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Amy & Jennie: in Harmony & on Time
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on January 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
One of the things audiences and critics enjoy most
about the recordings and live shows of Amy and Jennie are their vocal
harmonies. This is where Amy’s ethereal style and Jennie’s earthy
vocals meet in an unusual and exciting blend. But the amazing thing
about this often-heard duo from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is how
well they harmonize offstage. They’ve been working together since
1991. And the level of cooperation and friendship in their musical
partnership would make some married couples envious.
"We hardly have any conflicts," explains Jennie Avila, 43,
of Lumberville, Pennsylvania, over lunch in Lambertville recently.
Unable to join us was her singing partner, Amy Torchia, 32, of Point
Pleasant, Pennsylvania, kept away by her pregnancy. Torchia and her
husband are expecting their first child in April.
"We definitely fill in each other’s blanks," says Avila,
a bit slower and mellower than Amy. I’m always five minutes late and
she’s always five minutes early. But we’re always to our gigs on
Amy Torchia and Jennie Avila have recorded three independently
independently released albums: "Change Is" (1993), "Live
At Godfrey Daniels" (1994), and "Life Becomes Her" (1996).
The strength of the duo’s lyric writing, as well as the soaring,
harmonies that can be heard on their records, has earned them bookings
from the prestigious Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville,
to a balloon festival in Burlington, Vermont, to coffee houses in
North Carolina, to a public radio show in Nebraska.
The pair realized they had something special when they got a standing
ovation at their first gig, a benefit show at Pebble Hill Church in
Doylestown. "Amy asked me to join her, so in two days we threw
together a set. We’d both been in duos before and we knew what to
do. But after that first show, we were hooked," Avila explains.
Avila’s background at that point included playing percussion and
with duos and trios, but not playing guitar. "I was very nervous
about playing guitar at first. I had no problem singing in front of
people, but I was very nervous about playing guitar. But it was great,
that first year we worked together, Amy would play all my songs with
me, so that way, if I got lost, I could just stop playing."
"Of course, sometimes your mistakes are your most wonderful
of genius. On our first gig, we were playing `Long Black Veil’ and
I got lost at the end and just kept singing. She stopped playing
one measure after me, and we both kept singing. We ended up with this
really powerful, a cappella ending to the song, and it just wowed
everybody," she recalls.
Avila counts among her musical and songwriting
musicians such as Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, while Torchia took
her inspiration as a teenager from Neil Young and a lot of traditional
folk music. Avila’s mother had the opportunity to become a classical
pianist, but became a nurse instead, and her father, an insurance
salesman, used to sing in choirs. Avila is divorced, and the mother
of a 23-year-old son.
"I don’t have a 1950s kind of family," says Torchia, who was
raised by her mother in various Maryland towns and cities. Her parents
divorced when she was three, yet she says its was her uncles who
in her a deep love of traditional folk and bluegrass music. She began
singing as a child, and first performed as a teenager in West Virginia
bars. Torchia’s father owns his own business in Illinois and her
works as a nurse.
Even in planning the recording of their albums and their live shows,
Amy and Jennie practice a "separate but equal" rule: any of
their albums shows an equal number of songs written by Avila and
"Even at gigs we split songs evenly in performance," says
Avila, "we realize if we have 45 minutes, that’s nine songs. If
we’re doing three covers, we’ll do three of my tunes and three of
Although their harmonies are an important part of what most folk fans
talk about, Amy and Jennie also bring a strong sense of social
to their job as contemporary singer-songwriters. Torchia works as
children’s coordinator of A Woman’s Place, a Bucks County shelter
for battered women. Avila works as a printing and graphics specialist
at Albion Printers in Stockton, but also worked in the 1960s with
Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union in Southern
Today the duo’s resume features a long list of benefit concerts:
Relief, the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action, Peace Weavers,
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Lambertville’s
program, the Delaware Valley Holiday Fund, and dozens of other low
or no-pay shows.
Torchia, reached later by telephone, explains that many of the songs
the pair have written are autobiographical. On "Life Becomes
their latest album, "Billy and Sara" is about Torchia’s
"The Coat" is about domestic violence and the kids she works
with at the shelter; Jennie sings about a memorial service for a high
school friend on "How Rich The Life," and about leading her
four younger brothers across the frozen Susquehanna River as a kid,
without her parents’ knowledge. Torchia’s "Life Becomes Her"
is about her experience of turning 30, and her "Three Legged
is about all the development construction she sees in Bucks County,
"about the fact that she’s getting squeezed out of the area, and
so am I."
Asked how her day job at a battered women’s shelter affects her
outlook, Torchia admits that it was a heavy trip, when, armed with
her degree in social work from San Jose State University, she began
working at the women’s shelter at the tender age of 21. "I found
that I didn’t write a whole lot about my job, not until the last three
or four years."
Domestic violence is a serious problem in this country, she adds,
"and I had to learn there’s just an awful lot of crap out there,
which is a sad thing to learn but also a good thing to learn. The
good thing about my job is as coordinator of the children’s program
I get to play with kids a lot. That’s where the hope is in this whole
problem — teaching them that this is not an okay way to
Great lyrics, good guitar and percussion, great harmonies, and even
bird calls that Avila provides in concert: for all these reasons,
Amy and Jennie have touched the hearts of folk audiences as far away
as North Carolina and Nebraska. But getting out to play these
venues is no easy feat when you’re selling records from the stage
and out of the trunk of your car. For Amy and Jennie, there is no
huge record company marketing behind them, and there’s zero
They maintain their own mailing list. They sell records and market
their show with a word-of-mouth, grass-roots approach.
"The thing that’s frustrating and wonderful about folk music at
the same time," Avila explains, "is that it can be very
to make money. However, because it’s difficult to make money, the
music very rarely is usurped by rampant commercialism. There’s not
a lot of selling out that happens, there’s not a lot of corporate
takeovers or huge record companies telling us what we can and cannot
"Whenever big money gets involved, everything starts to get
— Richard J. Skelly
Amy & Jennie, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace Norton
Rogers School Theater, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. With Wendy Beckerman
and Louise Taylor. Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m.
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