Shared Narrative: An Interview with Melanie Penn and Kelly Jones

Photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

Photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

First of all, despite what their website suggests, Kelly Jones and Melanie Penn have NOT been best friends since third grade. Don’t let their promotional materials fool you.

In preparing to interview Penn and Jones, I did some online research and happened upon the whimsical story of their twenty-year-old best-friendship and was delighted by it. How sweet, I thought. These two musicians are pursuing their dreams together just like sisters. When actually interviewing Jones, though, and on learning that the two met in New York only a few years ago through a mutual friend, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that I had emphatically believed the tale. Their delightful fabrication was dismantled three minutes into our conversation. So if and when you meet either of these very talented women, now you know: They have not known each other since third grade.

In some ways, though, the tale of two third-graders is not all that far from the truth, because although they haven’t know each other for several decades, Jones and Penn are very close friends, and they are currently in the middle of the joint Summer Share Tour across America.

Although Jones has moved back home to the west coast and is now living in L.A., she and Penn (who still resides in New York) have teamed up to travel on the cheap, without bands or any equipment other than guitars. In fact, the idea for the tour was born on a December night last year, when the friends were “lamenting” the high cost of touring with backup bands, Jones tells me.

This stripping down is a path that Jones has recently moved toward musically as well. Her new album, “Alta Loma,” was recorded almost entirely in her own apartment, without producers and without a lot of instrumentation: “This time it was just me alone in my apartment, and I wrote the songs by myself. And, you know, it was kind of scary at times because you don’t have anyone to bounce your ideas off of … [but] I knew I had to do it because I knew I had to express something that only I could express.”

Penn, too, has moved away from a more ornate style of music. She began her musical career after studying voice at university, moving to New York to pursue musical theater. In retrospect, she now realizes that this was just a way to avoid making the type of music she really wanted to pursue. She tells me, “I always wanted to write songs and make records, and I never felt that I would be good enough to do that.” But she always had it in her. She used to sing her thoughts: “My thoughts would be to music. And I just thought that that’s what people did. I just thought that’s what thoughts were.”

And so both women came to the singer-songwriter scene rather later than some, only after Jones had become “very restless” working several years in a marketing job, and only after Penn had gained success in the musical theater world starring as Sandy in a Broadway National Tour production of “Grease.” And in a twist that seems almost divinely ordained, both Penn and Jones marked their full transitions to singer-songwriter life on January 1 days (albeit several years apart) as New Years resolutions. Theirs have each been stories of molding, of shaping, of taking something unsatisfying and re-crafting it into something truer to their nature.

Now, almost as if they had spent every moment together since grade school, the women are touring America together. With albums like Penn’s “Wake Up Love” and Jones’ “Shebang,” the women have written music that is bright and fun and good for a road trip, but that can also be pared down to more thoughtful and richly acoustic sounds. Their voices, both high and sweet (Penn’s with slight musical theater inflections remaining from her days on the stage), are remarkably complementary and should be delightful to all who are privy to their shows on this tour.

This is not to take away from the solo artistry of each. Individually Penn and Jones are powerful musicians who are carving out places for themselves in the world of independent music. In choosing to take on this tour together, though, they are weaving their narrative together into a story worth telling.

More than anything, Penn and Jones are creators, fashioners, and not just in the literal sense of making music. They are tale-tellers, weaving and crafting their life stories to include space in which to revel in art. Although the two have not been friends since third grade, it’s almost as if they had been. And in the end, what started as fiction—both in their musical lives and in their friendship—has become more real than either of them could ever have imagined.

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