“I really believe in the practice of recording every single half-decent idea, then you always have good ideas to work on even if you don’t have any new ones.”
We’ve known Jenny O for about 20 years now (!!!) and we’ve always been completely in love with her voice and the way she writes melodies. Her songs feel familiar and classic while still being completely unique and refreshing; sweet and silky while containing so much depth and realness. Whether she is singing solo or in a sea of her signature harmony stacks, we just can’t get enough. Her most recent album “New Truth” was inspired by a sudden and permanent loss of hearing in her right ear. For many musicians that would be a major setback, but Jenny approached this new challenge with the curiosity of a true artist. “’New Truth’ could easily be sorrowful, but since her last album, Jenny has grown more accepting of an unpredictable world than devastated by it. This is gliding, contemplative garage pop that ponders the full weight of uncertainty and the grace required to see things as they are: fragile, flawed and fleeting.”
We are so honored that Jenny took the time to share her writing process with us. We’re inspired by her and we hope you are too!
10 Questions: Jenny O. on Creativity & Songwriting
1. When you sit down to write a song, which elements tend to come first (melody, concept, title, lyrics, chords, beat, etc.)?
Melody for sure, which implies the chords and rhythm. I spend forever, usually months or years, working on the lyrics until I like all of them.
2. How often do you write? Do you have a regular routine, or do you do it only when you’re feeling inspired?
I collect voice memos and scribble down every idea all year long, no matter how small or stupid and especially if I’m in the shower or in bed in the dark. That’s a rule. Catch em all, decide later. But I can’t focus when I’m moving around a lot or have anything else on my plate, so I have to block out weeks or months at a time to write songs. When it’s time to write, I go through all the voice memos and put the ones that stand out into a folder. Then I make another folder of the best of that folder. I work on the best ideas for a few months. I demo them all at home before going into “the studio.” I aspire to be a person who finishes a song every day but I’m not there yet.
3. Do you have any practices that help you find inspiration and collect ideas?
I collect words and phrases in a notebook. Last night during an NBA final, the announcer said, “Two Lakers collide” and I wrote it down. Actually I tweeted it. If something has a ring to it, write it down. If I’m going through something- love trouble, money trouble, grief, I make notes of the sensations and thoughts. They’re universal. Research, take notes. Other people want to hear songs about what they’re going through and you can give voice to them.
4. Have you ever felt creatively blocked and what did/do you do to overcome it?
I really believe in the practice of recording every single half-decent idea, then you always have good ideas to work on even if you don’t have any new ones. But I learned not to force it. Maybe it’s adventure season, not writing season. Time to experience some new things so you’re writing from a new place instead of the old one. Maybe you just need to heal. Or maybe you’re overthinking it. Write a dumb song. Write a really dumb song, it will probably be good. Also I love this Roger Miller quote from The Tao of Willie [Nelson] – “When I couldn’t write a song, Roger Miller used to tell me, “Don’t worry about it. When the well runs dry you have to wait a while for it fill up again.”
5. Do you like to collaborate with other artists and in what capacity does collaboration work best for you?
Great question because I am forever asking this and reasserting the answer. I love playing live with a band, absolutely. A whole world opens up when I’m being supported by drums and bass. And harmonies!! I love to sing with people. But co-writing … jury is out. I’d say it’s been successful 33% of the time for me. Sometimes it’s awkward. Maybe I haven’t found my writing people yet. I try to stay open so I keep doing it, keep trying. I want to write for other artists and good singers, like my idols did. It just seems way more pure & uncompromising to write alone. Like my other idols did.
“Research, take notes. Other people want to hear songs about what they’re going through and you can give voice to them.”
6. Are there any non-musical things you do that affect your art?
Definitely. I’m passionate about visual art and design, and drawing parallels between mediums like painting and songwriting has kept me inspired. I’m also obsessed with interpersonal dynamics, romance, self-study, the shared human experience in general, and the planet… these things all go into my music.
