With my husband and two sons, we skipped town and drove up to Bedford, NY to enjoy our annual winter fondu-fest with my friend from college and her family. After filling our bellies with obscene amounts of bread and molten cheese, my friend shared that she and her husband had unearthed boxes of my CDs which they had been graciously storing in their basement for a decade. Did I still want them? Hmmm. I took a box home.
Sitting on my sofa with my portable CD player and headphones, I peeled off the annoying shrink-wrap and sticky barcode label. Immediately I experienced the sense of opening a long-sealed-off tomb. Reading the epic liner notes, my eyes blurred with emotion. But rather than feeling fuzzy nostalgia, I was overcome with guilt and a stinging sadness. In years past, I had welcomed and celebrated two previous albums, each like the birth of a musical baby. Not “Left of July (LOJ)” In fact I never officially released LOJ. No CD release gig. Nada. All it took was reading the last line of the Thank You’s to remember why.
“This album is dedicated to the memory of three beloved angels.”
The thing about a midlife crisis is that its occurrence in your life is relative. Nobody is guaranteed a lifespan. So, the middle isn’t a set age. In my thirties, friends were having children. Divorcing. Moving out of the city. Buying a house. Climbing career ladders. I was lost. Disappointed in my lack of commercial “success.” Uncertain of… everything. Thankfully, as a singer-songwriter, I had an outlet for those feelings. As a result, each of the songs on LOJ is an explicit chapter siphoned from those years of struggle.
Delving into the copious album credits and thanks, I became acutely aware of how much hopeful energy and effort went into the creation of this forgotten child. Family, fans, and friends had generously invested in me and what would be my third independent album.
Producer and drummer, Ethan Eubanks, brought in outstanding musicians and musical guests, pulling favors from talented friends left and right. Tracks were recorded in his Brooklyn home studio and a long weekend at the gorgeous Club House Recording Studio in Rhinebeck, NY. Grammy Award Winner, Richard Furch, mixed and mastered. You’d have to read the liner notes and credits to get the full picture. It was thrilling to think of these songs getting out into the world and there seemed to be a strong possibility that they actually would.
Angel number one and good friend, James Larsen, was hired as a booking agent by the almighty ICM Talent Agency. Hell-bent on breaking my career along with that of friends, Mairead MacMullen and Amy Fairchild, he signed us as The NYC Sirens with a killer backing band (Joe Bonadio, Whynot Jansveld, and Ben Butler). James booked us at an elegant Performing Arts center in NJ and a festival in Shreveport, Louisiana. Lucrative, big gigs. Stars aligning, or so we thought.
‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Shakespeare
A strapping Canadian, bigger-than-life, James called me to share that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I didn’t take it too seriously. Yes, he smoked and drank with impunity. James would beat it, I felt certain. Until he became sick. Really sick. I wrote “Left of July” and after playing it for him told him I would record it for my album
“Call it back luck, call it fate, the day life thew up on your plate,
A bitter dish you would rather push aside.
You could cry out or scream, dig around for blame,
The only thing you cannot ever do is hide.
What am I supposed to say, seems a heavy price to pay for being born a little left of July,
But life gives no reason for these earthly acts of treason,
We’re always gonna be here by your side,
Singing Hey, you’re gonna be OK, you’re gonna be OK.” – Left of July
James lost his fight at only 33 years of age. The only other time I played that song was at his memorial service.
Suddenly, my midlife crisis seemed justified. Time was breathing down my neck. My husband had been patiently aching, waiting for me to be as ready as he had always been to have children. He never pressured me, but I knew that I was pushing the age-envelope and we had been together for 15 years. Regardless, I was panicked at the idea of motherhood. Maybe, it wasn’t meant to be. I wanted to finish this album.
Just as mixing was wrapping up, I found out that I was pregnant. I had my album photos taken while I could still fit into my skinny jeans, but I now had a soft curve to my belly. A beautiful secret.
Finally, past the point of morning sickness, I was a healthy four months pregnant when my father called me early one morning. His voice broke as he told me that my loving, irreverent grandmother had died peacefully in her sleep.
Angel number two.
Sitting at my grandmother’s grave-side in her native Johnstown, PA, I cried harder than I can remember crying in my life. Hormonal, for sure, but my heart sank like an anvil in an ocean of regret. I had been so self-absorbed that I hadn’t spoken to her much in the last months. Too busy. She, on the other hand, had always been there for me. Summers and Christmases at her home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, cards for every occasion (even St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween). I hadn’t even managed to return her last call to me. Her sweet final recorded message forever unanswered. At 95, her death certainly shouldn’t have come as a shock. But I had foolishly taken her for granted, certain she would live long enough to meet my baby.
Life had my full attention now. I would focus on the tiny being growing inside of me and the people I loved. The ensuing months were dreamy. Yes, that summer I was swollen like a very overripe watermelon from nose to baby toe, but I felt exquisitely alive, full of purpose and brimming with love. Music and everything else could wait.
At 37 I gave birth to my sweet baby, Felix. Motherhood was magic. And overwhelming. Scary and exhausting. But it all made sense. Death, birth. The cycle of life. Felix was a gift bringing me a sense of purpose and connection I had never felt before. My parents and in-laws had clearly given up on me ever having children and were over the moon.
In a cruel twist of hideous symmetry, less than a few months after becoming a mother, I was with my 60-year-old mother at Memorial Sloan Kettering when the specialist, in his Oxford-accented English, informed her that she should “get her affairs in order.” Pancreatic cancer.
The words gutted me. Screw the damn cycle of life. I still needed my mom. How could she be dying when I was only just learning to be a mother myself? She and I had always been very close, speaking daily, but now I spent as much time with her as possible, accompanying her to doctor appointments and chemo, seeing her every day. Desperate. Filling a syringe each day with a shitake mushroom concoction (sold to us for a fortune by some quack) and injecting her emaciated legs myself. And then five months later she was gone. She would never see Felix grow up or know my beautiful second son, Theodore, born a year after she died.
Angel number 3. My archangel.
Game over. I had to carry on, but I couldn’t bear the burden of my grief. Without a second thought, I sealed away music and creativity behind an encrypted firewall to which I didn’t have or want a password. Pain safely entombed. On the outside, I looked like me. Calm, competent Jenny. On the inside I was numb.
I went through the motions of finishing up the CD. Burned about 1000 copies as I’d always done in the past, thinking I would need them for the CD release gig, one day, and for when I would resume performing. Because that was the plan. I had one case shipped directly to my friends in Westchester knowing I wouldn’t be needing them for “a while.”
Which I guess became never.
This album is raw, beautifully flawed, honest. Worthy. It deserved a chance. We all do. But that isn’t how life works. I wish I could think of a way to make it up to the extraordinary people who contributed to it in every way. To the memory of James, Marnie, and Mom.
Maybe the best way, the only way, is to pay closer attention to the people I love. And to keep creating.
It took a decade, but new songs finally began to bubble up. Mutant, super-strong fireflies bursting out of their leaden jar, cracking the firewall code. A Kickstarter campaign fueled by my extraordinary friends and remaining fans made it possible for me to record again. Award-winning producer, Matt Anthony, brought my new EP, “Firefly in a Jar” to life and it was released in October of 2016 at Rockwood Music Hall to a sold-out room overflowing with love and loved ones.
The creative switch was flipped back on and I never again want to be too busy for the people I love OR for music. Each song on Firefly is a chapter in the story of a healing heart.
So, pay attention, boys, and girls. I’d like to think my 30s weren’t my mid-life, but experience has shown me not to take anything for granted. Not that I still don’t sometimes. I just have to keep trying… harder.