Published May 11, 2012
Making a beautiful world in the darkness
By Jeremy Selweski jSelweski@candgnews.com
A little girl cast in black and white gazes into a world far more colorful than her own.
There is a brick wall bluer than the ocean waters of Maui decorated with a smattering of vivid flowers painted in sunny yellows and oranges and others in rosy pinks and purples. But tall shadows loom overhead. They give the impression of something sinister lurking behind her, blurring the cheery innocence on the surface into an image that is, if not quite menacing, at least vaguely unsettling.
We never get to see the little girl’s face, but we get a sense of her boundless imagination and wide-eyed wonder — and perhaps, the darkness that awaits her.
This is the cover of Ferndale singer-songwriter Jill Jack’s new album, “Sunflower Girl,” and it sets the tone for the music within. While Jack typically wraps her songs in the trappings of amiable, melodic folk-rock — the vibrant, luminous colors that serve as their foundation — she is not afraid to explore some darker corners with her confessional lyrics. She may bring the sonic sugar, but she doesn’t want to sugarcoat the subject matter.
“This album, for me, seemed to really deal with some major, important life issues,” Jack said. “I guess you could say that it’s more based in reality. As you get older, you start to realize more and more that real life is not just one big cupcake; there’s not always going to be a nice silver lining to take away from it. So I wanted to write more about actually dealing with your problems, instead of just running away from them.”
The striking cover image was created by Jack herself. She took a picture of a young girl that caught her attention during an Americana music conference in Nashville, Tenn., and superimposed it with a photo of a wall mural at a gift shop in Bellaire, Mich. When she saw the final results, she knew that she had found the perfect image.
“I just really loved the contrast of it, such a little girl with such a huge mural,” she said. “Here she is making this beautiful world around her in the middle of all this darkness. Something about it really spoke to me.”
“Sunflower Girl” is Jack’s eighth album overall, but it marks the first time that she has stepped into the role of producer. It was recorded at The Tempermill in Ferndale — the same studio where her very first record was laid to tape in 1997 — with the goal of capturing the same energy as her live performances and using only minimal overdubbing.
The result is an album filled with urgency and intimacy, a collection of guitar-driven songs fleshed out with soulful organ, buoyant accordion and relaxed-but-propulsive grooves. Floating above it all is Jack’s expressive, flexible voice, narrating character-based stories and vignettes from her own life.
“I’ve always co-produced my records,” she said, “but I had never completely taken the reins myself before. I just really knew what I wanted this time around, and I felt confident that I could handle it on my own. I figured that if it doesn’t go well, then I have no one to blame but myself.”
Fortunately for Jack and her five-man band, everything worked out according to plan. To celebrate the release of “Sunflower Girl,” Jack is giving a special performance at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on May 12. There, she will premiere many songs from the new album in a show that’s pulling out all the stops. As she put it, it will be “a big production, but hopefully a memorable experience that takes the audience on a journey.”
During her 15-year recording career, Jack has been a true hometown favorite, winning 33 Detroit Music Awards in various singer-songwriter categories. She has toured extensively throughout Michigan, the Midwest, the southeastern U.S. and even in Europe. She and her band have also played shows with a number of legendary musicians, including Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Loretta Lynn, Marshall Crenshaw and Patty Griffin. Most recently, in 2011, they opened for Detroit icon Bob Seger on two dates of his national tour.
One constant for Jack over the past several years has been the presence of her longtime rhythm section of bassist Nolan Mendenhall and drummer Ron Pangborn. Mendenhall, a veteran of the Detroit music scene, had nothing but praise for Jack’s musical talents, leadership abilities and professionalism.
“Jill is the cottage industry that’s turned into a castle,” he said. “She’s had a really amazing career, and a big part of that is because she really knows how to rally people together under a common vision. She can get everyone to buy into what she’s doing and truly believe in it. It helps that she also has a knack for fielding some incredible musicians who really know how to serve her songs.”
Mendenhall was especially impressed with Jack’s production work during the sessions for “Sunflower Girl.” He is confident that the positive experience of making the album will translate to the stage when Jack and the band take these songs out on the road.
“Jill connects with her audience on a really visceral, emotional level so that everyone feels what she’s feeling in her songs,” he said. “She reaches the people in the back row at every show.”
Jack trusts that the message of her new music will come through loud and clear with audiences. And, when in doubt, she can always fall back on the freedom that she finds in the realm of childlike inspiration.
Like the little girl in front of the wall mural, she knows that she ultimately has the power to create the world that she inhabits. The scary unknown can be conquered with a little ingenuity, a burst of imagination — and some bright, beautiful colors to illuminate the darkness.
“When I write songs, I write them in color,” Jack explained. “I see things in my head like scenes from a movie, and they tend to come at me very quickly and suddenly. I guess I’ve always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. My entire career has been guided by gut instinct.”