First Creative Dollar Interview: Musician Jeni Grouws

Jeni Grouws is a member of Avey Grouws Band, a roots-rock/blues band out of Iowa. Avey Grouws Band released their debut album, “The Devil May Care” in March of 2020 to critical acclaim, hitting #10 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart, taking top blues chart spots in the UK, Netherlands and Australia, winning top honors in the Unsigned Only International Songwriting Competition and garnering them a nomination for Best Artist Debut Album in the BBMAs.

This has been especially rewarding for Jeni, as she left her 16-year career in broadcasting in September of 2019 to pursue her long-held dream of making music. Jeni lives in Decorah, Iowa with her husband, David, and their three kind, curious and quirky teenage daughters.

You can find Avey Grouws Band at aveygrouwsband.com, on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, where the band goes live every Friday and Sunday during this pandemic.

Can you share the story of the first time you made money related to your current creative endeavor? Do you mind sharing how much you made?

Gosh, my honest answer is that I don’t actually remember the first time I got paid to sing. That may be because I did it so often for free that my memory has blurred, or perhaps it’s that for years I didn’t see music as a real, financially stable career, so I didn’t think of it in terms of money. I sang for years in school, in church, in Up With People, including working for them as a vocal coach, but it certainly wasn’t enough to make a living. Or at least I didn’t believe it was at  the time. Honestly, I am pretty certain that my upbringing made me feel it wasn’t a very responsible career. Fun, yes! Responsible, no. So I’ve always done it on the side… adjacent to the “real job”. 

Living in Los Angeles, I worked in films, spending the bulk of my time in Beverly Hills working for Starz! Pictures Original Movies. But I still sang backup for my friend Joey Deluxe at the Cinema Bar on Wednesday nights. When we moved to Decorah in 2003, I joined a choir. Then I created a few small gigs that later became my first band, Absolute Hoot, a local, mostly cover band. I also joined a group of women in a group called Done Doing Laundry. These fed my need for music, while still allowing me to keep my position as the breadwinner for the family. 

But in 2015 I was on a work trip to the Quad Cities and decided to check out the blues jam at the bar across the street. That is where I would meet my current band members, Chris Avey and Bryan West, who were running the jam. It really was something special when we played together. They live 3 hours away from where I live, so the idea of starting a band with them was pretty out there. But I knew there was something special, and I pursued it. I bugged poor Chris Avey for months to just do two shows in one weekend with me to see if we might be ok as a duo. He finally caved and got us exactly two shows. If I recall, I got paid $75 for one 3 hour show and I was given $100 for the Saturday show. Plus some free drinks, a dinner at the first location and some tips. Of course, my hotel was $50/night! I knew that weekend wasn’t about making money. It was about making someone see that we could form a truly incredible band together. And it worked!

What happened internally when you realized you could make money from your creativity? Were you inspired or were you concerned about what it would do to the originality of your ideas?

I’ve never been a very good starving artist, ready to suffer for my art. Music has always been my source of joy and passion and satisfaction. I didn’t worry about getting paid, I just wanted to perform and make music. But again, I had a day job, so it was easy to do things for cheap or free. It wasn’t until I made the decision to give up the salaried, consistent job in radio to pursue music that I realized how vital it was to get paid as much as I could for the art/expression/experience I put out into the world. 

It’s taken me 4 decades of living to realize that what I can do is special. It’s not something I should be ashamed of or try and play down. This is what I do well and what I likely should’ve been doing for years. But my experience managing radio stations did teach me how to be a better businesswoman and about how to make a deal. What I do as a musician has value, so I don’t feel bad asking someone to pay for that time, talent and expertise, and I know how to negotiate to get the best deal possible. 

But in no way does it affect HOW I make music. Do I question whether a song belongs on an album based on what I think will sell? Of course I do. If I have to put my own money into producing the album, then I want to be sure I’m getting that money back while still being able to pay myself and my band. Getting paid doesn’t INSPIRE me to create, but I certainly am not hindered by getting paid for what I create.

The Avey/Grouws Band performing Feb. 15, 2020, at the Winter Blues Fest in Des Moines, Iowa.

Did you ever decide to pursue the creative activity full-time? Why or why not? Are there times when you feel pulled between traditional success and creative ideas that just won’t leave you alone? 

I feel I tossed these two questions into my conversation above. But I will add that I’ve always felt the need as the firstborn daughter to be the responsible one. When I got married and we had kids, my husband stayed home with our daughters, both in Los Angeles and also in Decorah, because I was the breadwinner and I needed to keep that steady income. 

But I also know that I am, by nature, a worker. I like working. I enjoy being busy and finding success in completing projects and brainstorming ideas for new projects. So I always enjoyed my spot in my family. But the more I worked, the more music took a backseat. And with work and young kids and the loss of my passion, I ended up in a very dark place that required professional help. While in therapy, my doctor noticed I brought up wishing I could write music. So one day, he wrote me a prescription… to write a song. 

He knew that I was very tied up in what others would think of my song, or worse, of me for thinking I could write a song. Mostly, I was afraid I would fail. And years later I think that is truly why I never pursued music until now. I spent 20 years being afraid I would fail. His prescription is what prompted me to write and record my first EP “Scenic Route” I believe around 2007. It’s not anything like what I write now, but I know my heart during that time and how proud I was for finally letting the fear of failure go and just write. That was the first step toward finally making music a full time career.

Do you have any advice for people making money or wanting to earn money with their passion?

I spent 20 years telling myself what I really wanted to do wasn’t responsible. But I forgot that people across the globe were making money doing what I thought wasn’t responsible. Sure, music is not as stable as getting a secure office job. But as a musician, in many ways, I’m no different than a restaurant or bookstore owner. They take on risk opening their locations. No one is guaranteeing them success. But they analyze their finances, they look at the market and use their passion and talent to make a go of it. As creatives, we can, and should, do the same thing. 

Yes, we can write and be creative without having to worry about getting paid and doing it for the art of it. But if we want to make a living of it, we must also understand the business of it! Research, learn, have a plan. If a restauranteur were to open a new place without a plan, chaos would ensue! And if they didn’t first examine the quality of the chef before opening their doors, they could be in terrible trouble. If we want this to be our job, we have to find time to analyze ourselves and our business as well so that our creations can find the best success possible. Oh and get a good accountant.  

What role (if any) has art and music played in your life?  Can you tell us some favorite bands?

My dad was a disc jockey when country music was a very grassroots endeavor. Willie, Waylon, Dolly, I got to meet more of them than I can count! Music was our weekends with live shows, and our every day, while listening to my dad’s station. My parents still own radio stations together, so this passion for radio bringing music and information to the masses has always been a part of our lives. 

But it was also very personal. Mom always sang with us and played the piano. She has never liked how she sounds, but just the making of the music was so much a part of my upbringing. My parent’s album collection included Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Billy Joel, ELO, Bob Marley, Prince, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Waylon Jennings and musicals like Annie, Cats and Evita. It was wide and varied and really showed us that diversity of music was a beautiful thing. 

But my most favorite has always been Dolly Parton. This may seem odd if you know that I write blues and roots rock. But Dolly tells a story. And she makes you listen. She captured me over and over with her words, but also with her hooks. And, as I got older, I loved how unapologetic she was about who she was, what she did, and how she did it. I met her on a few occasions as a child and I can tell you, she made you feel special. That’s a truly special thing in any field. 

DISCLAIMER: AS ALWAYS, IF YOU NEED PSYCHOLOGICAL OR FINANCIAL ADVICE PLEASE SEEK A PROFESSIONAL FOR YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION.