On a different stage Actor-turned-singer Jill Hennessy takes her act to Skylight
ill Hennessy is usually recognized for the characters she has played. She was Assistant District Attorney Claire Kinkaid on the legendary NBC procedural Law & Order from 1993 until her character was killed off, three years later, in a drunken-driving accident. She was Jordan Cavanaugh, a medical examiner with anger issues and too much interest in solving murders, on
Crossing Jordan from 2001 to 2007. She has had numerous other dramatic roles on television and film, including a new part on the CBS drama Madam
Secretary with Téa Leoni, but she is also a singer-songwriter with two albums, Ghost in My Head (2009) and
ID o (2015). She’s currently on tour, playing at Skylight (139 W. San Francisco St.) on Saturday, Oct. 24.
An actor-turned-musician — if that’s what Hennessy is — is always something of a curiosity, but for Santa Feans, it’s possibly even more interesting that when Hennessy was filming Wild Hogs in New Mexico, back in 2006, she said she was shoved out of bed during her stay at La Posada by the infamous ghost of the building’s former resident, Julia Staab. She landed on the floor. “At first I thought my son had pushed me,” Hennessy told Pasatiempo. “But then I realized I was alone. If that was Julia, she was a lot of fun.”
The experience ended up in “10,000 Miles,” the first track on her first album, as did other aspects of her time here, including a meeting with a waitress at a local café. “Floating, floating like the breeze in Santa Fe,” the lyrics go. “Got a ringing in my head/ and a ghost who pushed me out of bed, I heard a girl call her lover/on the phone, she longed to flee to Paris with her daughter far from/home, ‘Tell me do I mean anything to you at all, Mark don’t laugh/You’re all I want, just don’t leave me alone.’ ”
“I wrote a lot of songs from Ghost in My Head in Santa Fe,” she said, and then she apologized for any background noise on the phone. She had just finished a radio interview and was in a car, eating peanuts provided by her lead guitarist. “You can never travel with too much protein,” she advised. Hennessy was animated and unreserved, eager to talk about her music. Asked if she would rather be known as an actor or a musician, she chose musician — an answer she instantly changed. “Actually, I’d have to say ‘songwriter.’ If I could be known as a great songwriter, if I could have people like Bruce Springsteen covering my material, that would be phenomenal. If Taylor Swift wanted to play my songs, that would be incredible, too.”
Hennessy writes all her own lyrics and music, often alone at her dining-room table in New York at two in the morning, when she can’t sleep. Lyrics come first. “It’s usually stories or issues that affect me in the first place, and then the music comes after the words reveal the cadence and the rhythm. It’s rare when a rhythm or melody comes to me first. The words provide structure. It depends on where the story is going. I rely heavily on story.”
Years before she entered the fictional courtroom alongside Sam Waterston (as Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy), Hennessy was a street musician, busking around Toronto when she was seventeen and eighteen, playing covers of songs by U2 and Tracy Chapman. She was sometimes joined by her identical-twin sister, Jacqueline, who is now a journalist and television personality in Canada. The sisters, originally from Alberta, appeared together as twin call girls in
Dead Ringers, the 1988 David Cronenberg film in which Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists. The role that moved Hennessy from Toronto to New York the following year was in a Broadway musical about Buddy Holly — one of her idols (along with Springsteen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robert Smith, Patty Griffin, and Nancy Griffith, among others). She played with a few bands when she first lived in the U.S., but once she landed Law & Order, she couldn’t reliably make it to rehearsals anymore.
“My acting career started to move on, but I always wanted to write. I finally put pen to paper after going through more crazy curveballs that life throws you, and I started writing about things that were really meaningful to me.” She sang covers of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tom Waits’ “You’re Innocent When You Dream” for the soundtrack to
Crossing Jordan in 2003. Her fertile songwriting period came soon after. She’d been talking for years about recording an album, and finally, with the encouragement of her husband, she decided she was ready. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t,” she said. “I asked myself what I was afraid of and why I’d been putting it off. I have the utmost respect for writers. It’s just a vulnerable, naked position to put yourself in.”
Her music has elements of folk, rock, country, blues, gospel, and pop. Her lyrics are compact and image-based, and she can belt out lines with the strength and gusto of Neko Case in her early days. She plays with a band from Austin whose members have accompanied the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, the BoDeans, and Skid Row. Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks made guest appearances on Ghost in My Head. For I Do, Hennessy was looking for a slightly harder edge than on her first album. “I wanted to focus more on rhythm and percussion for this album, though I’m writing similar content — though not that similar. The most hard-driving song on the album is about a woman, a mother, who passed away in the last couple of years. She moved me to no end, and I hold her up as an example of what a great human being should be. She ends up the focus of this hard-driving rock song. If you had told me that before I wrote it, I would have said you were crazy, because I wouldn’t write a rock song with that kind of subject matter.”
Listen to any song on either album and it’s immediately obvious that Hennessy isn’t a beginner, but she acknowledges that it can be difficult for actors releasing albums to be perceived as legitimate musicians. “People know what they’ve seen, and we form these perceptions that are limited to one view or a small piece of knowledge,” she said. “How is anyone supposed to know I’ve been playing guitar on the street since I was a teenager? That’s my real passion, and writing — to be honest — is what makes me whole. It’s been wonderful to meet so many people who are not only surprised that I’m a musician but who are really moved by my songs, moved by the lyrics because they might have something in their lives that corresponds in some way or they like the poetry in them. That’s so intensely satisfying. The one thing that was really cool in recording is that most of the people I work with have no idea I’m an actor, which I love.”
An actor-turned-musician — if that’s what Hennessy is — is always something of a curiosity. But for Santa Feans, it’s possibly even more interesting that when Hennessy was filming in New Mexico, back in 2006, she said she was shoved out of bed at La Posada by the infamous ghost of Julia Staab.