Jenny O. :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Jenny O. is a solitary girl, but she’s happy that way. Her fourth full-length album, Spectra, wrestles with her experiences as an introvert who nonetheless values community. “There is a club,” she sings, just herself but en masse in layered chants and choral profusion. Then she adds, “I’m not in it,” which doesn’t seem to bother her at all. She made Spectra largely by herself, with just her regular drummer Josh Adams and producer Kevin Ratterman for assistance, but it is very far from spare or minimal. Instead, it explodes with complex instrumentation—enveloping 1960s organ blares, slippery threads of bass, synths, guitars and an exceptional clear voice. 

Jenny O. is also a woman who thinks carefully about what she will and will not say, whose conversation is peppered with long caesuras while she decides exactly what she’s going to tell you. But she’s frank and open and good humored, too, as she describes growing up in rock, jazz and classical music, learning to work within her own unique parameters and she’s through writing love songs and wants to dedicate the rest of her life to communicating about the climate. 

“As someone who is an introvert and struggles with connectivity with other human beings. I exist in a very solitary place,” she says. “It’s joyful solitude at this point.” | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Where you were mentally and creatively as you started working on these songs? What was going on in the background?

Jenny O: Well, at the time, I was writing a lot about…I went inward a lot and was really exploring my relationship to other people and my ability to communicate and connect with others. And exploring my neurotype, that’s the word I’ll use. That was a lot of what I was processing at the time I wrote Spectra. 

AD: I understand that you play pretty much all the instruments except for drums. And I love the organ in “Pleasure and Function,” the first song. Have you been playing the organ for a while or is that a new thing for you?

Jenny O: Thanks. Well, no, I’ve been playing keys my whole life. I guess that was my first instrument was an organ. I started on a synthesizer. I’ve always played keys and organs, anything with a keyboard, before I moved up to stringed instruments. 

AD: You’ve got some classical and jazz training. I was wondering if you could tell me about how you started with that and how you got to where you are. 

Jenny O: Early on, I got started in music. At home, but also in school. And so, I was getting the rock and roll at home and classical music at school and later jazz through school. And so, all of that culminated together. By the time I was a teenager, I was playing in rock bands but also in a symphony orchestra. 

AD: It’s very different though, the way that you approach rock and classical and jazz. Did you find it difficult or did they complement each other?

Jenny O: Hmmm, they complemented each other. I think that the freedom of improvisation that came from jazz was really compelling for me, but the power of the orchestra, to this day, I lust for it. The arrangements.

AD: What’s your main orchestral instrument?

Jenny O: Double bass. And so, you know, in the orchestra, there are however many instruments playing different parts. Like 16 different instruments. Maybe it’s less than that, 12 or whatever. And they’re all doing different things. And a rock record can be like that but it’s a bit more stripped down. 

AD: It is hard to have 16 different things going on and also be improvising, though.

Jenny O: Yeah. Totally. 

AD: Which instruments are the fun to you and which are the most essential to the way you want your songs to sound?

Jenny O: I think the bass. The bass is a major throughline in my music. I like a really involved bass line. I think sometimes the bass can lose its power as just being the bottom. But it actually has so much power and when you move the bass line, that power is evoked for me. So that’s probably the main through line. It also implies the chords. Yes, bass is my final answer.

AD: The album, to me, has a big 1960s sound. Almost a Spector-ish Wall of Sound in some of the songs. Can you talk about the sonics you envisioned for the songs that you had written and how you realized them? Did you have an idea for how it should sound before you started?

Jenny O: A little bit. I make demos for all my songs. So, the arrangements are mainly there. I would say that the Wall of Sound could be attributed to Kevin Ratterman, the producer. He is the one who gets all the instruments to sound big and make the wall of the sound. 

AD: Can you tell me about how you connected with him and what you like about working with him?

Jenny O: Yeah, he’s great. I met him through Jim James. He’s worked a lot with him on his records. He’s worked on a lot of great records. And I love him. He’s my partner. I love him. I like working with him because he works fast, and I have to work with fast producers or I get impatient. He steers the ship really well. He is joyful and up for anything. And those are really important qualities to me in working with a producer. So, I can just try everything that comes to mind and also move quickly so that we keep it moving and keep it inspired.

AD: How finished are you when you go into the studio?

Jenny O: I go in with a list of songs, with every lyric done and every song done and arranged completely. I know what I want. 

AD: So pretty done. Did you anything surprise you about the recording process? Did anything turn out different and better than you expected it to? 

Jenny O: Good question, looking at the track list now…I’d like to say one more thing on my last answer. I have to work that way, fast, because I’m terrified of not finishing. So, I come in with every tee crossed every I dotted.

AD: I totally get that. 

Jenny O: I’m like, we’re doing this. We’re spending the money. Let’s get it right. What was the last question again?

AD: Given that you go into the session with things locked in, did anything happen that surprised and pleased you?

