Girl Talk

Jenny Owen Youngs shares her musical style

Jenny Owen Youngs made her return to Salt Lake City, playing at Urban Lounge, Feb. 16, to promote her new album, An Unwavering Band Of Light. Youngs has toured and collaborated with Regina Spektor, and has also toured with Aimee Mann, Sean Hayes and others. She shares her drummer and producer on her new album, Elliott Jacobsen and Dan Romer, respectively, with the likes of Ingrid Michaelson and Greg Laswell. A cheerful but grounded musician, Youngs exudes optimism and delight through her music, stage presence and on- and off-stage personality.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Miss Youngs after she did me the favor of drawing a gravity-defying unicorn on my shirt that I purchased at her merchant booth that reads “I got knocked up by Jenny Owen Youngs.” A more awesome band shirt in existence remains to be seen.

Annalisa Millo: What are your impressions of Salt Lake City? 

Jenny Owen Youngs: The crowd was a lot more mobile than I was expecting, they were very enthusiastic, dancy and verbal. It was really nice, I didn’t really know what to expect; I’ve played Salt Lake a couple times and they’d both been pretty mellow shows. One of them was in a church and the other was in a venue that didn’t serve alcohol.

A.M.: How’s the tour going? 

J.O.Y.: We’re out until the end of March, but everything is going really well. I feel like we’re playing well and having a blast, and usually finding good food to eat (a little bird referred me to a picture Youngs had tweeted of her breakfast from the always-tasty Blue Plate Diner), and people are coming to our shows and seem to be having a good time, and it’s really exciting to be playing all this material from the new album. That’s the most exciting thing for me,  getting out and putting that in people’s ears.

A.M.: Your new album, An Unwavering Band Of Light, was released in early February, what does the title mean?

J.O.Y.: It’s a reference to what I think is the most beautiful moment in a book called Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. I keep trying to explain it really eloquently, but I do a really bad job. So I feel like I should just encourage you and everyone else to read the book.

(I looked into this after the interview, as I have not read said book, yet. That specific passage appears to be very heavy and very profound, and by no means do I blame Youngs for finding difficulty in illustrating it.)

A.M.: Do you have any favorite tracks on the album? 

J.O.Y.: The song I’m most excited about is called “Sleep Machine.” It gets to be the loudest of anything else on the record, but it also has these pockets of weird, quiet, spooky stuff and then the chorus directly contrasts the rest of the song.

The first song that I released that people could hear before the album came out and that we also made a video for is called “Your Apartment.”

A.M.: So this is your third album, what does this album mean to you as to sequence of your albums? How do you see it compared to the previous ones in terms of your place in your life and the context surrounding it? 

J.O.Y.: I think that it’s really unique from the others in a lot of different ways. What I can say is that the writing process was very different and arranging the songs was very different as well. I feel like over the course of the three records that I’ve made, I’ve tried to put more and more of an emphasis on the arrangements from the early stages of writing and I really wanted to work to make this album sound more like a group of people who have a vibe and chemistry, playing the music together instead of … maybe not instead of, I’m proud of my previous records. But that was the thing that I tried to focus on.

On the previous records we started with vocals and guitar and then worked backwards.  The drummer who is out (on tour) with me right now and who is on the record, Elliott Jacobson, and the producer of the record, Dan Romer, and I all got together and we went through the body of songs that were contenders. There were 17 of them, and there’s 11 on the album. So we just went through all of them and worked out different (feels) for them, and then everything kind of started to make sense, and then went forward with the recording process from there.

So, I feel like there was a lot more emphasis on the dynamics of people playing off of each other. I feel when you’re making a record you try to do everything you can to service every song to the best of your abilities, so I feel like a lot of the time it’s just me and Dan working in sort of a bubble. We have our own individual tendencies, and we also have tendencies that really come out when we’re working together that are unique to our dynamic. A lot of the time we can lose perspective, so to have Elliott there from basically the beginning, contributing a really formidable skill set and bank of ideas to the whole process … it really set the tone, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Wow, that really spiraled out of control! (laughs)

A.M.: No, that’s great, I love that. Your new album has a fuller, more rounded sound than your previous albums, and it seems like you made use of a wider range of instruments. Would that be correct to say, or am I totally off? 

J.O.Y.: Totally! I mean, I think that it may be that the immediately preceding record, Transmitter Failure, may have had a slightly wider range of stuff, but I feel like we really hit the nail on the head as far as the use of those things. Because sometimes you track a bunch of shit, and then you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, everything sounds great, we needed so many instruments!’

But one of the other things I tried to focus on, because Dan is really into layering and wall-of-sound stuff, was trying to urge him to use what was necessary and vital, but not add superfluous layers. And at the same time we were also trying to focus on using weirder percussion, trying to get the sound a little dirtier.

We recorded everything in Dan’s home studio and for Transmitter Failure we went to a proper studio to get the strings and drums in, but (on An Unwavering Band Of Light) we wanted it to sound a little grittier, so we did everything at Dan’s and I feel like you can hear the room on a lot of the tracks, which was something that I really wanted: for people to feel like they could actually be inside of the song.

I feel like when you can’t recognize a human aspect, that’s something that keeps you as a listener out of the song, which is the opposite of what I want. I want people to feel connected to it.

(She then shrieks out of shortness of breath for the elaborate, but appreciated, explanation. After sharing a brief laugh, we continued.)

A.M.: Do you have any particular influences musically? 

J.O.Y.: I would say this record specifically is heavily influenced by the mid ’80s period of Tom Waits’ catalog, and prior to making this record I got into The White Stripes and The Strokes, and Dan got me into Harry Belafonte. So that’s the kind of stuff that we were thinking about; really, really, very much Tom Waits and Harry Belafonte. Just that kind of stuff that we were really focused on while we were working out these weird percussion things and steel drums.

A.M.: I heard somewhere that you never used any gender specific pronouns on your first album, Batten The Hatches. Is that the case with your new album or the preceding one? 

J.O.Y.: I don’t really like gender specific pronouns in songs, period. There’s nothing that irritates me more than when someone covers a classic song and changes it. It just rubs me the wrong way. It’s not anything that I set out consciously to do, it’s just not my vibe.

A.M.: So it’s more of a musical thing rather than some sort of subtle political statement? 

J.O.Y.: [laughs] No, definitely not.

A.M.: I’m sure you’re aware of this, but you have a fairly large queer following, specifically queer women. Why do you think that is? 

J.O.Y.: Well, I’m hoping that it’s because they have excellent taste, but I’ve also been told that it’s because I used to wear a tie a lot. It was just my school uniform.

(Note that she said “they.” Despite many queer girls’ speculation of her so-called relationship with Regina Spektor, she doesn’t claim to be one of “us.” Our hopes and dreams are crushed. Sorry, girls.)

A.M.: What do you see happening in the future? Are you going to continue to make music for a while? 

J.O.Y.: God, I really hope so!

A.M.: Are you going to be back in Salt Lake anytime soon? 

J.O.Y.: I’m not sure what’s going to be happening after this tour, but I imagine there will be a lot of touring for the remainder of the year, so I’m sure that I will find my way back in the near future.

I feel like this interview summation wouldn’t be complete without making a “Voice On Tape” joke, but I’ll spare you and leave that to your imagination. A more friendly and well mannered musician than Jenny Owen Youngs is a rarity, and we look forward to her return to Utah, hopefully later this year.

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