her man, "I married you, cause you're a good man, but the devil has his eye on you." She follows that up with "Dusty Rose," a Texas-inspired country song that has the same kind of magnetism of June Carter Cash, and in some ways even hearkens back to Depression-era balladry.

"Reach Up," features the same kind of bittersweet optimism as that of Dave Matthew's "Gravedigger," as she sings, "Reach up to the sky, so you know how heaven feels, when you die." The song's stark tone is comparable to the album's earlier songs and doesn't do much in the way of orchestration, but sure does pack an emotional wallop. The album's final two tracks, "Skipping Stones," and "St. Peter," offer the listener two wholly different sentiments and reveal the kind of power this simple disc has. On "Stones," Halstead sings of optimism and inner tenacity despite the mountainous obstacles that can often stand in the way, "One skip for the hardship, two skips for the troubles, three skips for the worries, four skips and their gone." On "Saint Peter," she sings of accepting a lover's fate and discerning the true err of his ways, "Are you soon expecting to greet the dead? With a hole in your heart and thorns on your head."

In just ten songs, Halstead manages to say and do so much, in ways few other artists can. Her spirit and her voice reveal a singer/songwriter who seems to have been around the block many times before and has both a voice and stories that are wise beyond her years. These are the kind of songs that send artists to legendary status and place themselves in museums. That this is just her debut is remarkable. Her tender alto has the same tenderness and sensitivity that folk stalwarts Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin have worn to prominence and that future seems almost certain for Halstead. Though the album was released in the spring of 2008, Halstead is still touring in support of the album and it's a disc that certainly demands wider acclaim. Already at work on an EP due out later this year, Halstead is also at work with the Boston-based band The Broken Blossoms.

Producer Evan Brubaker, who founded Seattle's Cake Records is a talented musician, who has a great ear for talent and seems to know what to do behind the knobs. The few touches he puts on the album are very akin to the simple elegance lauded producer Rick Rubin often puts on his singer/songwriter projects. The songs on The River Grace are atmospheric, incisive, perceptive and timeless. He doesn't add any bells and whistles, instead he lets Halstead sing her songs and tell her stories, and man is it something. For all intents and purposes, The River Grace is a poor man's Wrecking Ball, an album as good as Patty Griffin's Living With Ghosts, and as transcendent as Dar William's The Honesty Room. Spellbinding and seductive, The River Grace is an album that understands the human condition and recognizes the inherent frailty in all of us. If only all albums could do such things.
-Gregory Robson - AbsolutePunk.net


"Jenee Halstead - Old Time, Internet Time"

In a cavernous living room lit with the glow of 24 candles, Jenee Halstead and her band start to play. There are no wires, spotlights or microphones, simply a half circle of four musicians standing in a corner. The scene brings to mind a Depression-era campfire, not a suburban house concert a few miles south of Boston, with well-to-do guests nibbling catered barbeque and sipping wine from long-stemmed glasses.

The near-absence of light makes such a mental leap more possible. The group’s strumming forms are mere shadows; the hazy darkness punctuated by fiddle salvos, deft guitar and mandolin runs, and Halstead’s quivering, sweetly crooning voice.

Though the music is deep and distant, the story behind its creation is as modern as an iPhone. Using MySpace, Facebook and other technology tools of the independent music trade, talents were verified, reputations vetted and friendships cemented days, even weeks before anyone met face to face to play songs that would make Woody Guthrie smile in approval.

Or even George Clinton, as Halstead’s rapidly assembled network of bluegrass purists, an old school producer, his song doctor wife and some electronica-affected friends combined to make “The River Grace,” a pitch perfect blend of traditional picking and modern tweaking.

Old time, meet Internet time.

“It happened really quickly,” Halstead says. Soon after arriving in Boston in mid-2006, she created a MySpace page. “I had some recordings I’d done right before I left Seattle. Within literally 2 or 3 days, I got a comment from Matt Smith at Club Passim.”

