There’s nothing but whiskey and a few ice cubes in Lauren Jenkins’ drink here at a bar in East Nashville, mostly because the Texas-born singer-songwriter can’t stand anything too sweet. Ever since she moved to Nashville in 2013, she’s found the cocktails in town to be overwhelmingly syrupy: she likes a little bitterness, and to taste the dimension in whatever she’s imbibing that day. Too much sugar, she thinks, just drowns out the character. Why dilute something, when you can have what’s real?
That’s the same approach that guided her debut LP, No Saint. Jenkins makes music like she takes her whiskey — raw, to the point and with no bullshit additives to make it more palatable for the masses. Jenkins loves a good hook as much as she loves a tender guitar line, but she isn’t about vocal showboating or polishing to perfection, particularly when it comes to her voice. Instead of endless runs, she favors a rasped, dusty delivery for her storytelling. Sometimes it’s an intimate whisper on songs like “Blood,” and other times it’s a bit of relaxed Texas twang on “Payday.” When she breathily assures us that she ain’t no saint on the album’s title track, you believe her, artful flaws and all.
“Things are becoming more and more filtered and photoshopped, and I don’t like it,” say Jenkins, sitting in a booth in torn jeans, a T-shirt and stacks of silver rings on her fingers. “I love hearing a voice crack, or hitting a bad note. Then I know I’m listening to a human being. Even the photos for the album: I had long conversations with my label about retouching. I wanted to let the flyaways fly, let the pores and laugh lines show. We just need more examples of people being human.”
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The 10 songs of No Saint aren’t afraid to showcase bare emotion — portraits of an imperfect person, who sometimes makes bad decisions, screws up in love or can’t find the goodness in their heart to forgive — or those raw, at times intimately off-kilter vocals. Country music has long offered a limited version of what its mainstream female stars are supposed to look and sound like, praising power belters and pristine, glittery presentation, while men are celebrated when a ragged “outlaw” sound works its way into their music. Women? They just better nail that note.
“When I got offered my deal [with Big Machine],’ I was like, ‘I’ll never be able to sing like Carrie Underwood,'” Jenkins says. “I feel like women’s voices are just as varied as men’s, but we haven’t always been given the opportunity to have our voices heard. Men are allowed to go wear a flannel shirt and maybe they smoked the night before and their voice is raspy and maybe they don’t hit all the notes and that’s fine and acceptable. Women have to be perfect all the time.”
Growing up in Texas before moving to North Carolina, Jenkins was never too afraid of discomfort in favor of art: at 15, she saved up money and bought a car so she could travel the country playing music, using a fake ID to get into bars and snatching up airport gigs to make ends meet while homeschooling herself.
At 19 she moved to New York to attend acting school, booking gigs at local clubs on the side, and it was there that she met a producer who urged her to come to Nashville and meet with some labels, who almost instantly wanted to snatch her up. But Jenkins was always adamant that, like Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett, she also pursue ways to be seen on screen just as much as heard through speakers, melding music and acting in ways not currently common practice in country but thoroughly embraced in pop (see: Beyoncé’s Lemonade).
Jenkins released No Saint with a long-form music video that showcases both her acting chops and the songs from the album in emotive, textural form: a project that she told Big Machine she planned on doing with or without their support. To her surprise, they got onboard. “I’m really thankful that now that conversation is gone,” she says. “When it’s coming from an organic place, it doesn’t feel manufactured. The visual aspects are just as important as the songs, and both of them exist at the same time. It doesn’t happen too often in country music, but Lemonade, I get chills just thinking about it. It’s beautiful, the way [Beyoncé] uses both visuals and storytelling.”
What Jenkins didn’t want to focus on, however, was radio. Feeling a kinship to more Americana-leaning bands like the Lumineers and edgier Music Row writers like Travis Meadows, she neglected to push an early single in favor of a more organic discovery process. She decided to opt out of a traditional radio tour because so many artists “seem to hate it, and if it doesn’t work you see them get dropped,” she says. “I don’t really want my success in the eyes of the label to be based on whether or not the radio tour worked. And though radio is super powerful and great, I don’t want to spend money to force people to play my music. If you want to play it,” she continues, “then awesome. I appreciate it. If you don’t? That’s cool too.”
For better or worse, it’s a road that many of country’s women and left-of-center male artists have been faced with: why put money into something that may never yield any gains? Kacey Musgraves had a similar approach when it came to releasing Golden Hour, while others, like Jason Isbell, built massive audience bases without the benefit of traditional Nashville institutions. Jenkins exists somewhere in between the fringe of Americana and Music Row, more akin to the early pop-roots of new labelmate Sheryl Crow than the Number One-churning dudes she’s supposed to find a way to open for. But fresh off her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, she’s willing to be patient and let the songs find a home themselves rather than resorting to attempts at instant gratification.
“I don’t care about having a Number One hit and nothing after,” she says, swirling her whiskey around the melting ice. “What matters to me is being able to do this for forever. If I get to one day upgrade to a tour bus instead of my car, then great. But if not, I’ll be in the fucking car. And that’s fine.”