Della Mae’s mandolin player and occasional vocalist Jenni Lyn Gardner is stepping into the roll of band leader while her group is on hiatus with a debut solo album. Burn Another Candle, which she released as Jenni Lyn, features a healthy mix of traditional music and progressive roots, including eight originals, a Jim Lauderdale cover and a track penned by Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney.
Gardner’s songwriting is significantly more accessible than that of her progressive mandolin playing contemporaries like Chris Thile and Sierra Hull; this often works to her advantage thanks to wise song choices. The exuberance and excitement of a song like “Stronger” would likely be lost in the movements and intricate solos typically found in newgrass mandolin playing. Likewise, her positive discussion about mental health would be less inspiring phrased in the genre’s signature high poetry. When Gardner does take full advantage of progressive melodies, it’s to allow her a chance to lean into a bluesy riff or build emotion, like the sense of separation anxiety on the excellent “Are You Okay Alone?.” The less than three minute run time of all but four tracks also fits well with Gardner’s at times breathless style and is likely to boost the appeal of her more traditional cuts like “You Don’t Love Me (Like You Use To)” to listeners already yearning for that sound.
Considering Burn Another Candle is named for an idiom, it shouldn’t be shocking that cliches appear on more than a couple of songs. Incredibly, the title track is not among those affected. Rather than recounting her hard work as a touring and recording musician, Gardner expresses an eagerness to put that same effort into her relationship. However, “Stars” and, to a lesser extent, “Don’t Cry Little Girl,” rely a little too heavily on the geological symbolism Gardner refers to as “the vocabulary of the bluegrass style.”
“Hickory Holler” is perhaps her most impressive achievement. Hand clapping, Gardner’s emotive delivery, and at times silly lyrics make this a rare bluegrass song likely to appeal directly to younger listeners. However, adults will enjoy the blast of nostalgia and Gardner’s declaration that a return to the feelings of rural childhood living is possible because it’s “a state of mind.”
Gardner recently spoke to Glide about her new album as well as her travels with the State Department with Della Mae.
You’ve been a member of a popular Grammy-nominated bluegrass band pretty much since the start of this decade. So how do you go about establishing your own identity now?
Well, making a record first of all. This is my first solo record so establishing my identity as a solo artist comes through the songs and the music. For the first time I’m writing songs and recording songs that are about me. The album is basically a direct reflection of my childhood, growing up, and the woman who I am currently.
On this record there are two identities that I’m seeing. You have a much more traditionally-minded bluegrass player and have someone in that vein of progressive bluegrass.
Absolutely. I think that was a natural progression just like making this record. I grew up on bluegrass music and that’s really what gets my blood pumping. So I have those roots in bluegrass, but they’re roots with branches. Through growing up and exploring a little bit more and playing with Della Mae and hearing so much music that’s out there today it was a natural progression for me. In one sitting I’ll write a bluegrass waltz and in the next I’ll write a poppy hook to a roots-pop song. It’s not something that I set out to do but I want to write songs that appeal to a modern generation. But I also want to keep the vocabulary and the language of the bluegrass style that I love.
You take advantage of that progressive style on a track called “Are You Ok Alone?” to convey a sense of separation anxiety.
That is a true story. It’s written from the perspective of me pining for someone who is out on the road, but in fact it was me who was gone from someone who was home. That song from a title I wrote down and I had it for months. I’m halfway around the country and I won’t be home for weeks and my question is “Are you okay alone?” That song could not be a more truer snapshot of where I was at the time that I wrote it last year. Because I was gone a lot and I was just checking in at home. Even though it’s written from the opposite perspective, there’s a lot of truth in that song.
And a song I hope there’s a lot of truth in is the one that kicks off the album with this declaration that you’re “Stronger.” Based on the lyrics, the question I want to ask is how did you figure out how to love yourself a little more?
It took a long time. I wanted to put it out there as a woman because I’m not afraid to admit that at times there has been a voice inside of my head that said to me “you’re not good enough to go out and make your own album and you’re not good enough to succeed at the things you want to in life.” It’s that voice inside that I think everyone’s had at times that chips away at us and keeps us from our dreams. I made a commitment to myself to live as healthfully as I possibly good and to not believe the voice inside my head. I believe there’s room in thing world for every creative being. Once I started to believe that and started to be really grateful for everyone in my life and everything that I have, only then was I able to find strength and write “Stronger.” I wanted a song that people could listen to and feel empowered. I almost buried it in the album but I decided to put it as the opening track, to put it out there that this is how I feel today. It’s already started to touch on people.
You do something really interesting in that song. I’ll call it a creative risk that I think pays off. Toward the end you almost sound out of breath and I find it pretty remarkable that you’d record yourself sound that out of breath.
I know what you’re talking about. It’s leading up to the last lines. I wanted to capture that passion and leave it there. Of course we could’ve done some tricks in the studio but I wanted to have that passion there. I wanted listeners to hear that. I think it’s more powerful to have a natural sound that it would be if it didn’t sound out of breath.
Burning a candle at both ends typically means working too hard or over doing it. I think you came up with a more passionate meaning for your title track.
It’s a little bit of both. It’s obviously a love song once you get into it. And burning the candle at both ends is something that I did a lot of while making this record because I was on tour, in the recording studio when I was not on tour and when those things weren’t happening I was making time and sacrificing sleep to spend time with the one that I love. That is another direct reflection of where I was at the time. I’m gonna have to stay up extra late, I’m gonna have to drink an extra cup of coffee today but I am determined to get this time in with the one that I love, with the record that I’m making and with the Dellas.
I don’t normally talk about current events too much on this show but given the recent court battles over one of the president’s executive orders and some suggested cuts to “soft diplomacy” programs I thought this might be a good time to ask you about what your experiences touring places with the state department.
Ugh. There is no better way to build bridges and form lasting relationships and bonds than through music. And diplomacy through music, seeing it first hand, is incredibly powerful. To go into a country where you don’t speak the language, where your news outlets on either side are just playing the worst of the worst images about you to them, about them to you, and then to sit down and look someone in the eye and realize right then and there to realize the compassion, the openness, and the sheer zest for life — you realize quickly that everyone in this world is way more similar than anyone lets on in the media. The thought of those programs being cut is really saddening, sickening and just disheartening. I cherish those trips I was able to go on. Music is a universal language and I’ve said it many times but music and art will be here way longer than anything else. That’s what will be here when we’re gone.
This might shock a few people, but you went to places like Pakistan with an all-female bluegrass band and had a good time.
Mhm. The very first show that we ever performed on our first Diplomacy Through Music State Department tour was in Pakistan. And we got out of the airplane and went directly to a women’s college. We did not know what to expect, we were back stage and all of a sudden the doors to the auditorium we were getting ready to perform in started shaking and you could hear screaming girls outside. We might as well have been the Beatles because these girls were about to break the doors down. From the first downbeat they were with us and all smiles. We got to meet a bunch of people and that could not have been a better welcome into the trip we were on. Any fear that might have been there I think we were way more excited than we were afraid. It was amazing. That set the tone for the rest of the trip. I still think about it often.