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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,

"I’m

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

time."

Amy Torchia and Jennie Avila have recorded three independently

produced,

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,

graceful

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

singing

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

strokes

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

guitar

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

influences

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

inculcated

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

mother

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

Torchia.

"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

hers."

Although their harmonies are an important part of what most folk fans

talk about, Amy and Jennie also bring a strong sense of social

conscience

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

California.

Today the duo’s resume features a long list of benefit concerts:

Bosnia

Relief, the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action, Peace Weavers,

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Lambertville’s

Riverkeeper

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

Her,"

their latest album, "Billy and Sara" is about Torchia’s

grandparents;

"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

Doe"

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

lyrical

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

behave."

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

far-flung

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

distribution.

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

difficult

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

sing."

"Whenever big money gets involved, everything starts to get

homogenized,"

she says.

— 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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