Spontaneous Joy

Singer-songwriter Rebecca Jensen will celebrate her new CD with a release party and concert at the Conduit in Trenton May 17.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   Many children have an imaginary friend, which only they can hear, see and understand. Rebecca Jensen, on the other hand, invented an entire imaginary vocabulary, which included this strange word pronounced "by-YOOP-pay."
   "It’s a word I made up when I was really young, like maybe 2," she says. "I never knew what it meant, never knew how it came about, but it came out so strong. It’s always been a running joke in my family."
   Ms. Jensen still hasn’t quite defined the word, but she’s pinned down the spelling, added an accent aigu and made it the title of her new CD. Since she’s being grilled about the meaning of "byupé," the Trenton resident has at least settled on what she calls "the possibility of a definition."

"My live show and album combine a lot of styles, like punk, reggae and folk. Some people might think something so formless wouldn’t work, that it’s too lacking in a distinct overall shape. But it works for me," says singer-songwriter Rebecca Jensen.

   " ‘Byupé’ represents the spontaneous expression of creativity, innocence and joy," she says. "It means ‘lack of inhibitions.’ It’s an expression of this feeling I have when I’m playing music. It’s something that you can’t explain and that’s what I strive for in my music."
   Whatever the word means, the CD Byupé sounds like a winner. Ms. Jensen’s second self-produced recording boasts intricate melodies, full-band arrangements and bold, honest songwriting, all of which adds to her rising-star status in the alt-folk community. Ms. Jensen will celebrate her new CD with a release party and concert at Conduit in Trenton May 17. Starvin’ Marvin will open the show.
   The Trenton native recorded Byupé at Philadelphia’s Indre Studios, known for hosting WXPN-FM’s Live at the World Café. The nine lengthy songs touch on a variety of styles, including acoustic folk-rock, neo-soul, reggae and jazz.
   After less than a decade as a singer-songwriter, Ms. Jensen’s voice is mature, her musical sensibilities fully realized and her influences eclectic. She makes numerous stylistic references — a little vocal homage to Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann or Ani DiFranco here, a compositional nod to fusion and progressive rock there. One of the CD’s inner photographs is reminiscent of the cover of Neil Young’s Decade, and Ms. Jensen herself resembles a young Joan Baez, all of which is a testament to the musical mélange she grew up with. Her father is Cedric Jensen, one of the leaders of the Trenton jazz scene. He also plays drums and assisted in the production of Byupé.
   "He was integral in developing jazz at Joe’s Mill Hill (Saloon)," Ms. Jensen says. "He plays a lot around Trenton and Philadelphia. My father went to Berklee (College of Music in Boston) in the early ’70s, which was a great time to be there. He was immersed in music, and I was hearing a lot of great stuff, probably from the time I was in the womb."
   Ms. Jensen names just a few of the artists in her father’s album collection — Buddy
Rich, Bill Cobham, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Marvin Gaye, Otis
Redding and the Beatles.
   For all this music in her early life, Ms. Jensen hesitated to point herself in the direction of an artistic career. She took piano and voice lessons as a youngster, joined the choir and even did some apprentice work with Bohéme Opera. But she was more interested in excelling in sports and academics.
   "I knew I loved music and had some natural talent," she says. "But I didn’t know what direction to take it in. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to explore my creative identity."
   She studied ethnomusicology at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, doing her thesis on ritual chants and dance of the Hawaiian hula. Junior year in college was also when Ms. Jensen began to write as many as four or five songs a week and perform in coffeehouses around the city.
   "People I knew were stunned because they didn’t realize this was part of my identity," she says. "Creating and playing music was like discovering a part of myself all over again. It was a liberation, something that had been locked away."
   Early in her career, she was influenced by Edie Brickell, Lenny Kravitz and Sinead O’Connor.
   "Everything I hear influences me in some way," she says. "When I started writing, I had no idea of my direction. Since then, I’ve come into my own, knowing my sound, knowing the artists who move me, like Jonatha Brooke, Patty Griffin and Joni Mitchell, who is my musical goddess."
   After college, Ms. Jensen played in avant-garde folk and indie-punk bands, an acoustic/electric trio and most recently in I Am, a reggae-funk group based in Bucks County. Ms. Jensen has also been an advocate for the expansion of the local, independent music scene, helping to coordinate the Daisy Chain Women’s Music Night at John and Peter’s in New Hope, as well as Tuesday night open-mike sessions at Trenton’s Urban Word Café. In 1998, she released her debut, When Magnets Collide. It was with this recording that Ms. Jensen was invited to perform as a finalist in the Philadelphia Lilith Fair Talent Showcase.
   Over the last year or so, she has performed primarily solo shows, drawing from her repertoire of more than 200 original and cover songs — including Joni Mitchell, Luna, Phish, Ella Fitzgerald and Yes.
   She’s constantly changing her live show and sometimes treats her audience to a "one-time-only" arrangement, for example the scarecrow-tin man-lion medley from the movie musical The Wiz.
   Ms. Jensen’s songwriting is changing, too. She’s not writing four or five songs a week anymore, taking her time to delve deeper.
   "There’s less output but more intensity to my writing," she says. "What comes out is much more developed."
   "My live show and album combine a lot of styles, like punk, reggae and folk. Some people might think something so formless wouldn’t work, that it’s too lacking in a distinct overall shape. But it works for me. It’s a way I get to express all these different influences."
Rebecca Jensen launches her new CD, Byupé, with a party and concert at Conduit, 439 S. Broad
St., Trenton, May 17, 8 p.m. Starvin’ Marvin opens. Tickets cost $8. For information, call (609) 656-1199.
On the Web: www.conduit.com; Rebecca Jensen on the Web: