Free to Experience with Jennifer Hartswick

Free to Experience with Jennifer Hartswick
Photo by Rene Huemer

One of the improv music scene’s most dynamic performers is coming to Chicago this weekend and you don’t want to miss it. Extraordinary trumpet player and home to one of the most robust and powerful voice boxes around, the lovely Jennifer Hartswick will be joining Melvin Seals & the Jerry Garcia Band at Park West this Saturday.

Hartswick is currently on her own duo tour with friend, guitarist and collaborator Nick Cassarino (check for dates near you here) and will soon head to Iceland with longtime collaborators Umphrey’s McGee. We caught up to talk about music giving us all the freedom to experience, and how she experiences it as a traveling performer every day.

Q: Since you grew up with Nick, do you feel like it’s just your own intimate thing that you are sharing with everyone else?
A: Yea, that is what we sort of set out to do. We’ve known each other now for twenty years! So after playing music together so long, we just sort of had this idea one day to invite people into what we’d already be doing in our living rooms anyway. If he comes over my house, that’s what we do, and if I go over his house, that’s just what we do. So we thought, “Hey, people might kinda like this!?”

Q: Well, they do! Your music together is so well-received by music fans and critics alike. But you also don’t tour many dates, so it also creates demand in that it’s not to be missed when you come through town.
A: Well, thanks. I mean, it’s our favorite thing to do. We talk about it all the time, that of all the stuff we do, and all the collaborations and bands we’re a part of, we just love to share and perform this music together.

Q: Is your project with Nick the way you’re most true to yourself as a performer and creator, compared to your more collaborative roles in other arrangements?
A: No question about it! We know each other so well that there is a full-on telepathy situation that happens (laughing). We don’t have to talk about anything; he reads my mind and I read his mind, and we just know.

And what’s interesting is, he is always pushing me to be a better musician. I think there is always this … feeling of safety with him, that if I want to try something insane, that he is gonna be right there.

Q: Like your personal safety net?
A: Yes, totally! There’s an absolute safety net with him. And sometimes it’s gonna bomb, and then we laugh about it, cuz that’s what we do. But sometimes, it sticks, and we’re so excited and get to freak out about it together later, like, “Remember that thing you did?!” (laughing) There’s just this really free feeling with him where we both feel free to try stuff. Free to experience.

Q: That’s so cool and so special with your close friend. Do you and Nick talk at all about how your experiences playing improvisational music for so long, in so many projects, has led you to a place where you can kind of pick up and play with anyone, but that it’s especially great with each other?
A: Yes, definitely. We both grew up in an improvisational world, playing jazz music when we were much younger. Improv is a part of everything we do, and I know for me, it is the basis of what I set out to do every day.

‘Cuz you can play the same song every day, but how is it going to be different and special this time? It is our responsibility as improv musicians to make it feel new, to deliver something different, and for you guys as the crowd who see lots of shows, to experience something fresh so you enjoy it and have a new experience.

I know I feel lucky for that in some ways, because for some performers that’s not a thing. I LOVE Chris Stapleton, I’m a huge fan of his songwriting, I think he’s an amazing performer, singer, guitar player; I just think he’s great. I saw him this summer and I thought to myself, “He doesn’t have that luxury of singing it a different way each show. He doesn’t have that option because every single person in there wants to sing along with him, which is a really beautiful thing. But, at the same time, I would lose my mind if I had to sing every note, every inflection the same way every night.

Q: That’s such a good point. People expect that.
A: I was one of them! I was one of these people (laughing). I really thought to myself, “Wow, he isn’t allowed to do anything different with that melody, ever. What a bummer!” So it made me really appreciate my situation a little more.

Photo by Rene Huemer

Q: Hilarious. You live in Nashville, the epicenter of country music. Do you find this with a lot of country music?
A: I think a lot of popular music, period, not just country. The shows that sell a zillion tickets. You assume that when you go see that person, it’s going to sound *just* like the record. That’s sort of what they sell you; that experience, where it will be much more visual, but sonically, it will be exactly the same.

