There is sometimes a bit of mistrust of actors who
suddenly decide to become musicians. And while it is true that some of
them are trying to exploit their name recognition, more and more often
it is turning out that those actors really are talented
singer/songwriters who just became well known in a different medium.
Take, for example, Jill Hennessy.
For years, we have been watching Jill Hennessy as an
actress. On TV series like Law & Order and Crossing Jordan,
Hennessy has been a funny, loose and likable constant for two
decades now. However, she started out in her native Canada, busking and
playing music for passersby on street corners.
"Man, I was playing on the street because I loved
it." Hennessy laughed recently, recalling her start. "It was a great
way to earn money and not have to depend on anybody else. I started off
in Toronto, when I was 18."
However, it was that musical start which ended up
kick starting her acting career and bringing her to the United States.
She got the female lead in the Toronto cast of the musical Buddy.
The show then moved on to Broadway, and Hennessy went along for the
"I came to New York doing a musical," Hennessy
recalled, "a Broadway musical about Buddy Holly, which is what got me to
this country, to be honest. I continued playing on the street here.
I'm not really sure what I expected. I played rhythm guitar, electric
guitar, for a couple of bands down here. I thought things would
continue like that. Just hope to get certain auditions. I was hoping,
actually, to hook up with a really good band, to be honest."
Of course, the best laid plans can always lead into
"Then Law & Order came along," Hennessy
said. "I had to quit the band I was with at the time, just because the
two schedules didn't really work well for each other. So I stuck with
Law & Order and that just kept going."
She laughed heartily. "The acting thing was working
Thus Jill Hennessy, to a certain extent, put her
music on hold, but she never lost the passion and never completely gave
up on it. After Law & Order ended for her, she spent several
years as the title character of the crime drama Crossing Jordan.
However, the new series allowed Hennessy to merge her two loves. Her
character of Jordan Cavanaugh, beyond being the coroner of Boston, was
an aspiring singer who often performed at her father's bar. This gave
Hennessy multiple opportunities to do a song on the show, and led to an
acclaimed soundtrack album in which Hennessy performed Tom Waits'
"Innocent When You Dream" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby
"That was great to do," Hennessy said. "I got to
work with [acclaimed music producer] T Bone Burnett. That was a joy.
Any time you get an opportunity to cover Dylan and Waits, you get up,
it's a good day. That was a lot of fun."
Yet, as much fun as it was to perform those
classics, her own music was never far from Hennessy's mind. Not long
after Crossing Jordan left the air, Hennessy went down to Austin,
Texas to record her first album of original material, Ghost In My
Head. That album of folk-based rock was released to acclaim in
2009. She worked on her follow-up record I Do, a couple of years
later, though her acting work – most recently she has had a recurring
role on The Good Wife and is a series regular this year on
Madam Secretary – delayed the release of the record and the tour
until this year.
"I've been working on Madam Secretary since
July, I guess," Hennessy said. "As luck would have it, when it rains,
it pours. I've been waiting to release this album. The music has been
done for ages. We delayed the release because of other acting jobs
we've had over the last two years. So we thought: okay, October 5th
will be great! Madam Secretary has been great about working with
my schedule. I'm on a show-by-show basis with them, too, so they call
to see what the schedule is, what works for me. I call back and say I'm
booked for these days, so it's nice."
One of the other reasons she had been delaying the
release of I Do was that she needed to be sure she had the time
to tour in support of the album. The tour started slowly, but has been
picking up steam steadily.
"It's nice actually to have a lot of show dates.
We've been getting all these bookings. We just got... we're opening for
the Indigo Girls in the January.... I'm so psyched!"
Hennessy is also psyched to have finally gotten I
Do out there. After all, it's all about sharing the new music.
"It's joyous," Hennessy gushed. "The reception
we've gotten has been phenomenal. One review came out and said it's one
of the best indie albums of 2015. That was just great to hear. It's
just great to get out and play. It's supposed to be a micro-tour. We
expected, we lined up a few gigs around the October 5th drop date, and
we just keep getting more and more days, which is wonderful.
"It's a little juggling, again, with raising the two
children, but that had to be done somewhere," Hennessy laughed.
"Luckily, these kids are so used to being dragged out to smoky bars and
venues that they are pretty cool with it. It's just the school thing
that's kind of tough. And the Madam Secretary dates. But, it's
working out well. We're doing a day festival in the middle of January,
on one of the nights that [Bruce] Springsteen's supposed to be playing,
so that's exciting. We've got like six or seven dates lined up until
So what can we expect from a Jill Hennessy show?
Will she be doing all her own music, some covers, or what?
