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Interview: Jenna Paulette on songwriting, touring with Mason Ramsey and 2020 plans

We chatted to the rising singer-songwriter about her ‘New West’ style of country music, life on the road and more.

Jenna Paulette
Credit: Jenna Paulette

Jenna Paulette grew up on a ranch in Texas, where she honed her ‘New West’ cowgirl style and developed her unique blend of pop and country, with influences such as Leann Rimes and Kenny Chesney.

Since releasing her debut single Coolest Girl In The World back in 2018, she’s notched up over 350,000 streams on Spotify, worked with producers Lee Holland and Brad Hill (who’ve also collaborated with the likes of Maren Morris and Lucie Silvas) and opened for artists including Zac Brown Band, Joe Nichols, Russell Dickerson and High Valley. Her latest album, Modern Cowgirl Volume 1, was released in September 2019 and is already generating a lot of buzz for its distinctive sound.

We spoke to Jenna recently about her musical influences, how she approaches songwriting, touring with Mason Ramsey, her experience as part of the Song Suffragettes all-female writer’s round in Nashville and more.

You’ve described your music style as ‘New West’ – can you tell us a bit more about what that means?

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Yes, so New West to me is… I grew up in a ranching family, so I grew up around cattle and cowboys and just in Texas, which is very western in and of itself. I think there’s a big difference between country music that’s produced in the south-east and south-western country music. Everything from us calling our ranches and just the whole kind of mindset of it. So that’s the country world that I come from.

But I think people have a misconception about what it means to be a cowboy or cowgirl these days, and most of the ones that I know listen to all kinds of music, not just old school George Jones, heavy pedal steel stuff. It’s everything from that stuff to what’s on mainstream radio, and I think it’s cool to be cowgirl and I want to represent what that looks like to today’s country music audience.

How do you feel that growing up in Texas and being involved in the country scene there has particularly influenced your music?

Yes, so I think growing up in Texas and growing up ranching helped me especially being a country music artist. Because I think a lot of people love country music and move to Nashville and wanna do country music because they love it, but they don’t necessarily come from it. They might love the way it makes them feel, and I get that because I love the way it makes me feel too. But I had the pleasure of growing up in the country, in the middle of nowhere, and I think that’s a really special thing these days because city life is great, but not everybody gets the privilege of being out in the middle of nowhere and being told, like, ‘hey, you don’t get to watch TV, just go play or whatever else out in the pasture’. And I grew up playing pioneer girls, which was really a stretch for me to be out in the middle of nowhere.

And I think that’s really influenced my music. And then also just being able to have actual experiences that were amplified by listening to country music growing up, and being like, ‘oh my gosh, somebody’s singing about the world that I love’. And being able to be like, ‘OK, well I like to sing, and I’d love to make people feel that way too’. And so just kind of the combination of growing up in that world and then realising that you can make your job singing about what you love and where you come from, and it just kind of led me to country music. I think that’s a huge benefit, if you’re in it and come from it.

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Have there been any artists who’ve particularly influenced your sound and your musical style?

Yes, yeah. I mean, I always mention George Strait and the Dixie Chicks because George Strait, he represented the men that I grew up admiring. He’s a Texan himself. When I listen to him I’m just like, ‘oh my gosh, he’s just singing the things that I know’. And the Dixie Chicks, of course. Like Cowboy Take Me Away and Wide Open Spaces, just that whole Fly album, I know every single word to it. It was one of the first albums that I really dug into and was just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is a work of art’. Of course you have all the great women like Shania and Faith Hill, but I think the big influences on what I want to do in country music is bringing kind of a fresh take on what George Strait and the Dixie Chicks did.

You released your album Modern Cowgirl Vol 1 last year. How did you decide which songs to include on the record?

Yeah, well, let me see. I think always the best song wins, and also I really think visually. When I was writing the songs for that album I wanted to make sure that it visually represented and lyrically represented what I wanted people to feel when they listened to my music. And also I wanted to make sure there was lots of uptempo and midtempo stuff, because it just makes a show better. So yeah, all of that went into choosing. And then there were some obvious ones that like, the minute I got the demo back I was just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is me!’ [laughs]

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Wild Like The West was one of them. I had just come back from a trip to Texas, out in West Texas and hanging out with a bunch of friends of mine. I just came back really inspired. That song just kind of fell out. I wrote most of the chorus just driving around the block, trying to find a parking spot for the write to write that song. It was just me and one other person. I walked in and I sang the chorus to him and he was like, ‘oh yeah, let’s do that!’ [laughs] It just kind of became everything that I wanted it to be.

