Track By Track: Jennifer Hartswick ‘Something in the Water’
Photo credit: Dani Barbieri
“It had been a few years since my last album and I had some things to say,” Jennifer Hartswick declares, then punctuates this statement with a warm laugh. Something in the Water, the follow-up to 2018’s Nexus, is the fourth record from the dynamic vocalist and trumpet player, who first gained renown as an original member of the Trey Anastasio Band.
Although Hartswick grew up in Vermont amidst the bucolic surroundings that she references in a few of the songs that appear on her new album, she currently lives in Nashville, Tenn. This is also where she recorded Something in the Water at Sound Emporium, with longtime friend and bandmate Nick Cassarino serving as producer. However, she returned to her home state in early 2021 to compose most of the material that appears on the record.
“In January 2021, Nick Cassarino and I went to this amazing building in Vermont with the sole purpose of hanging out and writing,” she recalls. “It was the two of us and this awesome songwriter Erin Boyd. We started out by just talking—sharing stories and ideas—but it quickly took off from there.”
When it came to recording the songs, Hartswick enlisted a core band consisting of Cassarino on guitar, along with bassist Christian McBride, drummer Conor Elmes and keyboardist Rob Marscher. McBride, a musical inspiration from Hartswick’s youth, not only performs on the album— as he did on Nexus—but is also releasing the LP through his Mack Avenue Records imprint, Brother Mister Productions. “I think he’s absolutely phenomenal,” Hartswick raves. “His musicality blows me away every single day of my life and I was so thrilled when he said he wanted to make this album with me.”
Something in the Water also features some guest musicians, including her Ghosts of the Forest collaborator Celisse Henderson, Trey Anastasio Band’s Natalie Cressman, former Turkuaz member Elias and Hartswick’s husband, North Mississippi Allstars alum Chris Chew.
Cassarino’s role as producer reflects an ongoing evolution in his musical relationship with Hartswick. She explains, “I met Nick in South Burlington, Vt., when he was 14. I was judging a high school battle of the bands. He was a freshman in high school and his band was the best by far. He was already writing original music at that point in his life. As soon as he graduated, I started taking him on the road. He is not only an absurd guitar player, but he’s a professional uplifter and an incredible person. We’ve been playing together a lot, especially in the last five or six years. We have a duo together, he’s in the full band, he’s in everything that I do. We just sort of read each other’s minds and it’s something that we don’t take for granted.
“We’ve bonded so much over the years—and spent so much time writing music together— that it just seemed like a really natural evolution for him to produce as well. I didn’t want a bunch of outside hands in it and he continues to push me to depths that I didn’t even know I could go. So it felt like the right fit and things naturally took their course.”
Only Time Will Tell
This was one of the first ones we wrote when I got to Vermont. We were in this really beautiful house with two wood stoves going and a big old Christmas tree because it was early January. So we sat around and bounced ideas off of each other. All three of us started telling stories about exes, past relationships and that kind of stuff.
Nick came up with what would eventually become the melody, but he thought it was a bassline at first. I was like, “Man, that sounds like a melody to me.” So we ping-ponged off each other about that.
We made the demo that day, and once it got closer to when we were going to record it, I felt like I wanted to do something cool with the back and forth between the vocal and the trumpet. It’s sort of half battle, half conversation—kind of like what the song’s lyrics indicate but only in musical form. That was the impetus behind the whole section.
Each one of us would take turns making dinner. One night it was my turn, so I left Nick and Erin by themselves, and when I came back out, they had completely written that song during the time it took me to make dinner. They were like, “What do you think about this?” I just stood there with my mouth open, and I was like, “This is what you guys do when I leave for an hour? You should just write the rest of the album.” [Laughs.]
Recording it was fun because there are so many layers to it and it’s this big theatrical song.
“Fairytale” is very cinematic to me. It’s the story of a couple who decides, after a really long time to break up and move on, but they love each other for where they are right now and not all the terrible things that have happened.
Two Way Mirror
I drove to Vermont from Nashville early 2021. It’s a long drive and, when I had a few hours left, Erin called me and she was like, “You’re probably not listening to news radio right now.” I told her that I wasn’t, and she encouraged me to do so. The day that I was driving up there was Jan. 6.
It was probably a 20-hour drive, and I had news radio on for the last couple of hours. Then, when I got there, we just sat in front of a TV like everybody else. So that’s the day that we started writing the record, which doesn’t necessarily indicate the content on the record, but it was a starting place.
“Two Way Mirror” was probably the one song on the record that was somewhat influenced by Jan. 6. It’s about the different struggles that we face due to power in its many forms. That could be political power or the power that comes from wealth and everything else.
It also extends to what we’re eating and what that does to us. I sort of had a Monsanto moment. [Laughs.]
I was really dismayed with everything. So I asked, “How far does it go for? How long do we keep doing this? When is it going to end?”
By The River
“By The River” is the only one that I didn’t write in that original session. I wrote it after we had finished making the other songs on the album. I felt like everything was so thick and layered that I wanted a palette cleanser. I wanted something fun that people could dance to and also something really honest and truthful.
