Folk-rock duo Free Thought is on a mission. “Our job, we believe, is to open people’s eyes through music to the fleeting world around them,” states lead singer and songwriter Jen Vanderlyn. “It’s a world all too often taken for granted.” It’s a world embodied in Free Thought’s debut CD, In Her Eyes.
Jen and Kate Vanderlyn have been making music together since they were kids, but they’ve only been Free Thought for about five years. “Blues Matters journalist Carol Borrington helped us come up with our name,” Jen remembers, “But as we’ve performed under it, we’ve realized that thinking free is a predominant theme in the songs of our influences, in the lyrics of America’s ‘Cornwall Blank’ and the poem intro to the Moody Blues’ ‘Lovely to See You.’”
Their dad was a WONY DJ at SUNY Oneonta who played them Electric Light Orchestra instead of lullabies; their mom exposed them to every kind of music, from country to opera. For these two sisters from Morris, Connecticut, music seemed the inevitable destiny.
At very young ages, they were singing together in talent shows and at church. Bassist Kate taught herself piano, using the baby grand at church, when she was two. “I’ve always felt I’ve had a natural talent for making music,” Kate says, “I don’t think I really chose to go into music, it’s just what I was meant to do.”
Jen picked up the guitar at 11, first teaching herself songs like “Sweet Baby James,” and began to write songs, very experimentally, just to see what she could do. “I was 12 or so when I wrote what I like to call ‘The 1960s’ Pop Song,’” Jen reflects with a smile. “I had started writing poetry just prior to that and thought of songwriting as another creative outlet for my thoughts – and it blossomed from there.”
After recording her first song as part of an elementary school project, Jen began to study songwriting by exploring the music on her dad’s LPs, listening to and emulating writers like Donovan, James Taylor, and 10cc’s Graham Gouldman.
“It’s something I do to this day – listening to the structure and lyric of music. Most recently, I’ve found myself enthralled with the Bee Gee’s early songs, Marmalade, and Bruce Springsteen.” Jen says as she flips through her CDs. “And yes, I still buy CDs. There’s something about an album’s arrangement of songs, combined with the cover art and liner notes, that I find incredibly artistic.”
“Actually, In Her Eyes is very much like those albums that we grew up listening to, from the way we’ve arranged the songs to the themes of manmade impermanence and transience in nature we’ve incorporated into the cover art.” Kate comments. “It’s a journey, a musical photo series that begins in a dream and ends up in reality.”
In her latter years of high school, Jen found herself studying voice and guitar at the Hartford Performing Arts Center. There, she learned the various techniques that have shaped her resonant, crystalline voice and a solid, rhythm guitar style that blends jazz and blues chords into the basic folk song structure. She began performing solo in coffee houses around Connecticut as she built up her repertoire of original songs. Kate joined her soon after, adding striking harmonies to the melody.
Jen and Kate formally became Free Thought in 2005, touring coffee houses and town greens in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. More recently, they have played at charity and community events including the Litchfield, Connecticut Road Race and Relay for Life. Their venues even include assisted living homes. “We’ve run the gamut of venues,” Jen says, “But we love it. Charity shows are the most rewarding because you feel such a part of the cause.”
Kate taught herself to play bass in 2006, adding a rock dimension to the duo’s predominantly folk sound. “I’ve always liked bass, I was inspired by the Moody Blues’ bassist John Lodge, but also by the slap bass theme song of Seinfeld.” Kate muses. “I was sold when I saw Rhino, Status Quo’s bassist, play at a festival in England. Besides, piano doesn’t travel as easily.”
While Jen finds herself inspired by everything, particularly the “universality and timelessness of humanity,” Kate says her main musical inspiration stems from events rather than people. “Things like staying up all night, hearing the warmth of a train whistle in the cold morning air as the street lights turn off, for example,” she says.
As a part-time photographer and free-verse poet in addition to her musical duties in Free Thought, Kate has just launched Ephemeros Photography, an entrepreneurial venture where she sells her own photo prints and offers her photo services for portrait sessions.
Jen, on the other hand, sticks to writing and music. “Before we recorded In Her Eyes, I wanted to get to know the songs better, so I wrote character sketches for each song’s speaker, who they are and why they’re singing their particular song. I try not to put myself into any of the songs as the songs’ speaker, I feel the songs should speak for themselves.”
Free Thought’s debut album contains songs ranging from the jazzy “Storm Song” to the heartfelt and tender “You Can’t Close Your Eyes to My Love.” “Brave and Handsome Soldier” comments upon two themes Jen considers timeless, love and war, while title track “In Her Eyes” and “The Pony” are social observations of the world and humanity.
Since Free Thought’s formation, Jen and Kate have recorded several demos, but In Her Eyes is their first full-length release, recorded at BackRoom Studios in Roxbury, Connecticut. It’s also their first album to embody their now formally written mission statement.
“We strive, through our music, to encourage in our listeners simple appreciation of life’s natural beauty while inspiring them to actively observe, interpret, and express what they see, in whatever medium speaks to them.” Kate states, reflecting on the band’s mission statement.