State College singer heads to Nashville

Olivia Jones sings with the J.R. Mangan Band on Allen Street during Summer’s Best Music Fest in 2014. Jones plans to move to Nashville to pursue her singing career.
Olivia Jones sings with the J.R. Mangan Band on Allen Street during Summer’s Best Music Fest in 2014. Jones plans to move to Nashville to pursue her singing career. Centre Daily Times, file

Nashville is known throughout the music industry as a kind of mecca. It’s “a kind of mecca” because there are a few other musical meccas in America, but it’s mecca-esque nonetheless, and musicians are drawn to its history, to its warmth and to its unabashed commitment to balancing the essence and grit of roots music with the glamour of commercialism.

In recent years, a few Centre County musicians and aficionados have moved to and/or traveled to Nashville, following the siren sounds of music city. Terry Rickards moved there following his passion for musical history and story telling; Jason Tutwiler goes there from time to time with Jason MacIntyre to play gigs; and Sgt. Bob Timney went down a few years ago to record an album with some Nashville studio musicians.

However, while Centre County clearly digs Nashville, it’s been awhile since one of our own moved there to see about making it in the music business. State College native Olivia Jones hopes to do just that. She plans to leave in late April.

“People were saying, ‘Wow, that’s really brave of you to go into the music industry,’ ” Jones said. “And for a long time I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m brave.’ For a long time I’ve taken this on. This challenge ... this stepping outside of my comfort zone, and then I realized somehow singing has become my comfort zone. So, I’m really not stepping outside of it.”

Comfort zone or not, Jones has some things lined up in Nashville with music producer Mac Gayden, a long-time Nashville insider who met Jones and fell in love with her singing when she did an internship in Nashville this past fall.

“Olivia has that almost indescribable quality that many of the successful artists I’ve worked with over the years have,” Gayden said. “It’s almost transcendent. It’s hard for me to tell you how taken back I was with her level of skill, soul and naturalness. Olivia has her own sound. There’s friendliness and soulfulness in her voice, a common thread that makes you want to get to know her. That’s her ‘secret sauce.’ ”

To hear Jones sing is an experience in and of itself. Just the other night I was able to catch some of her set at Happy Valley Brewery — a set she shared with her mom, Liz Grove, and the always-on, multi-instrumentalist Steve Christensen — and Jones’ voice simply melted the room, most notably on a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song that is notoriously challenging to arrange and perform.

“I think the thing I like best about her voice is it has many colors,” Grove said. “It’s just appealing to the ear. When I hear her sing, it feels very genuine ... and I feel the happiness and joy that she feels when she sings.”

Singing has always been a joyful experience for Jones, but not necessarily performing. But she never let her initial aversion to performing stop her from doing what she loved so much.

“Singing never really wavered,” Jones said. “It was just more of a secrecy. Instead of stopping it, I just stopped doing it around people, except for my closest friends. I just didn’t think I was ... I didn’t think I was good.”

It wasn’t until Grove started a band that Jones began to blossom into the performer who today is wowing audiences at places like Café 210 West, where she performs regularly with the J.R. Mangan Band.

“My mom joined a band and it kind of gave me a platform,” Jones said. “Again, I always felt more comfortable around her and her musician friends and thought, ‘oh, they’re not going to judge me,’ rather than around my peers.”

After that platform, Jones began to ascend and soar as a performer. It has led to this next step in her journey toward her dream of singing, performing, giving each performance everything she has, so as to reach her full expression as a musical artist.

“There’s no better feeling than locking into a groove — locking into something with the people around you, and looking over and feeling it,” Jones said. “It’s this energy that’s vibrating on the stage, and everybody feels it. There’s just this feeling that’s like, ‘OK, we’re all locked in.’ The only way I can explain it is the air around you has shifted.”

Of course, along with her deeply embedded philosophical musings, Jones still manages to maintain an interest in something a little more simple, a little more raw and a little less heady.

“I like to scream,” Jones said. “I love rock ’n’ roll. It’s so cathartic. I want to meet some musicians who I have a real soul connection with and I want to play rock ’n’ roll. I want to rock out. That’s what I really want to do.”

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.