Culture // 10 min Read

Lauren Jenkins: Phoenix Rising

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Sep 18, 2021

The entire entertainment industry went into a tailspin in 2020, but for Lauren Jenkins—the self-proclaimed storyteller with a rootsy, raw sound and an Americana vibe—the year was both devastating and transformative.

The lauded singer, songwriter, filmmaker, and actress with a voice reminiscent of a smoky red wine (but a love of whiskey neat) had just come off of a banner year in 2019: she was chosen as a member of the Class of 2019 by famed DJ Bobby Bones; she made her TODAY show debut as Elvis Duran’s Artist of the Month; she released her critically acclaimed debut album, No Saint, which garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Billboard, and Rolling Stone, among others; and she performed on countless stages, including Field + Fire at Palmetto Bluff and the Grand Ole Opry.

And in early 2020, she had also just returned from a sold-out overseas tour opening for Brett Eldredge in the UK and across Europe, with plans to promote her album No Saint on a US tour. And with momentum like that, anyone would be excited.

But as we all know, the best-laid plans . . .

Texas Girl with a Restless Heart

Touring since the age of 15 and playing in NYC nightclubs by 17, Jenkins is no stranger to life on the road and all that comes with it. Born in Texas and raised in North Carolina, she draws from her experiences and endless miles on the road—smoky bars, failed relationships, and small towns—to connect with her fans and audience.

And while music has been a constant companion, she’s always loved storytelling.

“I kind of bundle everything I do into that lane. It’s photography, it’s filmmaking, it’s songwriting, it’s performing—it’s all storytelling.”

Behind the camera or in front of it, if there’s a story to be told, she’s in.

“Professional storyteller was not something they talked about in school. But if that box was there, I would have checked that one. That would have been my thing. That’s what I’ve always, always loved,” Jenkins says.

So, not being one for road maps or set plans or playing by the rules, she made her own.

“Around the time of 15 was sort of the catapult. . . . I signed with an agency out of Charlotte, and then I started traveling a lot to Memphis and New York and sort of throughout the Southeast. . . . I bought a car, I bought a guitar, and then I was playing anywhere that I could. I was working on whatever film projects I could.”

Balancing her time between New York and Memphis—with some time spent in LA pursuing film projects—Jenkins remained committed to songwriting and spending time in the studio. After an appearance on a morning show out of Memphis, at the ripe old age of 16, Jenkins was approached by a music producer who wanted to record her songs. Not having any real industry knowledge or money, she agreed.

And while she credits this time in her life as “where it began,” she still didn’t have any idea of where to go from there.

“With music and songwriting . . . I never had any mentors. I didn’t have anybody tell me really how to do anything. How to do life . . . how to do this . . .”

Yes, she’d bought a car and left home to begin touring at 15. She homeschooled herself while on the road and even taught herself to play guitar. (“I just knew . . . well, I’ve got these songs, and it sure would be nice if I could play and not have to rely on anybody, which is sort of my MO with life . . . how can I do it myself?”) But she had no idea how to make music a career. What she did understand was acting and filmmaking and the idea that music could be an actual career. So, with her background and love of storytelling, she decided to move to New York to attend acting school.

And then Nashville came knocking.

Music City

Between acting classes and waitressing shifts to pay for them, music always remained Jenkins’s goal. Burning the late-night oil in a city that never sleeps, she booked her own gigs—playing at legendary clubs such as The Bitter End and The Living Room—and even found time to record new music.

And it was this music that caught the attention of Nashville record execs, landing Jenkins meetings with some big labels. So, after a phone call and some last-minute waitressing shift changes, Jenkins hopped a flight to Music City, USA, and after some pretty heavy courting, she was offered a record deal with Big Machine Records.

Lauren Jenkins was 21. With a record deal on a label alongside artists that included Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, she went back to New York, finished acting school, and then made the move to Nashville to begin her music career. However, not one to be landlocked for too long, Jenkins spent the next few years splitting her time between Nashville (where she recorded in the studio during the week) and Charleston (where she’d spend her weekends).

“There was a guy at the time. There’s always a guy. I got a lot of song ideas from Charleston,” Jenkins notes.

And for the next several years, things seemed to be going well. In addition to directing music videos for fellow artists, she released an EP titled The Nashville Sessions in 2016; collaborated with fellow songwriters on her full-length debut album, No Saint, released in March 2019; and cowrote, directed, and starred in the short film Running Out of Road, a cinemagraphic music video trilogy that accompanied No Saint.

Shot on a road trip that began in North Carolina and ended in New Mexico and Wyoming, Running Out of Road was the first short film that Jenkins had complete control over, putting her on the map as an emerging artist with an undeniable gift of storytelling.

“The director and co-creator on it, Cole Smith . . . we met in middle school riding the bus together. We did two trips to make the short film and the music video trilogy. . . . We drove from North Carolina to New Mexico in my car,” Jenkins says.

But even with a critically acclaimed album and an accomplished piece of musical filmmaking—chosen as an official selection in the Roswell Film Festival—plans to promote No Saint by releasing her first single “Running Out of Road” never materialized. And Jenkins was abruptly dropped by her label.

A New Single and New Beginnings

It was March 2020. She had just returned from her overseas tour with Brett Eldredge, a devastating tornado had just swept through Nashville, and the COVID-19 pandemic was causing tour date cancellations. And on top of all that, her management company informed her that her label was severing ties.

But don’t count this self-described “strong-willed” girl out.