Smith, who manages the venerable Cambridge folk institution, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, told Halstead he liked her stuff and to keep in touch. He also mentioned her to some of his friends.

Meanwhile, Jenee placed an ad on the Craig’s List web site, with an eye towards putting together a band in the spirit of Crooked Still. “I always wanted to do bluegrass, but didn’t think I could because I wasn’t schooled in it.” Of her reservations about seeking out seasoned pickers, she says, “it was like walking on sacred ground.”

Guitarist Andy Cambria answered the ad. “I heard her stuff and knew right away that she could be in front of a band,” he says.

Five weeks and a flurry of e-mails later, they were playing together.

Halstead divided her time between building a name in Boston and recording an album in Pennsylvania. The solo acoustic project collapsed in a cloud of romantic confusion with the record’s producer. “Trying to decide if we were going to be a couple … got too difficult,” she says. “It was disheartening to lose all that work, all those hours.”

“Out of the blue, I got an email from Evan Brubaker, saying Matt Smith told me to check you out.” Though she had long lived in the same city as the producer, Smith’s e-mail was their first introduction.

“I’m totally horrified that you lived in Seattle for nine years and I never knew about you,” wrote Brubaker to Halstead.

“I was instantly drawn to her mixture of old time and poetry,” says Brubaker. “I let her know that if she ever needed to do some recording, I would be honored.”

Halstead’s songs are at once beautiful and tinged with night-sweat inducing dread - Appalachian gothic tales of fear, suffering and salvation. Things aren’t simple, meanings are never quite clear.

Though she describes herself as “non-religious but spiritual,” themes of heaven and hell abound. Death is a constant companion.

If Flannery O’Connor were raised in Spokane, Washington, listening to her father’s Led Zeppelin albums, she might have sounded like this.

On the title track from “The River Grace,” a woman struggles to live in a time of war. When, at the song’s bridge, she implores, “embrace the undertow/take me home,” it’s not certain whether she’s praying to be carried across the waves or beneath them.

A crime spree at the heart of “Darkest Day” echoes Robert Earl Keen’s “Road Goes on Forever,” but the tragedy at song’s end is more palpable, the heroine’s devastation permanent.

Then there’s “Dusty Rose,” a song that seems lifted from Loretta Lynn’s Jack White sessions. It’s either a murder ballad or the final sad chapter of “Stand By Your Man” – the singer won’t tell.

Halstead - her first name rhymes with Renee – says her songs are “stories of people’s lives that came to me subconsciously.” Whether the narrator of “Dusty Rose” is a killer or a grieving widow is something she emphatically doesn’t know.

“These are not my stories,” she says. “There’s some woman out there who owns that song. I don’t know who she is.”

“It’s a healing thing to let them go,” she continues, and let others decide their meaning.

That’s a sentiment she shares with another songwriter, Patty Griffin, who once likened her songs to children set free in the world.

The first Velvet Underground record didn’t sell a lot of copies, but (so the legend goes) everyone who bought one started a band. The same is probably true of Patty Griffin. Not a lot of people heard “Living With Ghosts” when it came out, but many young women - including Jenee Halstead – did, and were inspired to buy a guitar and a notepad.

“I don’t think I started writing songs because of her,” Jenee says, “but I think she gave me the impetus to really get on my guitar and try to do some emotional mining.

Evan Brubaker is also a fan - he even named his recording studio “Forgiveness,” after a Patty Griffin song. “’Living With Ghosts’ is the chick singer bible,” he said recently. “The songs are simple but brilliant and universal. I don’t know how many copies of that record I have given away.”

Before coming to Seattle to work on the record, Halstead and Brubaker had long phone conversations about the “old timey” record she hoped to make. “I really trusted Evan,” she says. “Who he was at his core and his vision of music and why he’s doing it lined up with everything.”

A couple of things, however, gave her pause.

Songwriting, says Halstead, “is like entering a pitch black room, and the light may never go on. And to be honest, I don’t know if I want it to.”