Q: That brings up a really good point about the way your own music translates live. I love your song, “Numb,” and I notice when you play it with Nick, it can be fast, slow, soulful, bluesy, have a hip-hop kinda vibe, or really any number of styles. Is that just how you’re feeling that night, and the variables of the room you’re in, or is the song meant to be malleable in its creation?
A: I think any difference in performance night to night is strictly about whatever is happening that night. I also think it depends how long we’ve been performing a song. The more you perform it, the less raw it becomes, I guess, if that makes sense?

Q: Like it’s not therapeutic as much once you’ve gotten it out, or done it enough times?
A: Right, exactly, it just becomes a vehicle to do whatever we want in this moment. At the time of writing it, it was a vehicle for what I was going through then.

The life of a song; it really goes through all sorts of metamorphoses, you know? We wrote that track and went right into the studio, so the version on the record is very much of a, “OK! Here’s how it goes.” And now, a couple years later, it’s really grown into a total vehicle for something else. That’s one of the beautiful things about music, is that it will have a life right along with you.

Q: So beautifully said. I love what you said about creating something for a reason, but then when that reason isn’t as prevalent, being able to just play the music in its natural form. That says so much about the interpretation listeners have of music as well, who can extract your words and sounds and apply them to their own timeline as well.
A: Definitely. People can tell if it’s genuine, you know? I know I can tell if someone’s just writing another one of “those songs.” People are really smart. So if you write about things that you really feel, and are true, I think people can feel that and put their own spin on it and relate it to their own lives as well.

Q: Absolutely. And as far as the lyrics on all of Nexus, they are deep. Is the album a personal story about you and your husband, (Chris Chew aka “Big Chew,” bass, North Mississippi Allstars), or someone in your life? Or are they written as kind of, general pining that people can ascribe to?
A: They are absolutely not about me and Chris. Some of them are stories, and some of them are about some real life shit. I wrote that music so I didn’t have to talk about some hard things I was going through, but, it is certainly not about my amazing, wonderful husband that I’m married to now.

Q: Fair enough. I can definitely understand what you mean about writing something so you don’t have to talk about it. So you go way back with Umphrey’s McGee and have collaborated with them a ton, for years. Can you talk about that a bit?

A: Umphrey’s and I have been family since about 2004. I knew them all single, I know all their wives and I know them as dads. I love all the band members and their whole crew. Being able to grow along with them has been an amazing, beautiful thing. I think they’re all incredible musicians and any time they call me to do something, it’s an obvious “yes.”

We’re all going to Iceland together soon, which should be a ton of fun. Those guys are just a dream to work with, and such sweet guys to be family with.

A: Super, super excited! I’ve never been! I feel like that goes without saying, but I’m sure people have been to Iceland.

Q: Have people been to Iceland? (laughing)
A: (laughing) You know, that’s what I thought! I started telling people I was going and friends came out of the woodwork with suggestions to try stuff or go places, and I just didn’t know people had gone to Iceland!

Q: Is it Northern Lights time when you go?
A: I think it is! I think it’s the very beginning of that time. I hope that happens, that would be amazing.

Q: Maybe some great show photographers can get you guys all out there for an epic family photo under the lights.
A: Yes! They should just hire one to leave the show, and go get footage of that, no matter what. Hire people for the show, too, but definitely send someone out to get those (laughing).

Q: Since we’re talking Umphrey’s, I have to ask; have you ever played the “complisult game” with Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s Mcgee keys)?
A: I’m not sure, what is it?

Q: Well, it is when he delivers a comment to you that is half compliment, half insult.
A: (cracking up) No. Well, I guess, not knowingly! But, I wanna play.

Q: Joel has talked about playing this game with friends on the road, and I’m curious if the people getting “complisulted” are in on it, or it is just Joel doing a Joel-ruse (laughing).
A: (laughing) I will definitely inquire. We will have Icelandic versions of that I hope; I need to know about this.

