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Sunday, 21 December, 2008 12:57 PM

Jennifer Hanson Rides Her Second Wind on 'Thankful' (CMA)

Photo by Juan Pont Lezica

Jennifer Hanson

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2008 CMA Close Up News Service

Not many songwriters in Nashville would see one of their songs hit No. 1 and another climb the Top 5 and respond with the words, "Oh, bummer."

Yet that was part of Jennifer Hanson's reaction to the news early in 2007 when Bucky Covington released "A Different World," her co-write with her husband Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, less than a year after The Wreckers lofted "Leave the Pieces," which she had written with Billy Austin, to the top of the charts for several weeks.

After laughing and acknowledging the irony of the situation, Hanson put it into perspective. "I didn't really think of myself as a songwriter at the time, because I really wrote for myself," she explained. "Both of those songs are me, through and through. So it was kind of bittersweet, because I was trying to have my career as an artist, and both songs kind of slipped through my hands."

But the success of both songs helped open the door Hanson had been knocking on since 1996, when she arrived from Los Angeles to seek her fortunes in Nashville. She signed as a writer with Acuff-Rose Music Publishing (now incorporated into Sony/ATV Music Publishing) in 1998, obtained an artist development deal in 2000 and released a single, "Beautiful Goodbye," from her self-titled debut album as a major label artist, that rose to Top 15 in 2003.

Then the story got complicated, as Capitol Records Nashville and Hanson couldn't agree on a single that would green-light release of her follow-up album. For two years she submitted new material, including "A Different World" and "Leave the Pieces," only to be asked to return to the drawing board and try again.

"It eventually became clear to me that we weren't on the same page musically anymore, so I did what maybe some would consider a stupid move," Hanson said. "I asked to be released from that deal. And Mike Dungan [President and CEO of Capitol Records Nashville] was very gracious. He understood my frustration, so he let me go. It was all completely amicable."

It was also generous that the label cleared Hanson to re-record and release songs she had cut for a projected second album at Capitol. In the spring of 2006, the journey began toward Thankful, her first album for Universal Records South.

"I felt liberated and creative again," Hanson recalled, who co-wrote all the tracks on Thankful. "There was suddenly so much music in me. All of a sudden, I went from being in a really dark, non-creative place to being overfilled with melodies and feeling good about myself."

She felt lucky too, as income from The Wreckers' version of "Leave the Pieces" started arriving in time for her to invest in writing and recording Thankful on her own. To keep her budget under control while also benefiting from essential creative input, Hanson began by inviting Nick Brophy to co-produce the album with her.

"He's an amazing engineer and a great producer," she said. "He plays everything. If he doesn't know how to play something, he'll pick it up and figure out how. He has a home studio. But I had no idea if I would ever have any sort of major release or record deal, so we came to an agreement. I paid him a lump sum up front and promised that if anybody bought this album, we'd negotiate to make sure he got paid a producer fee, paid for his studio and so forth. And he was willing to take this risk."

For Brophy, it was more opportunity than risk. Like Hanson, he came from Los Angeles, where he'd enjoyed success as a producer as well as a composer of theme music for the ABC-TV series "Wasteland," the Eddie Murphy film "Pluto Nash" and other projects. He was already a fan of Hanson's before his relocation to Nashville in 2003, and when their mutual friend Julie Vassar brought them together for a three-way writing session, Brophy knew at once that he would enjoy working with her.

"The very first songwriting sessions we had together, I think we wrote at least a song per day and then two in one day," Brophy said. "When I say 'write the song,' we were recording it as well. She had deep insight as far as what she wanted the results to be, which you don't get so often from an artist. To be honest, I was really stunned."

As much as Hanson impressed him as a collaborator, Brophy brought out a neglected part of her talent by encouraging her to lay down her own acoustic guitar tracks. "I hadn't even played on my first album," she said. "I was very intimidated; with all the fabulous musicians in this town, there's no way I'm going to set foot in one of those tracking booths and blow the take. But with Nick, I had as much time as I needed to get it right."

"Jennifer was always suggesting that we get the best in town to come in and play the acoustic parts, but I really wanted to hear her play them," Brophy said. "I didn't want a perfect, pristine performance. I wanted to hear the grit and rawness and the ideas she has. All of that spilled out from the first session where we wrote together."

A few last touches were added once they'd finished the basic tracks, most critically live drums by Steve Brewster to animate the rhythm tracks that Brophy had programmed, sweetening from Jonathan Yudkin on strings and Russ Pahl on steel guitar, and a stunning duet vocal from Vince Gill on the title song, written by Hanson with Tommy Lee James. It was intended as a duet, though no one had been lined up for the second part when Brophy and Hanson were taking a lunch break one day.

"He asked me, 'If you could have anybody sing with you, who would it be?'" Hanson remembered. "I said, 'That's easy. It would be Vince Gill. But what am I going to do - call him?' And Nick said, 'Yeah, why don't you call him?' And then I thought, 'Well, what have I got to lose?'"

After getting his mobile number from Billy Thomas, who has played drums for both Gill and Hanson, she made the call. He picked up, and that's all it took to confirm his appearance.

"I've always been taken by her music and her voice," Gill said. "Everything I've heard her do sounds adult. It sounds well thought out. She's never done anything that feels like she's chasing the latest craze. All those qualities remind me of Rosanne [Cash]. You can tell she's a very, very musical woman, and there's nothing more appealing than that."

Most of Thankful was done by early 2007, when Hanson took a meeting with Mark Wright, President, and Fletcher Foster, GM and Senior VP, at Universal Records South, who asked her to play a showcase and then offered her a recording contract. "It was great timing because I'd known Fletcher had already been invested in my career when he'd been at Capitol. I'm grateful to him and Mark for just listening to what I'd done and seeing the magic in it. They saw that I'm a different kind of artist than I used to be. I've got a strong opinion about who I am, musically, and that was good for all of us.

"And," she concluded, with a laugh, "I was finally able to pay Nick too."

On the Web: www.jenniferhansonmusic.com

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