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Five questions with Mary Jennings, singer/songwriter

POSTED: July 7, 2010 11:30 p.m.
/For The Times

Mary Jennings will perform Friday night at The Monkey Barrel in Gainesville.

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Singer Mary Jennings moved to Gainesville when she was 8. She was born in Nashville, Tenn., which was perhaps a hint of what was to come, and now she makes her home in New York City’s Washington Heights.

Jennings, who goes by just her last name on stage, graduated from Lakeview Academy in Gainesville in 2000.

Her cover of Rihanna’s "Umbrella," a catchy R&B song that got stuck in many of our heads in 2007, is not recognizable at first, as Jennings piles on layer after layer of delicate harmonies.

At first, Imogen Heap’s "Hide and Seek" comes to mind. Then it clicks, as Jennings sings, "You can stand under my umbrella ..." and you can’t help but wonder if she should have recorded it first.

Originals like "Cling to Me," a recently released digital track, take you back to Sarah McLachlan’s ’90s sound, and then there are shades of Joni Mitchell all over Jennings’ repertoire — mixed with a gentle dose of electronica.

Jennings, who still regularly visits her family in Gainesville, will perform at The Monkey Barrel on Friday night.

She spoke by phone with The Times and told us about her life and her music.

 

Question: Tell us about your background?

Answer: I was actually born in Nashville, Tenn., but both of my parents are originally from Gainesville, so I have lots and lots of family from Gainesville — both sets of grandparents live in Gainesville, still. Aunts and uncles, distant cousins.

My parents split when I was pretty young, and I moved back to Gainesville with my mom when I was probably 8 years old. My Mom was Dawn McKibbon, and my dad is Henry Jennings.

So, grew up in Gainesville and I went to Lakeview Academy and always kind of did the artsy thing. When I graduated high school, I went to Furman University in South Carolina, but still came home very often.

I ended up moving back to Nashville right after college. I lost my mom; my mom passed away my freshman year of college. So I ended up spending a lot more time in Nashville to be close to my dad after that had happened, but I still came to Gainesville a lot to visit my grandparents and things like that, and I still come back pretty often to do a few shows and visit family and friends.

After college I ended up going to Nashville and doing the music thing there for a few years. I now live in New York and do the music thing here.

 

Q: So who are your influences, musically?

A: When it comes to music, pretty much all music influences me. I mean, I grew up in a household with Celtic music, bluegrass music ... my mom has a lot of, like, R&B stuff. I mean, we literally listened to everything in both my parents’ houses. But my biggest influence is, like, the people that I started listening to when I was younger.

I definitely (was influenced by people) like Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan and things like that, and I would say now that I’ve grown up a little bit more, I’m definitely influenced by Imogen Heap and Zero 7 and things like that.

 

Q: What is your style of music?

A: I would say, to put it broadly, that we definitely are pop music, but when people want a little bit more of a definition than that, I usually say that we are like Sarah McLachlan with a little more edge, Tori Amos with a little less angst, and Imogen Heap with fewer tricks.

 

Q: What was it like moving from Gainesville to New York City?

A: It was definitely a culture shock, but one that I feel like I needed and that helped broaden my horizons. I mean, it’s nice because, in a lot of ways, you get a small-town vibe in New York, because you definitely find your tight group of people that you hang out with and it feels like a small community, kind of like it was down in the South. But it’s just different because everything is so massive and, you know, transportation is such a different thing.

And, as far as music is concerned, I think that, you know, as far as having support and my fans and things like that, Gainesville is just as easy as New York or Nashville (or places like that). But you are given, I think, more opportunities in a bigger city to perform and get your music out there.

 

Q: Even though you don’t sing country, do you think that living in the South influenced your music?

A: Absolutely. I think that we definitely put these definitions on music, like, ‘This person’s country, this person’s pop, this person’s rock,’ etcetera, but I think that each genre kind of can blend in with each other in a lot of ways.

I mean, I think that a huge part of my influence for all the harmonies and background vocals that I do stems from bluegrass music, and a lot of the country songs I heard, so the influence is there, whether I’m country or not.

I think I definitely got a lot from Nashville and even from Georgia and things like that.

I think the more you listen to different styles of music, the more broad your music is going to be.



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