You might call it Americana, but if you ask Thorp Jenson, his new single, “Carry Me Home,” is nothing more than good old rock n’ roll.
What do you call a ginger in a Canadian tuxedo with a mustache and a guitar? If you’re having this encounter in Richmond, you call him Thorp Jenson, and he has new music on the way. The local sideman-turned-frontman garnered national attention as an Americana artist with his debut album Odessa back in the fall of 2017. His new single, “Carry Me Home,” is his first release since then.
Odessa was well-received thanks to its cohesive heartland rock sound, inspired by Tom Petty as well as The Rolling Stones of the early 70’s, when they were hanging out with Gram Parsons and experimenting with a country music influence. Rolling Stone featured Jenson in September 2017 as one of 10 new country artists to know about, and Yahoo! Music published a glowing review of his dreamy, folksy cover of Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” His romantic take on the 80’s hit blends seamlessly with the original tracks on Odessa, most of which show off Jenson’s songwriting chops as a storyteller from the respective schools of Bruce Springsteen and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
“Carry Me Home” tells the story of two characters that have just met but instantly feel like they can be vulnerable with one another. The idea was derived from a recent experience Jenson had in which he reconnected with an old friend. “This person wasn’t a close friend before and I hadn’t seen them in awhile, but we had one of those nights where I just felt so at ease with them,” says Jenson. “It wasn’t romantic, but it inspired me to write from that spark when you meet someone and feel like you’ve known them in three past lives.”
Lyrically, the single falls in line with standard Thorp Jenson fare. But stylistically, expect something you haven’t heard from him before. “It’s acoustic driven but it has a synthesizer in it too, which definitely made the song take a different turn,” says Jenson. “I also ended up using a scratch vocal on it. I could’ve sang it better but there was a vibe to it that just felt good.”
“The synth was a little out of left field,” he says. And in this case, “out of left field” refers to the mind of Jenson’s friend and colleague, local keyboardist Daniel Clarke. “We have a [version] without the synth, and I’d like to release both,” says Jenson. “That’s the long-term plan.”
Jenson graduated from VCU with a fine arts degree in jazz guitar, and quickly established himself in the Richmond music scene. Throughout the 2000s, he played jazz guitar in neo-soul band Beast Wellington, was a founding member of Richmond jam band Mekong Xpress, and also found time to play in a wedding band. Jenson loved being a sideman for all those years. “There’s a zen to it, just being in the back line and having a good old time,” he says. “But I started writing songs again and realized I had to do my thing.”
“Carry Me Home” was recorded by a star-studded cast of friends in the industry that Jenson has made along his way. It features his go-to drummer, Dusty Ray Simmons of Cris Jacobs Band, along with Corey Wells of VILLAGES on slide guitar and Andrew Randazzo of Butcher Brown on bass. The Big Payback’s Suzi Fischer played the saxophone and contributed background vocals, and the keys were laid down by his former bandmate Ben White, of Mekong Xpress.
The single was mixed by Adrian Olsen at Montrose Studio, with Jenson’s input, and mastered by Ed Brooks. But Jenson recorded and produced it himself at the studio he built in Scott’s Addition, which he and his compatriots have dubbed “the clubhouse.” Odessa, the sessions for which began with two and a half days at White Star Sound in Louisa County, was also finished up at the clubhouse.
The DIY aspects of Jenson’s music don’t end there. He created his own label, South Boulevard Records, for releasing his work. He jokes that its smoke and mirrors, since he’s technically an independent musician with no record deal. But when it came time to release Odessa, it just made sense to Jenson to give his operation a title. “They ask you for your label when you’re using a distributor like CD Baby,” says Jenson. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I am a label. I’m my own label.’”
While on the topic of smoke and mirrors, Thorp Jenson is a stage name. It was originally a comedic nickname bestowed upon him by his friend Dusty Simmons when he showed up to a gig with a mustache, having previously always been a beard guy. “At first it was just an inside joke. They’d call me that whenever I had a mustache. But then I started introducing myself as Thorp Jenson on stage,” he says. “Sometimes being the frontman is awkward. The writing is the real me, but it helps to deliver it as a character.”
