Interview: Actress Jill Hennessy Returns to Her Singer/Songwriter Roots with 'Ghost in My Head'

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Jill Hennessy / Photo by Gentl & Hyers

Jill Hennessy's music career has followed an unlikely trajectory. Prior to her high-profile acting gigs on shows like Crossing Jordan and Law & Order, Hennessy's dream was to become a musician. She's never relinquished this passion, and in recent years her music has come to the fore.

With the release of her first album, Ghost in My Head, many of her early dreams are coming to fruition. This year she's set to perform during Lilith Fair, which is a far cry from her early days as a street busker in Toronto and New York. She's also found herself in the company of many musicians she's long admired. Her debut album was produced by U2 engineer Patrick McCarthy and includes guest performances by artists such as Mike Mills (R.E.M.) and Martie Maguire (Dixie Chicks).

Although this is Hennessy's first album, the lyrics reveal an artist in her prime, and throughout the 10 tracks she uses her natural vibrato to convey both strength and vulnerability. LAist caught up with Hennessy earlier this week to learn about the new album, her strangest busking experience, and her gig Monday night at the Hotel Cafe.

LAist: Which was scarier—the first day you tried street busking or the first time you took to the stage with your new music?

Jill Hennessy: That's tough, though I have to say that my first busking experience was really terrifying. I could barely play the guitar. I'd taught myself with Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls and U2 songbooks. And I'm by no means a virtuoso lead guitarist; I'm a real straight-ahead rhythm guitarist.

Some of the thoughts that went through my head were: What right do I have to be here? Will I get arrested for not having a permit? Will people hate me or just ignore me?

But on the other side of that coin, there were no rules. It's great because it's one business where there are no real demands. You don't have to look, act or sound a certain way. You just throw it out there and see who responds to it.

What was the strangest experience you encountered while busking?

One day I was playing some U2 and a man gave me a Foster's oil can and a tube of lipstick. It was the most random thing.

Where did he get the lipstick? Was it his?

I don't even want to know. I think that one is best left unsolved. But it's definitely one of those things you never forget.

It's interesting, too, that you mentioned the three books you used to learn the guitar—Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls and U2. In the last couple years, you've worked with U2 collaborator Patrick McCarthy, and performed with the Indigo Girls. Are you going to try for Tracy Chapman to get the hat trick?

That would be great. I don't know if she's booked for Lilith Fair, but I should track her down and see. I'd love to meet her. And even if I couldn't swing a performance, I'd like to at least buy her a coffee!

In an earlier interview you said that one of your dreams was to tour with your music, and it looks like that's going to happen soon with Lilith Fair. What are you most looking forward to with that event?

I just can't wait to do the tour thing. I only have three dates so far, although I threw my hat in the ring to do some Canadian dates—I'm from Canada and my family is up there, so it would be very meaningful. This whole thing is a huge honor.

I'm also looking forward to focusing solidly on the music and playing with my band members. Two of them are in Austin and one's in Chicago, so it takes a lot to get everyone together. I'm psyched.

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Jill Hennessy - "Ghost in My Head"
Speaking of being on the road, many musicians do the bulk of their songwriting at home, yet it seems you do most of yours when you're on the road or at work. How does your environment shape the songs you're writing?

Yeah, home is the most chaotic place of all in my life, so I don't do much writing there. I've written in so many bizarre places. I don't even know if it's so much about the environment as what it allows me to do. As long as it's a place where I'm inspired or stimulated, and it's tranquil enough, then I'm able to go into this retreat within my memories and imagination.

Melody lines come out and the story comes out. The words often give me the melody line, but occasionally I'll come up with the melody first. Whatever comes first will bring the other entity along with it.

What's the most bizarre place you've ever written a song?

I was in the shower one day when a melody popped up, then the lyrics followed.

Did you have to write the lyrics on the fog of the shower door so you wouldn't forget them?

Nearly! The worst fear is "I'm going to forget this!" Especially if it comes to you while you're sleeping, or if you have a little insomnia. In fact, a lot of these songs came because I couldn't sleep at night. Things that torment me in the middle of the night seem a lot heavier. That's another reason why I just had to write these things down—so I could get some sleep!

