From an early age, Brianna Jorgensen had a goal: she “wanted to play music forever.” The decision isn’t surprising — her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother played piano, likewise her brother and sister, and at age 3, the Minnesota native began taking lessons. “I was lucky to have parents who, when I expressed an interest in music, somehow found a way to get me involved,” she says. “I will always be super-grateful for that.”
Piano taught her technique and memorization. In sixth grade, she took up the violin at school, furthering her studies of classical music, despite already being enamored of jazz, blues, and even ragtime. Through the violin, she discovered and fell in love with bluegrass, and took lessons with master fiddler Brian Wicklund, founder of the American Fiddle Method and frontman for progressive bluegrass band Barley Jacks.
In her early teens, she found her father’s acoustic guitar and taught herself basic chords, immersing herself in his vast CD collection — everything from Heart to Bob Seger to Steely Dan, who remains her favorite band. From there, she added vocals and songwriting and began working with local musicians.
While playing in rock bands, performing cover songs and originals in local clubs, she was approached with an offer to join a variety group, which kept her on the road for a year and a half, honing her craft and earning a living. But she yearned to perform original material and so returned home to Minnesota, where she joined another band and continued writing songs.
It was during that time, in 2014, that her mother discovered the Kurt Jorgensen Band and determined that her daughter should accompany her to a gig and speak with the bandleader. At that point, Brianna was in the formative stages of a solo project; Jorgensen, a musician, songwriter, arranger, and producer with eight albums and numerous Minnesota Music Awards to his credit, suggested they meet to discuss her goals. They began working on the album that became Wandering, and eventually, a professional relationship became a personal one. “We were working together, started writing together, came up with songs together,” she says, “and in doing that … you fall in love, get married, have a baby, and tour the country!”
That is, of course, a highly condensed version of the hours spent working on an album that led to what became The Jorgensens and their debut, Love Wins. The husband-and-wife duo recently released their second album, The Lexington Stretch, but don’t be fooled by photos of them seated calmly with acoustic guitars. While they are no strangers to a nice ballad, their music is an energetic mix of blues, rock, and jazz, and onstage — playing over 200 shows a year — both sing and play guitar, Brianna plays piano, and they’re accompanied by a full band: Andra Suchy – backup vocals, Matt Hertel – drums, Brenda Lee King – bass, C Harris – percussion, Jeff King – saxophones and clarinet, and Jeff Levine – trumpet.
The band was on break between tour dates when Brianna Jorgensen spoke to Guitar Girl.
There are times when we
have a blank sheet of paper . . .
The collection of songs on this album work perfectly together, but they are stylistically different. How do you make it make sense when you’re in the planning stages of an album?
It’s hard to say that we have a process and we stick to it because we don’t. When we were writing this album, Kurt and I were traveling a lot and spending a lot of time in the South, in New Orleans, and we were inspired by it. We probably had seventeen songs written for this album, and these ten just made sense because they have some type of Southern flair, and we wanted to keep a common thread going through it. With that came “If The Sea Was Whiskey,” the Willie Dixon song because it finally made sense for Kurt to have it on an album, and his version of it is really, really good.
There are times when we have a blank sheet of paper, and we say, “Let’s write a song together,” and times when we’re off in our own little corners, writing, and we come together and help complete each other’s songs. This album happened more like that. It was a team effort on all counts.
Obviously, sequencing was very important. How many lists did you create, or did it all come together easily?
It’s so strange now with things like iTunes, where you can just buy a single. That’s OK, but there is an art to putting the songs together. Whether you’re basing it off of what keys sound good next to one another, or maybe lyrically, or you’re basing it on the overall feel, there are so many elements that go into that. It’s challenging because of where we’re at today, with people just buying singles, or just streaming music, and not ever owning the album. You’re like, “Does it even matter?” But, as an artist, you have this collection, and you’re like, “It matters. It matters.”
It’s hard not to get caught up in doing what you think people will want you to do. You want to capture their attention spans, which are so short right now, and when you kick off the album, you only have ten seconds to make them want to listen further. So there were times when we thought “Unchained” would open because it’s powerful. Then we said, “Maybe it’s ‘Voodoo,’ because that opening guitar line is mysterious.”
Then I said, “What if we broke it up into an intro, middle, and end, as if we were presenting it in a performance without any stops?” So we decided on “Whiskey.” Once we had that, “Chocolate and Coffee Blues” was a no-brainer for a closing number with a jazzy, smoky feel. Once we had the beginning and end, it was easy to fill in the middle and make it flow.
