Independent singer-songwriter, jean mann, 53, grew up in an idyllic, overgrown house on the edge of Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, WA.
The vistas from her childhood home—all sky and water—find their way into her music, again and again. A lush mix of guitars, ukulele, harmonica, strings, unique tunings, and haunting vocals make her work hypnotizing and addictive. Her third CD, daisies and fire (blue flower friday records, 2007) became the soundtrack of my life for much of the last year. I played that CD over and over, soothed by jean’s vocals and the simple, clean arrangements. During a time of great turmoil for me, her music got under my skin. I found myself humming it constantly.
A little backstory: I’ve known jean since high school. Although we’ve never been close friends, we ran with the artsy crowd back in the day and knew all the same people. However, after high school, I left our hometown for the wilds of New York. jean kicked around Bellingham for a few more years, working this job and that, and then started her own cooking business after moving to Seattle. She was 23. For the next twenty-two years, she did gourmet cooking and catering in private homes.
Hearing her music for the first time last year, I wondered how this woman with a flair for beautiful, tasty comfort food, ended up as an entrepreneurial singer-songwriter who runs basically, everything, and then some, for her life as ‘jean mann’, soulful chanteuse.
In 1996, mann picked up her first guitar. She was 35-years-old, well past the age that most of us would embark on a solo music career. However, embark she did. For a few years, she noodled around with it, learning chords and progressions, and eventually mastering a selection of cover tunes. Initially, that’s all it was: playing music for the joy of it. Soon, however, she started to feel braver; that led to performances at open mikes at various venues in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, it wasn’t something she considered a career move. She simply dabbled and enjoyed going to see other musicians perform. Then, “In 1999, my mother passed away, and, out of some pretty awful grief, I started writing songs. They came out of left field. They were totally unexpected.”
Why was writing songs unexpected?
“I’d never written anything!”
For mann, her experience of diving into visual art and music and its therapeutic elements all started at once. 1999. Her mom’s death jarred her into expressing what was dormant inside of her. “I wrote my first ten songs and then saved up to record them, which I did, a year later in 2000. What started as an EP project became a full length CD, and later completely sold out. Now it’s available only as a digital download.” She sounds mystified and proud, thinking back.
From there, she continued to build a following and tentatively started to tour, first in the Pacific NW, and later the West Coast of the US, then other cities in the US, and finally, in October 2014, she played two weeks in Europe, one show a day (12 total) in four different countries.
In the past decade, she’s built a career as an independent recording artist and performer. She’s not obsessive about it, but she uses all the skills she learned running her cooking business to keep her music career on solid ground.
Mann sells her work through CD Baby based in Portland, Oregon. Another site, Bandcamp, sells digital downloads of her work. Since she started, she’s written and recorded five full length CDs. Besides daisies and fire, she’s released between the rocks and stars (2013), dream of goats (2011), seasons (2004), and her first CD, blossom (2000). Most of her earlier CDs are nearly sold out. She plans to reprint the latest one, later this year. She’s done something that is very hard to do: made her living as a musician and artist.
She says independent artists should, “always be networking, planning the next thing, and supporting the music scene wherever they are.”
jean mann has toured regularly since 2000. She cautions that you need to, “love traveling and love driving.” Her dog, sunny, is always along with her when she goes out on tour. While out, she makes a point of balancing fun, time spent, and money coming in. She started out as what a fellow musician told her to become: a ‘weekend warrior.’ At first, she did weekend tours, no more than a day’s drive from home. Now, after building a large list of fans, she does house concerts (intimate, two-set concerts in private homes) all over the country. Her fans book her shows sometimes a year in advance.
“Each show you add to your list. You sell digital downloads on gift cards or your latest CD. You encourage your fans to invest in your product.”
When I ask her about influences, she thinks for a bit before saying, “Neil Young – for helping me realize that writing songs with simple chord progressions was possible; Kate Bush for showing me what it was like to have the vocal freedom to try new things; and John Hiatt,” whose lyrics “inspire” her. Her music has an alternative flavor. She sees her style as eclectic. She loves artists like Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Wilco, Daniel Lanois, and Greg Brown, whose music is rooted in folk, blues, country, and alternative sounds.
She advises the young musicians she encounters, to “Be good at what you do. Get experience playing for people. Put together a product that people want to take home with them.”
These days she hosts mentoring sessions (roundtable discussions) for musicians who find themselves stuck in one way or another. She offers input through her own experience on her process, what she does and doesn’t do, and advice on how to build a creative community that supports your dream. “That is what is enriching for you. That community builds camaraderie, and helps you get your name out. Relationships are so important in the music business.”She reminds her mentees to, “Realize that you can learn from everything and everyone.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask her, “Are you happy? Are you fulfilled?”
Without hesitation she says, “Oh, yes. I am happy with the choices I’ve made, the people I’ve met, and the direction my life has taken. Performing touches people. I absolutely love it.”
She also likes, “calling all the shots,” and directing her career as an artist. She’s been her own boss for the past thirty years (first as a chef, now as a musician/artist). The past fifteen years in music have been particularly satisfying. She laughs—a deep, rustic, husky laugh—that closes our conversation by saying, “What can I say? I’m a late bloomer. I started late, but here I am.”
To find out more about jean and her music, visit her website.
Shavawn M. Berry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, elephant journal, Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Vagina – The Zine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview – A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. Her technique essay on the dramatic monologue/persona poem is featured in a poetry database published in 2013 by Ebsco Publishing. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir.
Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University where she just completed a 2013 Lincoln Ethics Teaching Fellowship. You can follow her on Facebook or read more of her work on her blog. A portfolio featuring a selection of her essays, blog postings, and prose is available at Shavawnberry.contently.com.