Opening up such a dark and solitary process to another writer was a challenge. Megan Peters is both an accomplished lyricist and Evan Brubaker’s wife. She is also, says the producer, “one of the best co-writers in existence.”

But for Halstead, letting go was a challenge. “It was very hard at first to work with Megan,” she says. “She is a tour de force, so I was a little bit intimidated by her.”

“She is truly a master of the craft,” she continues. Peters has an ability to “look at it from all angles or take a song in a direction you would never have thought about in a million years.”

Brubaker’s biggest idea of all was perhaps the one that took the most getting used to.

Hearing that keyboard player Steve Moore would be available for a few days, Brubaker says, “I got a flash of how it would all come together.”

“Steve is brilliant. He has a collection of 80’s Casio keyboards, a bunch of guitar pedals, a little amp and a Fender Rhodes. He plays free jazz, hardcore, singer-songwriter…the guy is game for anything.”

“I couldn’t imagine how keyboards fit into the old-time sound,” countered Halstead.

“We started messing around with live drum samples for fun,” she says. “I said, ‘slam a crazy (Roots drummer) Questlove beat behind “Before I Go”’ - just as a joke.”

“I loved it. Over the course of the next 24 hours it opened my mind.”

Co-mingling beat samples with mandolins, dreamy organ excursions and Dobro flourishes is, to say the least, unconventional. But it infuses “The River Grace” with adventure and irreverence, transforming it from a merely good folk album to a pivotal record that comes along once in a generation to invent a new musical language.

Article written by Michael Witthaus
- The Eagle Times, Argus and Spectator


Discography

River Grace LP 1/1/08
Hollow Bones EP 1/10/10
Raised By Wolves 5/25/12

Photos

Bio

Heading into the studio to record her third release, Jenee Halstead arrived at an awkward conclusion: She needed to throw away all of her songs.

"I had been thinking a lot about the wild -- about instinct and intuition", Halstead says. "I knew that I wanted to capture these ideas on this album but I just wasn't sure how it would happen. Once I got to the studio and played through the songs, the answer seemed obvious."

Halstead decided to scrap all but two songs ("Building you an Altar", co-written with David Wax, and "Heart Song"). Ditching her trademark character sketches she started over, writing in first person and swapping her guitar for piano and ukulele. In ten days, she and Evan Brubaker (producer of Halstead's debut album, The River Grace) wrote and tracked nine new tunes, including "Rodeo of Sadness" and "Never Another", inspired by Elliot Smith's last moments. The result is Raised By Wolves -- Halstead’s most personal and ambitious recording thus far.

"I am still surprised by it," Halstead says. "We just followed our instincts, just like I had hoped to. Even the songs like ‘River of Doubt’, that I would've normally considered 'dark' don't seem to feel that way because there is so much energy behind them."

With creative abandon, Raised By Wolves slams an old beat box into surf guitars, banjo, and ukulele; mixing a chorus of tenor guitars, handclaps, and synth bass. Drawing on influences like PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, multi-instrumentalist/producer Brubaker (Rachel Harrington & The Knockouts, Edie Carey) empties the musical space, giving all the attention to Halstead’s extraordinary voice. The twisted banjo of Danny Barnes, sly drumming of Joel Litwin, and nearly unrecognizable Dobro of Colby Sander help Raised By Wolves create a re-invigorated Dark Pop/Americana that surrounds Halstead’s vocals with a variety of surprises.

Halstead grew up in the high desert of Spokane, Washington, the daughter of hippie parents who let her find her own direction. She spent her childhood exploring her mother’s garden and singing along to records with her Dad. In middle school, she transformed into the rarest of birds; an athletic choir geek who
sang medieval choral works, but loved Led Zeppelin and Dolly Parton. She wrote quietly on her own for years, moving from place to place – Spokane to Seattle to nowhere Alaska, before moving to Boston in 2007. She collected all of her songs into what would become The River Grace. Raised By Wolves reclaims the careless freedom of her childhood with a sense of wonder that is unique and fiercely engaging.