It wasn't until Raleigh native Jeanne Jolly moved to Los Angeles, traveled the world touring with Grammy-nominated jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and returned home that she felt the urge to try songwriting. Since making her way back to North Carolina, Jolly's also provided vocals for the suave soul project The Foreign Exchange, who recently released her debut album via the +FE Music imprint.
While her jazz background informs the vocals on Angels, the arrangements and instrumentation—keyed by a list of sterling locals, including Chris Boerner, Allyn Love, Matt McCaughan and James Wallace—draw more upon her North Carolina roots. We spoke to Jolly about being back home, the music it has inspired and the North Carolina State Fair.
I had a physics teacher at St. Mary's [high school], Bruce Dick. Physics was my toughest subject, so we did an independent study. We'd trade music as well as do physics. He would make mixtapes of female jazz singers, and I would bring him CDs every week. I think I got a C plus, but the jazz just really started getting in my veins. I asked my voice teacher when I was 14 or 15 if we could please stop doing all this theater music. I loved music theater, but I was starting to feel the pull of things I was more passionate about. I love jazz and its expression. It's a huge influence on my writing, maybe not as much harmonically, but my phrasing and the way I hear melodies.
I love North Carolina, and I draw a lot of inspiration in my songwriting from North Carolina. I write a lot down at Emerald Isle on my dad's porch and here in Raleigh. I also go to the mountains a good bit. A lot of other people in the industry ask me why I don't live in Nashville or Los Angeles or New York. It's because I find my inspiration here. There's plenty going on here and I love coming home; it's just a beautiful place to travel in and out of.
I grew up going every year. It's one of my favorite events in North Carolina. This will be my third year playing the State Fair at the Waterfall Stage. Our green room area is in the bowels of the Dorton Arena, and we share that area with a lot of people that live the carnival lifestyle. A couple years ago, our green room was beside the clown. Every night when we were packing up, he would be in there taking off his happy face. The drag race goes on sometimes during our set, and it's louder than we are. You just have to roll with it.
I've known Chris Boerner since kindergarten, and our musical paths have crossed over the years, playing with his jazz trio when I'd come back to town from college or singing on different records he's made. He produced Falling in Carolina for me and now, having him produce this, it all feels like home.
Collaboration with Chris led me to meeting The Foreign Exchange, singing with them and collaborating on recordings. Now they're putting my record out. There has been an organic unfolding of blessings here in North Carolina. Phonte and Nicolay both have been very good about supporting me, but also just watching them and their grassroots way and their business model has been very inspiring. They're not bound by genre, and I'm really proud to be a part of that.
I've been a singer my whole life and always looked at songwriting as something that was maybe untouchable for me, probably because I wasn't super proficient at any one instrument. I really focused on vocal performance because that was my passion. I started focusing on songwriting when I moved back home. It was a release from a really hard time because my mom had passed away from cancer really quickly and unexpectedly, which is what brought me home. I started taking guitar lessons and became healthily obsessed. I'd always written down lyrics on receipts and napkins and notebooks, and I've always had melodies recorded on my phone or on tape recorders. For years, I never did anything with them. Out of tragedy, the screen was lifted.
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This article appeared in print with the headline "Five words with Jeanne Jolly."