Growing up on Milwaukee’s North Side, Abby Jeanne envisioned having a visual-arts career and “being closed and mysterious.” Sure, she dabbled in music and was always “secretly writing songs,” but she thought that was just for fun. Eventually she felt called to make music professionally rather than pursuing visual art.
Now in her 20s, Abby Jeanne — who goes by her first and middle names — is going for broke as a full-time musician. And she’s starting to make a splash. Radio Milwaukee named her Best Solo Artist for 2017 and her debut, Rebel Love, was awarded Best Album. Rebel Love’s “Baby Rolling Stone” was the jaunty soundtrack for the Milwaukee Film Festival’s sponsor-credits video. On Feb. 9 she joins other local artists in interpreting Woody Guthrie’s music at Turner Hall Ballroom, in a show hosted by musician Johanna Rose.
In perhaps her biggest gig locally, Abby Jeanne is performing with her band Mondays for Company Brewing’s first-ever “artist residency.” Those concerts will feature different guest openers each week: Klassik (Feb. 12); Fiona Silver of New York City (Feb. 19); and Rose of the West (Feb. 26).
Sitting in the living room of her Cudahy duplex, which sometimes doubles as her recording studio, Abby Jeanne is surrounded by vintage typewriters, cameras, music players and other bygone objects. She’s drawn to old things, including the “sparkly nostalgic sound” of pre-digital recording methods. “But I’m also a modern girl,” she adds. Her eclectic musical tastes likewise span eras and styles, from blues and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, ’60s pop and New Wave music.
Abby Jeanne chose music because “my voice is so strong and the force of music is just so strong, I can’t say no to it.”
Some compare her bluesy vocalizing to Janis Joplin and Etta James. She’s honored by the comparisons, since both have inspired her, but she also continually experiments by blending genres and charting her own path in original songs.
Steeped in arts education
Abby Jeanne could be a poster child for public-school arts-immersion programs. She raves about the MPS schools she attended — Elm Creative Arts Elementary School, Roosevelt Creative Arts Middle School and Milwaukee High School of the Arts. All told, she feels as if she’s received a college-level education, having studied art, theater and music for more than a decade.
“I don’t know who I would be if I had not attended those programs,” she observes. She hopes those opportunities will be available for other students, but fears cuts to arts-education budgets.
Candor and intense feeling are hallmarks of Rebel Love, released in early 2017. Abby Jean wrote and arranged the songs as a thematic progression addressing themes of love, trauma, death and resilience. Her older sister and only sibling, with whom she had been close, died in 2016. She wistfully points out her sister’s paintings, among the abundant art hanging on her living-room walls.
“I’m not ignorant of the challenges” facing musicians, says Abby Jeanne.
But she remains enthusiastic about her ability to thrive doing what she loves. “I’m a really eager person and I’ve always been passionate. Luckily that’s worked out, for the most part. ”
Dan Backhaus, a New York-based manager who originally reached out to her, is helping her navigate the music profession, including performing beyond the Milwaukee area.
She also credits her success to supportive hometown friends, her mother — a teacher and lifelong arts advocate — and the “lifelong friends” met on her many travels.
The plan is straightforward: Keep overhead low so she can keep recording and performing. Abby Jeanne is proud to have created a permanent home base here recently, after purchasing and renovating a foreclosed duplex. She cherishes her neighborhood near Sheridan Park and being able to walk to Lake Michigan. “It’s just the most magical place ever,” she says. She is comfortable traveling, a big plus for a musician. She has spent time as an itinerant musician in a “home-on-wheels” minivan, and has lived in Europe.
Striving to connect with people through music is Abby Jeanne’s overriding goal. She wants to be as honest as possible and transform her experiences through her art. In Rebel Love’s last song, “Aged Young,” she sings about societal strife and getting her first gray hair in 2016: “They’re hiding in their lies” and “no they don’t see us,” ending with “But our dreams will still survive as long as we are wise.”
Company Brewing concerts: Abby Jeanne recommends buying advance tickets online for these shows each Monday in February, starting at 7:30 p.m., since her local shows tend to sell out. Tickets are $10.
Tickets for Guthrie Uncovered available through the Pabst Theater Group or at the door Feb. 9. Tickets cost $22.50.