The Art Of The Sit-In | Jennifer Hartswick

Words By: Chad Berndtson

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Karl Denson, Reed Mathis, Adam Deitch, Neal Casal, George Porter Jr., and many more.

“You’re talking with Jen?” 

The question comes from one of Jennifer Hartswick’s numerous friends and musical associations, in an unrelated interview. 

“Man, I want to do that interview. Let me do that interview next time. She’s just so, so much fun to talk to.”

[Photo by Regan Teti Marscher]

Ask around about Jennifer Hartswick and you get a similar reaction –again, and again, and again. It’s easy to see why she’s not only in high demand as a collaborator across the broader jam scene, but also someone everyone just loves to be around. 

Hartswick has an exciting new album in the works in the midst of the many commitments that keep her busy, from her longtime association with the Trey Anastasio Band to adventurous combos like Van Ghost. Clearly it was time for a catch-up. 

JAMBASE: So where am I finding you today?

JENNIFER HARTSWICK: Believe it or not, at home, in Nashville.

JAMBASE: And you’ve been there a few years?

JH: Two years.

JAMBASE: What brought you there? I think we still think of you as a Northeasterner.

JH: I suppose my husband brought me down here. He’s from the Memphis area and we both decided that wasn’t the most loveable place to be, so we came a little to the right. It’s really interesting. I’ve lived in small towns, I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived many places. It’s really interesting down here because it’s like being part of a cult, only the good things in the cult without drinking the punch. Everyone understands what I do for a living. Everyone gets the touring lifestyle. That’s kind of nice. 

JAMBASE: Any downside?

JH: Only the humidity [laughs]. Everything else falls into place. I say “ma’am” and “sir” a lot more now –a lot of “ma’am-ing” and “sir-ing.”

JAMBASE: I’m never sure quite where to start with you because your schedule and associations vary so impressively. What’s in the immediate future?

JH: Everything’s always in the immediate future. But the thing I’m most immersed in right now is that I just recorded a new record that I could not be more excited about. I’m spending every free minute I have mixing that, but I’m also taking my time with it. It’s been really nice to have no schedule and to do exactly what I want with it.

JAMBASE: Which is what exactly?

JH: I mean the way it sounds. A lot of records get made on a tight budget, with three rushed days in the studio. I just decided I didn’t want to put any time limits on it. I really wanted to get into the nitty gritty details.

JAMBASE: Did you record in Nashville?

JH: No, I can’t lie: we recorded at The Barn. On up to Vermont.

JAMBASE: So what does it sound like? Can you compare at all to what we heard on Ocean Floor in 2013?

JH: It’s really different. It’s a lush album, and it’s also very personal, which is new for me and totally scary. It features myself and Nick Cassarino and the amazing Christian McBride. Natalie [Cressman] makes a little appearance on there, too, but we went up as a trio and recorded everything with no drums, just the three of us. We’re still kind of making it.

[Photo by Mike Kaiz]

How far do you go back with Christian?

JH: I go really far back with him, although he doesn’t go back that far with me [laughs]. I’ve been a fan of his since I was 15 years old. And I mean a true, true fan -he released a few records in ‘95 or ‘96 that totally shaped the way I played and how I listened to music. It was a huge influence on me as a kid -I was a total jazz nerd, and he was a hero of mine. 

As fate would have it, we ended up on the same gig about two years ago in New Orleans. A few days before the gig I found out he was the bass player. I freaked out and became a nerd again and called my mom and I was like, “oh my god, I’m going to play with Christian McBride.” The gig was great, and we kept in touch ever since, and when this idea hit me, there was no one else I wanted for it. I got to him from the start.

JAMBASE: And how did you arrive at keeping it just you, Nick and Christian? You have so many connections and could easily put a recording group together but you wanted just the three of you.

JH: The only explanation I have is that it was about those three souls in a room doing something together. I don’t know how to say it more eloquently -just getting us in, seeing what would happen, hoping it would work, knowing it would be something amazing.

JAMBASE: When do you think we’ll be able to hear it?

JH: I don’t know, and I’m OK with that. It could be fall, it could be next spring. When it’s done, it’ll be done.

JAMBASE: Any designs on touring together, the three of you?

