Portland native Jenny Conlee is probably best known as the keyboardist and accordion player with the Decemberists. But recent turns in Portlandia, The Simpsons and performing with her acoustic band Black Prairie have also raised her profile. As it happened, these busy and creative times came along with a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2011.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my sister and I both,” Conlee says. “I went through treatment and missed the entire summer tour I was supposed to do with the Decemberists. That was really hard.”
In spite of it all, Conlee rejoined the Decemberists later that summer — absent her wavy brown hair — and also managed to record a second album with Black Prairie last year. Conlee was grateful to have the recording sessions to focus on.
“I was deep in the chemo world and feeling gross, really awful and my mood was not good. But the music and having that project really helped me realize that I’m still a person,” she remembers. “If you can be productive, it’s really helpful for your soul and spirit.”
As well as for her physical health. Now almost two years since the diagnosis, Conlee’s prognosis is good.
“Right now I’m not in official remission, but I have no evidence of disease. They call it ‘N-E-D.’ And every day I feel better.”
With the experience now behind her, Conlee has had a chance to reflect.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same person that I was, but I think it’s OK. I think I have a new focus on what my life is and how to treat it with respect and take advantage of beautiful days or opportunities and living life more fully.”
Conlee is back on tour with Black Prairie this week with sold-out shows in California. The band makes their network premiere on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on March 19. And you can see them on Oregon Art Beat later this spring.
Update: Black Prairie will be one of the guests on the Live Wire! show on Friday, April 12 at the Alberta Rose Theatre. You can hear the broadcast of Live Wire! on April 27 at 9 p.m. on OPB Radio. Black Prairie will also be profiled on Oregon Art Beat on May 2 at 8 p.m. on OPB TV.
Jenny Conlee with Decemberists photo courtesy of Jason Quigley