Smile Politely

Jill Andrews: Finding yourself in the mirror

“Sitting in a chair in my apartment, wondering where the darkness started seeping through. But I know there is light even in the shadows, wherever the sun goes, I will follow it to.” Jill Andrews, “The Mirror”

When I was a kid and before I had yet experienced anything even close to resembling a romantic relationship—let alone heartbreak—I used to listen to the radio every night in hopes that my favorite break-up song would come on. I didn’t really know what love was. I had very little experience. I loved my cat and my mom, and I was pretty sure I was in love with Christina, the cute Brazilian girl that I saw on the playground during lunch recess. But I couldn’t be sure. Besides, Christina was in 4th grade and I was in 5th. The potential complexities presented by that one factor alone were enough to keep me from doing anything other than watch her play tetherball with her friends across the pavement. So even though I didn’t know what love was and even though I hadn’t experienced heartbreak, I was beginning to understand something about heartache. And to fill in the gaps in my inexperience, there was Phil Collins.

So I would sit in my room every night listening to the radio in hopes that “Against All Odds” would come on. I had my cassette ready to record the song when the universe granted my wish. This was the same year that Phil’s cover of The Mindbender’s “Groovy Kind of Love” hit #1 in both the US and the UK. But I already had that one taped—they played “Groovy Kind of Love” every half-hour. Besides, that song was about a successful love affair, not this frustrating business of never having, never knowing, and always wondering. 

I’m now grown and married. I have kids—one in 4th grade. I go to work. I pay bills. And having navigated my share of real experiences with heartbreak and love, I find myself approaching middle age with something that feels not unlike contentment. But heartache is a habit. In only slightly different ways, I’m still waiting next to my radio for a new song to come on that can push me out of my own experience and into someone else’s.

This is my experience with Jill Andrews. I first saw Jill play at Bonnaroo three years ago. I had actually never heard of the Everybodyfields and was there after a tip from a friend that I might enjoy her music. So it happened that I saw her play to a too-small crowd on a neglected stage at Bonnaroo. Between the vintage Gibson she was playing, her golden voice, and the petal steel player that accompanied them that day, I was pretty near having a Phil Collins experience. I bought her self-titled EP, and after returning from Tennessee and brushing off the Bonnaroo dust, I queued it up and heard “Worth Keeping” for the first time. And that was it. I’ve seen her every chance I could since and spent a lot of time with her solo stuff and her work with Sam Quinn and the Everybodyfields.
Good music isn’t unlike good filmmaking in that vivid worlds are created which allow the audience, if they’re willing, to suspend disbelief and experience that vividness vicariously and sometimes even become, temporarily, the protagonist or antagonist—the singer or sung-about. That was my first experience with Jill Andrews. I was lucky in my post-Collins contentedness, but that EP—each song a different shade of failed or failing love—gutted me every time I listened. I’m coming to understand that the ability to create intuitive empathy though a shared emotional experience is the mark of a talented artist and that it is very rare indeed.

Andrews released a follow-up to my beloved EP in 2011—a full-length record called The Mirror. It’s lovely. For the album project, she explored some new territory. Many of the songs on the record are sunny, optimistic and, dare I say, upbeat. This marked an important move for Jill—one that asked her old audience to trust her while she made some adjustments and pursued new friends. This may have been difficult for some. After exploring her work with the Everybodyfields, I came to understand that Jill was so good at songs about heartache because that was what she has been doing for most of her career. But I also recognized the importance of a shift out of melancholy and into the sun as one not unlike my own movement toward the requisite emotional homeostasis of adulthood. Andrews’s gift is her earnestness and her new challenge will be to represent the complexities of maturity in ways that still invite her audience’s empathy—to look back from that proverbial mirror and say more than just “take a look at me now.”

Jill Andrews is headlining the February’s Smile Politely Show Series this Thursday evening at the Cowboy Monkey. Grandkids’ Vivian McConnell and Anna Karenina/Anna Karina’s Cole Rabenort open the show. Tickets are $10 at the door and music starts at 8:30. We hope to see you there.

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