An Interview with Jennie Lawless by June Kolentus

Jennie Lawless is a musician based out of Los Angeles, known for her eclectic combinations of musical styles and clear, light voice. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her about her past influences, current projects, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on her career.

What originally got you interested in pursuing music?

I’ve pretty much always been interested in music. I’ve always been a singer. I started singing when I was like three years old. Whenever I could talk, I started to sing, and my family still loves to bring up this story of when we were on a road trip… and I made up a song… and the only reason I remember how it goes is because my parents used to sing it to me all the time, but it’s totally nonsense words. *sings song* So that was the first song I ever composed. At the time my artist name was not Jennie Lawless; the lawless part came later. My last name isn’t actually Lawless but my mom instilled this fear of people knowing my true identity on the internet and so early on when I had a Facebook… I created this fake last name. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the show Xena Warrior Princess… but it’s about this badass woman who plays this warrior character and the actress’ name is Lucy Lawless so I just named myself after her.

What other musicians do you feel have had the biggest influence on you?

Well, the first CD I ever bought… was Radiohead’s The Bends and I remember just picking it up because the cover was just the most unique looking thing that I saw... I didn’t know anything about it. I bought that and then my friend bought a NOFX CD, so it was that era of music, and i was like, “Dang, this is cool” and i just got really into that one record because It was a time in my life where I wasn’t really interested in absorbing a bunch of new things… Repetition was a big thing for me so I listened to a lot of the same things over and over again. Also, I listened to a ton of R&B, like late ‘90s R&B. So, I had this one Brandy CD that I couldn’t stop listening to. Destiny’s Child was up there, and TLC. And I think being super aware of my whiteness. I feel like I grew up with a pretty strong awareness of my race and the privileges that come with that and I never felt really comfortable with the vibe of singing like a black person. There was something that felt like I was taking something away from that culture, so I wanted to be mindful of that making my own music. It’s something that I rack my brain on a lot actually, like what does it mean to be who you are, and not be somebody else? But those are still huge influences so I don’t want to actively deny that those are influences for me either. Getting older, having access to a computer changed my access to different kinds of music, and I started to get into more underground stuff… Beach House is a huge influence to my sound for sure. My dad actually is a big influence for me cause he was always finding new CDs and records. He introduced me to Stereolab and a sh*t ton of jazz. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite jazz singers. My dad has a really interesting taste and is just so open-minded. He’s a jazz bass player, but my little brother’s in a death metal band and he will just as excitedly listen to that music as my obscure indie music. My mom’s like, “If it’s not Bruce Springsteen, I don’t wanna hear it.”

What is the best experience you’ve had playing a show?

That’s so complicated for me because I actually have stage fright, but I got some amazing advice from a voice teacher I had… She was like, “Honestly, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no trick, you just have to perform as much as possible and make sure to take care of whatever you need to take care of to feel less freaked out.” For me, I think one of my best show performance experiences was a show I played in Minneapolis with my old band, and we had such a good connection live. It was just a trio: me, and Cooper on bass, and Mike on drums. And I played the keys and I have this voice layer that I use to loop my voice. Something we used to do a lot in rehearsals… was that I would build a loop and we would all improvise on that loop, and it was always a really cool moment of just being totally in the zone. And there was this one show in Minneapolis that we played… and I felt like i really had people’s attention and I had a lot of friends in the audience, and I felt so comfortable on stage that I decided to try and build a loop live, which for me, as someone with stage fright, is completely out of the question. But I was like, I’m not gonna grow if I don’t challenge myself, so I did it and it was really cool. It felt really special… like people connected to it. I did something scary and it was rewarding. There was something really magical about the moment and the way I interacted with people after the show. I just felt way more connected to folks because they were part of this really vulnerable experience and I just felt like I was floating the whole rest of the night, which doesn’t always happen. Every performance is a really complicated mix of emotions. It’s almost worth it- all of the sh*tty self-deprecating moments make that one moment of euphoria worth it. It’s like seeking a drug in a weird way. But for me, if I don’t feel connected with the audience, I don’t like to perform as much. I used to do dinner hour gigs in Minneapolis… and there was just always kind of this wall… We were like real life background music, which was strange for me. One of my goals- because I was telling you that improvising in front of people is terrifying- was being capable and comfortable enough to do a two hour improvised set totally by myself with my gear, so I could work on something like that for the future or live-stream something like that. It was something I had to treat as live practice doing the restaurant things, like I’m just rehearsing, but in front of other people, because otherwise i would have felt really sh*tty about not having that connection.

How has the pandemic affected your life as a musician?

