Jess Penner: The Popdose Interview
You’ve likely heard her songs in commercials, TV shows, and movies, or seen her as the fresh young face of Days Inn. She’s Jess Penner – a thoroughly 21st century pop star.
How so? Well, for starters, her blog has a dedicated section for new song “placement” shout outs, entries that highlight the spots where her tracks were licensed and used. One update showcased her music being heard on America’s Next Top Model and ESPN U’s college softball coverage. Penner’s openness with this part of the business might be the last shove up, over, and through the selling-out wall (some part of that edifice is still standing in 2013, right?).
It’s no surprise advertisers and TV music supervisors have warmed to Penner’s bubbly indie electro-pop sound — it fits snuggly between the off-kilter quirkiness of The Shins and the ass shaking glitz of Katy Perry. And whereas scoring a popular, radio-friendly hit often comes at the expense of depth, Penner manages to weave genuine pieces of humanity along with an element of mood into her songwriting without sacrificing the airy pleasantness of the music. What this means to you is that you can listen in the car, with the windows down, bobbing your head, singing along, and still feel good about yourself.
As a dad to a pair of girls under ten years old, having female musical voices heard in my home is important. This isn’t always easily accomplished though as I’ve long since had a negative bias towards frontwomen in rock-n-roll. I know, I know…but I don’t know why. This is changing though, no doubt because I’m getting older, wiser, and well, I’ve got two girls singing to me all day every day. It’s incumbent upon me seek out & play quality pop radio tunes made for and by young(ish) women. I can’t have my daughters bellying up exclusively to, musically speaking, a testosterone buffet. I’d like for them to develop an ear for the good stuff produced by members of their own gender. So far this involves, in the grown up world, the likes of Dala, Brandi Carlile, Norah Jones, a little bit of Sharon Jones, some Alabama Shakes, a touch of Robyn, and a pair of tracks by April Smith & The Great Picture Show. But as superb as those acts are, they generally lack the propensity for the brand of carefree pop often heard in their peer group. Yeah, they can be a bit heavy. That balance of craft(wo)manship and a good time always seemed just a bit out of reach. No more. Penner’s music has that same brand of studiousness but also loosens up enough to be labeled ‘summery.’
The Hawaiian native, and current SoCal resident, Jess Penner spoke with us about her ideal target audience, her financial success with song placements, the struggle to be heard before seen as a modern female artist, and her new indie rock trio We Cry Diamonds.
For nearly a year now, my 8 and 5-year-old daughters have been dancing to and singing along with “Life Is Rosy,” “Let Go”, and other songs from Growing in the Cold. It all mixes in nicely with our diet of kindie (kid’s + indie) music that I cover on my own site, and has, along with Brandi Carlile, Dala, and April Smith & the Great Picture Show, filled a gaping void in our library — credible female pop. Describe your ideal audience member? Are my kids in your demographic?
I think my music appeals to a lot of very different groups of people… I get feedback from kids all the way up to people in their 80’s from all kinds of backgrounds in life. I would say however, that my biggest response comes from girls in the 12-17 range. This makes me really happy because I think they need to have access to more messages than “your body and sexuality are your power”… which is about 90% of what is communicated to them by media right now.
Music was once a communal affair, a shared experience where traditions and stories were passed on to younger generations. What role did music play in your early years and what role do you see it playing in a modern home — one ripe with isolationist electronic devices, countless media outlets, and more technological diversions than we know what to do with?
My early experiences with music were vast but came from limited sources. #1 – Dad with his acoustic guitar on his knee singing away on the porch, #2 – My mom’s record player (Yes – like vinyl records of Carly Simon, etc), and #3 – The oldies radio station on Kauai (where I grew up). My parents have always loved / been huge consumers of music and of course this was before the invention of the iPod, so it was truly a communal affair. I have never really thought of music changing into a private experience in our culture until this moment… wow… that makes me frowny.
As the youngest child, by a mile, in my family, I grew up with a lot of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and WWII-era songs (“Over There,” for example) before finding my way to college radio in my late-teens. What music soundtracked your childhood? Who are the artists/bands that inspired you to begin songwriting and who currently is in heavy rotation on your iPod/turntable?
Ahhh, I like this question! My dad listened to a lot of folk / rock and my mom was primarily into oldies / Motown / pop. So we listened to a lot of Jackson 5, the Supremes, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Eagles, Billy Joel… that kind of thing. I remember finding a CD of U2’s Joshua Tree album one summer in my dad’s stereo and my mind being completely blown by how much I could love a record! Also, growing up on a small isolated island, I wasn’t really exposed to any type of relevant pop culture until at least Junior High. When I was like 12, I got one of those fliers in the mail from BMG and started ordering CD’s based on the weirdness of the band name or album title. This got me listening to Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Nirvana… and Metallica… that’s when I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar and impress all the boys with my soloing skills via my rendition of “Fade to Black.”
