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Published: 2004/05/29
by Benjy Eisen

Re-Introducing Jennifer Hartswick

Fuck everything else Jennifer Hartswick is just a FUN person to be around. She has a casual grace about her that makes talking with her as enjoyable as listening to her play music. But whereas, musically, what she says is deliberate and focused, in conversation she sometimes talks in clusters of fast-flying fragments. It's a charming mix between lunchroom giddy and after-school kickback.

In 1997, Dave "The Truth" Grippo introduced her to Phish's Trey Anastasio. She was 17 years old. That meeting led immediately to guest appearances on Trey's first solo album (One Man’s Trash) and several Phish albums (Story of the Ghost, Farmhouse). Just months after Phish took their hiatus in the fall of 2000, Trey invited Jennifer to join his solo band.

Despite being a full-time member of that band, the band itself has never been full-time. After a short Fall 2002 tour, Jennifer invited several bandmates to help record her first solo album. The result, Fuse, is a refreshing and entertaining disc that ranges in emotion and texture from the sultry "All Along" to the balls-out studio improvisation of the title track.

This past April 15th, during the opening night of Phish's "Three of a Kind" Las Vegas run, Jennifer sat in during the second set for an intentionally silly version of Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls." Afterwards, she staged her own sold-out show at Seven on the strip. It was a rowdy, sexy, scandalous party that was still raging at dawn.

It also served as a grand introduction to the Jennifer Hartswick Band. After an incubation period of infrequent gigs and musical chairs, Jennifer has finally locked down the line-up and is now set to give her band the definition and distinction it deserves. Not quite a "jamband" (although they do, of course, jam), and even less "big band" (although they are a 10-piece), the Jennifer Hartswick Band is a natural synthesis of Jennifer's past experiences and present adventures.

Jennifer will join Trey Anastasio for a return visit to Bonnaroo on June 13, before leading her own band on their first summer-long national tour. Naturally, she's psyched.

Trey Anastasio’s announcement that Phish is to break-up after the summer tour came as a bit of a shock to most people. As someone who knows Trey, both as a friend and professional colleague, what’s your opinion of the news?

I've seen it coming for a long time. We've talked about it a lot. I actually just talked to him about it a half hour ago. It is what it is it's time, man. I just feel like it's been 21 years; you know what I'm saying? Any human after doing 21 years of something has got to be…21 years to me is way too much to be doing anything.

You want to keep moving?

Yeah! It isn't human nature to want to cling on to something that you feel is not going in the right direction. That's suicide. Why would anybody want to do that? And especially with Trey he's so creative and wants to do so many other things. If he feels like something is…I don't want to say holding him back because it's not about him…it's about all four of them. In the couple paragraphs that he posted on Phish.com (I didn't actually see the Charlie Rose interview, so I don't know what he said about it there) it sort of seemed like since it was him coming out and saying this is how we feel he sort of got most of the blame for it. But obviously you can't single handedly close down an operation like that, and I'm sure that other people in the organization will come forth and make it known that they feel that way too. I think he was the first one to say it, so he's getting a lot of the blame. It's still a good thing. I think what he said about the nostalgia act was so right on; you don't want to become some whimsical thing that brings you back to your childhood when you're 65 years old.

You can't keep something going that is inevitably going to end and you know "all good things must come to an end" and whatever. How many more years could they have kept that up? It's amazing that they lasted this long. I think they did a remarkable job.

Let’s turn to his solo band, of which you’re a member. What affect do you think this will have on that?

I don't know. He's got more free time, that's for sure.

Someone told me that Trey already contacted you about a new project. Can you talk about that at all?

I can't. It's one of those things…

No, it’s cool

I just want to explain why it's not because it's some secret thing. It's just that we've talked about doing a lot of stuff together. And it's so in the very beginning stages of even talking about it, that I have no information to share.

And ideas come and go?

Exactly. If I talked about every single idea that he threw at me, my god we'd be here for years!

