“I am going to try and pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen,” said writer Anna Lamott.
I chose this quote to start this week’s column because it rings true when I think about the new album by Maine singer-songwriter Jenny Van West. Van West’s record has arrived at the exact right moment because it’s as bright and warm as the sunshine we’ve all been waiting for after a particularly brutal, never-ending winter. Celebrate its arrival in person by catching the Friday night release show at Mayo Street Arts.
“Happiness to Burn” is Van West’s second album, following her fantastic 2015 debut “Something Real” and 2016’s “Honey and Hive” EP. The title track kicks it off with the breezy strum of an acoustic guitar, then the playful tickle of piano comes in, and the song is like a slice of apple pie, with Van West’s bright voice singing about old-fashioned love.
The album continues along this optimistic trajectory with “Live in a New Way,” despite mentioning loss at the outset. “Some of us are angry, some of don’t know what to do/Some of us are weary, some of just want to get through,” sings Van West, as she urges the listener to let go of hate.
Take a listen to “Live in a New Way”
“Never Alone” is a tender ballad, with Jesse Siebenberg’s pedal steel guitar adding just the right amount of twang. “45” is a two and a half minute foot-stomper, with Carl Byron’s fingers flying across a piano and Austin Beede’s steady beat. And “Twenty Seven Dollars” is presently my favorite track on the album. It’s a fast-paced snapshot about what I interpret as leaning on friends when times are rough, appreciating what you have and knowing when it’s time to get the hell outta Dodge.
“Happiness to Burn” is as fresh and new as the crocus in the corner of the backyard, but it also has, at times, an old-time feel to it, as Van West criss-crosses into folk, Americana, country and swing over its 10 tracks.
I reached out to Van West to get the low-down on the record, which was produced by Los Angeles producer and singer-songwriter Shane Alexander, who brought in an impressive cast of musicians to pitch in. Van West told me she met Alexander through her longtime friend and fellow musician Ed Desjardins, who produced her previous work. “Immediately post-election, I felt strongly it was time to make another record, but Ed was booked up, so I thought, now’s the time to contact Shane. He had recently built a gorgeous studio, and ever since I’d seen photos I knew I needed to make a record there someday. That day just came a lot sooner than I realized. I contacted him and he agreed to work with me,” Van West said.
As for those guest musicians, Alexander came through big time. They include Jesse Siebenberg (Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real) on lap and pedal steel and dobro; Carl Byron (Jackson Browne) on piano, organ and accordion; Ted Russell Kamp (Shooter Jennings) on bass; and a handful of other seasoned pros who gathered at Alexander’s Buddhaland Studios, where numerous vintage Guild and Gibson guitars live – and were played for the recording session. “Shane really put his 30 years of L.A. music industry connections into this project. We also hired Brian Yaskulka to mix it. It is still incredibly humbling and will forever be gratifying to hear these songs produced so well,” said Van West.
Van West said she wrote the songs for “Happiness to Burn” over a six-year period, with one straggler crossing the finish line about a month before last year’s recording session. She said it’s hard to pick her favorite song on the album, but “Live in a New Way” is one she’s particularly fond of. There’s a video in the works for it that will be directed and shot by South African music video producer Christian Malonda, who lives in Portland.
For the Mayo Street Arts show, Van West said she’ll be backed by Dan Koloski on keys and backing vocals, Lisa Redfern on backing vocals, Matthew Baker on mandolin, Ness Smith-Savedoff on drums and Drew Wyman on bass. She’ll have copies of “Happiness to Burn” on hand for sale, so be sure to have some dough burning a hole in your pocket.
I’ll end with a line from the “Happiness to Burn’s” gorgeous closing track, “Embers.” “This song has a memory and its memory is long/So let’s sing and let’s remember, let’s love ’til love is embers/Let’s sit here by that fire all night long …”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, April 27
WHERE: Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland, $12, $18 preferred seating.