JH: Definitely. Oh definitely.

JAMBASE: Let’s talk a bit about some of your other associations. Incidental Animals seemed like something that could be over and done with after a one-off or two-off but has kept up. 

JH: It’s been really nice. Everyone’s got major projects they’re working on, so we can’t do it often, but we probably would tour more if that wasn’t an issue. We got together six months or so ago and said we should do another run, and that ends up being only a few dates, but it’s really fun. I don’t get to play with those guys, ALO and Kyle [Hollingsworth], in any other capacity, really and it’s fun to go out and kind of stomp around on their turf.

JAMBASE: Will you be doing more with the Jennifer Hartswick Band?

JH: Well, we are playing at High Sierra, one of my favorite festivals, and we did some shows at Jazz Fest. The band doesn’t do a whole lot of touring right now for the same reason as other bands don’t: everyone is so busy and doing other things. Much of that band is also in The Nth Power, which has been out touring a lot, and that’s wonderful. I love that band. I think they’re incredible. They’re out most of the year now, so we do shows when we can all get together. The new record is not the Jennifer Hartswick Band, it’s a totally different direction. But we’ve also got something else coming up that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet.

JAMBASE: Sounds good. And how about Van Ghost?

JH: We just played Summercamp and this winter we made a really fun record at The Barn. That was so fun, we had some unbelievable musicians fly up for it. I think there will be some more shows.

[Photo by Andrew Blackstein]

JAMBASE: A lot of time spent at The Barn and no surprise there. What is it about The Barn for you?

JH: The Barn is my home. I’ve probably spent more time at The Barn than I have at … well, I won’t say my own house, but I’ll call it 50-50. We had rehearsals there from the early 2000s where we just spent hours and hours and hours there. 

The Barn is a no brainer if you want to make a vibe-heavy record. It’s not for everyone. There are some challenges in the way it’s set up that if you’re not looking for vibe, it’s not what you want. It’s just one huge cavernous room. But vibe. Everything in there, every hinge, and door, and piece of art and chair, everything is someone’s grandma’s or aunt’s or friend’s or whatever. It’s salvaged from something. You can feel the energy of all those people in there.

JAMBASE: Do you have a favorite Barn memory?

JH: There’s a million of them. But probably the heaviest moment I’ve had at The Barn was making my own record there. [Engineer] Ben Collette -he and I have known each other for a decade at least -this time, he was there setting up the day before the rest of the musicians arrived. I had come up a day early because I also have a love of cooking and I wanted to get there and make three nights of great dinners for us so that we wouldn’t have to stop and cook dinner. I walked upstairs, and the way Ben had set up the room, I was in Trey’s spot for the first time in 15 years. They had set up the big cushy chair. I had this moment of gratitude, like, oh my god, these guys have been working all day for little old me. I took it in. I felt so grateful. That hit me pretty hard.

JAMBASE: Let’s talk about the Trey Anastasio Band. How would you describe it at this stage of its life?

JH: It’s settled into something we’re all so happy about. I feel like the personnel is finally settled, our roles are finally settled and we know what’s expected of us and what to expect from each other. With that comes a level of comfort from which you can try anything, knowing everyone has got your back. Everyone is always listening. The hardest we all concentrate is during those 100-minute sets we do. We walk on stage, and give this thing our undivided attention until we walk off.

It’s become a really well-oiled machine, and I don’t mean that in the sense of getting bored. I have seen it through lots and lots of phases, and this is the first time I feel like this really, really works. 

[Photo by Ian Rawn]

JAMBASE: What got it there? Personnel? Chemistry?

JH: It’s a lot of things. It’s chemistry, yeah, but it’s also just plain old time. Some of this material is 16, 17, 20 years old. And quite frankly, sobriety has a lot to do with it. I think anyone who knew Trey prior to that time and post that time would agree. Everyone’s just on it now, all the time.

JAMBASE: How do you think that changed Trey as a bandleader?

JH: He’s much more focused. He’s very, very in the moment -he’s just present now, there and in life. It carries through everything.

JAMBASE: Any hints as to new Trey Band tour dates?