7. How do you know when a song is done?
I’m a pop writer, so I have this formula most of the time. There’s a verse and a chorus- decide on the number of those. Sometimes it wants a bridge, sometimes it doesn’t. Make sure the song is at least two minutes and twenty seconds long, or else it may need another section. (Unless its an aberration, or an album track, there are no actual rules in songwriting and successful deviation is SUPER COOL.) When I like all the lyrics for all of the sections, it’s done. Then it gets recorded. How do you know when a recording is done? It’s got all the parts I hear in my head – drums, bass, rhythm instrument, vocals, percussion, etc. Then you check for holes, maybe it wants a solo or something to lift the pre-chorus, maybe you try some final sparkle at the top of the chorus or something, but decide it’s better without, less is more. Then it’s done. For me, the goal is to have as little going on as possible. Make sure I can hear all the things I want to hear. But I also don’t do my own EQ or mixing, and I know that’s where people go deep. I entrust someone else with that and my notes are usually limited to “turn up the background vocals” or “let’s make this organ sound broken.”
8. What do you think your strengths are as a songwriter and how do you play to those strengths?
I think my strengths are melody and harmony. I think writing in the pop genre and writing very much in a style created in the 1950s is playing into those strengths. That’s also a weakness. The Beatles are in my DNA and I can’t deviate. Maybe some rapscallion aspect of my personality is also a strength, sometimes it helps take the shine off.
“Maybe I haven’t found my writing people yet. I try to stay open so I keep doing it, keep trying. I want to write for other artists and good singers, like my idols did. It just seems way more pure & uncompromising to write alone. Like my other idols did.”
9. What do you think your weaknesses are as a songwriter and how have you worked around them or worked to improve them?
Ugh. Like I said with the Beatles thing, I can be totally trapped in the square. The box?! that’s the name of this website. Yeah, I can be really boring and square and servile to the music I love that I grew up on and it’s all 4/4 pentatonic mid tempo verse chorus verse chorus bridge sweetness and I wish I was a little cooler. A little weirder. I didn’t resonate with anything weird or punk til I was in my 30s. So now I’m always educating myself on the avant garde, the weird. Also I sound like a little kid when I sing high. I’m really emulating Frankie Valli, a major influence of mine. But in my voice it comes out childish and sweet and I get called “sugary” and things like that. I keep trying to mess it up. Maybe I’ll get there.
10. What is one important lesson you have learned through your experiences as a songwriter?
If you have 40 or 60K you can buy a HOUSE. (Or even less, depending where you live.) I was rich ONCE, ten years ago, from a couple car commercials. No one told me I could buy a house. I should have invested in property. Those kinds of synchs are lightning from the sky. But I was raised in the old world patriarchy and no one taught me about mortgages. I lived off of the money and invested in the next album, maybe if I bought a house I couldn’t have done that, who knows. But yeah, honestly that’s a major lesson I learned AS A SONGWRITER.
11. BONUS Question: How are you finding your creativity in the time of COVID-19?
The more difficult task is finding creativity under fascism, which is really grotesque and uninspiring. But art is resistance so we just HAVE TO carry the tender torch, and that’s the inspiration. I’m back-logged with projects so the pandemic has actually given me time to focus. (I don’t have kids though, specifically because of my scattered nature, so I can’t imagine.) I’m in a community of hundreds of artists so ordinarily I have social anxiety or nightly guilt about skipping some friend’s show. Now there are no interruptions, so my new guilt is about digging the slowdown while people suffer. New Guilt – I’ll write that down.
Favorite song to dance to: “Got To Give It Up – Pt. 1″ by Marvin Gaye
Favorite song to make out to: I think making out to a song intentionally sounds awkward but if it were to happen by chance, “Heaven” by The Rolling Stones is pretty sensual.
Favorite song to cry to: I don’t think I’ve ever put on music for crying! I’d say most of George Harrison’s catalogue could be listened to on my knees with tears streaming down my face, haha! “My Sweet Lord,” or maybe the entirety of All Things Must Pass, except for whatever’s going on in second half of the last disc.
Favorite song to work out to: It has never occurred to me to listen to music while exercising! I like to bike or hike in silence so I can hear potential dangers!
Favorite song to drive to: “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by The Beatles
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