With her debut project, The House Sessions, singer/songwriter Jenny Gill unveils an autobiographical collection of songs that blend blues, Americana and country to create a sound and style that is as unique as she is.
“The common theme is the personal pieces of myself in these songs,” she says. “Every song on this project takes me to somewhere in my past. My favorite songs that I write are the ones where I’m thinking about a personal experience and I try to write about myself rather than just writing a story.
“What makes them fit well together is the fact that they don’t sound the same or have the same style. I like how the feels bounce around from country influences to something that sounds totally bluesy. It has a chill, laid-back vibe with the best kind of groove. It’s like something you want to drink a glass of wine to and put it on repeat.”
Gill, of course, is country music royalty: Her father is Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill and her mother is Sweethearts of the Rodeo’s Janis Oliver. Her step-mother is Christian superstar Amy Grant, with whom she has toured as a back-up singer for the last six years. It can be both a blessing and a curse to have such a prestigious background. “People have a preconceived perception of me because of my name, that I am country or that my talent should be at a certain place because of my parents’ accomplishments,” she says. “It’s hard to get people to notice you on your own and not for being a plus-one. So that is what The House Sessions is attempting to do. I am done waiting in the wings wondering what could happen. I’m ready to try and build something all on my own. If I never go for it, I’ll never know, right?”
It’s not surprising that Gill grew up singing. Her first public performance was at age five, when she sang “Jenny Dreamed of Trains” with her dad at Nashville’s “Summer Lights” festival. She spent summers on the road with her parents. “I really give a lot of credit and gratitude to Amy. When she hired me to do background vocals in her band in 2010, that is when I had the opportunity to work as a singer. I could hear significant improvements in my abilities. I wasn’t truly confident as a singer until I worked with Amy for a few years.”
She performed in high school choir and drama productions and landed the lead in her high school’s production of Guys and Dolls, where she played opposite her now-husband, Josh Van Valkenberg, an executive at Sony/ATV Nashville. While attending college, the two joined a funky rock band and played bars. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University’s Recording Industry Program in 2005, she began working at a publishing company, where she pitched other writers’ songs. One of those writers suggested that they co-write something together, and the result was “Whiskey Words.” “When I finished that, I thought, ‘I have the potential and I’m going to keep writing and see what happens.’”
She knew she wanted to make her own music after giving birth to her son Wyatt in 2014. “The way I feel about my parents and how I am so proud of them, I want him to feel that way about me,” she says. “This is what I know I am good at, and he makes me want to focus and leave behind something great. I want to set a good example. It doesn’t matter when it happens; but it feels right now.” She chose the most personal songs in her catalog for her debut project. “Obviously, ‘Your Shadow’ is the most vulnerable, authentic, revealing song ever,” she says of the song that describes growing up with a famous father. “I probably won’t be able to go that real again for a while. It explains the most-asked question that I get: ‘What is it like to be Vince’s kid?’’
“‘Whiskey Words’ was inspired by an ex-boyfriend I was crazy about. ‘Look Where Loving You Landed Me’ is totally about Josh, who said that line to me while we were on our honeymoon. ‘Lean on Love’ is my homage to Bonnie Raitt, who is one of my biggest influences. I love her effortlessness; she never tries too hard to be cool."
Grace Potter is another female artist who continually inspires her. “I love Grace Potter’s performances. I have seen her five times now, and as a live performer, she blows me out of the water,” she says. “I just pray I have a quarter of her energy. I love so many artists’ voices, but some of my favorites belong to Amos Lee, Marc Broussard and Chris Stapleton.” Gill is now comfortable with the genre-defying style of her bluesy-country voice. “It’s funny, because I am still trying to explore new places in my voice,” she says. “I am not a rock singer. Now I’m realizing I need to play to my strengths. I have a sultry blues tone with a hint of country here and there, but it isn’t my fault—it’s my parents’ fault!” she says laughingly.
She named her project The House Sessions after the name of her father’s home studio, “The House,” where it was recorded. “It was such a homey vibe and the whole thing felt like I was hanging out with my family, so I wanted to name it The House Sessions.” His father gave her a week in the studio as a Christmas gift. He recruited friends such as bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Greg Morrow and guitar player Jack Pearson to play on it. Sheryl Crow sings harmonies on “Lonely Lost Me.”
Gill has always enjoyed collaborating with others, and making this EP was no exception. “I love that feeling you get when everyone in the band is locked in and there is this buzz that happens. It’s like when people talk about the feeling of hitting a golf ball perfectly and it soars in the air. We are always chasing that feeling in a band, when everyone is perfectly locked into each other. There is nothing else like it in the world.” The album’s irresistible groove naturally evolved. “That was one of the great things about having dad produce this,” she says. “He isn’t the kind of producer who has it all in his head - one, two, three, go. He lets the band hear a song and play it through. He lets them take their time and let a vibe come out on its own. Nothing felt forced. It takes longer to do it that way, but it pays off in the end, because you give the song a chance to find its sound, to find its home. Sometimes you put a treatment on a song too quickly and you start playing it out and it feels all wrong. Songs take time to grow.”
Listen to Jenny Gill:
"Don't You Wanna Stay" - Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson
"Over" - Blake Shelton
"If I Didn't Have You" - Thompson Square
"I Got You" - Thompson Square
"Love Who You Love" - Rascal Flatts
"Sunny and 75" - Joe Nichols
"Who I Am When I'm With You" - Chris Young