Jennifer Niceley was just a teenager from Jefferson County when she started hitting the amateur nights around Knoxville. She paid her dues through her days at the University of Tennessee—a folkie by day and rocking at night with Soulpenny at the Ace of Clubs and Mercury Theater. (Former Mercury owner Kevin Niceley is a cousin.) Last year, twice as old as that 16-year-old kid who dragged her guitar around to the coffeehouses and scores of thankless open mikes, she was playing the massive Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits music festivals.
Her poppy torch music is languorous and lush, inviting yet hair-raising. Maybe long-time supporter Benny Smith, the general manager of WUTK 90.3, nailed it when he said, “Now we know what Nina Simone would sound like if she’d grown up in Dandridge.”
The urbane sound she demonstrates on her new album, Luminous, seems contrary to her rural roots in Jefferson County. There’s not a whiff of Americana in her music—even though her songwriting is illuminated by a very pastoral sensibility developed as a child growing up on her family’s horse farm.
Niceley’s father, Frank Niceley, a farmer, businessman, and long-time state representative, played bluegrass banjo. “By the time I was 5, I was hooked on certain artists he liked, like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb,” Niceley says by telephone from Nashville, where she’s now based. “When I was about 11, Dad taught me the chords to a Jimmie Rodgers song on an old Gibson LG2 and not long after that, I was writing my own songs.
“Jimmie Rodgers is important because of that blues influence. I’ve even been doing ‘No Hard Times’ at live shows. I loved Bessie Smith from the first time I heard her. It’s all connected. Early on, even in high school, I was drawn toward non-traditional song structure. Lyrically, too—like when I was 12 and was inspired by Joni Mitchell, especially Ladies of the Canyon. She was putting poetry to music. I can write a G-C-D country song, but when I try to get my particular lyrical vision across, it just doesn’t fit into that framework.”
Although she has a degree in English from Belmont University, Niceley’s musicianship is self-taught. “I always had the confidence to perform my own material,” she says. “I would do a Joni Mitchell cover every now and then, but from the beginning, playing out was about playing my songs for people. I understood that my music was not going to appeal to everyone.”
But the land between the Holston and French Broad rivers, with its rolling fogs and cicada-filled trees, remains home to her creative inspiration. “I took it for granted as a kid but as I got older I realized how lucky I was and how much I missed it. My connection to the land has enriched me. It is an endless source of metaphor and truth.”
The clean, elemental imagery of Niceley’s lyrics inspires a discussion of influences that quickly turns eclectic, including opera legend Maria Callas and Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor. Emily Dickinson is a long-standing inspiration, as are Sylvia Plath (“a master of imagery,” Nicely says) and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The happiest thing about a college sojourn in Wales was following the ghost of yet another hero poet, Dylan Thomas.
More about that voice: like a carefree girl skipping along river rocks one moment, and then the world-weary moan of a wounded siren on a dead-end drive. At the heart of Luminous is the empathetic partnership between Niceley’s singing and producer/guitarist Joe McMahan’s controlled distortion and lustrous glissandos. Also assisting with the lean but hearty instrumentation for the album’s nine songs (all but one original) are ubiquitous bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Rick Reed and one-man string section Chris Carmichael.
Nicely regards the disc, and Saturday’s release show at Patrick Sullivan’s, as a sort of coming-out. She’s proud of a self-titled CD she put out when she was 21 and her McMahan-produced 2004 EP Seven Songs. “But Luminous is what I want the world to hear as my first real record,” she says.