Is it a surreal when someone completely relates to an intensely personal song of yours?

In some ways it's surreal and in some ways it's really not. I suppose that, in a way, the things that are the most personal are often the most universal. So it's interesting, and also incredibly satisfying, to have someone approach me after a show and talk about how one of my songs touched them. Maybe their mom left home when they were eight or their dad drank heavily...and they were able to find something in my music that they could relate to.

To tell you the truth, this is probably the most satisfying work I've ever done, because I'm actually telling my own stories. It's a very exposed, naked sensation.

Was sequencing the album a long process?

It was a long process, and one of the hardest parts was deciding which songs to keep off the album. That was tough. Thankfully, those are being used as bonus tracks or I'll put them on the next album. Some of my favorite ones aren't even on this one, but it was more about deciding what kind of story I wanted to tell as a whole.

Patrick and I wanted to keep it as its own entity with a beginning, middle and end. It took a long time and I went through a bunch of different arrangements. The best way to do it was to sit and listen to the whole thing each time. Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound—who worked with John Lennon and David Bowie and has done stuff with bands like MGMT—was also a great help with the sequencing.

Was the sequencing chronological?

Some of it is chronological in terms of the story of each particular song, starting with my childhood. One exception is the first song, "10,000 Miles," which deals with three people I've met throughout the years.

That song seems to have a bit of Irish flavor…

Is it the Bono primal scream at the end? (laughs) It may also be the instrument Robbie Gjersoe played in that one. He usually plays lead guitar and he's one of the best musicians out there, and he'll be joining me at the Hotel Cafe gig. Anyway, on that song he played something called a viol, which has a mandolin-type sound. It has such a specific—almost medieval—sound to it.

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Jill Hennessy / Photo by Anna Singer
You have some amazing guest musicians on this album.

It was great to record in Austin, because everybody knew everybody else and everybody was so sweet. It was incredible to get people such as Lloyd Maines; someone pitched the idea to him while we were all at an Easter egg hunt. I thought he'd just play on one song—and we'd be lucky to have that—but he showed up at the recording studio and brought an arsenal of instruments with him. He had lap steel, pedal steel, a papoose, a couple guitars…

Initially, he ended up playing on two songs, and when I went to thank him he said, "I'd like to do one more—a bigger rock song. People usually only think of me for pedal steel country stuff and I want to try something new." So he whipped out the papoose and absolutely killed it on "Holding On." I couldn't believe it.

I felt like I was in The Wizard of Oz—meeting all these amazing people along the yellow brick road at Bismeaux Studio in Austin.

In 2003 you performed two cover songs on the Crossing Jordan soundtrack. How did the recording experience with producer T-Bone Burnett inform the recording process for this album?

T-Bone—and another producer named Craig Street who joined us on the project—were fascinating to watch, plus they're so talented at assembling brilliant session players. Craig is a real sweet, free-flowing guy. And T-Bone has such amazing stories from the days he toured with Dylan.

I just tried to sit there and learn as much as I could. With T-Bone, I learned about the beauty of simplicity. We recorded a couple versions of Tom Waits' "You're Innocent When You Dream." The first had a big, booming, Irish kind of sound—a real pub song. Then he changed his mind and decided to bring it down and make it more of a lullaby.

Sometimes simpler is better. T-Bone told me, "Dylan always said, 'You don't have to do any fancy stuff. Just tell the story. Do it straight.'" And I thought, "That reminds me of the direction I got on Law & Order!"

Speaking of the musicians and the band, which song do you most enjoy playing live?

That's tough. "Save Me" is always a big crowd-pleaser. And I love doing "Erin." That's a nice way to vent some frustration. That's something these songs afford me in the way that acting does— a nice way to vent some suppressed emotion. And because I wrote the material, it's even more hard-hitting.

Is it true that you and your husband are essentially working as an independent label to distribute the album?

Yes, my husband and I are sort of our own label. We finance everything and we work from laptop computers with my friend, Anna, who's assisting us with the music. I'll be changing diapers on the floor and she'll be responding to Facebook requests and messages as I shout responses back to her.

