Jenny Bienemann

May 2024 View more

By Jeff Banowetz

This singer-songwriter has a unique source of creative inspiration

Jenny Bienemann
Haiku Milieu hosted by Jenny Bienemann will take stage 8 p.m. May 10 at The Venue in Aurora. Tickets are $15–$20

Writing a haiku
Like Jenny Bienemann does
Can lead to great things

At least that’s proven true for the singersongwriter who grew up in Naperville, graduated from Naperville Central High School, and now lives in Oak Park. Bienemann started penning the three-line poems (containing five, seven, and five syllables) to stay inspired between crafting songs. “Writing a song can be difficult and time-consuming,” she says. “Every day, I could do something creative by writing a haiku.”

That writing evolved into daily social media posts, which led to three books combining the haikus with her photography. She created the Haiku Milieu newsletter and then the Haiku Milieu concert series, in which other singers and songwriters use her haikus to inspire their own music. Bienemann has brought together more than 125 artists from 15 states through these concerts since 2019. She serves as host, and each musician chooses one of her haikus as inspiration for a new song they write for the show. Her next event is May 10 at The Venue in Aurora. She’s held two to three concerts every year since 2019, usually somewhere in the Chicago area. “We have such a strong songwriting community here,” she says. She’s gotten to know that community well over her two decades of performing. She has released six albums and has written music for television, film, and theater, describing herself as an acoustic singer-songwriter usually categorized as a folk musician. “The way I play, I’m sometimes compared to Joni Mitchell,” she says. “But I think that’s as much for having long blonde hair as anything else. Nobody’s Joni Mitchell.”

Q: Why haikus?

A: By day, I’m a mild-mannered development professional for nonprofit organizations. In the evening, I’m a singer-songwriter and poet. One day I was writing a thank-you letter to a very generous donor. I enumerated everything that they’ve done, and I noticed that the more I enumerated the gifts they’ve given us, the less grateful the letter felt. It felt more and more an obligation. So, I started taking away those words and arrived at a thank you letter that was just full of gratitude. And I realized I would benefit from doing that exercise in my songwriting and poetry. I began to look at haiku—and I was amazed at how it got me to feel what I felt in three lines and 17 syllables.

Songwriting is a process of being open and waiting. When you have a family and work, it can be hard to find the time to stay open. But I didn’t want to stop being creative. So I said, “I bet if I look around, I will see something that inspires me.” I began writing haiku as a daily practice to stay creative. Now, the big joke is that you can spend as much time writing one perfect haiku as you can writing a song, so I don’t know if I saved any time. But I opened up a new world of expression and then invited my friends into the fold.

Q: Is it hard to find Haiku Milieu collaborators?

A: For songwriters, there are so many opportunities early in your career. There are open mics, classes, and jam circles. But once you’ve been around for a while, it’s harder to find a place where you can take a creative risk. You’re actually incentivized not to take a creative risk because all the places you’re hired to play want the songs that got us the booking. They want to hear our hits. I wanted a place for artists to come together and create a fun party that can bring new songs into the world. It’s an opportunity to play a new song for people who want to hear it. That’s a big deal.

Q: What’s cool about haikus?

A: The accessibility is huge. I had the specific goal of being able to do it every day. It looks very easy from the outside, but anyone who’s tried to write one understands that it’s like pulling marrow from your bones to get it right. I think it’s deceptive. But I love that about it. It tricks us into thinking it’ll be easy.


Photo: David Kindler