Just another roadblock in what seems to be a never-ending road trip in telling her story, Jenkins went back to the drawing board and released the single “Ain’t That Hard” in May 2020—her first single as an independent artist.

“At the time . . . under the direction of my label, I thought we were making the second record. So, I was planning it, and then when that happened, I was like ‘Oh, well, let’s just go ahead and record now. I want to release this song now,’” Jenkins says.

With a newfound freedom and no more feelings of being “held back,” Jenkins proved that label or no label, she’s always kind of done her own thing.

“I didn’t get into the music business because I wanted to be in the music business . . . so when the departure with the label happened, nothing really changed. I think it kind of actually freed me up,” Jenkins states.

Admitting that she does things very differently (“I don’t always play by the rules,” Jenkins says) and had feelings of being “held back” at times, there was something exciting about being independent.

“It felt really important to almost immediately release music . . . for myself, to remind myself, ‘No, you did this before without a label; you can do this now.’ And the song was a good reminder to me as well . . . because I think that sometimes when we’re going through things, we kind of feel like we’re the only one. And that’s just not the case,” Jenkins states.

She adds later, “Also, there’s a lot of heartbreak in the world, and it’s not that hard to be kind. . . . And it’s also not that hard to really break a heart. So, don’t.”

With all of this talk about breaking hearts, one may think “Ain’t That Hard” is one of those sad, post-breakup songs, when in fact, it describes Jenkins’s (and many others’) ability to stay strong, rise above, and learn from past experiences.

“You hurt me good, but that’s just you, and I’ll move on, ’cause that’s what I do,” Jenkins sings in the bridge of this thought-provoking ballad.

Inspired by her experience with Big Machine and observations made while on tour, this acoustic number with its delicate cello and soulful vocals transports listeners to small towns across America with soulful lyrics that sing of “main street bars and football teams . . . rusty cars and homecoming queens.”

It’s the art of a storyteller who is able to find those common threads that bind us together . . . wherever we may be in the world.

Livestreams from the Living Room

A wanderer at heart, the past year has been the most time Jenkins has spent in one place since she left home at 15.

However, with new music to promote and the pandemic canceling any sort of live music shows, Jenkins found a way to connect with her fans—and an ever-growing audience that can’t get enough of her songs—via virtual “live from home” shows from her living room (often joined by her rescue dog, Cooper).

“I was super hesitant about them at first. . . . But, I will say, I’ve probably done hundreds since the beginning of this pandemic . . . and my favorite thing that I’ve seen out of it is those connections that I’ve personally been able to have with people around the world. I’ve seen this community build,” Jenkins says.

“I’ve seen people become friends. People that have never met in real life . . . and now they’re friends. . . . And that, to me, is so cool. It brings a different kind of fulfillment.”

And it’s this virtual community that Jenkins has built—thanks to her big heart and her ability to capture the essence of human emotions with her lyrics, guitar hooks, and melodies—that has supported her and lifted her and others up in a year when community and connection has never been more important.

“This year has taught all of us that we can’t get through this thing without each other. Sometimes it’s as simple as a kind word.
We have to help each other out.”

In addition to using a percentage of her virtual tip jar to donate to a variety of charitable causes, Jenkins also acknowledges that it was the support of these fans that allowed her to pay her everyday living expenses as well as fund her new recordings.

“Life can be really tough. I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many strangers who I can call beautiful humans.”

The Road Ahead

With the same kind of storytelling and picking up where No Saint left off, Jenkins has been working on her second full-length album and her first as an independent artist. With plans to unveil the album through a series of EPs, fans will be able to pre-download parts 1, 2, and 3 before being able to buy the full record later this year.

“I didn’t want people to have to wait for the full record . . . and so that’s why I’ll sort of tell this story in three parts. You know, this record really kind of picks up where No Saint left off. It’s very recent; it’s all the things that have transpired since then.”

The first song, released in April, is titled “Like You Found Me.” Part rock anthem and part ode to independence (“I’m finally fine on my own”), this song gives fans a taste of the newfound freedom and different perspective that Jenkins is able to embrace on this new record.

“You didn’t find me cryin’, you didn’t find me broken, didn’t find me bitter or haunted by ghosts, so, if you leave me, leave me like you found me.”

It’s also a reflection of lessons that the last year has taught Jenkins.

“I think I’m a better writer, and I’m also . . . in a lot of ways a better human. I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned a lot. You know that first record, some of it was some of the first songs that I wrote when I got to Nashville. I was pretty young at the time. So, I think just the perspective is different from this record, in a really good way,” Jenkins notes.

And also, I think there’s a couple of songs on the No Saint record that I will always, always love that I’m really proud of, but as a whole, this record is definitely some of the strongest writing I’ve ever done.”

Another major difference between No Saint and the new record (tentatively titled Miles on Me) is that fans may have already had a sneak peek at some of this new music. That’s right: if you tuned in to any of Lauren’s livestreams this past year, you may have actually heard a few of the songs already.

“Through the livestreams, I’ve been playing the songs that are on the record and so people already know some of these songs that are going to be on there. . . . I think it’s going to be so fun when I get back on the road because all the fans are going to know the songs already,” Jenkins says with a smile.

In between the livestreams, finishing the new record, and continually perusing her inspiration board with plans for another music video trilogy/short film to go along with her new music, she’s ready to get back on the road.

“As soon as I can tour and play places, I am there. Like, I am gone yesterday.”

You know what they say:

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Read the original story in the Fall / Winter 2021 edition of the bluff.

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