Q: Definitely, please report back! So, another Umphrey’s-related question, when you are covering a male vocalist like Robert Plant or Angus Young, does it matter that you’re singing “a man’s part,” or is it just hitting the pitch and delivering a song?
A: Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. When you’re talking about Zeppelin, as far as I’m concerned, there are no dudes who can do that! Of course, I’m exaggerating. There’s probably some. But most guys don’t want to tackle that because it’s insanity (laughing)!

But you know, a great song is a great song. I was just talking to the Greensky Bluegrass guys this afternoon (in preparation for Winter Wondergrass) trying to decide which cover we would do together as a sit-in for me to join them. I said, “I’m going to walk on your stage Saturday. You can kick me off or we can do something, your choice.” (laughing) We’re just that close at this point. But, what I’m trying to say is, a great song is a great song. We went through lots of options, and kind of sifted through what would be most effective when playing just one song together in this upcoming moment.

We settled on some Pat Benatar, which should be super fun! (Hartswick performed “Heartbreaker” with Greensky Bluegrass on February 22. Stream the show here:)

The point is to choose something everyone will love! Not some brooding, random song most people won’t know. That is kind of how I felt singing that Rush song at Red Rocks (“Red Barchetta,” July 1, 2017). One guy LOVED it, but everyone else was like, “What IS this shit?!”

The thing is, I got to meet the one guy. The one, super pumped guy. He came up and was freaking out, like, “OH MY GOD! ASK MY WIFE! I HAD A HEART ATTACK AND CAME RUNNING UP TO THE STAGE,” and I was just like, “Oh. You were the guy who cared about that song. Got it.” (laughing) It was just hilarious.

Q: That is amazing (laughing). Something I’ve always wondered, and it feels like a good time to ask…when you’re on stage singing and don’t have an instrument to play, what do you do with your gaze? Do you kinda just try to avoid eye contact or what do you do?
A: That is a really good question. I’ll say this, if you want to connect with people in the audience, people are really, really all about it (laughing). It can be super distracting, but people are there to have a good time and enjoy and dance. Sometimes I just look out to the back of the crowd and see nothing so I don’t lose concentration.

Q: That totally makes sense. We’ve talked a lot about your singing, but you are an amazing trumpet player too. How do you feel about there being minimal female trumpet players out there?
A: So, I first want to say, I am never going to be someone who forms an all-girl band as some kind of novelty. I’ve worked my entire life to not be a novelty, so that is just not my thing. If there are not women trumpet players, I think just being a trumpet player and showing up is how we combat that. The most famous female trumpet player is probably Ingrid Jensen, and she’s still playing and she’s been doing her thing for a long time.

Being authentic is so important. I think someone like Natalie Cressman, an awesome trombone player out there touring and creating all of her own music is just amazing. People need to see that.

Q: Well said. Do you and Natalie cook together at all when you’re on the road with Trey Anastasio Band? I know she loves to get in the kitchen.
A: No, but I wish we did. We don’t really have the ability to cook as we’re always on the go. But, for me, when I get home from touring, it’s almost a sign to my brain that I’m done working. It’s like, when I have the time for the privilege of cooking, I know I can relax and I’m home for that time at least. I can relax.

Q: That makes sense, and maybe why you appreciate it so much when you are able to do it. What’s your favorite thing to make?
A: My favorite thing is whatever you want. I love to cook for people. You could knock on my door and I’d make you a meal. I love to have people over and have a house full of people. It’s my favorite. We just bought a new house in December, but I’ve only spent about five nights in it so far (laughing), so I’m looking forward to using my kitchen there when I can.

Q: Are you a cook, of dinner/main course food, or are you more of a baker of desserts?
A: I am absolutely not a baker. I am 100 percent non-baker.

Q: Most people are one or the other, it seems.
A: I know! That’s definitely a thing. I think most people who bake are more Type A, who like to follow rules and measure the ingredients and stuff, and that’s just not me. I think a lot of musicians like to cook because of the improvisational nature of cooking.

