Jennifer Hartswick has commanded more than a few high-profile stages, from her work as the soul of Trey Anastasio Band to her various featured guest roles at major Phish shows to her onstage collaborations with acts like Big GiganticUmphrey’s McGee, and countless more. Then there are all the special, one-time-only, lucky-to-be-there shows Hartswick puts together—whether it’s curating a band of talented friends for a standout performance at Brooklyn Comes Alive, recruiting a pair of living legends to join an acoustic show in a tiny NYC room on a Wednesday night, or attracting virtually every artist on Jam Cruise for the biggest, baddest jam session in a week filled with them. Even beyond her spectacular abilities as a singer and trumpet player, Hartswick’s presence and charisma make her a uniquely magnetic performer—and a highly sought-after collaborator for any artist.

Jennifer Hartswick, Jennifer Hartswick INterview

[Photo: Chris Capaci]

But while her various supporting roles on an array of projects have made her a household name in the jam world, Hartswick’s inner truth as a musician is reflected in her considerably more delicate solo jazz material. In 2018, she released her latest studio LP, Nexus, a “powerful and vulnerable performance from the depths of her soul” featuring major contributions from two of the most significant musicians in her life: The Nth Power guitarist Nick Cassarino and Grammy-winning jazz bassist/composer Christian McBride. Both the album itself and the acoustic duo tour she mounted with Cassarino in support of the release received universal acclaim.

“It’s kind of overwhelming, actually,” Hartswick reveals about the response to Nexus when she sits down with Live For Live Music on Jam Cruise 17. “And I think the reason that I made it, or wanted to make it, was because everything I was doing was just so intense and loud. I love a good backbeat just like everybody else, but I wanted to make something that was a little more intimate because that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know that other people needed that so badly too.”

“The response has just been like ‘Man, thank you for making this record,'” she continues. “[The Motet vocalist] Lyle Divinsky, downstairs, was like ‘Man, I’m just telling you I’ve listened to that record more times than I’ve listened to any other record this year,’ so it’s cool…It’s been really nice. I love that people love it because it’s not necessarily what people would expect from me, apparently.”

Working with Nick Cassarino on Nexus and their subsequent duo tour was an easy fit for Hartswick. The two have been close friends and collaborators for the better part of two decades. “We grew up together,” she explains. “I met him when he was 14. So we’ve gotten 19 years of friendship and playing music and writing music under our belts. We spent all year on tour together, which has just been a total blast and such a blessing. You’re in bands with a lot of people at a lot of times—11 people, 8 people, 9 people… Even his band, The Nth Power, is with three or two other people. To scale it down to a duo is heaven. You can ride in any vehicle, your load-in takes four minutes. He doesn’t even travel with an amp. He goes direct, I sling a trumpet over my back, he takes in a guitar. We could travel in a smart car if we wanted to [laughs]. Smart car tour, look out, coming to every teeny town near you.”

“Then you get on stage and there’s plenty of space for us to do whatever we want to do, and to have that sort of musical relationship with each other where we read each others’ minds. He introduces me every night as his musical soulmate, and that’s the way that we feel,” she says with unflinching sincerity. “Thank God we have each other, we get each other. We’ve just clicked for so long and it’s been really nice to have an excuse, now that the record is out, to go ahead and do what we do in our living room anyway but get to do it in front of folks.”

“I think the thing with Nick and me is at the core of who I am, for a couple of reasons,” she explains. “We know each other so well that … it’s like in an improv comedy troupe, they say ‘Yes, and?’ That’s exactly what it’s like for us. One of us goes left and the other one’s right there to catch him and be like ‘And what else?’ So we get to constantly create. Also, because you don’t have a keyboard player or bass player, chordally what Nick can do. … He can go wherever he wants without, like, yelling out the cords. We can just go, because we move so well as a unit. I don’t know, it’s very satisfying, very fulfilling, and I would say of the things that I am doing, that’s the most true to who I am as a person.”

[Photo: Keith Griner/Phierce Photo]

With the wide breadth of styles and collaborators on her resume, Hartswick relishes the fact that different people know her from vastly different projects. “We were just at Loyola [University] in New Orleans wrapping up our tour. That was our last show of [2018]. And it was cool that nobody really knew who we were. A couple people were like ‘Ah! You’re the singer with Big Gigantic!’ That’s how [they related], because they’re 18, 20 years old? Or, ‘Oh my God, you worked with Meghan Trainor!’ It’s cool, it’s great, but that’s not usually our demographic.”

However, the demographic difference made that particular performance all the more meaningful. “So there are 400 kids at this thing that was mandatory, that they had to come to,” she explains with a laugh, “But they asked really smart questions and it was really cool. They really knew nothing about us, but we got to play for them and you could hear a pin drop and all the teachers were like, ‘This never happens, you have to constantly tell them to be quiet’ [laughs].”

“With kids that young, they’re looking to be a part of something they understand. Now, it’s like, these kids have never grown up without the internet, without cell phones, so everything is at their fingertips. The thing that I think bothers me the most about that is, with this whole sort of Instagram generation, you only see the final product. You don’t see all the work that goes into it. So kids are getting discouraged because they’re not perfect. They’re 18 years old. It’s like, well, guess what? It takes a long time and a lot of work and a lot of hours in the practice room and a lot of getting together with friends and making bands that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, seeing what you need in a band…”

When she’s not on the road, Hartswick lays her head in Nashville, TN. It’s a city with an undeniable musical character, though one that falls largely outside her particular expertise. “One of the cool things about living in Nashville,” she explains, “Is that I have no country ties, right? I’ve never played that kind of music, I’ve never spent a lot of time listening to it, but it’s unavoidable when you’re living there. I like to go hear music from musicians I’ve never heard of. As a musician, I think it teaches you things that you don’t normally think about. I think there’s a lot of really incredible, legendary musicians who do that—who still go see music as a learning experience.”

