The Raleigh native shows up for this interview bubbly and upbeat, beaming enough sunshine to make curmudgeons crack a begrudging smile. Jolly has good reason to beam: Her new album, "Angels," was released on Tuesday. And Friday, she's performing at her album release party at Lincoln Theatre.
"The performing thing has always been something I've wanted to do," says Jolly, 33, during sips of French press coffee. From the way she speaks of her musical journey, that's pretty much an understatement. She studied classical music at St. Mary's School, did community theater musicals, sang the national anthem at Carolina Mudcats games, majored in vocal performance at Western Carolina University, even getting her master's degree in classical voice (which she considered "more of a challenge") at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music.
Jolly moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and got a gig touring and performing with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti for a year and a half. After the Botti stint ended, she went through a bad breakup.
As she sat alone in her apartment, she discovered her true musical calling. "I realized what I really wanted to listen to and what most of my records that I already owned were," she says. "I mean, I have classical records, R&B records, hip-hop records. But I mostly had, you know, folk. I had a lot of bluegrass, a lot of country - old country."
She recalls working at a sushi bar and spending all of her tip money one night buying old country records at L.A. record mecca Amoeba Music. "I basically listened for a week in my kitchen and fell back in love with what I listened to," she says.
Even though she knew what she wanted to do as an artist, she had to go back home when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "She passed away five weeks after I arrived," she remembers. "It happened very fast."
After her passing, Jolly concentrated more on studying guitar and working on songs. "It was a gift, I guess, in a dark time."
She began working on her 2010 EP, "Falling in Carolina," with childhood friend The Hot at Nights guitarist Chris Boerner. "He was really supportive in helping me express the music that I was starting to create on my own," she says. "Well, that was a true blessing, obviously, from the start."
Boerner was also a guitarist for the Foreign Exchange, the Triangle's Grammy-nominated R&B collective led by rapper/singer Phonte Coleman and producer/instrumentalist Nicolay Rook. "He had the rough mixes and was in the van with the Foreign Exchange, driving around Texas somewhere, and popped it in," she says. "And it was before I was in the band. And Phonte & Nicolay dug it."
Joining Foreign Exchange
When Coleman and Rook needed another background vocalist to perform with the Exchange on their "Dear Friends: An Evening with the Foreign Exchange" live album, they called on Jolly.
And even though the Exchange is known for their R&B melodies, she was well-versed enough in soul to go with the flow. "A good song is a good song," she says. "Good music is good music. So I'm not really into classifying genres and saying, 'Oh, I'm just gonna be involved in these certain projects.' And I like their music, you know. The energy of their fans is something I've never experienced before. And so after I did it the first time, I needed more, because it was truly a high."
Jolly eventually became a full-fledged member of the Exchange, touring with them and performing on certain members' side projects, such as Coleman's "Charity Starts at Home" album.
Songs on 'Angels'
"Angels" is being released on the band's Foreign Exchange Music label. "Every single song on this record is influenced by an angelic, ethereal existence of some sort," she says of the album, which has her working again with Boerner.
"Angels" certainly has Jolly melding folksy, soulful country with heavenly, heartfelt lyricism. For her debut single "Sweet Love," parts came from a poem she wrote about meeting her mom in the afterlife. "When I finally finished the song," she says, "it was more about someone that I loved very much. Just about love, true love - but more eternal love."
Jolly hopes that the same audience that got to know and appreciate her when she performed with the Exchange will appreciate what she offers up on "Angels." "If the music that we've created inspires anything from someone, takes them away from the craziness of the world for 4 1/2 minutes, then I felt like I've done my part," she says.
And that's Jeanne Jolly for you - making the family name proud in more ways than one.