I read something a while ago that I’ve always found interesting about you and I just want to confirm it. Before you met Trey, you weren’t really familiar with Phish at all…or rock music in general?

That's pretty accurate, yeah. I was aware of Phish but I didn't listen to them or anything.

What music were you into?

I listened to solely classical music until I was about 14 or 15 years old. And then when I was about 15 I joined the jazz program at school and they had an amazing program there and I just started listening to jazz and went to college for jazz music and it really wasn't until I was like 18 that I was even aware of anything else like the validity of any other style of music just because that's what I was so immersed in. And then [Trey] sort of introduced me to a whole other world of music.

You did studio work with both Trey and Phish dating back to 1997, but first toured with Trey in early 2001. How and when did he first talk to you about being a member of his solo band?

He contacted me the day that I quit school for no reason at all. It's the world's most amazing story, as far as I'm concerned. I was at this particular college for a year and a half, and something just wasn't right and I just wasn't getting anywhere near as much out of it as I should've been, and I just decided, "I don't know what I'm going to do but I just can't hang anymore." It was Christmas time, it was at the end of the semester, and I just couldn't hack it anymore. And I packed up all my stuff and I was ten miles out of Hartford, [CT] and my phone rang and it was Trey. He was like "What are you doing?" "I quit school like ten minutes ago." "Well I'm putting together this band and I really want some horns in it and I was really wondering what you were doing. I haven't talked to you in like a year."

So I drove straight to his house and we started writing horn lines in his basement. And then, about a week later, I got together with Russ [Lawton] and Tony [Markellis] it was just Trey, Russ, Tony, and me at first and we spent the whole day just going over stuff and then brought everybody else in.

Tell me a little bit about the student/teacher relationship that developed between you and Trey.

I only had one other person musically who I looked up to and admired and cherished moments with and that was my high school teacher. I spent five years with him, Mr. Patton, because I went to high school for music in eighth grade it's this whole weird, crazy thing. So really I had only had that relationship with one other person in my life. When I came across Trey it was like the same sort of really strong bond between the two of us that I had before, only in a different kind of music. It's kind of the same vibe, the same teaching, the same way of teaching. But there is just something about the way Trey is where you just can't stop listening to him. He just has this captivating way of speaking and his energy is so rampant that you just can't help but be fixated on him and listen to every single thing that he says. You're transfixed with everything coming out of his mouth and you just want more. You want to learn more and more and more and more.

And so for us to throw this band together and really have, basically, no material he was just writing left and right just so we could have something to play on this tour that was in a couple weeks. This all happened in January [2001], we went on tour in February. We were getting material thrown at us and he would be like "How about [sings horn line]?" and then "Okay, YOU put a harmony in, but I want it to fit!"

He has this interesting way of arranging everything. It finally ended up with five horns but in the beginning there was only three. Now, usually, we're never playing the same rhythm at all. It's, like, two playing rhythm and three filling in the holes. Everything is offset. It was such an interesting, new way of looking at and arranging for me, just because I had basically been playing big band charts all my life, which is "horn section does this, horn section does that." Everything was new for me and incredibly interesting, so I learned a lot, just by the way that he frantically keeps things together. It's so fun you never know what's going to fly out of his mouth next.

It seems like when you first put your band together, it was a big chunk of Trey’s band.

It was!

And now it seems to have evolved into something totally different.

It has! It's funny how things like that happen. The way that the record happened was that I had a little bit of free time and so did some friends of mine and we decided to throw together something. I wrote the music for that very quickly like in two days. The recording happened in about three days. It wasn't a rushed project but a very spontaneous project.

The whole thing really happened in less than a week?

Yeah it was real exciting for everybody. It was like, "Wow, if we could produce this in three days, think about what else we could do!" And so the band sort of formed it was like, "We have to have a CD release party if we have a CD, so maybe we should get together and have a rehearsal and write some more stuff." So this whole thing came out of absolutely nowhere, and then once we decided that it was really fun and that it was actually good we thought it was really good we could probably do a few more gigs if people had time.