Which guitars did you use in the studio?
I used my go-to, my baby, a Martin CEO-7. It’s a 00 style. I’m a smaller-framed woman, and it’s a small enough guitar that I can hug it and draw the tone out of it. For me, that’s really important, and I didn’t realize that until about two years ago.
When I first started playing guitar, I found a Yamaha guitar in my dad’s closet and taught myself some stuff on that. But when I really got serious about guitar, I bought a Gibson J-200, based on the fact that it looked kick-ass. That guitar is so cool, and it’s huge. It was the wrong mix, and I ended up trading it. I got a smaller guitar, which suits me way better. My playing is so much better, and my tone is better because I have control over my instrument. When you’re young, you don’t realize how important that is.
So in the studio, I use my Martin. I like to play sitting down, and we mic the fretboard up by the neck, and then we usually put another mic off to the side by the soundhole.
But each song is different, and it depends on the sound we’re going for. “Voodoo” is a great example where the acoustic guitar is the meat and bones. It’s everything for that song. So we wanted it to be … not in your face, but just present enough. There are so many instruments on that song that float in and out, and it needed something very stable, very solid, and very warm. I always am a sucker for a warm tone, but with clarity. That’s really important, especially for an acoustic, if it’s going to be a lead instrument holding down the song.
I don’t play a lot of electric guitar in the studio, but for the next album, that’s something I’m going to take a stab at. I do play electric, but mainly rhythm. I play through a Fender Blues Junior. It’s a small amp, and it sounds amazing. I like a cleaner, warm tone. I don’t use any pedals, just straight in. My main guitar is an American Strat. I love it. My dad recently built me a custom Tele, and I do love that one too. It’s a beautiful guitar.
What are your preferred recording techniques?
We use a pair of Neumann KM 184 mics and Telefunkens. We really, really like those European microphones; they just sound spectacular. We always do acoustic instruments in stereo, which is great, because once you’re mixing and that sound is bouncing back and forth from left to right, it’s so much fun to listen through headphones. It feels so real like you’re in the room with the instruments being played.
Kurt and I don’t use Pro Tools. Some people are freaked out about that when they come and record with us. We use a Tascam 24-track digital recorder, so every take is as-is. If you mess up, you have to do it again. There is zero cutting and pasting. There’s no, “We’ll fix it in a program.” We don’t run anything through a computer. It’s just straight into this Tascam. We like being organic about our recording process. It’s about the performance and capturing what you’re trying to portray in the song.
Maybe you hit a bad note, or maybe something rings out strange, or maybe you sing a note flat, but your performance was great. I’m always of the opinion of keeping it if it sounds good. So we try to keep it as real as possible. There are no plugins; there’s no nothing. It’s the amp and the guitar.
It’s a beautiful guitar [martin], with solid mahogany back and sides, and the top is Adirondack spruce, so it’s got beautiful overtones and such a big, warm sound. I love it, and I feel
like it’s a part of me.
How long have you had your Martin?
I’ve had it since 2015. I knew my Gibson was not right for me, so I was shopping around. When I picked it up, it instantly felt so much better in my hands. It allows me to really work the strings, and I can draw out the tone. I’d never felt that before with an instrument. It’s a beautiful guitar, with solid mahogany back and sides, and the top is Adirondack spruce, so it’s got beautiful overtones and such a big, warm sound. I love it, and I feel like it’s a part of me. I do enjoy playing electric guitar, but that Martin —it’s my sidekick.
To back up, Kurt had recorded eight albums by the time you met, and you had done a lot of touring but no recording. Why not?
At the time I met Kurt, I was in an original band that was playing folk-rock music. It was a fun project that I stayed with for a couple of years. But, again, I wanted to create something. I met Kurt, we got together, and he was kind and never made me feel “less than” or foolish, or like I didn’t know what I was doing. We sat in his living room, I played him some of my original songs, and he wanted to know why I wasn’t playing them in public. I told him I didn’t know how, and he said, “Let’s work on that.”
We became fast friends, and we did my solo album together. He helped produce and arrange the songs. When that came to a close, it became clear that we needed to take both our projects and make it one project. When I found a partner in crime like that in Kurt, who understood what I wanted to do, things moved fast. We put out my solo album. We had all this material; we recorded Love Wins, and all of a sudden, we had tons of gigs.
Is that album still available?
It’s not. With all that’s going on around our new release, I should put it on iTunes. It’s called Wandering, and it sold about 500 copies locally, so it’s floating around. It’s so neat, as you perform with your band, how songs shift and become different songs almost. That’s happened with a lot of my songs off of that solo album. We do some of them live, and they become different songs than what’s on the album, so we’ve been thinking about putting one or two on the next album because they really found their spot.
