Award-winning artist Jenny Bruce shares her secrets on being a successful songwriter

Jenny Bruce (Photo credit: Samy Ruby)

It's not everyday that I get bowled over by an artist, but with music this good, it's hard to not gush a little.  I had the privelege and pleasure of interviewing Jenny Bruce, singer-songwriter extraordinaire.  In her interview below, Ms. Bruce provides a candid view of her successes and struggles as a songwriter, including her numerous songwriting accolades and national TV licensing deals as well as her experience opening for Gavin DeGraw in New York City.  With an impressive resume that includes touring the globe and a fourth studio album - Firefly in a Jar - set to release in early 2016, Jenny Bruce sets the bar for successful singer-songwriters not only with her remarkable talent but also her humble and gracious spirit with which she wields it.  

Americana Lady:  Congratulations on your upcoming album, Firefly in a Jar!  Being your fourth studio album, what makes this album different from your previous three?

Jenny Bruce:  Thank you!  

As an independent artist, I only record albums when I really need to!  Firefly in a Jar encapsulates emotions and experiences I couldn't have imagined in my earlier albums and life. Since I was a little girl, songwriting has been a way of processing my emotions.  I took for granted that songwriting would always be there for me in my time of need.  

A little over 11 years ago, my world spun right out of orbit. It's a long story and I'll try to sum it up in as few words as possible.  In the span of a year, a close friend died (wrote song "Left of July" for him), grandmother died, I became a mom, husband's work dried up (illustration), I took a job at a preschool where I am now Director of Communications, my mom, my best friend, died of pancreatic cancer, and a part of me, music, died too.

Well-meaning people tried to reassure me by saying, "I imagine you're writing lots of songs." I wasn't.  I felt numb.

This kind of change always has the potential to be cathartic.  Although I was really struggling, with two young children I had a lot of incentive to shape up.  "Backlit Bottles" is about wanting to snap myself out of feeling numb, reconnecting with myself; with songwriting.   

AL:  Your songs all have a freshness about them, without ever sounding alike.  How do you keep your songwriting from sounding recycled or "stale"?

JB:  That is the best compliment! 

I have no goal or objective when I write for myself, unlike when I collaborate with writers or artists. I'll be walking around with a feeling for a little while and it attaches itself to words and a melody at some point.  Early on I decided to leave LOVE songs to others who do that much better than I ever could.  I only write when I need to sort something out.  Love and happiness are floaty, outward-pointed feelings and don't get me writing unless or until they start to go south.  That said, I've been with the same person for nearly three decades (college sweetheart - junior year abroad!), so love has spun around the compass many times!

AL:  You have toured all over the world and shared stages with the likes of Avril Lavigne, Joe Jackson and Gavin DeGraw. What was it like performing in the same bills as these bigger artists and how did it effect your own songwriting and performing?

JB:  The funny thing is, I didn't know Gavin was famous when I opened for him at the Bitter End for an industry showcase.  Everyone was fluttering around him.  He was goofy and cute. He came over and gave me a huge, bear hug and then tried to jump into my arms and have me cary him! The man had a lot of charisma and the energy of little boy and, of course, played a great set!  Most of these artists were unpretentious and exceedingly gracious.  

These artists who are or were very successful all had one thing in common, they took the stage with a sense that they belonged there, extremely well-prepared and exuding confidence.  That attitude, added to their talent, attracted people to them, both from the music industry and fans.  

I envied that confidence.

Not sure that I learned anything specific about songwriting except that these artists all had at least one very hooky, memorable song.  Can't do it without a great song.

AL:  I read that you have won numerous songwriting contests, including the Billboard Song Contest, Great American Songwriting Contest and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest among others. What do you feel is your "secret weapon" or main strength in your songwriting?

JB:  Secret weapon?  Wish I had one!  

Since childhood, I have listened to brilliant artists and songs in so many genres. From traditional Celtic music to disco, R&B, classical, rock, folk, jazz, I love it all.  I grew up listening to everything. Music was very important in my family and was omnipresent in so many forms.  Hard to not pick up a thing or two.

I choose my words carefully.  When I sing,  I think about what I'm saying and what it means more than how I'm singing, if that makes sense.  My melodies get tweaked if I feel a note isn't sitting right and I've written way more songs than I have recorded. Some just seem to be "duds" and never really come together.  An A&R guy once told me that if a song isn't going anywhere, finish it and move on, write another song.  

AL:  You have had your music licensed to several major television network shows, including The Today Show, Dawson's Creek, Ghost Whisperer and King of the Hill. And just heard that your song "It's Your Parade" that you co-wrote with Noel Cohen and Jennifer Marks will be featured on the new Bravo show, Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce. Do you typically write songs keeping possible licensing opportunities in mind?

JB:  Most of the songs I've had licensed were from my albums, so not written with licensing in mind. With "It's Your Parade," we sat down to try to write a "good" song and Noel and Jenn challenged me to cross over into the light and write something upbeat and cheerful. It is so difficult for me to do! I always veer off into conflicting emotions and struggle.  At least the chorus is unapologetically upbeat!   

The few times I've written with a specific licensing opportunity or artist in mind, it's been a bust. The successes I've had have come from aiming to write the best song possible in the moment. After that, make sure you get your music out there.  Music Xray is a great, affordable service that connects indie artists with some major players. I've had so many different people pitching my songs to TV over the years, so there has been no single avenue towards that goal.  It's a bit like throwing darts - if you have a good arm and a lot of darts, you'll eventually hit something!

AL:  With such a successful music career already and more success to come, what advice would you give to aspiring younger singer-songwriters?  Anything you would have done differently?

JB:  The word "success" is like a coin.  It's all about perspective.  Which side of the coin you're looking at. I try to be grateful for the victories and not focus on the failure knowing they feed one another. Artist, Jo Davidson, told me never to believe the good things "people" say about your work as then you will also have to believe the bad.  Keep your head down and do the work.

What I would do differently? Lack of self-confidence in my youth was a huge waste of time and energy.  Would love a do-over on that.

I recommend that young artists listen to as many great songwriters from Stephen Foster to Taylor Swift and everyone in between and think about what makes their songs appealing. If you're not getting where you want with the songs you are writing, don't be shy or allow your ego get in the way when it comes to collaborating with other writers. Collaborating will make you a better writer. I remind young artists that it was good enough for Lennon and McCartney!

Thank you so much for listening to my music.  

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