Wise Jennings is a husband and wife duo from southern Wisconsin. Melissa Weishaar, “Trophy wife”, plays drums, harmonica and sings while Jeff Weishaar writes the music and the majority of the lyrics, plays a unique guitar setup and a custom foot-pedal bass rig that he plays with his feet. “They sound like a Punk, Psycho-billy, Alt-Americana, Outlaw Country burrito if there was such a thing and you could listen to it”.
I got in touch with Melissa and we talked about Wisconsin music scene, how she and Jeff have found a balance between their private and “on stage” life and about the importance of giving a chance to young generations of artists.
Q.: Wise Jennings is a husband-wife duo. The history of music is full of partners, sharing the stage together (Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny & Cher, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall etc.). How and when did you meet? Did you start as “music partners” or as a couple first?
M.W.: Sort of both? We met when I joined a band that Jeff was in. Back in those days, I was just a background singer and mean tambourine player. Jeff was the keyboard player in the band. The rest was history I guess you could say, lol! After a few years we got married and had our first son and pretty gave up music. During that time we put all of our time and energy into raising our little family (we now have 2 boys 13 and 9 years old) and building careers. It wasn’t until our boys were a little older and we had moved back to Wisconsin after many long years in Illinois that we decided to try our hand at music as a duo.
Q.: The title of the first track of your latest album is “History of Music”. What’s the importance of learning the history of music for a musician? M.W.: “The History of Music” was a song born from a conversation with an older man Jeff met who was a big part of the Chicago Blues scene back in the 40’s and 50’s.The guy started out by telling him about his mother who was raised in a small farming community in northern Wisconsin (Suamico) and how she was a great piano player that new of the biggest and baddest polka bands in that area at the time. He told me that back in the day the farmers used to pipe in polka music from radio station WRJQ and that this increased milk production. This is where the line in the song “The history of music from what I know started in a town called Suamico…that’s how the story goes. RJQ fed the farmers a line and the milking machines just hummed in time…quite a paradigm.” Back to the question, yeah…the history of music means everything to everyone and has something to do with everything…you dig? 😉
Q.: Melissa, you started your bio saying the you are not “a trained musician” and you pointed out that this means that “you have not taken a formal lesson in your life”. Looking backwards, do you have any regrets for this? What’s the importance of “learning by doing” or “learning from experience” compared to formal lessons?
M.W.: I don’t regret the way I went about anything, in fact, I am proud that I was able to teach myself to play! The reality of it is I never would have had the time to dedicate to formal lessons and I’m really impatient. I wanted to learn what I NEEDED to be able to do instead of a bunch of technique that I’d never use. As time has gone on I have continued to improve which I credit to the variety of music that we write as well as just how much we perform live. There is nothing like doing something frequently that can make you improve faster. In the past I had tried my hand at learning guitar but I just couldn’t make it stick. It didn’t come naturally to me. The drums on the other hand…it really did come naturally. It’s just a perfect fit for me. Same with harmonica. I play by ear and basically feel what I want to play before it even comes out of the reeds. It’s really an amazing feeling to be able to create a new musical line for a song with such a simple instrument.
Q.: You sing and, in addition, you play two different instruments: drums and harmonica. Which one do you prefer?
M.W.: That’s a really tough question. I really can’t pick or choose a favorite because my favorite thing to do is all of them at the same time. The truth of the matter is that I am actually not comfortable performing in front of people (stage fright). If you ask me to stand up at a microphone and just sing, I totally clam up. For that reason, I think that the drum kit especially, makes me feel secure and comfortable. Almost like I get to hide behind it. While I play harmonica my eyes are always closed and when I’m singing, if my eyes aren’t closed, they’re totally focused on Jeff (which is why we face each other on stage). We did this by design so that we could read off of each other’s cues and to help me reduce anxiety. Over time, it’s become this trademark thing of a Wise Jennings show. People love the chemistry between us and often remark on the secret language we seem to have with each other. We laugh because sometimes it feels like we share a brain but then again, we’ve been married for 15 years, I should hope that we could sort of read each other’s minds by now.
Q.: Wise Jennings genre is quite unique. When asked what genre you belong to, you always reply: “We sound like a Punk, Psycho-billy, Alt-Americana, Outlaw Country burrito if there was such a thing and you could listen to it”. Have you started mixing all these genres since the very beginning or is it something you’ve started experimenting along the way?