Q: That’s so true. So as far as improv goes, aside from your own tour taking place, you are also playing in Chicago with Melvin Seals and Jerry Garcia Band on March 14. How vibey is Melvin Seals? He is just… a smile.
A: He IS a smile! Oh my gosh, I love Melvin Seals. He is just the best. We did some shows recently together for a few weeks and it was so fun to get some hang-time in. You said it better than I ever could; he is a smile! He’s got a big old heart. He’s a very special guy.

Q: Awww. What is he like? What are some things about him you would love for people to know about?
A: He just sort of exudes joy, whether there is an organ in front of him or not. He’s just a happy fella. I mean, I haven’t been on tour with him for 20 years or anything, but for those two weeks, I never saw him be anything but lovely (laughing). He’s a great guy.

One funny aside to share is that during that tour, he had just discovered the Animoji’s because the iPhone 11 had just come out. The band for that tour was on this huge group text and Melvin would send us all Animoji’s of himself as the poop (laughing).

Q: That is the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life (laughing).
A: Oh, definitely. What’s even funnier is that we were all on the same bus! He was hanging in the back lounge by himself, sending us texts like, “WAIT, there’s a unicorn?!” So, that’s what he’s like (laughing). He’s just really lovely. I appreciate him and his musicianship so much. He’s incredible.

Photo by Rene Huemer

Photo by Rene Huemer

Q: How is it different for you joining his six-or-seven-piece band as a backup vocalist/trumpet player, while coming in and out of your own tour where you are the focal singer with just two people on stage?
A: It’s a difference for me because I have to learn a lot of the JGB material. The Dead or Jerry’s music were never catalogs that I was very familiar with. When I’ve done shows with them, it’s been cool to kind of be in the back and play some trumpet. I have sung lead a few times, but only on songs where it feels right.

I think to be a well-rounded musician, you pretty much have to be able to do everything. Sometimes that involves shutting up, and singing harmony well, and not being the center of attention. That’s a real skill, an important skill, that a lot of people don’t feel they need to work on. But it’s very important. You have to learn how to play well with others, you know? And if they sort of, let you have a moment to shine, that’s cool. But you have to be ready to perform in all types of situations, because you never know what you will be called for tomorrow, and you need to be ready for it.

Q: Of all the different genres you’ve played as a sit-in queen, what’s something that has surprised you or something anecdotal you could share from your experiences?
A: I think honestly the hardest thing for me is sitting in with a bluegrass band. Really fast picking, major keys, and the fact that everyone takes a solo on every song…sometimes, very often even, you may even take two solos in the same song! It’s all very foreign to my soul. It’s like Oprah up there, “You get eight bars! And you get eight bars! And you get eight bars!” (laughing) It’s just a really different experience for me compared to my background.

I was At-Large at Strings n Sol and it was challenging for me. It’s not like I was uncomfortable, but it’s not what I’m used to. Like, a slow R&B song, I’ll sing that all day. That’s basically the opposite of bluegrass (laughing).

Q: Well you’re friends with Greensky, walking on their stage, so you’re doing all right. Do you play any bluegrass instruments?
A: No. I cannot play a chord on a guitar or any stringed instrument. I grew up playing piano when I was really young, then switched to trumpet by the time I was ten, and never looked back.

Q: Interesting. A perfect note to end on, re: trumpet. Would you rather jam with Miles Davis or Chuck Mangione?
A: Miles Davis. He was a nutcase. Who wants to hang out with somebody normal? He was innovative and he didn’t give a fuck. I admire that. There were a lot of people who didn’t understand him. I’m not saying I do; I don’t. But I would definitely want to jam with him.

Get your tickets here for Hartswick’s Saturday show with Melvin Seals and JGB at Park West (doors 7, show at 8).

Photo by Rene Huemer

Photo by Rene Huemer


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