Meet Jennifer Westwood, a blue-eyed soulster with a penchant for power chords
Published: January 25, 2012
Forget Dusty Springfield, forget Sammy Hagar, and certainly forget Faith Hill. There are two versions of the Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns-composed "Piece of my Heart" classic that are worth giving a shit about. One is the original, by hometown girl (and sister of Aretha) Erma Franklin, and the other is by the Janis Joplin-led Big Brother & the Holding Company. Both are beautiful, but for different reasons. Franklin's is a show of strength — a big "fuck you" to the man (or men) hurting her. It is defiant, bold and stunningly powerful. When Joplin sings the same words though, she sounds broken. Her trademark rasp gives the song a completely different feel. The whole song's a plea for help; beautiful, poignant, tragic.
To describe the two different sides of that song is to describe, pretty much, singer and guitarist Jennifer Westwood. She's been through some tough, even hellish times, and she's refusing to let any of those experiences betray her. They inform her work, so what we get on her recent Dishwater Blonde EP, as the title suggests, is a perfect combination of those two mind-sets — strength and fragility.
Westwood is Detroit born-and-bred and, though she refuses to reveal her exact age ("It's a trade secret. It's always the first thing everybody wants to know."), she admits that she's 29-ish. She started out singing gospel in church, which carried her into adulthood, but she eventually quit.
"I got caught up in the church world and it was awesome because I got exposed to a lot of different types of music, but ultimately I wasn't feeling it," Westwood says. "I heard a song on the radio that was AC/DC style rock with a gospel chorus, and that's what I wanted to do. There was nobody I knew doing that. My mom's parents were old school country musicians. That's part of who I am. I wanted to take my different experiences and meld them together."
Melding styles is what Westwood has done, resulting in a radio-friendly sound that's equal parts country, blues, rock and pop. She adores the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Eva Cassidy, Etta James (RIP) and, especially, Tina Turner, and so much tattered rock 'n' roll blue-eyed soul.
We're in Westwood's St. Clair Shores crib, which she recently purchased in full, having saved for much of her life. It is a simple but elegant house, becoming a home. There's art on the floors waiting to be hung, but each object on each surface looks like it belongs. She picked St. Clair Shores because she could afford to buy here, it is close to the water and the Ye Olde Tap Room bar in Grosse Pointe. Her new home is her haven.
The church has had major impact on Westwood's life, and not always in a positive way. Not by any means. "I attracted the wrong type of person in my life for a long time because I didn't expect anything from anybody. When you don't expect anything, you get nothing," she says. "When I was 16, I was involved in a horrible relationship with my youth pastor, who was 30 at the time. He seemed like such a great guy. He had all these kids listening to everything he said. I wasn't physically attracted to him but he was very charismatic. Everything that came out of his mouth, [to me] as a teenager, was the words of God. We started dating and it lasted about three years, and it was just horrible. What I learned from that relationship is what brought me to the place in my life where I ended up: I'm not worthwhile, I'm not good enough, don't expect romance or anything that you see in the movies because that's ridiculous. It was a church-sanctioned relationship. The pastors went on a retreat and they asked him about me, and gave him the stamp of approval to be in a relationship with me. My parents started to see how it was affecting me. I became a shell of a person, afraid of everything. ... I know he left that [pastor] role, so thank God he's not in a position of authority anymore. As many good experiences as I've had in the church, I've had as many bad ones."
The pain pays dividends in her music, though she says she "deleted all my old song ideas from my computer because there's too much bad stuff attached." I ask Westwood if it is easier to write when she's up or down. "For me in the past year, happy," she says. "Even when I'm in a good frame of mind where I'm happy, I can get in touch with those angry feelings without wallowing in despair to the point where I'm useless. When I'm happy, I write better. I'll be driving, and words will just come to me."
Things are OK now. Westwood's in a solid relationship with Dylan Dunbar of the band the Blue Collar Boys, a skilled guitarist himself. Westwood styles hair by day, but says, "My clientele is thin and picking up, but my expenses are low and I make more money gigging right now." But that's her point; to live that rarefied existence of living off of your music.
She sang the National Anthem at a Lions game ("70,000 people — that was awesome. I didn't hold the note obnoxiously long. I didn't pull out my Mariah Carey"), and she has worked with respected local bands like the Infatuations and Black Irish. And then there's her new EP. "I'm happy with it but I think the next one will be better because it will be more of me," Westwood says. "Personally, I would like to keep doing EPs because of the cost. People can afford $5. People are already buying gas, paying cover, buying a drink. It adds up. Everything's brand-new. I have 18 songs so you never know; maybe we will do a full length eventually."
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