JH: There’s stuff probably coming up, but I don’t want to get beat, so I’m not going to say much. [laughs]

JAMBASE: Understood, understood. Do you and Trey have the type of relationship where you talk about things like where the band goes next or things related to him like his upcoming Dead appearances?

JH: We haven’t really talked about that specifically, but there’s no limit on what we would talk about. He’s known me since I was a kid.

JAMBASE: I hear it. And just hearing you mention that some of those songs have two decades of miles on them … Well, people talk often about the longevity of Phish and all the eras there but the Trey band has some pretty rare longevity too.

JH: It’s very rare to see this, and that’s not something that comes out without work. People on this team have constant conversations about how this sustains as a band for 30 years or longer, and how do we fill in the blanks to make that happen. It’s not by accident that this happens, it’s a conscious choice. We’ve been lucky, too, but a lot of work goes into it.

JAMBASE: What haven’t we mentioned yet that you’ve got coming up?

JH: I’ll be doing some more festivals as an artist-at-large, that’s one thing.

JAMBASE: Ah, that’s right. In that role, how do you pick your spots? How do you decide who to “at-large” with?

JH: A lot of these festivals have similar lineups every year, so you end up seeing a lot of the same faces and becoming friends. In that way it’s really easy. If I’m at a festival with Umphrey’s, yeah, that’s probably going to happen. Sometimes there are people you don’t know who you’d like to sit-in with, but that’s a strange thing because it’s almost like you’re forcing yourself on them. You want to do it but you don’t want to force it, but then it’s like that feeling you had in the fourth grade where you don’t get picked for the softball team because they don’t know you and don’t really care who you are. People will reach out, though -sometimes you do get picked first for softball.

JAMBASE: Ever barged in to sit-in with someone you don’t know?

JH: I’ve never had the balls to do that, no. If the invite wasn’t made and it’s five minutes before they’re about to go on, then it’s not going to happen.

JAMBASE: Is there any genre or style of music you’d outright decline to sit-in on?

JH: I might in the past have said bluegrass, but that’s totally changed. People don’t think it’s weird to see a trumpet playing bluegrass any more. Metal would be weird, but then, Skerik or someone like that sitting in with a metal band would be totally OK. I’d probably get some pedals and just make a lot of noise. No, I can’t think of what would be off limits.

JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a sit-in story -you with someone else’s band or someone with one of your bands. What comes to mind?

JH: I’m a huge fan of Snarky Puppy, and I mean, who isn’t? I was aware of that band before I ever got to meet them. I was playing down at Bear Creek and I was part of the Dumpstajam, where the guys from Dumpstaphunk put it on and everyone kind of gets in on it. Bear Creek was the first time I had seen Snarky Puppy in the flesh and I had to leave their set to go be part of the Dumpstajam.

It was freezing cold, it’s like two in the morning, the mouthpiece is sticking to my mouth and I think I sound like absolute crap. On top of that, I was a little forlorn I couldn’t stick around for the end of Snarky Puppy’s set because I wanted to meet them. After my crappy solo I was putting my horn away and then I notice a few of the members of Snarky Puppy right there, standing next to me. And I was like, “oh my god, I saw your set, you were so good!” The drummer then says to me he couldn’t see me from the side of the stage they were on, and he was like, “That guy’s playing some shit, I got to meet him. I come over and it’s not a him at all –it’s a chick!” We exchanged numbers and we’ve been friends ever since. 

JAMBASE: And you’ve played with them a bunch since then?

JH: Oh yeah. I love those guys. I was sick on that recent ALO run because I had a lost my voice doing 14 gigs at Jazz Fest. I went straight to the ALO gigs and needed some rest or I wasn’t going to be able to sing. One of the Snarky Puppy guys texts me as I’m traveling and says we’re going to do a livestream from Paris with the full Metropole Orchestra, you should check it out. So it’s 9 a.m. where I am, I’m sick in bed, but I got to hear the stream of that full set, and I tell you what, it healed me.

Musical therapy! After 14 gigs at Jazz Fest. How was that?

JH: Too many is what that is. I have to learn to say no but I really hate doing so. 

JAMBASE: What was your favorite?

JH: Thirteen others are going to beat my ass for saying so, but The New Mastersounds gig. I can’t say no to these things.