You’re already thinking about the next album?
We are chomping at the bit to get the next album going. This album took us a couple of years to record. We were playing a lot, we moved, we had a baby — there was a lot in between there. So we’re hoping that next fall we’ll have the release of a brand new album. Luckily, between the two of us, we’ve got enough inspiration and material to have another album already in the works.
My words of wisdom are
stay true to yourself.
A couple of closing questions of a personal nature, if that’s OK. The reason for this is to speak directly to our readers, young women and young people who perhaps aspire to work in the music industry or who may be dealing with difficult situations. The first question: Do you have some words of wisdom for those who want to get into this business?
My words of wisdom are stay true to yourself. There were times when I got pulled this way and that way, and you lose yourself. Every time you do that, you backtrack, and you have to get back to who you are and what you want to be, and then push forward. So stay true to who you are. And it seems so simple, but don’t give up. It takes so much time to hone your craft and be good. Just good. And once you’re good, you got to be great, and then you’ve got to be excellent. So you just can’t give up.
The other question: There’s a quote from you in the bio: “We saw one another through some tough times … I was getting sober.” Are you comfortable talking about that? Again, as something that may resonate with some readers and possibly help someone.
Absolutely. It’s monumental for me to be sober and doing this. Not only does it allow me to be in the moment, every single moment, whether it’s a happy moment, stressful moment, an unsure moment, but also the clarity that comes with sobriety, with business decisions and creative decisions.
We’ve all talked to that person, or heard that person who we maybe admired, say, “I get inspiration when I smoke pot. I’m so creative when I snort a line of coke. I go to another level.” I bought into that in a big way, and I was a mess. Drinking was never my thing. I was into smoking pot, using coke, a huge Adderall taker, and I lost my way. I thought when I got sober that I maybe wouldn’t be creative anymore, because some people tell you that, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ll never write another song.”
It’s inspiring to me, and shocking to me, that three albums later, here I am still sober, only getting better at what I’m doing. I finally respect myself and love myself, and that’s huge for me. And it’s huge in decision-making. Like I said, just the clarity that comes with it. I feel comfortable in the decisions I make, and I don’t ever have to be like, “Ugh, I wonder what happened the night before.” I feel so solid and grounded, and that’s been a blessing for me.
How long did it take? What were your steps? Admitting there’s a problem and asking for help, whatever that can be — addiction, eating disorder, depression, anything — admitting there’s a problem and asking for help are two very different things and two very difficult things.
Oh yeah, very difficult. Quite frankly, I didn’t know I had a problem, and I was absolutely stunned and felt betrayed when people brought it up to me. So it took me some time to accept that I needed help. I’m so lucky I never hit a rock bottom that was an overdose situation or serving a jail time situation. I didn’t have to lose it all to be saved, and I’m really grateful.
My loved ones brought it to my attention, and I was really angry, and I felt betrayed. I felt foolish more than anything, now that I’m here to look back on it. I felt so disappointed in myself that “This is recreational. How am I doing this every day all of a sudden? This is crazy. How did I get here?”
I didn’t go to inpatient rehab, and I wish I would have because there they teach you tools on how to cope with life because life continues after you get sober and things aren’t easy. You use, in most cases, to forget your problems. I did private counseling, worked with a woman who was really great, I saw her a lot, and I started going to AA. Having that fellowship and people there who … you see yourself in everyone who’s in that community, and it keeps you sober. And talking about it helps.
For so long, I was really ashamed of it. My first year of sobriety was absolute hell because I didn’t talk about it. I isolated myself. I just thought, “I’m going to be tough, and I’m going to do this to prove to the people who love me that I can do this.” I wasn’t doing it for myself. And then something changed in me, and I thought, “Oh gosh, I’ve been sober now for a year, I’m not as angry, I feel pretty good, and I’m still creative. Why am I sober right now?” And I thought, “I’m sober for me. Obviously, I want this if I’m continuing this.” When I made that decision, my real recovery began.
I don’t think any person on this earth gets through without some type of hardship. I went through some tough times. Being able to work through that instead of suppressing my feelings — I worked through it sober, and the freedom you can feel is amazing. I would say if anyone’s struggling with substance abuse of any kind — or, like you said, depression, eating disorder, no matter what it is — there are so many people just like you who want to talk to you, who have recovered, and who have the tools to get you to the other side of this thing.