“It’s your business, you know?” she continues. “So you analyze it as a business. It’s very hard for me to just go to a show and shut off my mind and be like, ‘This is great! I sure do love this song!’ I’m like, ‘Wow, look at the lights on the back of the stage… Switched guitars there, oh, that’s interesting.’ It’s very analytical for me to go and see music, and I love it. It’s never from a place of judgment, it’s always from a place of, ‘Ooh, what are they doing? That’s so cool!'”

“I think that’s where I find the most information, is in the things that I would never normally go to or think about,” she muses. “Like, being a part of the Big Gigantic ROWDYTOWN thing at Red Rocks, the stuff that happens visually at that thing… I don’t know if you’ve experienced the 3D thing. Go experience the 3D thing. It will blow your mind. There was a 20-minute break where I wasn’t onstage, so I got to run up through the tunnel and put on the glasses and I was like ‘No way! This is what you guys are seeing?! This is just unbelievable!’ I walked backstage and I was like “Dude. Dom [Lalli]. Have you guys seen this shit?’ They’re like ‘Yeah, yeah…that’s why we did it.'”

Hartswick’s foray into the world of EDM with Big Gigantic, much like her brushes with country music in Nashville, only expanded her perspective on her own work. She smiles as she reflects on their performance at Lollapalooza—a gig about as different as possible from her acoustic duo shows. “Dom was like, ‘So you’ll be on the floor and, you know, we’ll be up.’ I was like, ‘I don’t understand what that means.’ And he’s like, ‘…Go look at the stage’ [laughs].”

“It’s a three-story platform. I’m such an EDM noob, I was like, ‘Wait, I gotta be down here, and you’re going to be all the way up there? Really? How will I say hi to you? How will I turn my head and smile at you?’ When we did it, I paced up and down the stage like a caged tiger because I didn’t know what to do and there were forty-five thousand people there in Chicago. I was like, ‘This is bizarre, man.’ Super cool—but nothing that would ever necessarily be in my act, you know what I mean [laughs]?”

Jen is thankful that her stylistic diversity affords her the opportunities to play for both massive festival crowds and tiny nightclub audiences. “I feel sort of bad for people who are at such a level that they can’t play those small rooms anymore,” she explains. “It’s kind of sad. Obviously, it means you’re doing great [laughs]. But I’m sure people like that miss being able to play small rooms. Lollapalooza and all that stuff, it’s amazing. But I think my favorite thing to do, honestly, is to play for a couple hundred people who are seated, paying attention. Have it be fun, not stuffy. Like, you guys get to know us, we get to know you, people shout stuff at you. It’s a very interactive, intimate experience and there is no time in my life where I am happier than those moments.”

One such artist who has sized out of those kinds of intimate rooms is Trey Anastasio, one of Hartswick’s longest-running collaborators. When Anastasio plays with Phish in New York City, where he lives, he does it at Madison Square Garden. When Jen and Nick’s duo tour stopped at the city’s roughly 100-capacity Rockwood Music Hall in 2018, Trey was eager to share in that intimate experience. On that unforgettable night, Hartswick and Cassarino welcomed both Trey and Christian McBride—two lauded musicians who are accustomed to much larger stages but who delighted in the change of pace and, of course, the opportunity to play with Hartswick in her element.

Jennifer Hartswick & Nick Cassarino w/ Christian McBride, Trey Anastasio – “Drown In My Own Tears”

[Video: marc millman]

Jennifer seems a bit mystified as she recalls this particular evening. “I mean, the invitation for Trey to come to that show was sort of like a half-assed joke because it’s so small,” she confesses. “Christian had hit me up and been like, ‘You’re playing in New York? I want to come!’ I was like, ‘You do?’ He was like, ‘Yeah!’ ‘So you want to come play a couple tunes?’ ‘Of course I do!'”

“So then I called Trey because, you know, when I play in New York, he gets sad that I don’t invite him because he can’t come to places like that. I’m like, ‘Listen, you’re too famous.’ The time before Rockwood, he was like ‘You were in New York and you didn’t tell me you were playing? I wanna come out!’ I was like, ‘Pshh, okay.’ He’s like, ‘Next time you’re playing you got to tell me.’ I said ‘Okay, I will.'”

“And so I did, I was like, ‘Christian’s coming down for a couple tunes if you want to come down, you know you’re more than welcome to,’ and he was like ‘Oh my God, thank you so much for asking me. I would love to.’ Seriously. He’s that nice. And so he came down and he set up his little amp and we had a little sound check and then we hid him in the balcony.”

“And then, one of the most surreal parts about that night was announcing him on stage, because I’d never done that before. I had never uttered the words ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the stage, Trey Anastasio.’ He’s announced me a gazillion times and I had not one time ever had a reason to announce his name. I was like ‘Oh, this is weird, hey buddy!’ Seriously, those three men, Christian and Nick and Trey, those are three of the most influential men in my life. To have them all supporting so hard, in all ways, was a really cool moment.”

Jennifer Hartswick, Trey Anastasio, Christian McBride, Nick Cassarino

[Photo: Andrew O’Brien]