When Jennifer Niceley was living in Nashville, hustling to make it as a singer/songwriter in the Music City, she was often haunted by her family's farm, Riverplains, in Strawberry Plains.
"I really dreamed every night about the farm," she says. "A lot of times I'd dream about places that I never spent very much time, maybe this far corner that I never walked out to, or I'd be walking in the river. They weren't always extremely eventful dreams, I'd just be there."
Her 2007 record Luminous was full of "longing for that connection to the land," she says. A few years ago, the need for that connection began to push against her desire to be a musician, and she made changes.
"I had wanted to move into a homesteading lifestyle and really learn all these lost arts that have to do with self-sufficiency, and do it on my own," she says. "I wanted to learn how to hand-milk cows and make all these things."
Back in Knoxville since December 2008, Niceley has found everything that she had been craving. "There's a real community here concerned with where their food comes from," she says. Her family, too, was looking to make changes at the 400-acre farm, transforming from conventional to organic farming techniques. Everything fell into place.
On the farm, music was no longer the focus of her life; it was a needed break. While Niceley admits that being a struggling artist in Nashville is difficult, she has no interest in grousing about the music industry there.
"I grew immensely in that amount of time, musically, as an artist, and as a person as well," she says.
Still, she didn't know how music would fit into her life on the farm. She was, in some ways, turning away from her dream.
"That artistic impulse I thought would maybe go away when I moved back," she says. "I thought I was in a place where being a singer/songwriter was superfluous. It's not that I went that long without playing, but I stopped pursuing it. I stopped trying to get myself out there.... On a more personal level, I didn't even know what my inspiration was at that point. But it came back pretty quickly. I love to write."
The forthcoming four-song EP Body + Soul is the product of this phase in her life. Three of the four songs are loaded with physical imagery of the land, which is typical for Niceley. But she weaves them into bigger themes, and they often take on an ethereal, dream-like quality. "Sleepwalking" opens with the lines: "In the morning light, the spider webs float from the hills/The fog will take its time to rise from the river and the fields." The song was inspired by early mornings at the farm, getting up and watching the fog lift and seeing deer on a hill in the distance.
"I connected in the song all these different things about this earth I feel tender about and I don't ever tire of and want to take care of," she says.
"Not Leaving This Time" is about her dedication to the farm, the place. "What I've come to feel is I'm not going to run away from this place again," she says. "But it ended up being about other things as well. No matter what it is, I'm going to stay instead of run."
Niceley's voice has always been gorgeous and still is, but it's less delicate now, more grounded, with a warble reminiscent of Karen Dalton. She says she feels more sure of herself as a writer and musician. "I feel more confident and comfortable with myself, and the songs are authentic."
What happens next is still largely up in the air. While Niceley says music will always be part of who she is, she doesn't know how much touring will be possible, at least for now. "The idea of booking a tour around this EP sounds great, but realistically, I just have to see if it makes sense," she says. "Especially when over the summer I'm going to be going to farmer's markets."
Also, she prefers playing with a band, as she will be at the Pilot Light. "I don't really enjoy performing solo anymore. So really it's just a matter of being able to take a band out on the road with all the expenses and pay everybody. I'll have to see if that's possible."
The EP will be released on vinyl and CD, and will be available for digital download. She plans on recording a full-length album later this year or early next, working with Scott Minor.
Her music has found a comfortable home on the farm. "I feel like it's part of what I'm doing," she says. "I write songs and I share them. It fits into my vision of what I'm doing back on the farm."