Talk about your process a bit: how and when do you craft a song? Are you disciplined in setting aside time each day or are you more of a ‘wait for inspiration to strike’ type?
Oh, I am 100% into discipline when it comes to writing. I used to be more of a ‘wait for inspiration to strike’ type, but once I decided it would be my profession, I started to treat it accordingly. I am a very task oriented busybody so if I don’t set aside time specifically to write and force myself into my writing room to work, I end up cleaning the grout in the bathroom or doing laundry or making some baked treat… or watching kittens eat watermelon on YouTube… that kind of thing.
Before I was able to support myself via art it was harder to find the time to sit down and work, but now I spend 3-4 days a week writing when I’m working on a new project… usually 5-6 hours a day with some breaks here and there. That’s about the most I can get away with, being that I am also a mom and a wife with two dogs and seven chickens that need feeding and cleaning up after, and taking care of
I don’t have a specific process or procedure I follow. Sometimes it starts with a song title idea, sometimes a bass line, or sometimes I pull up a drum machine and see where the beat takes me. Usually the lyrics flow wherever I am in my life in that moment.
Growing in the Cold is such a striking album for me because of the shifting moods throughout the song cycle. Not that I was expecting all rainbows and cupcakes going into it, but the depth of emotion – both lyrically and sonically on songs like “Fly Away”, “I Won’t Change”, “Built to Break”, and “The Lucky One” – surprised me. You are conveying certain relationship-based states of mind in a very honest and real way, capturing the joy and heartbreak on either side of that fine line we have all walked at some point. Do you write from experience or are these songs a pastiche of shared memories and/or fictional stories?
Yay! Rainbows and cupcakes! I love it, haha. I write both from my own experiences as well as reactively to what I am exposed to via friends and media, etc. “I Won’t Change” for instance came from a situation with a friend who always kind of hid her true self from whoever she was with in order to please them… I noticed that it always ended in bitterness because she ended up feeling oppressed by other people and what they “expected” from her. Why not just be yourself and let people decide if they want what they see? That song was me trying to communicate that message. I aim to be insightful, I like to look into a situation and find the truth in it. I have been inspired by my family, movie plots, tabloid stories, Discovery Channel nature specials, my neighbor, pure imagination… all of it.
How has your success in obtaining song placements impacted your songwriting? Do you find yourself writing for scenarios or moods more with this stream of revenue opened for you?
I definitely write to attain a certain mood. I think any powerful song (whether it’s a traditional hit or ad song) transports you into state of mind faster and more effectively than almost anything else. I very rarely write specifically for pitches, but I do always have “what would this work for?” and “I am saying something new?” in the back of my mind. I think this has helped me create a lot of variety on my records because I have no practical use for multiple songs that create the same emotion (unless I’m doing it better than I’ve done before). In this way, my goal as an artist creating a record is different than someone on a more traditional path who is trying to make a record that delivers one theme consistently over several songs.
For female artists, more media attention is often paid to their look and their looks before or all together instead of their musical chops. As a father two a pair of young girls, this is terribly frustrating but not exclusive to music — female athletes, broadcasters, and so on are treated in a similar fashion. How do you find balance within this reality, and deal with the way of the world when it comes to how you are seen and heard in the public domain?
I am very frustrated by the images most female artists choose to portray these days. I think it’s funny because every major labels dream demo is young tween/teen girls, but when you look at what the modern day pop star is delivering visually and lyrically you could swear it was all for adult men… I think the main message they are trying to sell is seduction and it’s too bad really. We are so much more than how hot we can look in a nude bodysuit and 4 inch heels. Do I want to be loved because I can rock a thong on stage? Or because I can connect to your heart through the words I say and how they are delivered? Physical beauty fades, time ages, I don’t want to chase that carrot… being sweet and honest and endearing are way more attractive in the end anyways.
Your new trio We Cry Diamonds released its first single a year ago this month, the pounding “Oh My My My Oh.” What does this band provide you in terms of a creative outlet that your solo career does not?
I get to be sassy, sarcastic, and raw. Every song on the WCD record was written, produced, and recorded in one day. This eliminated a lot of agonizing over the details, second guessing, and general fussiness of trying to make something flawless. It was probably the most fun I have ever had making a record – and I hope that comes across when people listen to it.
I hear an increased amount of electronica on Growing in the Cold, giving your songs a more robust sound and, at times, making them more haunting. Is this an intentional shift in your music? Do you see yourself continuing to blend such sounds in with your acoustic guitar pop? Anything else you are curious about adding to the mix on future records – horns, strings, duets?
Yes, it was definitely intentional. I wanted more sonic variety on Growing in the Cold, and using more programming allowed it. You can add a ton of fun little synth details to a mix without weighing it down. Also, I love the drama that a string section can bring and have used live players as well as plug-ins like Mellotron to get what I’m after. I get bored fairly easily so finding new sounds helps me stay excited about what I’m doing.