Singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs has partied in our soybean fields and experienced the joy of the perfect thrift-shop find right here in Champaign, but this Friday at the Highdive will mark the first time she plays for us. Smile Politely sat down with the charming and quirky Ms. Youngs before she set off on a week-long tour to discuss success, hard work, and the art of staring down a wildebeest (and then writing a song about it).
On August 14, 2006, roughly 578,000 viewers tuned in to the season two premiere of Showtime’s Weeds and watched, slack jawed, as pot-dealing soccer mom Nancy Botwin fled her boyfriend’s house after learning he was a DEA agent. During this pivotal scene, a sweet, perhaps even angelic voice reiterates what must have been Nancy’s thoughts, “What the fuck was I thinking?” Not since Juliana Hatfield has a singer cursed so sweetly — so effortlessly — and the day after the episode aired, the internet buzzed with the question: “Who was that singing and where can I find that song?”
Jennifer Owen Youngs was one of the over half million viewers watching Weeds that night, but she wasn’t concerned with whether or not Nancy’s agent boyfriend knew about her lucrative-yet-illicit side business. Youngs was worried about how she would explain to a living room full of friends why her song hadn’t aired on the premiere as she had promised — that television is a fickle beast and artists sometimes don’t know until the moment a show airs if their song will make the final cut. Luckily for Youngs and her guests (and those first introduced to her music that evening), “Fuck Was I” did indeed air during the premiere. The rest, as they say, is internet history.
In the seven years since that fateful evening, Youngs has been careful to not let the momentum of her internet fervor die down. In between touring with the likes of Regina Spektor and William Fitzsimmons, Youngs has been promoting three studio albums via sites such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and Stageit. After parting ways with Canadian record Label Nettwerk in 2010, Youngs launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised over $38k to fund her 2012 album An Unwavering Band of Light. Before leaving for her Midwest tour, Youngs took some time to speak with us about her most recent project and what role, if any, the internet might play in its creation.
Jenny Owen Youngs: “Your Apartment”
Jenny Owen Youngs: Right now I’m doing an eight-week serial song project [which she’s named Exhibit and is available on her Bandcamp page]. Every week I go to a museum in New York and within a week I write and record a song that was inspired by that visit and release it the following week. I’m holding myself accountable every week to create new materials based on an art or science-based experience. It’s really been awesome. I’m making the American Museum of Natural History sort of the cornerstone of the project. I started there, I just went there for the halfway point [of the project] and I’ll probably do my final song there just because it’s so massive, and the spectrum that is incased in that enormous building is so broad — I started the first week in the hall of marine life and really focused there (“Here Comes the Monster”), and this week I focused entirely on space and the universe (“North Star”), and I’ll probably focus on dinosaurs for the last round when I get there. (The third track off the project, “I Can’t Resist” was inspired by a visit to the Museum of Sex in New York.)
Smile Politely: That’s a unique and gutsy approach to songwriting — what made you decide to go this route?
Youngs: I grew up in sort of the country about an hour and a half out of the city in New Jersey, and I was always coming into the city; I was always coming in to see shows, to go to museums, to see theatre. Every minute I wasn’t at school or at my job I was coming in to see things and hear things, and once I moved here, especially with the amount that I traveled for music stuff, I just sort of like — you fall into a rut where you kind of take the incredible amenities that are available here for granted. And I wanted to stop doing that. I wanted to have a reason and a specific focus for writing and I wanted to get into a weekly swing of things.
SP: It sounds like you sort of have to follow your whimsy on a project like this. How much is planned out ahead of time and how much is just seeing what speaks to you that particular day?
Youngs: I’ve been doing a lot of following my whimsy with this whole process, which is not really a natural part of my makeup. I’m very into order, directions, a general sense of purpose. But for these eight weeks I’m just trying to walk into a place that I’m either really familiar with or that I’ve never been to before and just sort of follow the path that seems to present itself.
SP: Has it been pretty easy for you to create music out of that?
Youngs: You know, I was so very nervous, but it has been really awesome. I wouldn’t quite say easy because — at least my experience is that there are a lot of stages of self-loathing and a lack of self-worth. There are a lot of layers of that to sort of kick through while trying to make something and convince yourself, ‘No, this is a thing that people might want to hear!’
Youngs: I would say yeah. I mean, I feel like you’re not really faced with a concrete narrative, but I feel like it’s the nature of people when you’re standing in a big hall looking into a diorama of a wildebeest getting taken down by a lion, you unconsciously — or consciously — create a narrative for yourself. So even when you’re not necessarily being told, ‘This is what happened and how it happened,’ you’re still taking in something that’s not a part of your everyday life and that’s, in a way, otherworldly. There’s something almost magical about these huge animals that we don’t encounter in any kind of regular way that gets your cog turning in a way that’s not entirely different than, say, reading about the Brian Jonestown Massacre (which the song “So Long” from An Unwavering Band of Light is based on). It’s so strange how you can look into something that you may not even understand and, like, have feelings that don’t even make logical sense to you. There’s something so much more magical about that in a way than reading a factual account of some shitty thing that happened.
SP: Are you going to be playing any of the songs from Exhibit on tour?
Youngs: For sure. I haven’t played any of them live yet. I’ve played them via Stageit, but I haven’t played them in a room with people, with microphones, and fear.
SP: What changes when you move from playing shows via the internet to playing them live to a room full of people?
Youngs: I think there’s just more fear involved, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the night. There’s something about playing a song for the first time in front of people that you don’t know in real life that can be really … what’s the right word … unsettling?
SP: What’s the worst case scenario?
Youngs: That I can’t remember how to sing or play it, everyone boos, and then I throw up.
SP: Yeah, that would really stink. Lucky for you, though, Champaign’s a pretty nice town and we appreciate hard-working musicians; we’d never do anything like that to someone who is gracing us with live music. Have you played Champaign before?
Youngs: I’ve not had the pleasure, but I have been to a party in a soybean field near Champaign maybe four or five years ago. I have also been in the city, er, town, er … I always want to say town, but then I feel like the people from a place will feel indignant if I use the word town ‘cause it sounds degrading or something. But I just think it sounds and feels nicer. I feel like cities have a little bit of meanness at their core. My experience in Champaign definitely informed what I just said — my inclination to use the word ‘town.’ [Champaign] had a very warm vibe. Oh, and I bought an incredible marching band uniform jacket in a secondhand shop, thrifty-type store.
Come welcome Ms. Youngs to our quaint little town and hear her sing about quasars and wildebeests Friday at the Highdive. Maybe she’ll even bust out an epic cover song (see below). Doors open at 7 p.m.; local songstress Megan Johns opens.