The album was acclaimed as a return to form for McCartney, with ‘Jenny Wren’ singled out as one of its highlights. In a New Yorker interview, Elvis Costello said of the song: “That’s just one melody that could stand next to the greatest songs written while Paul was in The Beatles.”
There’s a canyon in Los Angeles where I particularly like to go walking. You have to drive there, so I often go on my own, and the day I wrote this song I found a quiet parking space along the side of the road in a very rural area and, instead of going on a walk, I thought, ‘I’m going to write a song.’
The name Jenny Wren was partly based on the character in Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens’ final completed novel.
It’s always good, when you’re writing something, to write about a world you enjoy. So, the minute I’m talking about Jenny Wren, I’m first recalling fiction, that brave girl from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend whose positive attitude allowed her to overcome her painful deformities, then I’m seeing the bird, but then I’m seeing a person again, and in this story she’s a great singer. The kids may no longer have heard of her, but my parents’ and grandparents’ generations knew of the great Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whom they used to refer to as ‘Jenny Wren’.
In my telling, it turns out that Jenny Wren, her soul having been taken from her, has stopped singing as a form of protest. Then the song becomes a bit reflective about our society – how we screw things up and how we sympathise with the person who protests. She has seen our foolish ways, and the way we cast love aside, the way we lose sight of life – poverty breaking up homes, creating wounded warriors. She has seen who we are, and like everyone else, she’s just looking for that better way.
The song features a duduk solo. The Armenian instrument was played by Venezuelan musician Pedro Eustache, whom McCartney had met during the November 2002 Concert For George at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Having finished ‘Growing Up, Falling Down’, we all went up to the studio’s roof for a lunch break. When we came back in, Paul picked up his acoustic guitar and played ‘Jenny Wren’ for me. After a few minutes I had learned its structure and understood its key. Soon Nigel Godrich told us to record as soon as possible, then he played the basic track and I recorded my solo. Just one take. When I went into the control room to listen to it, I said to Paul, ‘I can’t wait to hear the song with the rest of the instruments, bass, keyboards…’ He told me that it was already complete: he wanted it to sound like two friends playing together in a pub.
Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013), Luca Perasi
‘Jenny Wren’ was recorded at Ocean Way Recording Studios in Los Angeles in October 2004. Eustache’s duduk solo was overdubbed on 25 October.
I’m always very much aware of the power that a beautiful song can have, for I knew that when I heard one – even a song from a little bird – back growing up in Liverpool, it gave me hope and made me happy. I understood how valuable that feeling was to me. But I’m not the guy saying, ‘Look, things aren’t always bad.’ It gives me somewhere to go in a song, and it also gives me somewhere that I’d like to be. This is really like the Charlie Chaplin song ‘Smile’. It’s OSS – Optimistic Song Syndrome.
Songs are so often in conversation with other songs, and this one is obviously in conversation with ‘Blackbird’. I think that when you’re sitting down with an acoustic guitar, there are a few ways you can go. With ‘Blackbird’, it’s a guitar part that you sing against, rather than strumming chords, and I think ‘Jenny Wren’ has the same idea. I think I was probably writing another ‘Blackbird’, and intentionally so. I wouldn’t admit that to anyone if I weren’t working on this book – ‘Catching up on life’ – and all because of Jenny Wren.
‘Jenny Wren’ was released in the United Kingdom on 21 November 2005 as the second single from Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. It peaked at number 22 on the official chart.
A live version of ‘Jenny Wren’, recorded live at Abbey Road, was also released as an exclusive download from McCartney’s official website.
In 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, ‘Jenny Wren’ was nominated for the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance award. It lost out to ‘Waiting On The World To Change’ by John Mayer.