Analogue Music | Jenny Tolman

Jenny Tolman

By Matt Conner

Her characters have been alive and well for much longer than she'd remembered.

Jenny Tolman is one of Nashville's brightest young stars, with a smart and sassy debut album, There Goes the Neighborhood, nearly five years in the works. The titular neighborhood is Jennyville, a world of characters she's dreamed up that reaches all the way back to her earliest days as a storyteller in middle school. It wasn't until she opened a box of personal artifacts that she realized just how long she's been building this neighborhood.

If that sound a bit confusing, it really isn't. Tolman is a talented songstress born into a musical family rooted in the heart of Nashville country. She's been slowly but steadily working alongside Grammy-winning producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Niemann) on a debut album, a collection of songs that were birthed from various perspectives—all these imagined stories living inside her head. Jennyville is what Brainard called it. There Goes the Neighborhood is the official title.

Fresh off of an album release show at Nashville's City Winery and an opening set for Brantley Gilbert (in front of a crowd 12K strong), we sat down with Tolman to hear more about her storytelling history, her father's ties to Music City's finest, and the album that has everybody raving.

Analogue: You've had some big shows lately. How did they go?

Jenny Tolman: We had an incredible release show in Nashville at the City Winery. It was completely packed and it was a special night to honor the songwriters on the album as well. Each of the writers got up and sang with me and did one of their hits as well. It was so much fun. Then last weekend, I played for the biggest crowd I've ever played for. I opened for Brantley Gilbert for 12,000 people in Illinois. It was pretty insane. [Laughs]

Analogue: [Laughs] When you glimpsed out at the crowd from backstage, what goes through your mind?

Jenny: I typically love bigger crowds because they make me less nervous, but I'm having to rethink that theory now. [Laughs] Once I actually stepped out onto the stage, it was so disorienting at first. I felt like a baby deer, because it was dark outside so there was this huge spotlight on me. I'd never had that bright or big of a spotlight before. I could hardly see anything and it was disorienting. I was so nervous that I was like, 'Oh my god, I can't get into character right.' I was so freaked out.

About halfway through the set, I got more comfortable. There was a catwalk so I did the whole catwalk thing. I took the mic and walked out. By the end of it, I was like, 'No! Let's do it again. I get it now. I'm a lot more comfortable.'

Analogue: We're at the present in your journey, but I'd love to get the sense of the beginning. When did the impulse to be a performing artist strike you?

Jenny: I was born and raised in Nashville and born into a musical family. My dad was in a vocal quartet called the Indian River Boys that was put together by Burt Reynolds. They all worked at Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater and Burt put them together one day with Dolly Parton and said, 'You guys are going to make a record. I'm taking you to Nashville.' So that's what happened.

My dad was running buddies with Jim Nabors and Burt and Dom DeLuise for a few years there. It was kinda crazy. He's got lots of fun stories, but he ended up in Nashville. He sang on Garth's [Brooks] No Fences record and did a lot of really cool stuff. Then when my older sister was born, he switched to the business side.

I've grown up in Music City and my dad was always booking shows and producing shows. I was constantly surrounded by the music industry. Thankfully it's been somewhat normal for me to transition into this lifestyle, because it is the one I saw growing up. It's weird. It's a little backwards that it's this comfortable for me, but I think that's a blessing.

I've always sang for as long as I can remember, and I started playing piano by ear when I was three. I would come home from church on Sundays and just pick out what we'd been singing and start playing it. Then I started writing stories in middle school, and I thought I'd be a children's author or something like that. It wasn't until I got a guitar for my sixteenth birthday that I had the light bulb moment where I could put everything together that I loved doing, that I was good at, and it was called being a country artist and songwriter. Surprise!

Ever since that moment, it's all that I've done and pursued actively. It's been a long road to get this debut album out—three years in the making, really. I've been working with my producer Dave Brainerd for about four-and-a-half years working and writing with him. It's been a very long road, so I'm so very excited that it's finally out in the world.

Jenny Tolman 2
Jenny Tolman 2

Analogue: Why such a long journey there?

Jenny: Well, Dave is so passionate about my voice, and along the way, we started noticing that everything was taking place in this central location. There were these characters that kept reoccurring. One day Dave said, 'What if we had a place where all of your characters lived? Let's call it Jennyville.'

I thought it was crazy but it kinda stuck. It actually ended up being the whole concept that the album is based around—these characters running around this imaginary town and interacting with each other and foreshadowing different things. It lets me play different narratives.

It all turned into such a fun, cool way to be creative, but with that comes a lot of extra effort to make everything flow very cohesively. We wanted to make sure the concept was laid out correctly. We didn't skip any steps or let anything fall through the cracks. So it was just a slow build.

Analogue: Those earliest iterations of songs that you wrote—did any of those make it through to the present or would you file them under "nobody look"?

Jenny: Most of them I would never want anyone to know what they were like, but I do think that there's this element of my storytelling in Jennyville. I had this whole box full of super random papers filled with sixth grade handwriting. I was going back through them the other day and there was one series of stories I wrote about all these people who rode around on tractors. That's how they got around in this super-country town. The tractors were the cars and the characters were super-quirky. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that kind of sounds like Jennyville.'

It's a subconscious thing. I think some of my earliest creations in storytelling and character building did creep into this album today. Also I found these little commercial breaks that I used to make during the stories as well. I'd perform these commercial skits and I totally forgot about them until I was going through this box. On the album, we have these little commercials throughout talking about the different places in Jennyville with weather reports. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is what I used to do. This is crazy!' [Laughs]

Analogue: Do you have a favorite storyteller?

Jenny: My favorite writer of all time is Shel Silverstein. I think he was so brilliant and so insane at the same time. He had a way of telling wacky, weird stories that were very enlightened and even simply enlightened if you really listen to what he's saying. That's something I want to model my writing after. I want to make people laugh. If you make them laugh, then you make them comfortable. You can actually introduce them to the message under that underlying fluff.

Besides Silverstein, Roger Miller is another favorite along with Dolly Parton. She's a genius at doing that as well. She's found a way to be hilarious and beautiful and outrageous yet still be taken so seriously. She's so respected. She has a way of communicating with everybody so welcome and comfortable. So I definitely try to model myself after those types of artists and writers.

Analogue: It's one thing to love Silverstein. It's gotta be another to tell that story within the constraints of a pop song.

Jenny: Story songs are definitely the hardest to write, because you're exactly right. There's a lot less real estate in a song than a book. It's a process and that's probably why the album took so much longer as well. The types of songs I was writing for it aren't your everyday country radio songs. It was definitely a lot more effort on my co-writers' parts—the brainstorming to create something that's never been said before and tell a story that's relatable at the same time. It's not the easiest of tasks, but for me, it's worth the reward.

VISIT: Jenny Tolman