"Her sound wanders from alt-country to haunting folk rock delivering her poetry with an urgency to match it's message." Josh Jackson - Paste Magazine
Alongside husband Jeff Neal, who contributes tasteful guitar and mandolin support, Daniels first caught the attention of music fans in live settings—beginning in 1999—with her supple, dynamic voice and physical, absorbing delivery. It began in time-honored, grassroots fashion, with gigs in Chattanooga, Tennessee—just down the mountain from home—then short forays around the southeastern U.S. and then regular hauls up and down the East Coast and, finally, jaunts across the country, with as many as 200 dates each year.
On the road for long stretches, Daniels made Decatur, Ga’s legendary Eddie’s Attic—an acoustic-music listening room known for launching the careers of everyone from the Indigo Girls to Shawn Mullins—her home away from home. During this period Daniels was a regular contestant at the venue’s “Open Mic Shoot-Out” contests. On one particular night, she made it to the final, but fell just short of the top prize, edged out by a young upstart named John Mayer. Daniels won the contest later, topping another notable singer/songwriter, Zac Brown (whose Zac Brown Band now is blowing the doors off country radio) to do it.
Her stage reputation established, Daniels began establishing herself as a recording artist, independently releasing her 2000 debut, Fists of Flood, to raves in Performing Songwriter, which named it a Top 12 DIY Release for the year and said, “This is music that seems to have grown slowly from some rich, dark soil.”
Now, four studio albums and one live album later, Daniels has recorded her most ambitious effort, Come Undone, a song cycle in three acts. The album’s recording was fraught with more than just artistic significance, with Daniels and Neal spending sessions in wonder and anticipation at the pending birth of twins, their first children (if you don’t count songs and beloved dog Bob Marley). As Daniels notes, rather than heavy literature, “during tracking I was obsessively reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting!”
Significantly, for an artist who began her recording career with stripped-down arrangements—featuring guitars, mandolin, a little bass and not much else—on Come Undone producer Scott Smith goes for a fuller approach, with strings, electronics, a choir and a pipe organ at various moments, depending on what seemed appropriate.
“There was a whole new level of artistry, so we felt the production’s depth should fit the project,” Smith says. “The orchestration and sonic choices were a natural fit not only for the songs, but for framing Jennifer's voice in a way it hasn’t yet been heard. The complexity of her voice—both lyrically and melodically —works amazingly well stripped down, with two guitars. So the challenge was to add to this while still retaining the intimacy of her message. There's plenty of ear candy for anyone who wants to listen for it, yet those in love with Jen’s voice and the songs won't be distracted.”
Just as ambitious as the sounds—and owing, in no small part, to the significant life-changes afoot—are the themes, both epic in scope and more personal than ever. To name one example, few artists this side of Bono would have the guts to tackle an argument with God in song, but in “You Slay Me,” Daniels pulls it off. “That song practically wrote itself,” she observes, “during a night when I was grief stricken, angry and exhausted by months of sorrow, unable to understand why God would allow such heartache. Honestly, I’m afraid to perform it—it’s personal, it’s revealing and it leaves me vulnerable to misinterpretation and judgment.”
At the same time, she says, that song and one other close-to-the-bone confession, “Every Single Day,” are absolutely indispensable to the story Come Undone tells, one of hopes and dreams, then disillusion and darkness and, finally, joy that survives all the more for having been tested and scarred by life. “The title is an invitation to allow the weight of disappointment to strip you of things that can be taken away in order to find the stabilizing force of what cannot,” Daniels concludes.
That said, even Daniels’ most serious album to date doesn’t forsake her well-known humor, particularly on “You Should Love Me,” a tongue-in-cheek strut before a would-be beau. It’s a side of her that shows up even more forcefully onstage. “If the audience laughs at my jokes, I’m liable to try a whole stand-up routine,” she notes. “Then Jeff will quietly remind me that we’re here to play music and we all laugh some more.”