The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Jensen Sussman is President of Sweet Talk Publicity, where she has executed prominent national publicity campaigns for many of today’s trendsetting artists, music and lifestyle businesses, and more, fueling Sweet Talk’s growth into one of the most in-demand boutique PR firms since launching in 2008. Sussman’s attention to detail and hands-on approach has contributed to the elevated success of the Sweet Talk Publicity roster, spanning breakout newcomers and multi-Platinum, award-winning artists such as Breland, Gabby Barrett, Florida Georgia Line, LoCash, Dustin Lynch and Trace Adkins.
With over two decades of experience, the Los Angeles native holding a master’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill, served as Associate Director for both Warner Music Nashville and Sony Music Nashville, where she led publicity for major artists including Miranda Lambert, Jessica Simpson, Brett Eldredge, Frankie Ballard and many others. She fostered her record label career with Equity Music Group (Little Big Town), having first worked at Tractenberg & Co. in New York City (Sephora, T. LeClerc, Aesop and The Healing Garden). Recognized by the industry, she’s been spotlighted by Billboard Magazine as one of the Publicity “Gatekeepers” in their annual Nashville Power Players issue; listed as a behind-the-scenes star in Variety’s Music City Impact Report; named one of MusicRow Magazine’s Rising Women on the Row and racked up multi-year nods for Publicist of the Year at the CMA Touring Awards.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I actually grew up in Los Angeles, California. I’m a valley girl. My family moved to Nashville when I was 16, after sophomore year of high school. I was that bitter teenager that got plucked out of their entire life.
What were you into as a kid?
I have been a dancer my whole life, from elementary school all the way through college. My degree is actually in dance. I’ve always loved music because it was always a part of training.
Where did you go to college?
Skidmore in upstate New York. My dream was to move to New York and audition for a company. I wanted to tour the world and then teach dance. When I did move to New York City, I taught for Garden State Ballet in Newark and Morristown. My minor was actually in biology and I was pre-med, so my life plan was to move to New York, live my dance dream and then when I was done dancing, I wanted to be a doctor. I’m very far from a doctor now. [Laughs]
How did you start your career?
I actually graduated college in three years because I was that person that took a bunch of AP classes and summer dance programs. I just wanted to live my life. I was doing the whole starving artist thing, which means I was working a bazillion different jobs. I worked at Urban Outfitters, taught ballet, auditioned and did anything possible to make ends meet. While working at Urban Outfitters, I fell in love with cosmetics.
I had discovered Sephora while living in New York and thought that was the mecca. At Urban, we sold three cosmetic lines: Tony & Tina, Hardy Candy and Urban Decay. I really wanted to get a job working for one of the makeup lines. So when the merchandiser came in from Urban Decay, I asked if they were hiring. He said no, but Tony & Tina were looking to hire someone who worked at the counter at Bloomingdale’s. He walked me over to Bloomingdale’s and I met the counter manager. He told me I needed to interview at the corporate office, which was this giant loft in SoHo.
To work the counter at Bloomingdale’s, you had to do a makeover test. I could do my own makeup being a dancer and doing shows, but I was not trained. That poor girl in the office—I’m pretty sure I put a pound of glitter all over her [during the makeover test]. The international makeup artist—his name was Eddie Funkhouser—called me the next day and was like, “We love your vibe. We totally feel like you fit in with the company. We don’t want to put you at the counter of Bloomingdale’s, but we’ll pay you your Urban Outfitters salary and you can be the part-time assistant to our creative director. She’s head of PR and product development.”
Her name was Yana Chupenko. She was a total Russian bombshell. Her hair was always wrapped up in this giant pineapple, she was in a punk band called Shiny Mama and she was best friends with Debbie Harry. It was so wild. I was this wide-eyed, 21-year-old. She actually taught me PR on the job. Tony & Tina was in Lucky, Vogue and Elle. She taught me how to write a press release and how to make press books for the products.
That’s awesome. How did you evolve there?
I was there for about two years. I was dancing less and less because because they ended up making me full-time as a creative assistant. I decided I really loved the PR side and I wanted to go to a PR agency, so I moved to Tractenberg & Co. We represented Sephora, Stila, Philosophy, Nivea and Healing Garden—everything from mass market to luxury. I loved it. I learned so much in the beauty PR world because everything was so detailed. Everything we sent had like a little hang tag, the cute one-liner and the press release. You wrote differently based on the product you were representing. For one you may write flowery language, where another one was cute and kitschy.
How did you get back to Nashville?
9/11 happened and that changed a lot of things. The relationship I was in at the time wasn’t great. I had that quarter life crisis moment of, “What are you doing with your life? You’re talking about lipstick, but the world is in this crazy place. You were supposed to be a doctor. You’re not even dancing anymore.”
