It took almost 15 years to complete the lyrics for her stark and beautiful, oddly named new disc.
It was record producer Scott Merritt who inadvertently came up with the title of Jenny Mitchell’s latest project, Bird City. The Guelph, ON-based singer/songwriter had sent 29 tracks to her friend and longtime musical associate to spark discussion on which ones would go together best on a cohesive album. Merritt responded by sending along an email that simply said “winnowing” in the subject line.
“I had to look the word up because I’d never heard it before,” confesses Mitchell, a.k.a. Jenny Omnichord, answering questions about her critically acclaimed album while making a pot of sloppy joes for her two kids. “I liked it, because it was a perfect way of describing what we were doing. We weren’t trying to delete any of them, or say that one group of songs was better than another, we just wanted to pull a body of work out of them.”
Merritt, who has worked in the past with Mitchell on bands such as Barmitzvah Brothers and The Burning Hell, narrowed his choices to a list that was nearly identical to Mitchell’s. Recording proceeded slowly as Mitchell wrestled with a tight budget; songs developed and morphed at the speed of about three a year, the two revisiting tracks months after recording, digging into the truth of each number. A large cast of guest musicians such as Nathan Lawr (Minotaurs) and Bry Webb (Constantines) were brought in for particular parts, after which Merritt went back and winnowed (there’s that term again) the song parts themselves.
What they came up with was an oddly timeless and cohesive album, considering it was recorded over three years, with many of the lyrics written over 15 years. Stark, beautiful, atmospheric, and deeply exposed, Bird City is the record that Mitchell had been putting off for her entire career precisely because it made her feel so vulnerable. Putting down her namesake omnichord and picking up the banjo and tenor guitar, Mitchell found herself wading into the deeper waters of roots music.
“I had been piling up these songs on the side of every band I was ever in,” she admits. “They weren’t songs I felt comfortable doing in The Bar Mitzvah Brothers or Jenny Omnichord, because they were so heartfelt and vulnerable. Heart-on-sleeve songs that I thought might get me mocked or laughed at. It’s a shift I had to make, to become the sort of person who could share such things. When I was younger, I felt there wasn’t any room for it because there were plenty of people doing songs like that. Then, when I hit my 30s and had a family, I felt more comfortable doing it.”
The process of recording winnowing could also be compared to panning for gold, except that Mitchell finds it a problematic analogy.
“It’s not as sad as that,” she insists, turning it over in her head for a moment. “It’s not like we didn’t find room for the dirt as well. We didn’t get rid of anything, and there were often other places for the weird sounds that we removed from some songs.”
If Bird City is a major signpost in Mitchell’s development as a songwriter, it also represented a major turning point in her life. The recording of it took so long that it enveloped both her breakup with longtime partner (and father of her children) producer/musician Andy Magoffin, and their reconciliation as friends and collaborators. In fact, Magoffin was on hand to provide live sound for the album release in Guelph after mastering the final version at his House of Miracles studio.
“It was incredibly special to have him there. The funny thing is that if I had recorded it sooner, we probably wouldn’t have been getting along enough for him to do it. I really wanted him on this, though. There’s a song on there that I wrote a day or two after the break up, and I think of him sitting there in the studio, processing as it played. I gave that one to him first before he committed, and after, he said that of course he would do it. To get his final seal of approval, well, that was magical.”
Bird City has picked up wide acclaim for Mitchell since its release in October 2017, but she’s still uncertain as to what this means for her. As the music industry changes around her she questions whether she’ll be able to tour the album very extensively, or even record a followup.
“I’m very confused about the current state of what it means to be a professional musician,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m also not sure how feasible it is to go out on the road when there are kids in the mix. It’s really strange to have a record do well on campus radio, but nobody comes out to your show in, oh, Windsor. It’s just weird. I feel like there are pieces of the music industry that some people have figured out how to put together that I haven’t quite grasped,” she laughs. “I get the old pieces of it, like booking a tour, because the Internet makes that a lot easier, but promoting a show and having people come out is very confusing to me.”
With the old model broken and the new one still scattered like puzzle pieces, Mitchell ponders the age-old question of whether the hard work and lack of return is worth it. Critical acclaim and glowing magazine articles look good in the press kit but they can’t be used to fill up a van. Since she’s almost by definition a lifer in the business, you can probably guess her response.
“If there’s no money, where does the money come from? How, as a mother, do I look at the money I do make and not see it as grocery money? The responsible thing is probably not to make another album if I have to scrabble for the money, but the fact is that I probably won’t be able not to. I’ll be there, scheming, constantly scheming, to get the next one out.”