And then you get to the point where [Dave] Grippo is teaching school so he's not able to go, and then Ray [Paczkowski] is so busy with Vorcza that he's not able to go, and then Russ is doing so much stuff, and he's building a house, so he's only able to come some of the time. We had to kind of fill these positions; the evolution happened very naturally. And the people that we got to fill those positions have been friends of mine for so long. The drummer Conner [Elmes] and the baritone sax player Luke [Laplant] and the other singer Christina [Durfee] and I have been playing music together since we were 8 years old. We all grew up in the same town, we went to grade school together, high school together, college we separated and went our own separate ways and then interestingly enough we all ended up randomly in Burlington, [VT] at the exact same time, living in Burlington. And most of those guys live in the same house, they have this enormous house that's really great so we rehearse over there and hang out over there. So the evolution happened naturally and they were natural candidates for those open spots. It turned out really wonderfully. We're having a really great time.

So now you’re the leader in this band. Does it feel like a dramatic change for you switching roles from band member to bandleader?

It did at first. It's become much more of a group effort now. Other people are starting to write amazing music and bringing in stuff and with their own ideas, which I think is really important to keep. Ultimately the bands that work the best do have a said leader, but not in terms of where the music goes, just because I think that's a very communal thing. If you have someone up there directing every single change, it's like you're not making music.

It’s more like masturbating or something.

That's exactly what Cyro [Baptista] would say "It's masturbation." He says it all the time. He's like, "Man, this shit is masturbation!" It's like who are you doing it for? You think that people can't think about it on their own? "I want the keyboard player to take a solo right here!" That's not really what it's about. You should make that decision as a group. Somebody should just step forward if they want to step forward; that's how I feel about it.

And as far as arranging and stuff, people are really coming to the table with some amazing stuff. Especially lately. Andy [Moroz] is one of the most brilliant arrangers and composers that I've ever come across and he's 21 years old, you know? So in terms of leading, I don't think that I necessarily do a whole lot, leading wise. Although it is sort of my band and I do lead a couple things. But I don't make a point to.

What music have you been listening to, since being exposed to rock? Or perhaps the better question is what music have you been listening to lately?

This is actually really random, but yesterday I was visiting a respite house for hospice patients and for people who are going to die. I went there with a friend of mine to go play music for people. And I met this guy who…I can't…it's one of those things where I'm not really allowed to talk about it, so I can't really say anything about who he is…but he has an amazing story. Whatever. Anyway, he loves music and he used to be a sax player and he said, "Do you want to hear something that will blow your mind?" I told him yes, absolutely. I just met this guy like seconds before! And he put on this German record it was a German piano player, drummer, and piccolo trumpet player. It was like this crazy, avant-garde, sort of jazz record, but it was really classically influenced it was the weirdest thing I have ever heard in my life. I can honestly say that I have just never heard anything like it ever before. It's just amazing to me that you're exposed to music your whole life and not that I'm old or anything but you feel like you probably know something about each genre of music. And then to have somebody come to you with this completely new genre of music that you've never heard before it's just incredible.

You’re going on tour with your solo band this summer. After all the changes your band has been through, are these shows going to be similar to the show you put on in Vegas? I mean, now that the band line-up seems to have settled?

Yeah. We're at a point now where we're really solidifying how we're playing together. Because for so long it was, "Okay, Grippo can't make it so we've got to find a sax player!" For a period of probably six or eight months, each show that we played there'd be someone in the band who wasn't there before. And I loved it I love that stuff. But we were constantly reworking things and making things sound different, and I think now we've got the solid ten of us as of Vegas or a couple shows before. That's the line-up that we're comfy with and now this band can go on tour and it's a much more solid performance.

***

For a complete listing of Jennifer Hartswick tour dates, visit her official website at jenniferhartswick.com.

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