Jill Hennessy's summer house should be an idyllic retreat for a songwriter and runner, but with two young sons underfoot, alone time is catch as catch can on the Jersey Shore. Best known for her roles on Crossing Jordan and Law & Order, the Edmonton-born actor recently released her first album, Ghost in my Head, which evokes a childhood spent in nine different locales across Canada and her musical start as a teenager busking on Toronto streets. Riding a high from her 2010 Lilith Fair performances and looking forward to a new film this fall, Ms. Hennessy spoke to The Globe and Mail about launching a new career in her 40s.
When did you begin songwriting in earnest?
About five years ago, after I had my first child. I'd gone through the ups and downs and curveballs that life throws at you. I found writing to be very therapeutic and it helped me with a lot of the stuff I was going through.
Some writers, women in particular, say they no longer get writer's block after having children.
I've found it easier to write, to coalesce my thoughts, since having children. It brings you back to what you experienced yourself as a child, and you empathize with what your parents went through. On top of all that, you have almost no time to write, so you're forced to find these little pockets of time, like during a nap. The only time I can write here at the summer house is when my husband takes our sons out for breakfast. Every time they've gone I've written a song.
You've said in the past that your songs tend to be story-driven. What do you tend to start with - characters? Imagery?
I have started with characters, like when I wrote the song Erin, which is about three different girls I knew when I was living in Toronto. But there are other songs, like Slow Down, which came about when I was dealing with insomnia and trying to calm my mind. I thought of this medicine man from the Navajo nation, one of the wisest people I've ever met. He said, 'Jill, you know, I have one thing to say to you. Just slow down.' That became the through line for the song. So, every song has its own reason for coming out.
You like to run in the summertime, as well.
Running - and yoga, too - is my sanity and my saviour. It's just finding the time to do it!
Some writers say that running is an essential part of their process. Is it like that for you?
It's so comforting to hear that because I've been writing in a vacuum my whole life. I find that when you're half awake you come up with brilliant ideas, and when I go for long runs, I approach a psychological and physical state that's similar to being half awake.
Maybe it's how the neurons are firing in the creative brain, or maybe it's just having quiet time alone without the kids.
Your mind is going to a different place. Just today on my run I was working out the bridge to the song that I'll be playing at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Running gives you a great opportunity to work stuff out in your head.
It's one thing to be testing out your music as a busker, but you're not anonymous any more. How does it feel when you perform your own songs for the first time?
You're always safe when you do a great cover, but when you're playing your own stuff you don't get that immediate recognition. You're relying on part of the melody or rhythm or imagery to grab the audience. It's scary but also very exciting.
Now that you've established a track record as a musician, more people will be anticipating your next album. Are you mindful of their expectations when you sit down to write?
Wow, you know what? I hadn't even thought about that. Thanks a lot.
I'm not doing this to be famous or earn money - definitely the wrong field to choose for that - but when people show up for a gig, it makes me so happy. Or when someone comes up to me and says a song meant a lot to them. Once there were 400 people in the audience and three of them stood up at the end and gave me a standing ovation. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
Your new film Small Town Murder Songs is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Did you write anything in the murder song genre for the soundtrack?
Alas, no. I should have written a murder song.
Special to The Globe and Mail