MusicMusic Features

Alexa Jenson Builds on Nascent Career with Rock Project

From solo acts at The Evening Muse to out-of-state shows with a backing band

local artist Alexa Jenson playing at Petra's
Alexa Jenson performs with her new backing band. (Photo by Braydon Curry)

A swell of gospel organ breaks against a crag of jangly guitars, just as Alexa Jenson’s gale-force vocals wheel in like a storm front.

I know you think I’m a mystery tonight/ But tomorrow you’ll be gone / At the slightest peek of daylight…

Jenson’s 2018 single “Daylight” cradles your emotions and commands your attention. Amid a danceable pop melody, a rocking groove and boldly vulnerable lyrics, Jenson’s supple voice ranges from powerful declaration to free-falling alt-country lilt.

I can let you go leave you on the shelf/ No you won’t fuck with my mental health/ You’re only doing this to yourself…

Despite its origins in a teenage romance that crashed and burned, “Daylight” isn’t a heartbreak song, Jenson insists.

“It’s kind of a ‘Fuck you’ song,” the 24-year-old singer-songwriter says. “I would like to feel that way all the time, justified in my feelings, and not caring what someone else has done to me … It’s not always that way, so I write in a wishful way. It’s the way I want to feel.”

Jenson performs her vulnerable yet empowering songs on April 4 at Petra’s. Though she launched her career at age 16 as a solo performer, the vocalist and guitarist will be joined onstage by drummer Matt Conte and bassist/synth player Josh Rosales.

Jenson, who has not dropped new music since 2018, says the set will contain some new songs including a “fun and energetic” tune entitled “Just You Wait,” scheduled to be released as a single in May.

“It’s one we’ve been playing for several years as a band,” Jenson says “It’s my teenage late ’90s/early 2000s indie pop band dream. It’s my favorite.”

Navigating teen angst through song

“High school is objectively hell,” Jenson says.

She’s not talking about any unending torment she experienced attending Cox Mill High School in Concord. Instead, Jenson’s high school hell was more like an endless waiting room, an antechamber that didn’t seem to connect to adulthood.

“I had a bad attitude about it,” Jenson remembers. “I was like, ‘I’m too cool for school. I don’t need to be here. This isn’t real life.’”

She also didn’t resonate with what teachers and students deemed important.

“Once kids in high school got their cars, they were touring colleges, applying [to universities] and getting ready for the SATs,” Jenson says. “I got my license, and I was driving to open mics in the city every night.”

Jenson playing guitar at a show
Alexa Jenson performs. (Photo by Oblivious Media)

She recalls staying out until 2 a.m. at the Evening Muse’s Find Your Muse open mic then driving to school at 7 a.m. the next day.

High school was also where Jenson started pursuing songwriting in earnest. She had dabbled with writing songs at age 12, but when her virtual music production class required an original song as an assignment, she recorded her debut single “Fool in Love” on her iPhone and put a rough GarageBand mix of it up on SoundCloud.

Jenson remembers someone stopping her in a Harris Teeter parking lot to compliment her for the song.

In a version remixed by drummer/producer Timmy Fasano, “Fool in Love” is rendered as a gauzy, hazy memory where only Jenson’s vocal seems immediate. She is powerful yet controlled, emotive yet coo; Jenson’s performance feels poised on the cusp between revelation and meltdown, recalling country music’s high priestess of heartbreak and picking yourself back up, Patsy Cline.

In a way, “Fool in Love” acts as a culmination of Jenson’s childhood dreams and ambitions while pointing the way forward to the next stage in her life and career. Jenson was always singing as a child. She fell in love with pop music at age 5 when her mother took her to see a performance of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia. They bought the soundtrack on the way out of the show and Jenson sang the entire score in the minivan on the way home.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is what life sounds like,’”’ Jenson says.

Singing became her creative focus, with the full support from her parents.

“Growing up, becoming a young adult, and just dealing with life, [music] became an incredible outlet for me,” Jenson says.

Jenson first picked up a guitar when she was 12. After a few lessons, she struck out on her own, using the guitar as a tool to facilitate her songwriting.

a portrait of Jenson in front of a white background
Alexa Jenson (Photo by Savannah McAffrey)

“I realized, ‘I can sing. I can write my own thing, and I can put a melody to it and play it on guitar. This is magical,” Jenson says. “I consider myself a lyricist first, a singer second and guitarist last.”   

She participated in talent shows, sang in middle school choir and did some theatre in high school. Along the way, her tastes turned from ABBA to Billy Joel, then again to British pop group The 1975, after exhausting all the musical electives that sparked her interest, Jenson withdrew from school activities and started playing solo at open mics.

In the process, she’s befriended and received immeasurable help from Joe Kuhlman, Don and Laurie Koster, owners of Evening Muse, where Jenson has built up her craft since those long nights at Find Your Muse when she was still in high school. Jenson also gives shout outs to singer-songwriter Dane Page, pianist/tattoo artist Elisa Sanchez, and Dollar Signs’ Erik Button and Dylan Wachman for their friendship, help and inspiration.

Performing with a band

After remixing Jenson’s “Fool in Love,” Fasano convinced her to record and release her five-song self-titled EP in 2018. The disc, produced by Fasano and Brandon Berg, features Jenson on guitar and vocals, Fasano on drums, and Berg on bass, keyboards and backing vocals. The project pairs “Fool in Love” and “Daylight” with three other tunes, the ethereal “Unrequited,” the plaintive yet restless “Mr. Curiosity,” and the deceptively jaunty-sounding country-punk tune “Roses,” which Jenson says was sparked by a nostalgic, bittersweet and brief reunion with an ex-boyfriend.

And in July you moved away/ There was nothing that I could do to make you stay/ It doesn’t help that your parents don’t like me/ So I watched your U-Haul drive away…

Right now, Jenson seems poised for another stage in her career. Although she appreciates the Queen City’s music scene and her place in it, she’s excited by her band’s first out-of-town gig in Richmond, Virginia this spring. She hopes to play more shows outside Charlotte in the coming year.

local musician playing at The Evening Muse
Alexa Jenson performing at The Evening Muse. (Photo by Danny Ruhland)

Jenson says she still plays solo gigs with her acoustic guitar, but prefers to rock out with the band these days.

“I have always loved a classic rock band,” she says. “Being on stage sometimes is so scary. It’s nice to have someone up there with you who knows exactly how you’re feeling.”

How her audience reacts and feels is important to Jenson too.

“The one thing that I love about pop music … is that you can [reveal] your truest emotions, and if you put a nice melody to it and give it a good beat, people will love it, even though they have no idea what it’s about,” Jenson says. “Then, one day someone will listen to the lyrics and [think], ‘Oh wow, that … actually makes me feel less alone.’ I hope that my music makes people feel not alone.”

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