But the main motivation behind the nom de plume was the realization that his real name, Chris Ryan, is incredibly common. “I did feel a little weird about using a fake name at first, but then I did a SoundCloud search of ‘Chris Ryan’ and there were endless ‘Chris Ryans,’” he says. But there are no other Thorp Jensons, so he couldn’t be easier to find on Google with that moniker. “It’s also just a good way to not take yourself too seriously,” he says. “I think that’s important in this crazy life.”
Despite the fake name and the label that isn’t actually a label, Jenson exudes authenticity. He’s got a contagious, hearty laugh and a youthful charisma like the classic small-town, salt of the Earth guy that he is. Hailing from Chester, Jenson likens his childhood to a John Mellencamp song. Raised by a divorced father who was loving, but on the road a lot since he was a truck driver, he and his brother were often on their own. A close friend affectionately described them as “feral children.”
As a little kid, Jenson had always wanted to be a singer. He carried around a toy karaoke microphone and wanted to be the next Jim Morrison or Axl Rose. He sang in church and often got solos in his middle school choir, but once puberty hit and his voice started to change, he didn’t feel like singing much.
He picked up an acoustic guitar at 14 and learned a few Tom Petty riffs, which made great party tricks. But he wasn’t serious about it until he went to a jam session in Chester and met a peer that could really play. Jenson remembers thinking, “Wait, you’re not a wizard, you’re just a normal guy. I didn’t think that was possible.” After that, he got an electric guitar and started “practicing like a nut.”
Jenson grew up on rock and roll of all kinds. His dad liked classic rock that was a bit off the beaten path — The Band, and Derek and the Dominoes. His stepmom loved The Doors, and a childhood friend introduced him to harder stuff like GWAR and DRI. The first concert Jenson ever attended was a GWAR benefit show when he was in third grade. “They weren’t in costume, so that’s how I got away with going,” he says.
He listened to grunge in middle school when it was all the rage, but really got into Tom Petty. Wildflowers came out when he was in seventh grade, which was a pivotal time in Jenson’s life. “I started smoking pot every day when I was 12,” he says. “I had a weird journey with that.”
While he was in high school, his brother had embraced hippie culture and became a deadhead, which played a role in Jenson’s tastes. He traveled around to see Phish concerts and started listening to Frank Zappa, which shaped him as a guitarist. “I realized what you could do with music,” says Jenson. “It’s a lot more than just songs.”
Despite his zig-zag journey through listening habits, Jenson never got into country music. But he has an affinity for what he describes as “that jambalaya of music that happened here in the south.” He doesn’t think of himself as a country artist, but also doesn’t sweat about what others think. “You can call me whatever you want, if you’re calling me,” he jokes. “The buzzword of the past few years is ‘Americana’, but to me, it’s just rock and roll.”
Jenson has another album in the works, but he’s given himself no deadline and he’s not even sure if the single, “Carry Me Home,” will make it on the album once it comes together. “I was just feeling angsty and needed to create some energy,” he says. “I’d been writing all winter, just going through the motions. I wrote a lot that I probably won’t ever use, but that’s part of the process.”
Jenson says he threw out a lot of songs that he liked when he was assembling Odessa, because they just didn’t fit the aesthetic of the record. “I don’t want everything to sound the same, but I like a record to have some level of cohesiveness, and I like when there’s an arc,” says Jenson. “Bruce Springsteen was a big influence on how I shaped Odessa. I think if you listen to it from front to back, it has an arc.”
One thing he’s planning for the next record is to write more acoustic driven tracks. “I got some offers to tour solo, but I didn’t feel comfortable representing any of the music on Odessa alone,” says Jenson. “I’ve also just recently become more comfortable with an acoustic guitar. I’ve always been an electric player, but I got this acoustic that I’ve fallen in love with, so I’ve been writing on that now.” He has two big ideas for future records, but didn’t want to share them in case they never come out. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, right?
Whether you call it country, Americana, or just plain old rock and roll, Thorp Jenson makes music that’s hard not to like. And if you’ve met the guy, it’d be hard not to like him too. “Carry Me Home” is available for streaming today, so look out for it on Spotify, Apple Music, and Play Music.
Top Photo by Melissa Brugh
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