Meet Jenny Tolman
The outside world never quite matches up with the vision most people carry inside them. Much of life is about figuring out how to reconcile the difference, and one of the best ways to do that is by writing. It’s how Hank Williams became a prolific legend, how James Taylor emerged as a classic artist and how Taylor Swift became a household name before the age of 20.
Twenty-year-old Jenny Tolman uses songwriting the same way. Soft-spoken in conversation, she’s bold and courageous behind a guitar, able to make sense of life’s challenges by putting them under a verbal microscope. Add in a melody and a fearless willingness to share her emotional journey and you have the kind of artist who sounds extremely familiar. Not because her voice mixes the smokiness of Shelby Lynne with the accessibility of your next-door neighbor, but because her stories are familiar. They’re not just hers – they’re stories that ring true for just about anyone who hears them.
“My music is very honest,” she says matter of factly. “My goal is to help other people who are like me. I feel like if I keep myself hidden, then that’s not really going to help anyone.”
The songs are making an impact. “Damn Cigarettes,” a dark composition that investigates the dangers of addiction – to love or to nicotine – placed second in the country category in the highly regarded Unsigned Only songwriting competition, which features such notable judges as Rosanne Cash, Dustin Lynch and Craig Morgan. “Cigarettes” also landed Tolman an honorable mention in the International Songwriting Competition, placing her in the elite 1% among some 19,000 entries.
“My music is very honest…”
She collects six of her most passionate pieces in her self-titled debut, an EP that ranges from the acerbic, bluesy opener, “Ain’t Got A Prayer,” to the sassy closer, “Spend A Little Time.” Along the way, Tolman adopts a glossy, fragile tone in “Don’t Ask Me Why (Opry Song)”; embarks on a dreamy, romantic bend in “Let It Go On”; and takes an assertive stand for self-reliance on “Crumbs In My Bed.”
The EP hints at what’s to come, showing the multiple melodic emotions and specific lyrical imagery inherent in her writing, inspired by the likes of Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves.
“I just really like how different their writing is and how they’re not afraid to go anywhere,” Tolman notes. “With this first EP, it represents the 16-18 year old Jenny that needed to get all this emotional stuff out. Now that I’ve gotten that phase of my life out, I’m going to go a little bit farther. And not be afraid to touch on some difficult things.”
In reality, exploring hard truths was the whole point when Tolman started writing songs. It was a natural form of self-expression: Her father, Steve Tolman, had been a singer in his youth and became a talent buyer in Nashville. He never pushed his daughter into the music business – heck, he didn’t really want her in it at all. But as distant as the entertainment industry might seem to most kids, it was ever-present in the background as she came of age.
“I grew up going up the bonus-room steps to a Garth Brooks platinum record every day,” she laughs. “I had no idea what that meant, but I thought everybody had one. I’ve never known anything different. I was always surrounded by the music business, and I’ve always just kind of known that that could be my path, too.”
Originally, it seemed she would pursue classical piano when she hit her college years, but there was a storytelling side to her creative spirit that couldn’t be expressed by simply interpreting ancient scores. Tolman wrote short stories in the fourth grade and read them every week to her class. Then, of course, Taylor Swift’s emergence gave Tolman – and plenty of other girls her age – the confidence to try her hand at matching words and music.
She didn’t take that talent all that seriously at first, though it would prove valuable when she moved into the difficult teen years. Tolman got involved in a relationship that grew abusive. She didn’t have the tools to cope, and slowly withdrew from her friends and family. The isolation wasn’t healthy, but her rebound was. Tolman found the strength to end the relationship, and as she worked to regain her confidence, she found music was the best way to mend.
“I didn’t really have anyone to talk to,” she says.
The first step in healing came with “Beautiful,” a song of self-assurance that hoped to find the diamond within Tolman. In a sign of ultra-mature forgiveness, it even hoped for the best for the boy who had oppressed her. Writing “Beautiful” had an amazing affect. It made her feel better about herself. And even though songs are impossible to quantify, she didn’t need a specific formula to know its value. The song she’d created was good. It made a difference. And it inspired her to write another. And another.
In short order, Tolman began to share her songs with friends and with her family, and to play at Nashville-area writers nights. Her dad thought the music had possibility, but he also knew he was biased about his daughter. So he hesitated to make too much of it with anyone in the business. When he did play the music, he never identified the singer. Fortunately, everyone who heard it was impressed and wanted to know more about the mystery voice.
“My goal is to help other people who are like me.”
Encouraged, Steve put Jenny in touch with former Academy of Country Music award-winner Judy Rodman, who became her vocal coach. Rodman helped Jenny develop more power as a singer, but as for the songs – there was nothing she could do to make them better. They were already advanced. Jenny, Rodman suggested, was writing beyond her age. She should make demos of this material and get it heard.
Rodman helped Tolman change her reality. She introduced Jenny to Gary Talley, a founder of the legendary pop band the Box Tops, who gave Jenny guitar lessons. Jenny went to songwriter workshops with the likes of Gretchen Peters (the author of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”) and Kevin Welch (who wrote Trisha Yearwood’s “That’s What I Like About You”). Occasionally, they found small ways to improve Tolman’s delivery or phrasing, but most of the time, the response was simply an emotional release to the raw honesty of the songs. Like the time Welch heard “Snowflakes In July.”
“By the end of it, he had watery eyes,” Tolman says. “To make a grown man cry, you know that you did something good.”
Rodman produced Jenny’s first album, and even before it was finished, songs from the project got programmed on Jango.com, an online service with a global reach. She made an immediate connection with fans in the U.K. and Ireland, including a reviewer for The Guardian, who found time in the midst of his tweets about Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC to succinctly hail her music as “really good.”
The attention led in turn to fan requests for more music, and the EP provides a quick snapshot of her ability with a range of material.
Meanwhile, discovering her purpose has been transformative. Tolman is still quiet, but she’s more outgoing than ever, more confident and wholly convinced that she’s found her place. By documenting her inner journey, then sharing it with the universe, there’s a chance she can make a difference. Maybe even help someone else walk away from the kind of negative situation that brought her to write songs in the first place.
“Once you finish a song that’s really personal, you end up looking at it from a different point of view,” she says. “You’re on the outside of it now, so really it’s not even for me anymore. By then, it’s done what it needed to do. After that, it’s about getting it out to everyone else.”
To help those other people make sense of an outer world that rarely lives up to what they envisioned within.