Nearly 30 years after setting aside her long-held wish of a music career, Jenny Van West ’86 is at last living out that dream, touring the East Coast in support of her second Americana album, Happiness to Burn.
At 50, Van West knows it’s an unconventional time for one to start in this business. But when she graduated from Wesleyan University, all she knew about launching a singer-songwriter career was that it required going to Nashville or Los Angeles. If she got a record contract, she would face living on the road for months at a time to promote the albums — a life that, she knew, “was notoriously hard on women.”
She wanted a family and a music career, but the two ideas didn’t align well at the time.
“I just let it go. I didn’t see how I could do it, and I wasn’t really around a lot of people who were trying to make that work,” Van West said. “And it is hard, even the way I’m doing it now, but back then there wasn’t really another way to do it.”
Instead, she moved to Seattle, got married, had children, and pursued other passions: She worked as a graphic designer, ran a publishing company, and then a massage practice. But music was always in the back of her mind.
She had loved performing since her days at NCS, when Ramona Forbes ran the Lower School music program and taught students to sing, play instruments, and perform classical pieces in different parts.
“She made sure that, even in 4th grade, we were learning basic music theory. I’ve met very few people who got the privilege of a musical education like I got from her,” said Van West.
Van West was also a member of the Glee Club and remembers with pride singing in the Washington National Cathedral.
“When I tell people about the opportunities I had as a young girl to sing there, they just look at me like, are you kidding me? Music was so integrated into the curriculum that it was just something people did, and it was so normalized for me,” she said.
Van West left NCS after 9th grade to attend boarding school, so it was a treat for both Van West and the NCS community when, on Sept. 10, she returned to campus to perform her own music at an all-school Cathedral service.
“Divine is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe it. I spent six years singing in there all the time, and I haven’t sung in the Cathedral for 35 years. To be able to stand up in front of the entire school and just sing; it was a very emotional experience,” she said.
After the service, Van West began to reflect on the moment that made her finally take the plunge and pursue music full-time. Several years ago, two of her musician friends passed away unexpectedly within weeks of each other. “ I had this sense that time will run out and what am I waiting for?”
The thought inspired fearlessness. She picked up her fiddle and started to sing again; she broke out the guitar and began to play as often as she could. She made a pact with herself that she would not say no to anything musical just because she was afraid.
Van West started writing songs inspired by interactions with friends, books, philosophy readings, phrases, and chord progressions. She took guitar classes and found musical mentors. As she started sharing her songs with the world through the internet and social media, the feedback was encouraging.
“It just sort of took off. I had to lay down my massage practice because I felt like I was finally doing the thing that I was supposed to be doing all this time!”
She released her first full-length album, Something Real, in 2015 to critical acclaim; the opening track, “Nellie,” won her first place at the Maine Songwriters Association’s Songwriting Contest. For Happiness to Burn, which was released in April, she worked with a producer in Los Angeles to evolve her sound even more.
Van West has spent the last several years practicing an idea of “becoming teachable.” She deconstructed songs to examine how they were written and structured; she researched the lives of songwriters she admired and their influences; she took music lessons and built relationships with others in the industry.
“When I got back into songwriting, I realized the only thing in common with people who succeed is that they never gave up. If you’re not as talented as the next person, don’t be discouraged. Work twice as hard, work five times as hard.”
But most of all, she has learned, stay connected to your dream and don’t give up on it.