Jennifer Eaves is South Africa’s answer to the late great British folk singer Sandy Denny – her voice that rare mix of cool and sexy, clarity and emotion. Eaves, who studied classical music at UCT, was previously in folk rock outfit Burton Lane.
INTERVIEW: FRED DE VRIES
PHOTOGRAPHY: DANIELLE BISCHOFF
Ten years ago she went solo, recording several albums and EPs.Then she ditched her piano ballads and teamed up with fiddle player James Hall and multi-instrumentalist James Harvey. As Jenny and the Jameses they recently released an exquisite album called Untitled. Eaves has two children and lives in Fish Hoek, where she was born some 33 years ago.
Fish hoek, hmmm. It is known as a ‘dry town’ and has an incredible number of churches. It is, as the cliché goes, a place for ‘newly weds and nearly deads’. Wtf?
Haha. Yes, and in-between you find a quiet space and you get left alone. I’m a beach person and if I had to choose between mountains and sea I’d go for beach. And now my children are with me on the beach all the time, so that was a big pull.
Jenny and the James’s are a proper folk outfit, complete with traditionals, ballads, blue grass stompers and Irish jigs. Why folk?
Folk is one of those words that has often been abused. If I go back to my first love of music it’s always been about story-telling. Not necessarily personal stories, but stories of people around the world. I love how folk music was used, like a sounding board for the people. It goes back to the travelling troubadours, who took news and spread it. I have gravitated towards the Celtic folk sounds, also in my tunings: DADGAD, which gives that open Celtic sound. When I studied at UCT I realized that a lot of those [students] are very pure classical musicians. They won’t listen to anything else. I realized then how out of that box I was.
On the album you cover ‘brothers in arms’ by dire straits. Aren’t they the dullest band in the world, after coldplay?
My parents weren’t musicians at all. When I tried to fall asleep as a child they would play Dire Straits, Cat Stevens, Neil Young. I attached myself to ‘Brothers in Arms’ when I heard Joan Baez sing it. So I started playing it every now and then in pubs, and people said they loved the way it sounded with a female voice. When it came to do the album we wanted to have it on it. So it has more sentimental value to me. My memory is me being put to bed and then lying in the dark listening to the music my parents were listening to.
You also cover Scarborough fair.
It’s so well-known because of what Simon and Garfunkel did with it, but has its origins in the 1600s. The story behind it is that it was written about a man who is presenting a series of impossible tasks to a woman he would like to marry. If she completes them, he’ll marry her. The way we do it is quite ironic, with me as a woman singing that this is not the way life is anymore. Haha. It was Simon and Garfunkel who brought in the canticle, about being at war and fighting for the country. So it’s a strange mix of messages coming out. We use the traditional lyrics, but live we often do the canticle version. You’ll get these contrasting melodies that are equally important with equally important messages. So as a listener you draw from these two worlds the whole time.
The overall feel of the album is quite melancholic. Are you a sad person?
No, I’m actually a very happy person. I do experience sadness, but in general not. I like to delve into the deeper things in music, I like that outlet and enjoy telling deeper, darker stories, but that’s not what I am. So I often tell a story in the third person.
There’s a song that deals with your husband’s depression.
My husband works in the NGO world and has been involved in the anti-corruption campaign and the marches. He’s a deep person and dives deep into depression and then rises out – up and down. It was only when I wrote the song that I realized how much of a journey it has been for both of us. And that no one ever speaks about it or brings it to light in a slightly different way. So it was a kind of spontaneous outpouring of what I was feeling.
Depression does have a stigma, doesn’t it?
It does. It’s definitely an unspoken thing. It has almost been healing for me to be able to say it, because the amount of people that have interacted with me after I played it and said things like: wow, my wife or husband has been like this, and no one ever said it out loud… Sometimes you don’t have to fix the problem, but you have to actually be in it and navigate through it. And that was what the song was about: basically pointing to the fact that it is just a journey and we just have to exist in it. To be able to say that was quite meaningful for me too.
How did your husband feel about you putting this into a song?
He was totally for it. We first talked about it and he was in a place in his life where he was ready to say it was actually ok. Sometimes it’s better for people to know [about your depression] so you don’t have to cover it up all the time. Like when he was getting depressed and going through these dark stages, I used to make apologies to everyone, saying sorry we can’t come to dinner. It gets exhausting. Eventually we realized: we have no one to apologize to, this is what our life is. It was almost like a burden had been lifted.
People talk about the Cape Town folk scene. Is there one?
I played at the Cape Town Folk and Acoustic Festival twice and I think that the folk word should be dropped. Just call it Cape Town Acoustic Festival. Because that’s what it is: people playing their guitars. And that’s great, but it’s not really folk. When people talk about folk they mean singer songwriter stuff. Well, at least there’s respect for acoustic music, which wasn’t the case ten years ago. Back then it was the louder the better.
Is there camaraderie among these ‘folk’ musicians?
There’s always a little bit of hierarchy. There’s the people who have been in industry for a long time, they call the shots, like Caroline Blundell. Then people like myself, skilled and equally able to make good music. We are generally friends. And then there’s the newcomers, the little girls, and they are very backstabbing, bitchy. Not nice. When I was emerging after having children I was lumped with that group for a little while, and it was awful. I felt like giving up. It’s very competitive, people look down on you, will never invite you, and boycott your gigs. They feel very threatened by the fact that there’s someone else, also singing. But as soon as you go above that level, with contemporaries who appreciate the fact we are all making music, it comes together. Who? People who play similar circuit, like Hatchetman, Emma du Preez, Digby and the Lullaby.
Ok, and then sandy denny. Hero?
You’re not the first person to say that I sound like her, but I had never heard her until about a year ago. I actually went and did some research on Sandy, after someone said I reminded them of her. I watched a whole documentary. I don’t know how I could have missed out! She has a light, elastic way of approaching her folk trills, and the ability of crossing over from folk into mainstream. The only folky female singers I listened to were Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. My influences were the things my parents listened to: Cat Stevens, Dire Straits, UB40. And when I was a teenager it was Alanis Morisette, the Cranberries, Nirvana. Now I really love Tori Amos for her honesty and bravery in music.
Land of Lonely / EP
Carry the Ghost
THE AVETT BROTHERS