"Mostly songs from both albums. And a few covers,"
Hennessy revealed. In the Philadelphia show on December 2, those covers
were "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen and the holiday favorite "A
Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl. "By the time
I've gotten through Ghost in My Head and I Do, that's
already over a two-hour show. So, we had to pare it down a bit."
Hennessy has described I Do as "a collection
of stories about love, relationships and loss." So, what inspired some
of the songs?
"That's a long story, Jay," Hennessy laughed. "How
much time have we got here?
"I write from my gut, man. I write when something
hits me. Unfortunately, with this album, a lot of the songs came about
because I lost a lot of people that I really cared about over the last
six years. That generated I would say about 60% of the album. Then
there's just other incidents that happen in day-to-day life, man.
Stories my older kid tells me. Something that happened in a Valentine's
dance became the song 'Precious One.' There's even a little bit of Amy
Whitehouse and her passing in that song. Addiction, and how many people
we've lost to addiction."
Mostly it is simple human interactions which inspire
Hennessy as a songwriter – for better or for worse.
"There's a beauty in the unspoken poetry and genius,
because of things like racism and things like misogyny," Hennessy
continued. "You don't have the right skin color to sing in our venue,
or you don't look the way we'd like you to look. Or we don't like your
sexuality, so you're not allowed to perform this. Things that became
the song 'Real.' So, it's a whole bunch of stuff. Every song is so
different. It goes song by song, really."
Another hot-button issue is discussed in her song
"Edmonton," which was originally written in honor of Hennessy's
grandmother, who crossed the ocean to find a new life for herself and
her family in Canada. Of course, in the few years since the song was
written, it has taken on an even deeper meaning with the recent
contentious debate about immigration.
"There has been two waves of hub-bub surrounding the
immigration issue, so far, just with the Presidential campaign,"
Hennessy said. "There have been people who have been fleeing Syria for
the last four or five years. I actually know some people who fled, oh
gosh, a year ago. It's a brutal situation. It's interesting. I play
this song; it is an homage to immigrants, to the courage it takes to
leave. To leave the life that you and generations before you have
known. To go into the abyss of the unknown. But also into, hopefully,
the land of hope and opportunity and potential.
"What's interesting is I play the song now and
because it's a hot topic right now, I get some really strong positive,
passionate reactions from the crowds. Also, everybody here's an
immigrant, anyway. Everybody in the audience is like: yeah! We all can
relate, man. Even if our family has been here for like five
generations, you came from somewhere else, unless you're native
Americans. So that song has had a lot of resonance for a lot of people
The title track of I Do is about the work and
difficulty of keeping a successful marriage going. As a longtime
happily-married woman and mother, it can lead the listener to wonder: as
a songwriter, how much of her writing is autobiographical, and how much
is based upon more creative imagination?
"It comes into an arena of: you take something that
you feel, but it becomes very universal," Hennessy explained. "When I'm
acting, too, I'm taking somebody else's words and personalizing them. I
take my experience, but I also try to make it as universal as possible.
I also think the more honest you are, and you really simplify and
distill things down to what's the most authentic, that's what's going to
resonate most with an audience. Everybody's been there, man.
Everybody's got a story. Everybody is one of the walking wounded."
Sometimes people forget, just because we've been
watching Hennessy on television for years, that she really is just
another person out there looking for happiness.
"I just read something on my Instagram feed,"
Hennessy said. "I'd written something and somebody wrote, 'Wow,
celebrities really are like us.' It made me wonder. I wanted to ask
this question: Well, what did you think they... we... are? I hesitate
to even use that term for me. I have two kids. I walk them to school.
I make lunches and dinners. I try to find work." She laughed. "I try
to put out my music, which I'm lucky I can even do that. But I guess
there might be people out there who think, wow, maybe I don't even know
how to go grocery shopping. I don't know. It's interesting. You
become a projection board, I guess, for other people."
Like the first album, I Do was recorded in
Austin, Texas, with mostly the same band as before. Hennessy just felt
a musical connection to the place and to the people, so she moved her
family down there temporarily from their native New York to get the
"We love it," Hennessy said. "Our base musicians
are there. The cellist [Brian Standefer] who worked with us on the
first album and engineered [the last album] co-produced with me. It was
going back to the familiar, to be honest."
That going back to the familiar also extended to the
musicians with whom she played. Many of those same musicians are also
accompanying her on tour.
"A lot of them are the same ones," Hennessy said.
"To be honest, it depends a lot on availability. These guys are all on
tour with other bands, or working sessions. So a lot of them have
played on this tour. There are some new New York musicians we've been
working with off and on, too, again based on who is available. I've got
a guy named Bill Dobrow who has been playing drums, who is phenomenal.
He's been playing a lot with Joseph Arthur and touring with him. And
Dony Wynn [who played on the album] is back in Austin. So it's tough."
