"When I began writing these songs, the floodgates opened to my whole life," says singer-songwriter Jill Hennessy on the eve of the release of Ghost In My Head, a revelatory debut album offering a series of intimate emotional vignettes spun with indelibly fluid melodies and her poignant musical reflections on love, loss, struggle and redemption. "It's the embodiment of a lifetime of work."
Though perhaps best-known as an actress for her starring roles in the hit television series "Law & Order" and "Crossing Jordan," Jill Hennessy began her show business career as a musician, busking in the streets of Toronto. "I left home when I was 17," remembers the Edmonton-born musician. "I went to Toronto and tried to find work. One day, I was walking down Yonge Street and I heard two guys playing 'Take It Easy' by the Eagles. I knew all the harmonies of all those songs -- my dad played the Eagles all the time -- so I started to harmonize with them. I stayed three hours and they gave me a cut of their money. Soon we started having a regular gig on the subways and did the underground club circuit, playing coffeehouses like Fat Albert's on Bloor Street."
Concurrent with her Toronto coffeehouse and subway gigs, Jill began working with an improv comedy troupe playing local dinner theaters. "A short-lived boyfriend bought me a guitar," she recalls, "and showed me an A and a D chord. I went out and bought the U2 'Joshua Tree' songbook and a Tracy Chapman songbook and began learning all the songs I could. I used my guitar case as a table. My guitar was my friend, my family, the one constant in my life."
Circa 1989, a friend of hers borrowed her guitar to audition during the Toronto tryouts for "Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story," a musical adaptation of the life and music of the profoundly influential rock & roll pioneer. "I went to his audition to: a) give him some support and b) to pick up my guitar," Jill remembers. During her friend's audition, Jill was cajoled on-stage where she played Van Morrison's 'Brown-Eyed Girl' and one of her own songs in an impromptu try-out for the musical. Her natural talent and ease on-stage -- "plus I spoke Spanish" -- led to a series of roles -- including Buddy's wife Maria Elena -- in the Broadway production of "Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story."
"My life is 6 degrees of Buddy Holly," says Jill (who, coincidentally, lives with her husband and two children in the New York apartment building where Buddy lived with Maria and cut his final homemade demos in December 1958). "The reason I came to New York is because of Buddy Holly."
In 1992-93, following the close of the Buddy Holly musical on Broadway, Jill sang backup and played guitar in a variety of bands including the New Originals, performing on subway platforms ("the 1 and 9 line"), parks ("Washington Square," "Central Park"), and the West Village. "When I got 'Law & Order' in 1993," she recalls, "I reluctantly had to leave the New Originals."
She made her official recording debut in 2003, performing songs by Tom Waits ("You're Innocent When You Dream") and Bob Dylan ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") on the T Bone Burnett-produced "Crossing Jordan" soundtrack album. The All Music guide praised her for revealing an "....expressive voice with just a tinge of world-weariness."
Perhaps the deepest connection between the music of Jill Hennessy and the spirit of Buddy Holly lies in the heart of Texas, home to Holly's Lubbock birthplace and Austin's legendary Bismeaux Studio, a state-of-the-art facility that's played host to recordings by a variety of artists including Asleep At The Wheel, the Chieftains, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis and Sir George Martin, among many others.
Helping Jill create the haunting ambience radiating throughout Ghost In My Head is Grammy-winning Irish producer Patrick McCarthy; an engineer on The Joshua Tree around the time that Jill was buying the songbook, McCarthy has worked on records by R.E.M., the Waterboys, Counting Crows, U2, Madonna and others.
Jill -- who sings lead and background vocals and plays rhythm (acoustic and electric) guitar on Ghost In My Head -- assembled a core ensemble of incredibly simpatico musicians for the album (as well as for her live performances): Robbie Gjersoe, lead guitar (the Flatlanders, Jimmie Dale Gilmore); Brian Standefer, cello (Alejandro Escovedo, James McMurtry); Bukka Allen, accordion, keyboards (Terry Allen, the Flatlanders, the BoDeans); Glenn Fukunaga, bass (Jo Carol Pierce, Los Super Seven); and Rob Affuso, drums (Skid Row).
Guest artists joining Jill and her band on the album are R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, the Dixie Chicks' Martie Maguire (fiddle on "Holding On") and husband Gareth Maguire (tin whistle on "Holding On"), and the mythic Texas country pedal-steel player/multi-instrumentalist/producer Lloyd Maines. Also joining Jill on Ghost In My Head are her husband Paolo Mastropietro and their oldest son Marco.
Jill wrote the songs comprising Ghost In My Head in a particularly prolific period from 2005-2007. "The songs just started coming out," she confesses. "It was cathartic. When something hits me now, I write it all down."
Drawn from, or inspired by, personal experiences -- some direct, some tangential, some metaphorical -- the songs on Ghost In My Head are bone-marrow direct, honest and spectral. Some, like "Save Me" and "4 Small Hands," are keening laments for unnameable loss -- irretrievable innocence or opportunity or something deeper. Others, like "10,000 Miles" or "Oh Mother" or "Holding On," are, according to Jill, "deliberately big, written to be huge and forceful. Every song is so story-driven. If you can even get one or two words on a page, the words will lead you to the next word, the words sort of guide you. The painting sort of paints itself, the painting tells you where to go."
Trusting her instincts and following her muses, Jill Hennessy has distilled some of the essential passions, experiences and insights of her life into the music and poetry of Ghost In My Head."
Neither of my parents sing or play any instruments but they loved music -- Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary, James Taylor, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones," says Jill. "One of my good memories was when my dad would come home from work. We'd sit on the kitchen floor and listen to records -- Elton John, Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, and especially Cat Stevens. That was my image of family, being together, being safe. I feel like music is the closest thing to who I am. It's where I feel most at home."