And then Midnight Cowboy was kind of a struggle. That one, I brought in the idea, I had a chorus that I liked, but the idea got pushed by the other two writers and myself, and it took us two writes to finish it. It was just one of those songs that in the moment I was like, ‘man, we fought so hard for that idea’, and then I got the demo back and was just like, ‘and this is why’. It was just so modern cowgirl to me, and the response from people in the rodeo community, just people that really live that life, has been incredible. One girl who’s one of the team roping champions of the world messaged me and she was like, ‘this is the rodeo life song of the year’. And because I’ve been looking up to them forever, it’s just nice to know that when you’re aiming at something and taking songs and really trying to define a sound, to have it resonating with who you want it to resonate with, is huge. So that was great encouragement to me.

But yeah, it was a process, for sure. I think I took a while to define and pare down those songs, because I wanted to make sure that when I did, if people in Nashville and in the industry were listening to it, they would get who I am, the direction I’m going, and how to either pitch songs to me or put me in rooms to write songs that are in that same vein. And I think it did that, but it also connected with my audience, which is really cool.

You’ve talked about taking a visual approach and have made several videos to accompany the record. Is having that consistent style visually important to you?

Yes, yeah. I love just the artistic side of being an artist. And I love seeing things come together visually that are real and down-to-earth but still beautiful. And I feel like being able to produce these songs and do music videos to them just communicates the beauty of the way that I grew up. So it’s just fun to get to be out there and be creative and be there in the moment with a group of people. Usually my team for the music video side of things is extremely small. It’s usually just like me – I do all the styling and usually use cowboys that I know to be in the videos, go somewhere beautiful in West Texas. And then I have a videographer who is also the director, and the lighting guy [laughs] and editor and everything. And then my hair and makeup girl, I bounce things off of her style-wise and like, ‘hey, does this look good?’ and she’s like, ‘cool’ or ‘you need to change that’ [laughs]. One of the two. And then a guy that shoots behind the scenes stuff and the acoustic stuff that we put out as well.

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So it’s just the four of us. And then we have such a blast shooting together. It always come out really beautiful, I feel, because we all go down there on the same page and everybody’s working towards a mood board that we put together. It’s so organic and so spontaneous that nobody’s super-disappointed, because we don’t go down there like, ‘we need to get this exact thing’. It’s like, ‘OK, this is the mood board, this is the goal, these are the clothes, it’s a beautiful place that we’re in, and we’re shooting with people we love’. And it just comes out being what I hope it will be, usually. And yeah, I just love the visual side of it. I get a lot of tips from brands that are very well done and so I kind of hold myself to that standard as an artist – that things are done really well and beautifully but also true to who I am.

I also wanted to ask you about your songwriting. Do you have a typical writing process? And has that changed over time?

Yeah. I don’t know what is typical, because I guess what would be typical is three writers walk into a room and everybody spitting out ideas and then they all collectively work on that idea or whatever it is that kind of made everybody go, ‘yes, that’s the thing for today’. And for me, I think because I come from the artist side of it, and I am looking to create a body of work, whether it’s an EP or an album or whatever, I’m usually thinking in terms of what holes I have in the album – what I need, what that song title could be that would feel like that song.

And then usually for me it comes from an idea, so I’ll hear something and I’ll be like, ‘oh, Midnight Cowboy, that could be this’ and I’ll just start singing into my phone things that usually end up rhyming or being like the body of a chorus. And then I’ll edit that and make sure it makes sense and that it’s catchy and cool, and that the flip on the hook feels right and all of that stuff, and then I’ll bring that into a songwriting session. And it’ll either get torn apart and made better or somebody else has a better idea and we roll with that that day. But most of the time I think it’s usually organic to who I am. People will get on the bandwagon and we write to that kind of chorus idea.

