Nashville has enjoyed its share of female success stories over the past few years, but its been a long time since country music has seen and heard the likes of Jennifer Hanson. With the soul of a gifted and seasoned songwriter, the voice of an angel, and a distinctly female point of view, Hanson comes to the table with an unusually potent mix reminiscent of great artists from Linda Ronstadt to Emmylou Harris, not coincidentally two of her biggest musical heroes. Shes been preparing for this moment for years, having lived a life that gives new meaning to the term "artist development." The only child of two working musicians, Hanson was raised in a lower income neighborhood in La Habra, just south of Los Angeles. From the first, she was indeed exposed to a wide range of influences, not all of them musical.
"Growing up being influenced by pop music and rock music and country music, it took me a while to figure out just who Jennifer Hanson the artist was," Hanson says. "I guess Ive been on this musical journey to find my voice."
With "Beautiful Goodbye," her irresistible leadoff single, and its accompanying video, Hanson has certainly found her voice, hitting the country music scene right between the ears with a song that has everyone in and out of the business talking. One of those head-turning, breath-of-fresh-air singles that seems to come out of nowhere, "Beautiful Goodbye" only hints at the musical riches contained on Hansons stunning, self-titled debut album. By any standard, Jennifer Hanson is a country album of uncommon depth and variety. As the albums co-producer and chief songwriter, Hanson bursts out of the country music gate as an artist with an attitude, a vision, and a voice to be reckoned with, and the freshest sound to hit the airwaves in a long, long time.
"I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic area, and I was the only white girl on the street," Hanson says. "There were gangs and domestic violence and stuff like that. As a kid I was exposed to a lot of things that children in a more sheltered environment wouldnt have seen, but all those experiences shaped who I am. We didnt have a whole lot, but music was always at the center of my family and the focus of what we did."
Hansons parents (Larry and Melody) met when both were performing in a Southern California cover band back in the 70s, and the music they played, from Fleetwood Mac to Steely Dan to the Eagles to the Doobie Brothers, served as the soundtrack of their daughters early life. When she was seven years old, Hansons world was turned upside down when her parents divorced and her father accepted a gig as road guitarist for the Righteous Brothers.
"It was a devastating time for me, and my mom took it pretty hard, but music was always my refuge," Hanson says. "It was always the thing that I felt I excelled in and that I was recognized for growing up."
In fact, Hanson gained her first serious onstage experience in 2nd grade, singing Dolly Partons "9 to 5" in front of the entire school accompanied on guitar by none other than her father. Her performance of that country/pop smash was as portentous as it was precocious. Before long her dad would leave the Righteous Brothers and relocate to Nashville to play with the group Alabama, a career move that would have a profound effect on the direction of his daughters life and music. In addition to the work of singers like Parton, Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline, Hanson was exposed for the first time to the town that would become her home and to the one-of-a-kind musical community that would become her inspiration and creative base of operations.
"My dad made the move to Nashville in 1987, and I started coming to town in the early 90s," Hanson says. "Wed circulate around and try to meet people, trying to find songs and get my voice down on tape. I was a young teenager and this was before LeAnn Rimes, so Nashville considered me too young."
In retrospect, Hanson realizes she was far from ready back then, but those early forays into Nashvilles creative community ignited her passion for country music and served as a constant, sometimes painful, reminder of how much she had to learn and how much work there was to be done.
"When I first got to town, I was young and impressionable and I didnt know what it was I wanted to sing about," Hanson says. "I realized quickly that in order to be an artist I had to find my place, my niche, and find out what makes me different."
Over the next several years, Hanson would find the answer to those questions, and find herself, through her songwriting. She moved to Music City full time in 1995 and wasted no time getting started.
"Some of the best advice my father gave me was, if I really want to be in country music and learn to write songs, I needed to move here," Hanson says.
With a new hometown and her nose to the musical grindstone, Hanson learned to play guitar and made her first tentative forays into Nashvilles songwriting community. Three years and countless songwriting sessions later, Hanson signed a publishing deal with Acuff Rose.
"Writing was huge for me," Hanson says. "Until I started writing songs and digging down deep, I was really lost. Songwriting helped me mold and shape who I am as an artist, which is why I felt it was so important on this record that most of the songs be songs I have written. Theyre a reflection of who I am."
Meticulous in their detailing of loves ups and downs and unflinching in their refusal to look away from lifes complexities, the songs on Jennifer Hanson reflect every influence and every bump and turn in the winding road that led to this auspicious debut. Where the young singer was once intimidated by her own eclectic musical background, on Jennifer Hanson all of her influences become tools in a vocal arsenal that gleefully runs the musical and emotional gamut. On uptempo workouts like "Just One of Those Days" and "Half a Heart Tattoo," Hansons take-no-prisoners commitment to every line echoes great singers from Ronstadt to Raitt, and when she lays back into the candlelit elegance of a sultry ballad like "This Far Gone," Patsy Cline springs to mind.
"I learned to sing by listening to those artists," Hanson says. "Thats the way I liked spending my time. I used to lock myself in my room with my records and just sing along."
Some things never change. Hanson is still doing exactly what she likes to do. Since signing that first publishing deal back in 98, she went on to a major label development deal in 2000. When that arrangement didnt pan out, she was courted by Capitol, came to audition for the label, and knew she was home.
"This place felt right from the moment I walked in, and I owe Mike Dungan a lot, not only for signing me but for letting me record my own songs and do it my way," she says. "My dad always said surround yourself with good people, and this has been a total team effort right from the start."
Maybe its those important music business lessons she learned from her parents, maybe its just her God-given talent, but Jennifer Hanson has a knack for hooking up with the right people. In 1997, she met songwriter Mark Nesler, the man behind such country hits as Tim McGraws "Just To See You Smile" and Daryl Worleys "I Miss My Friend." The couple fell in love and were married soon thereafter.
"Mark has truly raised the bar for me as a songwriter, and he has made me strive to write better songs," Hanson says. "He is such a big part of what I do and hes influenced me so much. Im making music because I love to make music, and I married a man who is the same way."
In finding her creative self without losing her sense of joy in the music, her sense of balance in a shaky business, or her sense of wonder at how it all came to pass, Jennifer Hanson emerges as a fully developed artist and one of country musics most compelling new voices.
"I know that being an artist and making music is a lifelong journey," Hanson says. "So whatever happens, Ill be here writing and singing these songs and being a part of the Nashville community because thats what fills my soul, thats who I am."