I feel like when the pandemic became real, before we were all forced to shelter in place, was when all the major venues shut down. It was “no group gatherings of larger than fifty” or whatever it was at first in L.A. and I was like, “Oh damn. Oh this is for real,” and when I realized that it wasn't just gonna be for two weeks… I had to consider what about live music makes it so special and how to recreate that experience for people from home. I’ve been doing a lot more things out of the box than I normally would because I’ve had the time to and I have people’s attention in a way that nobody has had before ever. Like, this is a first in so many ways for everybody, but I feel like, for the first time, if I do something online and invite people to it, a lot of them actually show up. I miss performing live. I miss my band. A big part of the songwriting process for me is that i start I start by myself, write the lyrics and the melody alone, and build the skeleton of a chord structure, and then once i have that skeleton and can plunk out a naked little song, that’s when i like to incorporate bandmates to flesh out a live version. That kind of helps inform the rest of my songwriting process, like what is this missing? What does this need? Where is the energy lacking? Then I’ll listen to rehearsal recordings and go from there, in terms of like recording stuff at home and then producing it, and then adding different little bells and whistles, or sprinkles as I like to call them. Drum and bass to me is so important, and I’m not a drummer so I can’t create the coolest beats. A lot of my OG beats come from my CASIO... but it’s not the same as live energy, and it’s not exciting for me to build beats that way. Basslines are super hit or miss for me. But I have a good friend I’ve been working with who just moved here from Minneapolis, but he lives like a mile from me so we decided to join pods and have a quarantine pod together. I’m helping him co-produce his record that he’s getting to release as YUM… and he’s been helping me produce stuff as well… because I hate being on the computer for too long because I turn into a zombie… TOur life is fun because you get to meet new people every night and sleep in a new place every night but it can also be exhausting. DIY tours are more intense in that way because you don’t get to stay in a hotel or be in a comfortable place. A lot of times, it’s staying on somebody’s couch… but it’s fun because there’s more camaraderie. I think live entertainment, to some extent, is essential, like we’re still craving that connection, so hopefully as a community we will find ways to be creative about live performance. I saw somebody was putting on a Sunday afternoon porch concert series, which seems really cute, but I was looking at the video of it and people were all congregating on the sidewalk… which is dangerous, and kind of beside the point.

I know a lot of musicians have been using livestreams, which gives a hint of a live performance but isn’t quite the same.

Yea, and I think part of the issue is the audio. I’m doing a livestream on Sunday at 9PM eastern time. It’s gonna be on Zoom... It’s through this company called Asembl, and it’s an app that used to be a live event app that would connect you to live events happening near you… I’m gonna do one by myself for like 45 minutes, but I kind of want to ask them like, “Hey can you make sure all of the audience members stay muted because it could totally eff up the music,” but I wanna find ways to communicate with them so they can still participate. I might ask people to draw pictures and hold them up. I’m gonna bake a cake on the livestream… I think I’m gonna have a hat contest too. I just have to figure out the audio stuff.

Which of your songs is your favorite or do you feel most attached to and why?

I think, maybe it’s just recency bias, but I really like “Care 4 U Carefully” because when I wrote the chorus, it made me laugh so hard. It wasn’t the chorus that I set out to write. I thought the chorus would be, “I wanna care, wanna care, wanna care, wanna care for you carefully,” but I kept writing, and it turned into, “Oh no, where did I go? Straight into my phone.” It’s so perfectly indicative of my desire for caring and giving attention to people and my struggle with technology and distractions. I have ADHD and it is a challenge for me, but rather than be ashamed or embarrassed by it, my approach with the song was just to make fun of myself a little bit… so that I can realize that admitting the things you need to work on is a form of vulnerability… and strength. That’s the healthiest place that you can come from, at least for me, if you want to work on it and get better. I think that song really is the heart of my character- a little spacey but ideally, a heart of gold. It’s fun to play too.

Are you working on any new projects now?

Yea, I’m working on two songs in particular, and they’re songs that have been done for a while, just not recorded. I’ve been performing them a little bit, and will probably play them in the livestream… One of the songs has a disco beat. I also want to film, produce, and direct a short film called, “As Slow as Possible,” which is inspired by this piece called “As Slow as Possible.” The first ever performance of this piece lasted 29 minutes, the second one lasted 71 minutes, and a church in Halberstadt decided to stretch out the piece to last 639 years. I was like, “How can I relate this back to my life in quarantine and what has my experience been like?” And, for me, it’s been embracing this “As Slow as Possible” philosophy, so I wanna film myself chopping garlic as slow as possible. I’m gonna set up my ASMR microphone so you can hear how slowly I unravel the crinkly part of the bulb and then just slowly crush the outer layer… and the thinnest little slices I can slice really slowly, and like get into zen meditation with it, because there’s a humor in all of the ways I get frustrated with how long things take when I get stress, so it’s, again, this coping mechanism I have of making fun of the things that frustrate me about myself or the world… or making light of it… and making it into something that I love.

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