I ended up leaving New York and moved back to Nashville. I took the GRES to go to grad school. Being a dancer, I’ve always been really passionate about food and nutrition, so I ended up going to grad school for nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill. I danced the whole time I was there, taught dance and performed. After I took my comps and got my master’s, I came home to Nashville for a week of vacation. I went to my annual exam at the doctor’s office and I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I had a job lined up after grad school and I was dancing for a company there. I had to quit my job and quit dance. My parents packed me up and moved me back to Nashville. That was August of 2005. Once I was back here, I just dropped off the map for a year and a half and went through treatment.
I’m so sorry. How did you get back on track?
Towards the end of radiation, my parents asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I have no idea but I don’t want to be in a hospital. I do believe eating healthy prevents chronic disease, but I’m not there.” My dad said, “You loved PR. You’re in Music City. You love music. You should think about music PR.” My dad is in the business, so I grew up with it.
While I was still going through chemo and wearing a wig, he took me to a holiday party. I met Little Big Town that night. It was right when they released “Boondocks.” They were going on tour with Keith Urban and John Mellencamp. They had a Nashville publicist, Jenny Bohler, and they needed a tour publicist.
I knew nothing about music PR, but they brought me on. I took my job very seriously. I would sit at my desk with an atlas, see that they were playing in Columbus, Ohio and measure out 50 miles around it. Then I would go to my Bacon’s Media Directory and look up the outlets and writers. I killed the tour press. [Laughs] Jenny Bohler took me under her wing. She mentored me and introduced me to everyone in Nashville. She really helped me like make that transition. I worked with them for about two and a half years and then I went to Sony Music Nashville.
How long were you there?
Sadly, I think a year. I got hired and then they went through corporate restructuring and laid off like eight people. They pretty much [split] the PR and marketing side in half. At the time, I didn’t realize that was a music business rite of passage. I didn’t understand how you could be really good at your job and lose it. I look back on that year and it was some of the most amazing, incredible experiences of my career and stuff I’m really proud of.
After that I freelanced for a year or so, and then Tree Paine hired me over at Warner. I was at Warner for about a year and a half. While I was at Warner, I was feeling nutrition calling. I felt like I never finished out what I’d studied and what I’d gone to do. I was married at the time and thinking about kids—I was just having a completely different life. This opportunity came open to do marketing at the food bank and I felt like I had to take it.
When I freelanced between Sony and Warner, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Craig Wiseman, so I did the PR for Stars for Second Harvest. That’s how I knew everyone at the food bank. I loved that event and I loved the mission, so it just seemed like the right opportunity.
How did you start Sweet Talk?
It was a happy accident. When I was at the food bank, Seth England called me and said, “Hey, would you do PR part-time? We have this unknown duo, Florida Georgia Line. We’re going to release music and we really need a publicist.” I said no, because I had a job I liked, but they can be very convincing over there. They asked if I would come in and meet with Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard. I will never forget this meeting. I can tell you what I was wearing and exactly where I sat. I was explaining what a publicist did and I will never forget BK looking at me and saying, “So, you mean we’ll be on Jimmy Kimmel someday?” I was like, “Exactly!” For whatever reason, the universe was like, “You need to do this.”
So I left the food bank and I said that I would help them out for three months, and in three months, we would reevaluate. That turned into the next decade of my life and career. The next thing I knew, FGL got big and I had to have a staff. It was just amazing. All of a sudden I had a great roster and had built a team, and we’re still going. I always feel like when you’re open, things come to you—I just needed that push.
What are you most proud of now?
I have a couple proud moments, but after being in business for 11 years, you have clients and staff that come and go, but it’s really building and mentoring the staff. My team members are rock stars. Watching them grow and develop, seeing their first GMA booking or their first big feature and knowing that I was able to mentor and train, that’s my proudest moment.
Another thing i’m proud of [is Opry Goes Pink.] Because I’m a breast cancer survivor, I went to Pete Fisher when he ran the Opry and pitched him this idea that the Opry should “go pink” to benefit breast cancer awareness. At first, it benefited my charity Women Rock for the Cure, but we all went in different directions. Now benefits Komen. It’s become a staple at the Opry every year and now it’s on year 15. Carrie Underwood did the first one. It was the first time they ever changed the barn to another color. To be able to raise awareness and money, and to see that idea continue, is honestly one of the things I’m most proud of.
Who have been some of your mentors?
Definitely Jenny Bohler. My dad, Charles Sussman, has been a huge mentor for me because he has really shown me how to balance family and work. He has an amazing roster and he’s built an incredible business that he’s had for over 40 years, but he never missed a dance recital. He came to every single one of my chemo treatments. My best friend Carrie Simons Kemper at Triple 7 PR has been a mentor. She has an incredible company—to be able to call her and bounce ideas off her is amazing.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
The best advice for me has always been, “Your work speaks for itself. Just stay true to who you are, keep your head down and keep doing the work.”
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