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.

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