From an exotic animal farm nestled in the soft-stemmed marshes of central Florida to a collegiate experience so achingly normal as to spur a short stint at the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts and kick start a musical career that, while still in its nascent stages, is just aching to flower, Laney Jones has always found her own quirky way through life. It's a quirkiness, an endearing singleness, a heartfelt originality that peaks through every shimmering chord, every trembling melody of her songs and it's a uniqueness she believes has been a part of her since the day she arrived on that little slice of four-legged heaven amongst the orange groves of Mount Dora.
"Before I was even born, my parents had kangaroos. I think they got them in Connecticut. They lived in Maryland for a little bit but they moved down to Florida when I was six. So they just had a lot of different animals, exotic animals. I got to feed a baby white rhino and snow leopards and crazy things because my parents had these exotic animals," Jones said recently, speaking to HNGN ahead of her Aug. 26 show at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City.
An exotic childhood isn't all rainbows and baby rhinos though, as Jones' fantastical recounting of her youthful experiences caused quite a bit of consternation amongst her early school teachers. A pre-kindergarten mental health exam, for instance, led to some interesting exchanges between Jones and the school psychologist concerning her marsupial play dates.
"They thought I had schizophrenia or something," she says with a laugh.
Dyslexia also played a major role in the early portion of Jones' life - "I really wasn't big into reading. I'd do journaling and stuff but didn't really consider myself a good writer, even in high school," she says - but a deeply-rooted, if still at the time, mostly general, interest in music, in finding whatever was new and different and voraciously consuming it and then passing it on to friends and family, was the seed that eventually bore the fruit of Jones' current musical venture.
"I think I just always really thought of myself as 'Oh, I'm the person who is all about all this cool music' growing up in middle school and high school," says Jones. "I'd show my friends, 'you gotta listen to this' sort of thing."
Jones, who just recently released a new single, "Work It Out," the precursor to what will be her third studio album, left Berklee, likely for good, this Dec. Interestingly, Jones, this soft-spoken, gently crooning folk songstress, already held a degree in international business with an emphasis in Chinese before attending Berklee. But it wasn't until she'd arrived at college and entered her first semester, wasn't until she'd traveled pretty far down this already well-tread, isn't-this-what-we're-all-supposed-to-do path, that she felt like she was being stifled creatively.
Introspection, self-reflection spurred by the pursuit of a life, a degree, a career she never really wanted, has brought her here. It's already brought her stints on PBS's Great Performances and invites to SXSW and Sundance, brought her the recognition of fellow musical greats like Alison Krauss, who recently dubbed Jones an artist who is "on to something original," and now it's brought her and her band, The Spirits, to Rockwood.
Still, for Jones, despite the mounting accolades and burgeoning recognition, despite the time spent learning at a university as prestigious as Berklee, it's the memories of Mount Dora, the trials and travails of a skinned-knee childhood, the little guitar purchased by hopeful, encouraging parents, a deep love and appreciation for the world of theater, the constant exploration for and consumption of new and interesting music, that has allowed her to develop a new niche in the musical world, to blur the lines so subtly, yet so successfully, between bluegrass, folk and pop.
But as with many things for Jones it seems, even the seriousness, the vital importance of the need to create, to put forth meaningful music, to fight the hopeless passivity she sees in so many around her, really just boils down to a recognition that the making, the performing, the connecting with audiences is first and foremost, if not finally and only, fun.
Obviously everything that happens in life has an influence on you, but would you say that kind of upbringing (exotic animal farm) has an influence on you now, on your songwriting?
"I think absolutely. I think it made me think in different terms. I know most people have a dog or something growing up and I had an animal with really weird feet and they're just really interesting to touch and look at and I got to talk about it with other people and describe them and I think it's one of those things, I don't know if it exactly did, but it was something unique to me that's sort of like a special memory that I can look back on and, honestly, probably just made a little more quirky. I think I'm a little bit quirky in my writing and my personality and I think it's just sort of an added layer to all of it."
No desire to be a large animal vet?
