In the spring of 2001, classically-trained pianist and Indiana University swimmer Jenn Cristy was asked to sing the National Anthem at an IU basketball game.
Halfway through the game, Cristy was approached by a man who worked for an impressed John Mellencamp. A huge IU sports fan, the singer was at the game and asked her to join his band for the recording of 2001’s Cuttin’ Heads and the subsequent world tour.
“It was a shock for everyone around me more than it was for myself,” Cristy said. “I’m not one to get my hopes up until something actually follows through … I wasn’t blown away by it until I actually started recording.”
It was an experience that helped shape Cristy, both as a person and as a musician.
“It was a complete slam in the face professionally,” Cristy said. “I learned so much about recording. I started developing my own voice. Watching John and how much of a perfectionist he is helped me start my solo career.”
Cristy sang backup for Mellencamp through 2002 and recorded vocals for Cuttin’ Heads track “Peaceful World.”
She then played five shows for Mellencamp during his “Summer Work” tour before receiving the news that she and her husband were pregnant. She left the tour immediately. In 2003, her daughter April was born, and Cristy started her own band.
By 2005, Cristy had independently released her first solo record. Becoming, a mix of jazzy, piano-based pop. It isn’t one of Cristy’s favorites. “I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was a good start,” she said.
“One of the biggest obstacles I had during the first album was trying to figure out what sound I wanted,” Cristy said. “I had already worked with a lot of different musicians and hadn’t quite heard things come together the way I wanted them to. I also became incredibly impatient with the first album. I wanted it done and ended up rushing the whole process, which in the end didn’t work in my favor.”
Still, it helped establish the singer’s sound.
That sound has roots in Cristy’s early life in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Her parents got her started in music early, classically training her as a pianist. She stayed busy.
“I don’t remember getting very much sleep,” Cristy said. “I practiced more than most kids at a young age, both piano and swimming.”
Her classical upbringing kept Cristy from being exposed to the kind of music American teens were listening to — Cristy remembers playing Rachmaninoff, not Billy Joel or Paul McCartney.
Despite Cristy’s relatively straight-forward sound — she’s not exactly the first singer to take a piano and belt out neo-soul music — her music is surprisingly naturalistic. While she could easily be compared to half a dozen piano men and women — Billy Joel, Tori Amos, etc. — she’s her own woman.
“I consider them influences but I don’t necessarily try to emulate anybody,” Cristy said. “I was compared to fellow musicians who were guys because of the way I played,” she said. “I like playing aggressively. I like playing into the keys more. I think being an athlete really carried over when it came to playing the way I did.”
After the growing pains of her first album, recording has grown more natural for the singer. She released her second, self-titled album in 2006, and has kept up a busy touring schedule since then, including repeat appearances at Locals Only.
“It has definitely gotten easier,” Cristy said. “My expectations are much higher for myself and for my band. They have helped me define my sound and I’m very excited to see where we go with the third album.”
Four songs from that upcoming third album, recorded at Bloomington’s Echo Park Studios, are available on the singer’s Myspace page: www.myspace.com/jenncristy.
“With this album I’ve grown up a lot,” Cristy said. “Musically, I’ve grown up a lot. Lyrically, I’ve grown up a lot. The newer songs are a lot catchier. People are singing along to them after three or four times.”