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All photography by Alysse Gafkjen AND BLYTHE THOMAS
Ask Austin Jenckes about his unwavering need to write and perform music, and as he pauses to gather his thoughts, you can practically see a montage of the country singer-songwriter’s life playing before him: a childhood spent watching his father play guitar in the park; high school talent shows; dingy bar gigs; televised singing competitions; publishing deals; Nashville writing rooms; a forthcoming debut album. “But at the root, it’s always been me trying to move somebody enough emotionally to pay attention to what I’m singing about,” Jenckes says. “Music’s always been a way for me to observe and process the world around me.”
Melody. Message. That moment in a song when a listener sees his or her life reflected back at them like a mirror—Jenckes lives in service of the song, and it’s why he spends every day tirelessly perfecting his craft. The endlessly humble Jenckes will tell you, “I’m just a guy with a guitar singing songs.” But his work tells a far more nuanced tale. To hear Jenckes perform is to hear the roots of country music brought into the modern age: all soul and blues and that brand of lyrical honesty and palpable emotion that’s long defined the genre’s most celebrated artists. From the serene send-off “In My Head” to the rearview reflection “Fat Kid,” Jenckes’ best songs are direct dispatches from the never easy but unquestionably rich life he’s lived.
“I’ve always been the type to pay attention to what other people are doing and learn from their lives and my own,” Jenckes offers of his songwriting inspiration, “Take in not only the successes but more importantly the mistakes.”
“But I feel really fortunate right now,” adds Jenckes, whose long-awaited debut album is set for release in 2019. He smiles and adds, “This is what I’ve always wanted for my life.
If Jenckes appears ever appreciative it’s because, like so many supreme songwriters with wisdom gained from hardship, he’s lived a lot of life. Growing up in small-town Washington, Jenckes’ parents divorced when he was 13, and three years later his father took his own life. Much as he’d always done, Jenckes turned to music as his principal refuge. “I really felt I had everybody in that town supporting me,” he says of staking out a reputation early on as a supremely skilled singer with a powerful and passionate voice that combined his equal-parts love of Southern rock and folk music. “It was always really important to me that my music felt emotional and felt like it was telling a story,” he notes, and upon graduating from college the musician doubled down on his dream and moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
“I was struggling in a lot of ways because I just felt lost,” he recalls of that time period. “I still was this kid that wanted this big unattainable thing but I was putting a lot of my self worth in that. It felt like I wasn’t going to be happy or successful unless I could be a full-time musician.” There were detours, to be sure, from short-lived publishing deals to landing a sport on the hit TV show The Voice. And he admits, for a time, he figured he’d just be a songwriter for other artists. But Jenckes forever made it his mission to continuing evolving as both musician and songwriter. Looking back, he admits, “That whole time I was trying to figure out what kind of music I wanted to put out. I didn’t know if it was pop, rock, country or soul. So I was just writing a ton.”
But after getting married and then becoming a father, Jenckes says he realized, “I wasn’t going to be happy unless I was putting my whole heart into putting my own music out and performing.” Looking back now, he adds, “Any previous uncertainty about my future was me just being afraid to do anything at all. At the end of the day I just needed to commit. I remember telling my wife, “I’m going in all the way.”
His ever-growing fanbase speaks to the wisdom behind that decision. Whether playing headline or opening shows, touring with a six-piece band or stage-center, just the man and his guitar, Jenckes is reminded daily of how many people have and continue to be inspired by his music. “I still don’t feel like I know how to do it completely on purpose,” he says with a laugh of his innate ability to pen authentic, sincere and supremely hooky songs. “But all I can do is focus on telling my story.”
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