Jennett Meridan Russell has made a decision. Her three decades spent playing covers in bar bands are over.
It’s time for the East End—and beyond—to hear her music.
“I want to do my songs,” the sultry-voiced, Westhampton Beach-based singer said during a telephone interview last week. “I like my songs. People like my songs. I’m just sick of other people’s music now. It’s very cool to be playing your music and seeing people dancing and singing along like they’ve heard them before.”
This month, Ms. Russell grew her fan base more than ever. Not only is her original song “Eclipse of my Soul” featured on Paradiddle Records’s February sampler, the track—which will also appear on her debut album, “More to Life,” expected to drop this spring—has caught the attention of disc jockeys as far away as at 2 Triple B FM in Australia.
“It’s the kind of song where you’re in a crowded, noisy bar and you start playing it and everybody shuts up and listens,” Ms. Russell said. “It’s a fun thing to watch happen.”
Ms. Russell wrote the song in 1997 while living in Chicago, she said. She was inspired during a hang-out session with her friend, Kate Kirby. After reading one of her romantic poems, Ms. Russell raced home, sat down with her guitar and knocked out the music to “Eclipse of my Soul” in one night—with her friend’s poem in mind as lyrics.
To her surprise, the song wrote itself, she said.
“I generally don’t do love songs,” the 52-year-old musician said. “I write about things like drug dealers and suicidal businessmen and Civil War soldiers looking to get laid. I was just struck by how beautiful this love song was because it was just something that I have a real hard time with. I’m kind of a tough character. But I was just struck by the beauty of it and envious. I wish I could write lyrics like this.”
Ms. Russell first picked up a guitar when she was 14, but it took her decades to pen her first lyrics, she reported. Fascinated by documentarian Ken Burns’s “The Civil War,” she wrote “Going on Down the Line” in 1991—a phrase, to the soldiers, that meant visiting the local cathouse, she said, and a song that was enough to boost her confidence as a writer.
From that point on, the lyrics have poured out of her, allowing her to compile decades’ worth of music recorded with a number of different groups, to her dismay, she said, adding that it seemed that every trip to the recording studio with a new band ended in a breakup.
“Every time. At least five times. I don’t know what it is, it’s like a curse,” she said. “We get into the studio, record the song and the band splits. I’m now afraid to go into a studio.”
For the most part, Ms. Russell won’t have to while building her debut album, she said, as she’s pulling previously recorded songs mainly from her archives. And combing through, she’s rediscovering some of her favorite tracks, among them “Mantova Hideaway,” which was inspired by her late brother, Dana Russell, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1997.
Shortly after Dana’s diagnosis, the third Russell sibling, Kurt, took his brother—whose head was shaven clean and marked with a big horseshoe-shaped scar—to Mantova, Italy for a brief respite from chemotherapy, and reality.
“They went to this nice little café and Kurt spoke Italian to the waiter, and it’s all Dana raved about,” Ms. Russell recalled. “Just this wonderful little spot and this perfect little moment with Kurt.”
But when Mr. Russell returned from his vacation, so did the tumor—and with a vengeance, his sister said. One spring night in 2000, the whole family was in the car—Dana Russell behind the wheel, his mother riding passenger and Ms. Russell and her second brother in the back seat—when he began speeding.
He was angry about his life, his sister said. He was angry he was dying.
It was the last time he ever drove, she said. And after that experience, she wrote “Mantova Hideaway.” Mr. Russell died just months later on July 27, 2000, with his brother holding his hand. He was 46.
“I just imagined him. And I imagined someone like him, a businessman who decides to kill himself in a car in an effort to get back to Mantova forever,” she said. “So there’s a lyric in there, ‘Let the sacred shroud come down/Cover me up on the ground/Hide my eyes from the lights of LA/Take me back to your Mantova hideaway.’