I love your son Marco's little intro to "4 Small Hands." Did both of your sons choose that song as their favorite?

Yeah, that's probably their favorite song. Well, that and "Oh Mother" because they love the drums. They love anything that features drums.

And does your twin sister Jacqueline sing as well? I know the two of you did some acting together back in the day...

Yes, and at one point, after taking lessons from a voice/acting teacher, we started singing in shopping malls. It was pretty wild and kinda scary. If you talk to either my sister or me about it, we both cringe.

When I look back on it, though, I think, "That took a lot of guts." I mean, anytime I perform, I get nervous. But I remember feeling sheer terror before mall shows. I knew I'd be mortified if my friends were shopping that day. At least nowadays I'm nervous and excited when I perform.

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Jill Hennessy at the Mercury Lounge / Photo by Adam Jason Photography
You recently wrapped a film called Roadie in which you sing "Ghost in My Head." How did that come about?

I'd learned about the casting call for this part. Even though the character is a musician, they weren't specifically asking for someone who could sing and play, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to let them know I could do that as well.

So my agent called the casting director and they told me to bring my guitar to the audition. By the time the audition arrived, the director/writer had already heard a lot of my album and was pretty familiar with it, so I ended up getting the job and had a wonderful time.

He actually wanted to use one of my songs for a song my character writes in the film, and he chose "Ghost in My Head." That song is—in a very raw way—about loss, and it fit with the backstory of my character, who had suffered a loss. So it fit both the scene and the subtext.

When will that film come out?

I think he's trying for the Toronto Film Festival and/or Cannes. It was such a great cast, too. Ron Eldard, Bobby Cannavale and Lois Smith are amazing in it.

Looking to the future, and given the fact that you speak so many languages, do you think you might write and perform a song in another language on your next album?

I've been thinking about that. In one version of "Oh Mother," I sing a verse in Italian. So that'll probably be on the next album, too. One great thing about writing in another language is that it forces me to be unselfconscious, because I don't know how it's coming off to someone who speaks that language as a first language. In a way, that's kind of good. It forces me to write from the gut, which I love.

You'll be the playing the Hotel Cafe on Monday night. What's your favorite thing about that venue?

It has a lot of meaning for me because I've seen some of my favorite people there. I saw Patty Griffin there a couple years ago, who is a huge inspiration to me. Also, a friend of ours named Zachariah plays there all the time.

I just love the setup of the venue. It's intimate but it's big enough to get a good group of people in there. The acoustics are incredible. The gentleman who does the sound mixing is phenomenal. I love the feel of it, too. There's a feeling of reverence for the music. I'm not exactly sure why, but it seems like everything that happens in that room is somewhat sacred.

What are some of your favorite places to hang out when you come to LA?

LA is featured in a number of my songs, including one of my favorite places, the Laurel Canyon Country Store. There's a little coffee stand out front where you can get—I promise you—the best lattes, cappuccinos and coffee, and it’s served by a woman named Lilly. Her husband Spike, who's a filmmaker and artist, always hangs around there, too.

I mention her in my song "Holding On" with the lyrics "Smiling Lilly serves up coffee, with 'Hard Rain' playin' softly…" because they're always playing Dylan songs there.

They have the best pastries, too—almond croissants, scones, apple tarts. It's insane.

As for other LA restaurants, I miss getting sushi around here and going to Sushi Dan. And there are so many amazing Lebanese places such as Carnival in Sherman Oaks. They have the best tabbouleh and baba ghanoush.

You've often talked about your love for motorcycles. Have you done much riding in LA?

Yes. When I lived here, we'd drive up Mulholland and stop off at the Rock Store. And I remember once we went up north through the mountains and we were ascending so rapidly in elevation that one minute we were sweating and it was brutally hot, then within about 15 minutes we were freezing and we saw snow on the tops of the trees. And of course, there's nothing like riding up the coast! It's absolutely breathtaking.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Jill!

Don't miss Jill Hennessy at the Hotel Cafe this Monday night (Feb. 22) at 8 p.m. To learn more about her music, visit www.jillhennessy.com.