A new musician she got to work with on I Do
was acclaimed singer/songwriter Will Sexton.
"Oh, he's a sweetheart," Hennessy said,
enthusiastically. "He's very professional, very sweet. I would have to
say maybe not quite as crazy as the rest of us. The guy was a pro.
He's funny, classic, beautiful to listen to. The rest of us can get
pretty buck wild."
In the long run, it comes back to a connection,
which is why Hennessy tries to work with musicians regularly.
"You work with whoever you can, but whenever it's at
all possible we try to fly up the guys we're most familiar with,"
Hennessy said. "Plus, to be honest, they know the music inside out. We
can mess around with it. We can open up breaks and do these huge jam
sessions. Also, we just have a good time. Although, it's always
cool rehearsing with new musicians and hearing their take and then
running with that."
Of course, in recent years, the music business has
taken a series of hits, including piracy, low download fees and
diminished sales. Hennessy realizes that it is a difficult time to get
her music to fans. However, she also knows she has to try.
"You can certainly get your music out there,"
Hennessy said. "The question is how you get people to actually listen
to it. How do you draw attention to it? The market is flooded, because
it is easier now to get indie albums out. The problem, the challenge is
drawing the listeners to your stuff. And then how you sell. How do you
get people to download singles, or the album? Again the music business
and the landscape has changed so much on a monthly basis since I started
putting out music seven years ago. At this point I have no
expectations." She laughed. "I'm just trying to make it so that we're
not too much in the red, basically. We're just getting out there
because I love playing. It's just part of what I have to do. It really
makes me incredibly happy. I don't really see it as a choice. It's
just something that as long as I'm able to do this, I'm going to keep
In the meantime, don't expect Hennessy to disappear
from our TV screens anytime soon. Earlier this year, she joined the
second season of the hit series Madam Secretary, the latest in a
long line of memorable TV roles.
"It's fun to join a new group that is fresh,"
Hennessy said. "They had been together for a year. A lot of the crew
actually worked on the original Law & Order with me, and on other
offshoots of Law & Order, so there are a lot of familiar faces
around. It's just a really warm, down to earth group of people working
in and around New York City. I love political dramas. It's kind of
fascinating. I love to how Barbara Hall balances this myriad of plots,
that are so intricate, so tensely written, and dealing with a lot of
stuff that's incendiary right now, in terms of world topics and current
events. It's a fascinating show to be a part of."
Of course, this time out, she has the benefit of not
being the face of the series, like she was in Crossing Jordan.
"I get to do the light lifting on that show,"
Hennessy admitted good-naturedly. "I waltz in. I do a couple of days
of work. Have fun with Tim Daly, who is one of the nicest actors you
could possibly work with. And Téa Leoni, who is just spectacular, and
funny as hell, and beautiful, and down to earth. [Then] I get to waltz
out, while these guys are working a lot of scenes, fairly long hours.
They make it very manageable, thank God. That crew is hilarious
themselves, in fact they should be in front to the camera in a lot of
situations. They're hilarious like that."
Another political series that Hennessy has been on
recently is The Good Wife. Last year she had a recurring role as
a political operative. Will that character be revisited as well?
"I don't know," Hennessy admitted. "They never let
you know. I talked to some other actors on the show who said they
worked a couple of seasons and then they did not work a couple of
seasons. Then they were called back two seasons later. So you never
know. But that show too, again, it's such a tightly-knit cast and
crew. They've been on the air for quite some time. What are they on
their eighth season or something? Eight years. That's a different
situation. That's a wonderful, wonderful set to be on, too. They shoot
not too far from Madam Secretary. I hope they bring me back.
That would be great."
However, she does not consider it that she is
juggling her time between her acting and her music.
"I'm basically devoting all of my time to the
music," Hennessy said. "The acting has been fitting in quite nicely.
But, to be honest, it's whatever's happening in the moment. It's not a
question of me saying, 'Oh, I'm going to do more music. 70% music and
30% acting.' It just doesn't work out like that. Basically you're
lucky if you're working and you get a job. I'm always hoping for that,
too. I'm always hoping for opportunities to play my music. So far I
have not had to make any kind of decision as to which I should do.
Should I do one over the other?"
It seems, though, that one of her arts comes
slightly more naturally to Hennessy.
"To be honest, I find I'm more comfortable playing
guitar on stage than I am acting," Hennessy explained. "With a guitar,
all I have to focus on is the guitar. The singing just comes with
that. Maybe because that's the first thing I ever really did in front
of audiences, stand there with a guitar and sing. That just feels
really more comfortable for me. It's very emotional, because I've got
this wooden instrument that I'm holding, and in some ways it gives me a
little bit of comfort, but also because of that comfort you allow
yourself to go pretty deep sometimes. That's why I love it."
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