The Hebrew word “selah,” which punctuates the Bible’s book of Psalms, can frustrate translators because it carries so many definitions. It signals a musical transition, a break for the listener to stop and ponder the importance of words that came before, and it also signifies “forever.” The ancient root, “sel,” means “connect.”
“Selah,” and all its reverent connotations, figure into indie enchantress Jennifer Daniels’ self-released fourth album, Come Undone, where even the weightiest ideas float lightly on her gossamer vocals and intricate guitar work. Daniels, based in Chattanooga, has been a lodestar of the Southeast’s acoustic music circuit since winning the Eddie’s Attic Open Mic Shoot-out in 2000, and her new album charts, with lyric confessionalism, her growth as a “woman, a wife, a Southerner, and a child of God,” and—as if all of that were not enough—now a mother of newborn twins, “who were gestating at the same time as this music,” she says.
It has been a fertile year indeed for the songbird whose thoughtful folk-rock draws comparisons to Sarah McLachlan and Ani DiFranco.
“I had acquired a blank journal, and as I wrote down thoughts and lyrics, thinking through the theme of the album as a whole, I realized that the songs could be divided into three chapters, forming one story,” says Daniels, usually accompanied by husband Jeff Neal on mandolin and guitar. “I wanted to mark those chapters somehow, so we created the musical interludes to bridge them, and we entitled those interludes ‘Selah I’ and ‘Selah II.’”
The arrangement reflects both her deeply felt spirituality and her rapturous love for poetry. Daniels is quick to cite Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sara Teasdale as “major influences” before getting around to the musicians, such as the Baltimore-based band Naked Blue, with whom she shared a stage at The Bitter End in New York. “I like to create onomatopoeias out of the words sometimes,” she says, “and I love the way it sounds to put certain words together, like the alliteration in the song ‘Spider Noise’: ‘Spider spit and sprawled and so had spelled my name.’ I want my voice to convey the intention of the lyric.”
So in structure and sentiment, Come Undone updates William Blake’s “innocence/experience/Beulah” cycles with all of the resilient wisdom of an earth mother from the Southern Highlands.
“I like to think of the first chapter as the blind enthusiasm of good hopes and dreams,” Daniels says, referring to songs such as the blithely up-tempo “Did You Follow the Moon?” “The second chapter plunges the listener into the devastation of those dreams: death, divorce, any of the disorienting, disillusioning realities that rend us.” (Two of those titles—‘Rage’ and ‘Home Burial’—suggest the existential struggles at work.) “And the third-chapter songs are snapshots of things that have reoriented and comforted me during some of those very dark times.”
The soothing wash of sound behind her includes strings, sleigh-bells, and flourishes of ethnic percussion.
“The orchestration and sonic choices were a natural fit not only for the songs, but for framing Jennifer’s voice in a way it hasn’t yet been heard,” says the album’s producer, Scott Smith. “The complexity of Jennifer’s voice, both lyrically and melodically, works amazingly well stripped down with two guitars. The challenge was to add to this complexity while still retaining the intimacy of her message.”
A song of ascents
That message, Daniels says, lies in the deceptively simple-sounding title “Come Undone,” which is “an invitation to allow the weight of disappointment to strip you of things that can be taken away in order to find the stabilizing force of what cannot.” By the time she closes with “All the Glory,” the exalted mood is one of reaching the mountaintop.
Or home, as Daniels might say. She is a lifelong resident of Lookout Mountain, a place that’s shaped her consciousness in all sorts of vertiginous ways.
“I sometimes think of my songs as vertical,” she says. “Having lived my whole life up here, with plenty of reserved land for hiking and climbing, I get to surround myself with bluff views that open up on the valley, and rivers that beg to be ridden. It feeds the art, not always as the subject of songs, but certainly as a spiritual, creative, and grounding force in me.”
So Nashville, New York or Los Angeles might beckon, but Daniels isn’t tempted.
“Livingston Taylor once told me to move to a large city that had a subway so that I could move among the disenfranchised,” she says. “I’m sure that would be great fodder for songs, but I can find the disenfranchised anywhere, and I can only find Lookout Mountain here in the South.”
Besides, who needs the subway when you can See Rock City?
With her zephyr-like voice and fey smile surrounded by a waterfall of brunette hair, Daniels comes across as an authentic wood nymph—or an indie artist who’s a little too free-spirited to play the major-label game.
“If a deal made sense, we would take it, but it doesn’t seem like our goals line up with the labels’ goals,” she says, echoing the age-old lament of troubadours everywhere. “One of them wanted me to pretend to be younger than I was, and I was only 25 at the time. Besides the moral dilemma of creating a fake persona, I just don’t have any spare energy to spend on maintaining it. Part of the music for me is figuring life out, and I can’t help but to feel like I have some bohemian blood in me too, searching for truth and beauty and love. You can’t serve the master of fame and fortune and the master of truth and beauty. No path exists for following both.”
So Daniels, instead, takes the path less traveled by—specifically the rocky, pine-scented switchback leading up a mountain that offers a bird’s-eye view of seven Southern states. And that has made all the difference.