Growing up in Gore, New Zealand’s country music capital, Mitchell’s upbringing was steeped in the genre. Music commonly played in the house where she grew up included The Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks), Johnny Cash, George Strait and Slim Dusty. Her father, Ron Mitchell, is also a singer/songwriter who has released his own country album, and her younger twin sisters, Nicola and Maegan, also sing. Jenny grew up attending the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards, which take place annually in Gore, and has been singing in public since the age of four.
Jenny’s grandparents on her mother’s side emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand. When she was 11, she visited Ireland for the first time. This trip inspired her first song, which was called ‘My Home’. “Even though I was really young, I was really emotional about it, and really sad, and didn’t want to leave,” says Mitchell. “I met all these people who were like me and so I wrote a song about coming home and feeling like I had two homes, one over there and one here.” Mitchell continued writing songs, and by the time she was in her teens, her craft was already considerably developed for someone her age.
Mitchell began to seriously consider a career in music after placing third in 2013’s New Zealand’s Got Talent at the age of 14. Following her success on the show, Mitchell was invited to perform at other public engagements. “I’ve been singing in public all my life but after the responses I got on the TV show I knew I could actually make a career out of it,” she told Stuff.
Audience members wanting to purchase her recordings prompted Mitchell to start work on her debut album. “I started playing all these shows and didn’t have anything to give to people, didn’t have any music recorded. So it sort of came out of an authentic need, I guess, that people were wanting to buy music.”
The resulting album, The Old Oak, was crowdfunded and recorded at Dunedin’s Albany Street Studios. Mitchell had writing credits on all of the album’s tracks, and 11 out of the 12 were entirely self-written. “From the start when I was putting the album together I didn’t want people to say, ‘that’s good for her age,’” Mitchell told Stuff. “I wanted it to be good.”
Released in 2015, when Mitchell was 16, the album debuted at No.1 on the New Zealand Country iTunes charts, and peaked at No.3 on the IMNZ charts.
In 2017, Mitchell began studying towards a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Communications, at Otago University. That same year, she won a number of awards, including Southland Entertainer of the Year and the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards.
MITCHELL’S SECOND ALBUM HAD A DARKER, MORE ALTERNATIVE EDGE THAN HER DEBUT.
The Gold Guitar win was especially significant to Mitchell. “Anybody that knows me knows the Gold Guitar Awards are such a huge part of who I am,” she told Stuff. “I’ve been to the awards every year of my life, grown up idolising winners, and dreamt one day I might be lucky enough to maybe win a Gold Guitar. I don’t really have any words to explain how it felt to hear Megan Martin call my name.”
At the time, Mitchell had already started writing her second album, and over the next few years, began listening to records in search of a producer. She settled on Australian producer Matt Fell. “I listened to so many records while searching for the right producer for this project,” Mitchell told Rhythms Magazine, “and all my favourites had the same name in the production credits: Matt Fell. I’m such a fan of all his work and I’m so glad the universe kept pointing me in his direction.”
Mitchell sent Fell some of her music. He liked it and agreed to produce her second album, Wildfires, which was recorded at Love HZ Studios in Sydney. Like her first, Wildfires was crowdfunded. It was released in 2018, and had a darker, more alternative edge than The Old Oak’s straightforward country. This willingness to incorporate non-country influences into her sound is a result of her growing confidence as an artist. “I grew up with country music and this, by all means, is an alternative country album, but maybe not the typical country sound people are used to,” she told NZ Musician. “On the first album, my country influences were quite prominent, and that was really the sound I was trying to create. Now, the sound I have created is one I used to be scared to express.”
Wildfires was entirely self-written, and Mitchell’s gift for reflective lyrics is evident. The diverse album includes brooding alt-country rock in the title track, a whimsical, fiddle-laden romp about Mitchell’s grandparents emigrating from Ireland in ‘Ends Of The Earth’, an intimate, finger-picked meditation on the lives of travelling musicians in ‘Troubadour’, and an obvious depth of self-reflection in ‘So Far’, the song which won Mitchell awards in 2017. Wildfires won Mitchell the Tui for Recorded Music’s NZ Best Country Music Artist at 2019’s New Zealand Country Music Awards, and made her the first New Zealander to be nominated for Alt Country Album of the Year at the 2020 Australian Golden Guitar Awards.
That same year, Mitchell released a visual EP called The Grainstore Sessions. The EP’s five songs – four originals and a cover of Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’ – were recorded and filmed live at Oamaru’s Grainstore Gallery, and featured Mitchell’s twin sisters, Maegan and Nicola, on backing vocals. Following the release of the EP, Mitchell went on a nationwide tour with her sisters, giving them the first taste of the life of the touring musician.
During the 2020 lockdown, Mitchell began working on new music, the first result of which arrived in 2021, with the soulful female-empowerment anthem ‘Trouble Finds A Girl’, featuring Tami Neilson. Mitchell wrote the song with Neilson, Chris Wethey and Tali Jenkinson (Vallé). The song, which builds to a huge climax featuring Neilson’s signature powerhouse vocals, tackles the heavy topic of sexual harassment of women, particularly in the music industry.
TOURING WITH HER SISTERS, MITCHELL REALISED THEY WERE BEING EXPOSED TO SITUATIONS THAT WEREN’T SAFE.
Mitchell was inspired to write about this topic by her younger sisters joining her on tour, and her realisation that they were being exposed to situations that weren’t safe. “I took them on tour and all of a sudden saw the industry from this whole new perspective. I was like ‘that person is actually making them feel uncomfortable,’” she told Women In Pop. “All of a sudden I realised that as a young woman I’ve been touring on my own for years and years, and have been put in those situations so many times, but it’s so different when you watch someone you know, that you care about, go through that experience. It became really clear to me that lots of spaces actually aren’t safe, and that I wasn’t happy, leaving them in certain places on their own. And that’s where the song came from.”
A music video followed four months later, featuring Mitchell and Neilson singing, surrounded by a whole crowd of people singing along. The song won the 2022 APRA Best Country Music Song Award.
Mitchell released two more singles ahead of her third album. The first of them, ‘Somehow’, incorporated darker, indie-folk and rock influences, with a belted chorus in a similar vein to ‘Trouble Finds A Girl’. The second, ‘Lucy’, was more typical Mitchell: a soft, light, picked acoustic guitar ballad about comparison, which was inspired by studying Lucille Ball while at university.
The full album, entitled Tug Of War, was released in 2022. Mitchell worked with Matt Fell again, but this time, the album was recorded entirely remotely, with players adding their parts from home and sending them in. Mitchell chose players she already knew, such as Monique Clare on cello and Australian country music legend Rod McCormack on banjo. Tug Of War received a four-star review from Rolling Stone. “Tug of War isn’t Mitchell’s first rodeo,” reads the review, written by Jake Challenor. “But it is her best work, worthy of every award it will inevitably collect.”