“glass spilling over, pouring out the past, room fills up, a story’s cast” – Jean Mann
The stories that spill from the past of singer-songwriter Jean Mann are as rich and varied as the images that fill the lyrics of her six albums. Growing up “in a drafty, idyllic home along the shores of Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, Washington,” she recalled early music experiences that became the foundation of her writing landscape. “I can remember my mom listening to opera on the radio every Saturday as she did kitchen tasks,” she reflected. When her mother was particularly “swept up in an aria”, Jean would steal apple slices that had been freshly cut. Those aria-infused kitchen experiences “had a profound effect that I didn’t realize till much later.”
A brief stint in a church choir and violin lessons were followed by “noodling around on the family purple piano, singing and playing whatever songbooks were around,” Jean elaborated, “It was the 1970’s….let’s leave it at that!” High-school choir and a bit of music theory at a university followed before she struck out on her own.
“When I moved out of the house, the piano was too big to move,” she said, “so guitar seemed like a good idea. I dabbled with this for just a couple months and left it behind until decades later, when I was loaned a guitar and remembered a couple of chords. Music finally grabbed my heart ‘strings’ in earnest and has yet to let go.” At 35, Mann had found an instrument she would never have to leave behind due to its size.
But the movement from playing guitar to sharing her music was not an easy transition. “At the age of 36, I started getting up on stage at open mics to help get over my crippling stage fright and shyness.” She then started writing original songs a couple of years later, “sparked by my grief over the death of my mother.” A self-taught songwriter, her process evolved over the years, and now she “continually strives for texture, not to repeat the same song over and over.” Though she has overcome much of her shyness, stage jitters, which can happen with small or large crowds, “can still grab me when I least expect it. I’ve just learned to breathe through it.”
To find a fresh perspective in each song, Mann explained that she is, “inspired by life senses all around me …smells, sounds, and sights on the road, walking the dog, books, and just being out in the community which bring out tucked away memories and experiences for songs. The other day I saw a billboard that had the words pedal pushers on it. (Capri’s or clam diggers for the younger reader!) It was an instant memory flood of childhood summers and skinned-knees, and found its way into a new song.”
As her original songs were worked into performances, Jean received confirmation that she was doing what she was created to do. “The consistent feedback I got from my first audiences about how they could relate to my songs and stories was a pretty strong message,” she stated. One moment happened when she was playing the song ‘Your Voice,’ written four years after her mother’s death. “It was the first time I could directly address this loss. After the concert, an elderly woman came up and tearfully relayed that she’d recently lost her mother and really connected with my words. What struck me was that I lost my mother at a young age, yet this pain of daughters losing mothers was something we shared across the ages.”
Once Jean had original songs, she began recording and performing at “every possible venue I could find locally, and then down the road a bit, after years of fan-base building and six albums later, touring has taken me further out to include two European tours so far.” The European tours have brought the benefits of “sharing music, meeting people in their communities, expanding the music to new ears, and great travel adventures.” As for drawbacks, Jean is still learning how to live and organize a balanced life with this passion of an artistic career.
For young writers starting out, Jean suggested writers would do well to “OPEN your heart and mind. Try to look at the world with child-like curiosity. Observe….everything. Think about what is important to you…whether the topics are love, angst, activism, humor, etc. If you find yourself thinking and/or editing too much, or getting stuck trying to write the ‘perfect’ song, kick the ego out the window and just write… write… write.”
Jean also suggested capturing song ideas using technology. “Set up a simple recording device (I use the voice memo on my phone) and get in a quiet place and just let it fly. Capture the good, the bad, and the WTH!? You never know what golden lyric might come out of a free-flow of word-play. I’ve had some of my best stuff slip out in these moments.”
Once the ideas are flowing, she advised, “Go back and edit and refine. Also, it can be useful to do songwriting exercises (or co-writing) with others. Once you start writing, keep working on improving your craft and technique; keep getting out there in the community, whether it’s the local coffeehouse on the corner, or a backyard in Belgium. It is never too late to start. Take it from this late-bloomer!”
Jean also touted the benefits of community for writers because it provides a place to ask lots of questions and work together. She credited one particular community, Songwriters in Seattle, because, “though it emerged years after I began, it was, and is, a great community builder and has some of the nicest local song-folks I’ve met.”
Community is one aspect of her life, however, that will be sorely missed when Jean takes to the road on her April West Coast solo tour in support of her new CD, Road Girl Vol. 1. On these road trips, “I perform mostly solo,” she said. “Road life can be lonely, with all the driving, and the booking/promo etc. But there is also no one to have to split the coffers with!”
Though Jean is a successful full-time singer-songwriter, there are still challenges. As a writer, she struggles with dry spells, “Trying not to edit myself when life is challenging and keeping my truth and integrity intact.” As a performer, she recognizes that for independent musicians, “there is the ever-changing landscape and masses of other players vying for the same rooms. Thinking outside the (venue) box helps!”
When she returns from the road, she will continue work on Road Girl Vol. 2, containing her studio-enhanced live recordings. Thinking out of the venue ‘box,’ she will also “work on finding new outlets and applications for my music like yoga events and workshops.” Some new venues may also open up as she continues her thirteen year off-and-on collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Bill Corral as well as her participation in a local vocal-ukulele trio The Blue Janes. “I do all the booking,” Jean elaborated, “but this expands the types of events and venues I can share the music with, i.e. band-centric venues and festivals.”
As a songwriter, performer, road warrior, booking agent, band mate, and recording artist, Jean reflected that “balancing many hats can be a challenge, but as multi-task-maven, I’m learning where to focus efforts, and how to work with and delegate duties with a mutually-focused team.”
For songwriter Jean Mann, fellow writer John Hiatt has a lyric that for her says it all: “Whatever your hands find to do, you must do with all your heart.” Whether it’s a ukulele, a guitar, a writer’s pen, or a handheld recorder, Jean Mann is an artist whose hands and heart personify that lyric.