Interview: Jenny Owen Youngs

words by Brandon Franz | photos by Cayte Nobles | Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The title of Jenny Owen Youngs’ Tumblr blog page reads, “Oh hey, I didn’t see you there. Hello. My name is Jenny and I write songs, record stuff, go on tour, and have tons of girl-feelings…sometimes all at once. Whee.”

Sounds about right. Her first record, Batten The Hatches, was self-released in 2005 before Nettwerk re-released it in 2007. She has toured with Regina Spektor, released multiple digital EPs, has the side projects Bell Horses and The Robot Explosion, and semi-regularly takes part in video podcasts. When she’s not doing all of that, she tours some more. Her most recent full length, Transmitter Failure, was released in 2009. She is currently on the “Spring Break Forever Tour” with Bess Rogers and Allison Weiss. I recently emailed her some questions and she graciously emailed me back her answers. This is how it all went down.

A little birdie (Twitter) told me that you tour nonstop. What’s the most consecutive days you’ve played shows?
Hmm, consecutive shows, like, playing a show every night? The record for me is eight show nights in a row (but will go up to 12 in March). I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but singing is a lot of work! Usually on a tour we’ll do three or four show nights and then a day off, which usually ends up just being a 12-hour drive day. But, if you mean the longest I’ve just been away from home on tour, I would say nine weeks. That was a long one.

What is your favorite place to play?
In the States, I love playing in Chicago (though New York City, which I guess is my hometown now, is also at the top of the list). In Europe, it’s a tie between Manchester and Stockholm. I hate picking just one of anything.

What do you do in your downtime, when you’re not touring or recording or doing any music-related stuff?
When I’m home, I’m always doing something music-related — writing or rehearsing or planning or doing the administrative paperwork-type stuff required to keep things tidy. When I’m not doing that, I go out to see my friends play (which is an option almost any night of the week), read a lot of books and graphic novels, and work on expanding my vegan pancake repertoire. I go to museums as much as possible (the American Museum of Natural History is my permanent favorite) and generally try to be a responsible New Yorker — you know, take advantage of all the rad stuff that’s so close.

Many people first heard you in an episode of the most-excellent television program Weeds — though I was introduced to you by a friend before I started watching the show. So when “Fuck Was I” started playing in that episode, I was wicked stoked to see that a should-be-better-known artist that I really like was getting some well-deserved exposure. Enough about me, though. How did that come about?
Hey, thanks! The Weeds thing is difficult to explain. At the time, I was in talks with Nettwerk (they were about to become my label) and Chrysalis (they were about to become my publisher) and working with Lynn Grossman at Secret Road (they work to get songs placed in TV and film). I’m not sure exactly who sent Gary Calamar (the Weeds music supervisor and KCRW DJ) my record and got him to listen to it, but I like to just give credit in every direction and be super thankful that it happened.

Did you watch Weeds before that or do you now? Do you have to watch it in accordance with a contract with Showtime? Does a Showtime executive sit you down to make sure you watch every episode?
Oh, heavens. I never watched season one because I never had cable, but the placement coincided with me moving into an apartment with some serious television capabilities, so I caught up before the season two premiere. It’s a great show! I’m a little behind right now — once again, no cable — but my mom keeps me updated on the general story arcs and I hope to catch up soon.

Were any of the songs on Transmitter Failure spillovers from the Batten the Hatches days?
“Secrets,” “Transmitter Failure,” and “If I Didn’t Know” were all at least partially written around the time we were making Batten the Hatches, but all three were being revised up until we started recording Transmitter Failure.

You worked with a lot of the same people on the first record as you did on this one. How have you all changed and grown in those years? How do you think those changes affected the new record?
Hoo boy. Batten the Hatches was a first record for both me and for Dan Romer. I’d say neither of us really knew what we were doing then. Between Batten the Hatches and Transmitter Failure, Dan made some other records and generally just expanded his skill set. I don’t know how the hell he does the things he does, or how he got from writing one string part at a time by ear, to arranging a quartet in his head and writing out score sheets for the players. His growth as an arranger dramatically affected the way the record turned out.

It’s tricky to say anything about how I’ve changed, but I’d say at the least, I’ve started to understand songs in a very different way than I did at the time of Batten; my focus has shifted from lyrics to melody. I’ve also been listening to less singer/songwriter-y stuff and more rock music and old country. To sum up: Dan and I have gotten better at stuff (we hope), which in theory led us to make a better record the second time around (we hope).

The songs “First Person” and “Last Person.” I’m not going to ask a question; just tell me something about them.
Well, we wanted an introduction to the record that would look backward to “Batten” (hence the instrumentation and feel of “First Person”) while looking ahead (to track 10, “Last Person,” the complete song of which “First Person” is an excerpt). We also wanted to bookend the record between “First Person” and another song that was also sonically similar, bringing the record full circle to “Start + Stop.”

Your records have a good amount of instrumentation on them. How does that transfer to live shows?
Depending on the show and what we have to work with, parts may be covered as on the record, or performed by another instrument, or sacrificed altogether. It’s basically a matter of prioritizing, I guess. Luckily, I play with people who can do crazy things with their instruments — Chris Kuffner is to bass as God is to Adam’s rib…or something — and people who can play a ton of instruments (Dan is a beast). I think my crew gets a lot more music out of their instruments than seems possible. Lucky for me.

Working on any new material?
Absolutely! I’m on tour for the month of March, but after that it’s all about writing and plotting the next record.

You did a cover of Nelly’s “Hot in Here” a few years back. I’m from St. Louis — ”Nellyville” — so I was immediately amused that you were covering him. What made you choose to do a cover of that?
I just love the song.

Do you know if he knows about your cover?
I’m sure he’s busy with other things.

Do you perform covers live?
Sometimes, though not as much lately. I hate the idea of playing covers just to play them, when I don’t feel like I can bring the energy and love the songs deserve. A month ago we covered The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” and that felt pretty right.

Your initials, JOY, was that intentional?
Oh, yes indeed!

Okay, lightning round! First celebrity crush?
Link from Legend of Zelda or Jean Claude Van-Damme. I’m not sure which came first.

Biggest guilty pleasure?
Probably dairy. God give me the strength.

Favorite record of ‘09?
It’s so hard to pick just one. Also I’m about five to 15 years behind at any given time. I love St. Vincent’s Actor and Paramore’s Brand New Eyes. The records I love the most that I discovered this year are Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones and The White Stripes’ Elephant. Like I said, way behind.

Most loved comfort food?
Pizza? Wait did you say “comfort” or “drunkfort”?

Any phobias?

Got Milk?
I’m trying to not “Got Milk” as hard as I can.

In high school you were…?
Such a dork!

Was there a second shooter?
I think it was your mom?

Interview question you’ve been asked a painful amount of times?
“Do you write the lyrics or the music first?”

Favorite toy as a kid?
I was all about my stuffed animal collection.

What would you choose as your last meal if you were being executed?
My mom’s mac and cheese and Ben and Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream.

Last words?
Pasta fagioli!

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