M.W.: When we started writing music the style of our songs was all over the map. If you listen to our first EP and then our first full length album there are songs that were totally punk, or Americana, or blues, or Rock and Roll, or Rockabilly. We experienced a lot of success playing live shows and people loved the music but we were striving to create something unique to us. In the past year we have finally found our “thing” and we really don’t know what to call it. We utilize different stylistic elements of different genres to make the “thing.” The burrito analogy seems appropriate.
Q.: As far as your creative process is concerned, who writes the songs and the music? Do you always agree on your choices and, if not, who has the last word at the end?
M.W.: Jeff writes all the music. In the beginning we would start with a musical theme and then one of us would come up with the lyrics either alone or together. Now, Jeff writes the majority of the lyrics as well. It’s not that I can’t or don’t want to, it’s just that he is so darn good at it! I have turned my focus more to the Wise Farm Productions side of things so it’s a good compromise. With that said, there is so much more to our music than just lyrics. Once the song is framed out we both work together to create the melody and harmony lines, I create the drum and harmonica lines and Jeff continues to work on adding more flavor musically. The process is pretty cool and fun at this point. We know how each of us is going to approach certain sections and we make a bunch of stuff up on the fly because we can read each other’s minds. We share a brain…like ESP in a funhouse whilst getting birthday presents.
Q.: When I got in touch with you, I explained that my intent is to create a bridge between Italy and Wisconsin, after being exposed to the incredible music created all over the state by Kyle Hilker, who is also my “partner in crime” in this project. Wise Jennings have a strong reputation in the Milwaukee music scene. How important is it for you to have such an active part in the music community, especially at times like these?
M.W.: Extremely important! It’s the relationships that we have built over the years that keep us afloat.The hardest part of the current situation is that we haven’t been able to see or share the stage with many of our friends in other bands. It’s become so apparent to us that they have all become such an integral part of our well-being.They were/are our social circle…because they get us. When Covid first hit, we went through a period of identity loss. We had so much scheduled for the summer that was all of a sudden taken away. To remedy this, we started to host private events on our property at which we invite some of our best music friends to come and perform for a select group of people. We’ve been doing this about once per month all summer long and it’s kept us sane (or me at least). We need the music in our lives and we also believe in providing opportunities to other artists whenever we can.
Q.: Up to now, you have published three albums. What can you tell about the new album you’re currently working on?
M.W.: The new album is going to be epic and it’s going to be the absolute best representation of who we are as artists to date. We have been performing many of the songs on the new album live for a while now and we can’t wait to make them available to our fans!
Q.: Melissa, you are also the President of your own production company, Wise Farm Productions. It all started with the organization of your first festival, Wise Fest, which have become a yearly event to promote local, original talent. This is exactly what I mean when I think about “a strong sense of belonging and of community”. You also believe in young generations of artists and this is very important. Can you tell something about the artists who have taken part to it so far?
M.W.: As original artists we understand how hard it is to get in front of new audiences and build a following. When we started out this became very apparent very fast. We live in Lake Geneva, WI which is pretty much equidistant between Milwaukee and Madison, WI. You would think, due to the close proximity to the larger metro areas and music scenes, that there would be more variety in our local area. There’s not, so I really wanted to create something that could fill an unmet need here…bring the great performers to this area so that people will get a chance to hear something new and so that the performers can gain some new fans. I like to say that we bring the people more of what they never knew they needed. The artists I choose to showcase at our events are most often people that I have seen perform live that I know can put on a great show. They are working their asses off to get the music out there and they deserve a chance to showcase it. Most importantly, they are good people with great attitudes and are easy to work with. Believe me, there are plenty of great bands out there but some are filled with less than great people. I don’t have time for that.
Q.: Let me tell you…you have an incredible logo on your website. Who got that idea?
M.W.: That was my idea…I saw a picture online and it inspired that artwork. I really wanted our logo to represent us in a fun, but accurate way. This one is representative of us pretty good…a badass couple with some great heads of hair. I think I nailed it, lol!
Find out more about Wise Jennings:
Wise Farm Productions/Wise Fest:
All pictures courtesy of Kyle Hilker/Shatter Imagery
Logo picture courtesy of Wise Jennings (https://www.wisejennings.com/ )