The song is essentially the story of my life. I had the pleasure of growing up in Vermont on a bunch of land with nobody around. It was before the internet, thank God. I had the luxury of figuring out who I was before all these people were judging me. I would literally just go out to the waterfall or to the tire swing on the river and sing my face off.
The song is a celebration of girlhood and living in a judgment-free zone when you’re a kid. I had two of my favorite ladies on it: Maureen Murphy and Shira Elias. Being able to be in the same room together and sing about the cool parts of being a young girl was fun. It also definitely was emotional at times, like when we got to the last line about not extinguishing the fire and carrying that joy and spark and youth with you throughout your whole life—to know how important that is and how important you are.
This is a Randy Newman song and when I first heard it, I thought, “That is the saddest song I’ve ever heard of my life. That poor son of a bitch.” We’ve all been there or we’ve known somebody who’s been there.
I thought the most appropriate way to do it was as a duo with Christian. It’s just the two of us and it was a one-take wonder. What you see is what you get. There are no edits, no nothing. I couldn’t even see him through the glass. It was like, “Ready, go” and this is what came out. I just love it. I’m so glad that we put it on there.
I’ve been a fan of Christian’s music since I was 14 years old. I had his first three albums on CD and I had to keep buying them over and over because I wore them out and they’d get scratched.
I finally got to play with him almost 10 years ago when Nigel Hall put together a band at Tipitina’s for DJ Soul Sister’s birthday. Nigel had both Christian and me on the gig, and we hit it off. We had this great rehearsal and then the gig was incredibly fun. I was so happy to finally be able to play with him.
I was the last person to walk off the stage and Christian was waiting for me at the stairs. He said, “I need you to make me a pinky promise that we’ll be friends forever.” I was like, “Yeah, I think we could do that.” [Laughs.]
He’s been one of my biggest cheerleaders. So when I made the last album, Nexus, I asked him to be a part of that. Christian, Nick and I went up to The Barn in Vermont and made it. I was thrilled when he said he wanted to make another album.
I think he’s absolutely phenomenal and his musicality blows me away every single day of my life.
“For You” was the most fun we had writing a song. It’s sort of written from a loving maneater situation. I may have a friend who it was written about. [Laughs.] It’s just a fun, tonguein-cheek maneater song.
I wrote “Innocence” as a love letter to the piece of land that I grew up on in Vermont. I was raised by my parents but my grandparents were my next door neighbors, so I was also raised by my grandparents. But I was also raised on this beautiful piece of property that my grandparents bought back when land was very, very cheap. [Laughs.] “Innocence” is just sort of about how I grew up and where I grew up and the idea that the forest becomes another auntie and the fields become another uncle. It’s sort of a thank you and an homage to the piece of property that I grew up on.
It was one of those things that just came flowing out. Then, we sent it to Natalie Cressman and said, “If you want to do something on this, do it.” It came back with the most gorgeous sort of trombone choir. Her ears are so mature and she never asked for a chart, never asked, “What’s this chord?” Natalie hears everything. Her musicality is astonishing. She made it so beautiful and exactly in the spirit of the song. I just love how that one came out.
We felt like we needed a love song from people in love. Nick is in a beautiful marriage, I’m in a beautiful marriage and there are not enough of those songs because singing about love when you’re in love can get really cheesy. [Laughs.] It’s a very fine line but we wanted to write a song celebrating love and have it be honest without being cheesy. Hopefully, we accomplished that.
My husband [Chris Chew] sings on it, which is awesome. I was like, “Hey, what are you doing today? Why don’t you come down?” He’s a bass player by trade, not a singer, but he sang on it.
There are a couple of times a year when we’ll be on a gig together and it’s really fun but I’m a pretty firm believer in keeping that part of our lives separate. He’s an amazing bass player, an incredible musician, but we were both thriving in our own right when we met and got together, and we’ve sort of kept it like that.
After being in this industry for 20 years, I find it’s very rare that the couple who plays together stays together. Either the band breaks up or the people break up and I don’t want either one of those things to happen.
I will also say—and this is equally as important to me—there’s something that happens to you when you’re a female musician, where someone always assumes that your boyfriend or husband is in the band. There are a lot of female musicians out there who get asked if they’re carrying that guitar for their boyfriend. So it’s nice to set a different precedent and say, “No, that’s not always true. I can do this by myself, thank you very much.” It’s important to me to be an example of that.
When I’m Weary
I’ve known Dave [Matthews] for a long time. I was probably 20 when I first met him. I’m a fan of his songwriting and him as a person, although I’m not necessarily the most avid Dave Matthews Band listener.
But when that album [Come Tomorrow] came out, I thought, “I should listen to this.” I was on a plane by myself, and I put on the whole album and listened to it front to back. When I got to that song, I just started uncontrollably weeping. I was an inconsolable wreck, and I didn’t even know why. I just thought, “This is so beautiful.”
The message is beautiful. The melody is beautiful. It’s just beautiful. I probably listened to it 20 times in a row and I bet it took me until the 18th time to stop crying. So I thought it was a really nice way to close out the album. It’s just got such a nice message of support. There’s something super special about it and I wanted to pay homage to that sort of feeling. So we decided to record it and end the album with it.