LIKE A DRY DUSTCLOUD ON A THERMAL, SONGWRITER JEN OLIVE’S BRILLIANT NEW ALBUM THE BREAKS RISES OVER THE DESERTS OF HER NATIVE ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO. Blending pop / folk with a progressive, experimental, approach to rhythm and harmony, and a habit of multi-tracking vocals, maverick Jen’s previous album – WARM ROBOT, in 2010 – received good notice in the UK. Mentored by Andy Partridge (once of XTC, and who signed her to boutique label Ape House, memorably describing her as “an astounding allegro algorithm from Albuquerque”) Jen put out a follow-up EP, before heading back to the us and working on the songs which make up THE BREAKS. Confusing with dangerous melancholy and heat-haze warmth, it twists senses before spiralling away. It expands the dramatic promise of its predecessor, whether in rattlesnaking THE REMEDY OF CAKE, or full band sear BLACK SUNDAY and choirlike dry-stack DEATH OF ME. In this interview, Jen talks about WARM ROBOT and THE BREAKS, and reveals how her songwriting works…
I’VE NEVER VISITED ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, THOUGH I THINK I CAN HEAR THE PLACE IN YOUR MUSIC…
Ohhhh… Albuquerque… Albuquerque and I have an interesting relationship. It’s very hate / love / hate. The desert is such an extreme place – it pushes you in both good and bad ways.
DOES THAT GEOGRAPHY PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE?
Yeah, I think where you are has a huge influence on what you create. The landscape lends a feeling. The history of a place– it has a life that you become a part of. And just on a purely practical level it changes the sounds of things. The same guitar sounds different in the desert than it does in an apartment in the middle of the city. And that makes you write in different ways. It pulls different things out.
YOU ACTUALLY LIVED IN THE UK FOR A WHILE…
I did live in the UK for a while, yeah. It was wonderful. I met Andy Partridge in 2008 and we did a record together. I went to the UK to do a mini-tour for it and just fell hopelessly for the place. I made a lot of friends there. I don’t know… it just felt like I belonged there, and I wanted to experience living there not just on holiday or touring… so I packed up and went to stay for a bit.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SOUND?
Well, I’m primarily a songwriter – and I write in diverse styles. Both of my parents are / were jazz musicians, so I was exposed to a lot of that. I started playing the piano really early in life… long before I started playing guitar.
HAVE THERE BEEN PARTICULAR OTHER MUSICIANS WHO’VE INFLUENCED WHAT YOU DO?
I think of it in phases… I had the Led Zeppelin / Pink Floyd / stoner phase, and then the Kate Bush / Björk / various female artists phase… the quirky pop phase… the prog phase… and, of course, all of life is a David Bowie phase. I just love the form. I love music as a language and all the ways something can be said. So, my music is kind of a mash of all of that up in my head. I would hate to be limited to one genre or a style – where’s the freedom there? I like exploring and interpreting – playing games…
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO CREATE? IS WHAT YOU DO A PERSONAL EXPRESSION, IN TERMS OF ‘GETTING THINGS OUT’, OR ARE YOU CREATING ‘OBJECTS’ IN SOUND?
That’s a good question. I would say it’s both of those things. The object itself is the ultimate point – and the building of it is the obsession… But the content is inspired by a need or a desire to express something specific, whether it’s a personal thing or a story. The content is so crucial. To my mind a skilfully crafted song must have meaningful or interesting content attached… so it really has to come from both places to work, I think.
HOW CLOSELY DOES WHAT COMES OUT RELATE TO WHAT YOU IMAGINE OR HOPE IT WILL BE?
I give up on what’s in my head pretty early on. What I mean is, I find it better to just start on the road and see where it goes. There’s usually a solid start – a direction right away – but then it morphs and changes as I go… So it starts with a feel more than a solid idea.
DO YOU PREFER THE STUDIO OR A LIVE SITUATION?
I am actually more comfortable in the studio these days, even though I love playing live. I just haven’t been doing it as often as I would like. Every year I commit to a little more, though, and it’s been really good… Satisfying.
YOUR ALBUM WARM ROBOT WAS CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED IN THE UK IN 2010. DID THAT ATTENTION SURPRISE YOU?
Well, at first I was very into it – the attention, I mean. I was pleased by the response and the excitement people were showing for my work. It’s an amazing feeling when people like what you do. Who can lie about that? It is awesome. But there is a distance that needs to be kept in order to do the next thing and not be tainted by the opinions, good or bad. So, at a certain point I stopped paying attention and just got to the next thing.
AND WHAT WAS NEXT? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING SINCE THE WARM ROBOT ALBUM..?
I toured WARM ROBOT a little bit. Funds were not so available, so it was really just a handful of special shows. Then I did a follow-up EP, I SAY LOVE, and then I started on the next record. I also got involved in an ongoing project with Andy Partridge and Stu Rowe called The Clubmen. We are finishing that up, so hopefully it will get released this year if the stars align.
YOUR MATERIAL SOUNDS ABSOLUTELY UNIQUE TO YOU. BUT IS IT REALLY LIKE THAT FOR YOU? CAN YOU LISTEN BACK TO IT AS JUST ‘MUSIC’, RATHER THAN ‘MUSIC I HAVE MADE’..?
I wind up so involved in the process of making it that it takes a lot to separate myself enough to hear it as outside of me. I don’t know if I can do that. The deeper I get into, it the less I know what it really sounds like. I just have to trust that I have decent enough taste and a drill sergeant inside that won’t let any garbage get through. Then I think I just have to walk away.
DEATH OF ME, FROM THE BREAKS, HAS SUCH ATMOSPHERE… THE MULTI-TRACKED VOCALS ARE INCREDIBLY EFFECTIVE…
I love using vocals for background music parts. Like, instead of a horn part or a string section, I’ll use the vocals to get a similar effect. It’s a mania of mine – writing and arranging vocals.
THE BREAKS HAS A MUCH ‘BIGGER’ SOUND THAT WARM ROBOT…
Yeah, THE BREAKS does have a bigger, different, sound. The WARM ROBOT album was really just between me and Andy Partridge. It was a small and very personal thing – there was no one else involved in it at all.
WHAT WAS THE GENESIS OF THIS ALBUM? ARE THESE SONGS THAT HAVE BEEN KICKING AROUND FOR A WHILE?
There were a couple of songs that had been sitting around half-done or in some state of disarray for a bit, but really most of it was written specifically for the record. About half of the songs were written in the UK and recorded while I was there, back in summer 2010. Most of the bones we got down then. But a couple were written when I got back to Albuquerque. And I did a short stint in Joshua Tree, CA – I wrote a couple there as well. Then Stu Rowe and I just sent them back and forth until they were right…
HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOUR WRITING HAS DEVELOPED SINCE WARM ROBOT?
THE BREAKS is a totally different proposition. For one thing I have a whole bunch of musicians who added their take. That alone changes it so much. We (Stu Rowe and I) really wanted it to feel like an album album – the kind that you listen to as a whole thing, start to finish – not just a collection of songs. So, the whole process was different this time. I wrote knowing I wouldn’t fill all the spaces myself. Although, I couldn’t help stacking all kinds of vocals in the background. Like I said, that’s a bit of a mania.
DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR WAY OF WRITING?
The process hasn’t changed much over time. It’s riff first / words last. I never ever have lyrics sitting around that need music. I wouldn’t even know how to do that. It’s always the music first, then the melody, then the mumbling… and then “what was that?? That almost sounded like a sentence!” – I don’t enjoy words that much, really. There’s only so much to talk about, y’know? The next record may not even have any… Who knows?