I know it happened that way with F-150. I stopped in like four different parking lots on my way to write F-150 with my buddy Mark Trussell, recorded what the chorus I thought should be at the time. And when I got to his house I was like, ‘hey, I just walked out to my truck, saw the logo for F-150 and started singing this idea into my phone’. And he was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s super cool’. And then it became great once we were working on it together, but the body of it was just me in my truck singing into my voice memos. And that’s the way it usually starts for me.

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Jenna Paulette

Credit: Jenna Paulette

You’ve just finished a tour in the US with Mason Ramsey – how was that?

Oh my gosh, I love him! He’s just so precious. I mean, I was having the time of my life up on that stage. I got to do my set, which I think especially as people are getting to know you as an artist, it’s an ideal place to be to sing between 25 and 30 minutes and my set was between 25 and 30 minutes long. It was a perfect ‘get to know you’, sing all the songs that are gonna hook ’em and I was on a high every night after coming off that stage. His audience is so fun to sing to first of all, and then second of all I didn’t know how they were gonna react to me but they were the right crowd for what I do. And that was so fun to just like feel every night.

And then I got to sing with him. I got to sing Famous with him every single night for the encore, and it was just electric. He’s just everything you ever hope he’d be as a person, and then as a performer… I just had such a good time with him and I think we’ll be friends for a really long time. I’m supposed to actually see him in the next couple of days. It was just a very special experience and I’ll never forget it.

What have you learned from touring and being on the road over the years?

Oh my gosh. Well, I learned that when I come home from being on the road that I need to take a day. I ended up getting… it was just a cold and then of course when you don’t slow down it becomes not just a cold. It was almost like pneumonia-level cough. But I realised that I need to come home and regroup for a day, because it’s usually like a four-day run and then you’re home Monday [and] Tuesday and you leave either Wednesday or Thursday again to go back out on the road. Or at least that’s what it was like for this run.

So that Monday or Tuesday when I get back, I just need to take a day to really take care of myself and chill [laughs] and sleep and all of that stuff. Because I get so hyper on the road that I’ll get done with a show at like 11 o’clock and then I won’t get to sleep til 2 because I’m just too excited about life. So I learned that I need to figure out how to turn it off and to rest when I can.

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I also wanted to ask you a bit about the Song Suffragettes collective you play with in Nashville – how did you get involved in that?

Yes. So I guess when I got to town I kind of knew about them, and it’s kind of a rite of passage in this town I think, to get to know the whole crew and be a part of what they’re doing. And just kind of like get your feet wet playing in front of people in town, because Nashville can be extremely intimidating in some ways. So I think it was that for me. I just kind of knew about them, wanted to be a part of it, got connected, and Todd, who heads up the whole thing, actually shot my first music video for me. So I learned more about it through him and became a part of it, and was in their Time’s Up video.

I just think it’s really important to be drawing attention to what they are drawing attention to as far as women go. I think they’re just such a helpful voice in this town for what is happening and for what could be done better. And from there it’s like, you take that and build on it yourself and what you can learn, and how to make women just better and more heard on the radio and all of that stuff. So it’s extremely helpful. I just love what they do and I’m very proud to have been a part of it and to be a part of it.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Oh my gosh! One song I wish I’d written… oh man! Probably Automatic, Miranda Lambert. There’s a bunch. There’s a bunch I wish I’d written. But Automatic. It was her I think, and Nicolle Galyon and Natalie Hemby. And that song to me is uptempo and commercial country, but it is so real. And I feel like Miranda and I were cut from the same cloth as far as our roots go and where we’re from. When I heard that song I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is something I wish I’d written, wish I could have cut’. It is just an incredible song. That and House That Built Me. Those songs are just absolutely incredible.

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What does the rest of 2020 look like for you?

Yeah, so I’m on the road quite a bit next month and in March and hope to be for the rest of the year. And I am in talks about the rest of the year as far as touring goes right now. I can’t announce that yet but I’ll be in Nashville and then Georgia and Florida opening for Clay Walker next month. He’s an older country artist but one that I’ve looked up to for a long time so I’m super-excited to get to know him a little bit, and get to share the stage with him. That’s my next couple of months. And then also looking what to release next currently. So yeah, lots being done at the moment that will be announced soon.

Jenna Paulette’s album, Modern Cowgirl Vol 1, is available now.

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