"That's what everyone thought I was going to be growing up, but I'm too sensitive. I'd be so sad if I couldn't help something, I couldn't watch it die."
I saw on your Facebook page you refer to yourself, your style, as "retro majestic." Can you tell me a little more about that?
"We actually just recorded an album back in January and it's not released yet, but it has this sort of vibe where - it's really rich, it has an influence of the 70's in the band and stuff like that, but I still keep it really current and these were songs that came out of me just sitting at home, drinking just whiskey and reflecting on life sort of thing, so I think it's the setting of that."
Going all the way back from "Beyond The Blue," to "Golden Road," to now "Work It Out," do you feel like your songwriting process has changed or your sound has changed?
"I think it just happens over time. I started writing about five years ago and the releases I have out - 'Beyond the Blue' is four years old, 'Golden Road' is three years old - it's one of those things, I went to Berklee School of Music for a year and a half and I think from there I got a larger sort of musical language. I recorded 'Golden Road' with a band, but I wrote the songs not envisioning them with a band so I think now that I'm working with that kind of experience, like these upcoming songs I really thought, 'OK this would sound really groovy with a drum part and this is what I want the bassline to be,' so I thought of that in mind and I think it sort of brings a whole new element kind of brings it out of the folkier aspect, but there are some songs you can play just with an acoustic guitar or a banjo or something and it still sounds cool, but it sounds even cooler with a band."
Are they involved in the actual songwriting?
"I have a co-writer. He's also in my band, he's like my partner in crime, Matt Tonner. He's been with me since the beginning. He helps me with ideas as far as helping me finish or complete stuff. He comes up with some really great instrumental lines. He was sort of there from the beginning, but mostly with the band it's just that's when the arrangements come to life."
Did attending Berklee feel like a necessary experience? Do you feel like you'd be where you are now without that?
"I got a lot of really great opportunities from them. I got to play at the Kennedy Center in front of Allison Krauss. That was a really cool experience, to get that sort of 'cred' from her is obviously, ya know, people pay attention you a little more.
"I think the change of pace and change of scenery really did help and I'd still be working on it this hard if I didn't go there, but I think it really influenced me. I actually took a pop writing class while I was there, my first semester, and I got to collaborate with all these other really great songwriters in school and I think it absolutely influenced me in a positive way. It got me out of Florida and got me to see some other really awesome people doing their thing. That's important."
Do you do most of your songwriting on guitar?
"Actually no, not anymore. I started off on guitar, but it was one of those things, I don't have super tiny hands, like you wouldn't think that to look at me, but they're tiny hands. So, I really felt a connection more to the ukulele and later on the banjo. I like the unique sounds of them, so I do most of my writing actually on banjo."
When you sit down and write a song, do you search for a certain kind of sound? Is it just what comes naturally? The banjo is so tied to bluegrass and folk, yet you seem to achieve this balance of that kind of sound but also a pop aspect.
"I think it's because I haven't actually been playing that long that I'm kind of open to it. When I first started playing the instrument, I got really intrigued about bluegrass and that side of music, I really appreciate its honesty, which I think is really great. But also I have been listening to these indie rock bands and it's something that I really always loved but I didn't know how to do that because I didn't play with a band before. So now that I have more access on the banjo and just playing around with sounds - that's all a musician really is, just listening to sounds and putting them together - that I found that banjo doesn't have to be tied to bluegrass or these traditional ways of playing, you can play it in whatever and it can sound cool. That's really where it comes from for me."
Do you have a particular message you hope to impart to listeners through your music? Is it just about pure enjoyment, a sound they like to hear? Or is there more to it for you?
"I like to, no matter what, have a philosophical message in my songs. The biggest overarching thing is that I felt pressure to go to business school and go on that path, but really you can determine what you want to do with your life. I think a lot of people are hopelessly passive about the whole situation of wherever they're at and what they know and if they want to go do something or if they're interested in they have the capability, it just takes a little effort."
You can catch Jones and The Spirits at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City on Aug. 26 as part of her current tour. You can find out more about her at her website and can keep up on all the new goings on by following her on twitter.