Jennifer Clarke. Photo by L.A. Brown

Jennifer Clarke treasures Martha's Vineyard

By Julian Wise - May 18, 2006

If you saw Jennifer Clarke at one of her recent performances at the Ritz, Outerland, or Offshore Ale, you may have been struck by one of several things. It may have been her songs and her voice, a fusion of bluesy-rock stylings that prompted the Improper Bostonian magazine to dub her "a renaissance woman." Perhaps it was her band, blending local Island musicians Jim Parr, Mike Benjamin, and Geoff Patterson with Boston-based drummer Pete Koeplin (Kahoots, T, Drop Nineteens). And maybe it was her open, easy-going manner, a personality that creates a warm, welcoming environment wherever she plays. Ms. Clarke's musical journeys may have taken her from Virginia to Los Angeles to Nashville, but whenever she plays on Martha's Vineyard, she's home.

"I loved Martha's Vineyard the first day I set foot on the Island," she said in a recent conversation. "I love it even more now. It's a treasure to me."

Ms. Clarke and her husband, comedian Lenny Clarke, purchased a home on the Vineyard in the early 1990s.

"It was the best move I ever did besides marrying my husband," she said. "The people on the Island reminded me of the community I grew up with in Virginia. I was in heaven."

Ms. Clarke was raised on a farm in Delaplane, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On her 12th birthday she received a stack of Django Reinhart records. Before long she got an acoustic guitar and learned to play. Through listening to and playing along with recordings, she soaked up the influences of Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers and Bonnie Raitt. At age 16 she was sneaking into Cambridge clubs to perform at amateur nights, often getting booted out for being underage. After a sojourn in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, she settled on Martha's Vineyard. Ms. Clarke recorded her debut album, "Time Flies," on the Island in 2003. Tracks like "More than I Have," "To the Sea," and "Pick a Story" received critical acclaim for their articulate and lyrical narratives. Ms. Clarke has recently been in Nashville recording a second album of original music.

Through her recording and live band projects, Ms. Clarke has worked with many local musicians, including Judd Fuller, Mike Benjamin, and Jeremy Berlin. She has high praise for the caliber of local artists.

"You don't have to go further than down the street to find someone who's phenomenally talented," she said. "I feel lucky to be a part of it and have these people willing to be part of my project. I've been all through Nashville and I'd rather have Mike Benjamin sing backup vocals for me than anyone down there. There's not anybody I'd rather have produce a record for me than Judd Fuller."

Amidst the hustle of completing the new album, Ms. Clarke said she hopes to continue performing on Island throughout the summer. On Memorial Day weekend, Sunday, May 28, she will play at a comedy evening at Outerland hosted by her husband.

"I'm totally hooked," she said. "As long as I can keep everybody in the band going, I'll do it. I'm hopeful we'll be able to play a lot of gigs this summer."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.