Jenny O: I would say pleased. I was pleased with the way that it came out and how all of it sounds. Most of it sounds the way that I implied in the demos. I think that the only thing that comes to mind is that “There Is a Club” was entirely a cappella, and we ended up adding some things to support it.

AD: That is such a fun little track.

JENNY O: Thank you. 

AD: I feel like there’s a tension in this album between some inward-looking, introspective lyrics and then some big dance-y sounds. Do you feel that? Is that something you were going for?

Jenny O: I wasn’t going for a tension. I think I experienced both introspection and great joy. I wanted to make fun music, so I hope that it came out pretty fun. I feel like I’m in the midst of a rebellion against lovely and pretty. So, I think that is there for me.

AD: You have a really clear, piercing voice that just cuts through the sonics. Is there anything you can say about how you present your voice or how you make it sound like that? 

Jenny O: No. I sing how I sing. And I actually try to make it not sound childlike, but I can’t help that I sound, at times, childlike. But it took me a long time to accept my voice, my feminine voice. I grew up listening to men, and the male voice is just accepted. The female voice isn’t always. People will say, oh I don’t like it. This is maybe not said as much anymore. People would say that they don’t like my voice or say things about my voice about it being high or annoying or whatever. I’m getting off topic. It took a long time for me to accept the way that I sing. At times I would be going for Frankie Valley and it would just come out like a little kid. I sound how I sound. I can’t help it. 

AD: Frankie Valley, do you like the older rock and roll sound? 

Jenny O: I do. That’s what I grew up on. I like other things, too. 

AD: What are some of your favorite things to listen to?

Jenny O: These days, I listen to a lot of hip hop. I listen to Alice Coltrane. I’ve been listening to a lot of R.E.M.

AD: That’s an interesting mix of things. So, you’ve got this lyric in “Advice at a Dinner Party” where you’re talking about getting better as you get older. What are some of the things that you’ve learned about yourself and your music and your art as you’ve gotten older?

Jenny O: Myself. My art. As I’ve gotten older. 

AD: Is there anything?

JENNY O: There’s so much. But the resounding thing that I’ve learned is loving what is. It’s so broad it’s hard for me to answer the question. I’m not sure.

AD: I like the nature sounds, the owl, in “The Natural World.” Where did you record those? Is that around your house?

Jenny O: Yes, there were some around L.A. 

AD: There is a lot in this album about solitude, and I was wondering if that was because you wrote some of these songs during the lockdown?

Jenny O: No. It is about my experience as …myself. As someone who is an introvert and struggles with connectivity with other human beings. I exist in a very solitary place. It’s joyful solitude at this point. But it is something that I have been obsessed with and have been studying my whole life and will continue to do so. 

AD: It’s difficult to be solitary in a big city like LA. How do you build that into your life?

Jenny O: It’s not really building it. It’s more like, I am how I am and my interactions in my life have culminated in a constant enthusiastic study of why those interactions are so difficult for me. And that goes back to the subject of autism. I did have an epiphany in this time period, specifically by studying the climate crisis, of understanding that community is essential. I’ve been learning to appreciate that I am part of a community, albeit with my own adventures within connecting, but it doesn’t change who I am. But I do adore my community and I’m grateful for it. 

AD: You did almost all the playing on this record except for the drums. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about Josh [Adams]?

Jenny O: Josh is an incredible drummer. We’ve been friends for over a decade now, and we finally started playing together six or seven years ago. Maybe in 2016 or 2017, he went on a tour with me, and we’ve been playing together ever since. He’s such a flavorful drummer. I love to watch him play. He’s got this bounce. And he’s just a treasure of a human. He always plays things so well, you only need to do like two takes and it’s usually because you want to have an option to do something different the second time. The other thing is, even older songs that I’ve played with josh, he will add this new thing to it that will revitalize it. It’s a whole new song that I’m like, oh my god, I didn’t know it could sound like that. Just a great drummer. 

AD: How do you feel that this album fits into your development, your trajectory as a song writer? Does it try anything different? Does it succeed at things you’ve been working on for a while? Does it change things?

Jenny O: Yeah, I think that this record…I’ve been saying this record is either the last record of my old stuff or the first record of my new stuff. Everything before it is the archives, the old stuff.

AD: Do you always feel that way, or is this different?

Jenny O: No. I feel like there’s a distinct line in the sand for me. I’ve finally made a record that sounds the way I think my records should sound. I shouldn’t say sound because that evokes production. But I think I feel truly embodied in the words in these songs. I’m a little bit more in alignment now. 

AD: Cool. Do you have any favorite bits or lines or moments on this album that really resonate for you when you listen back?

Jenny O: Yeah, I love the arrangement of “Pleasure and Function.” I’m really proud of it. It feels exciting to me. I love the line in “I believe in love and curiosity/I am fascinated with the natural world.” It is an essential mantra for us moving forward. I’m proud of “Golden.” I’m proud of the sentiment in “Golden,” which is acceptance, a warm, fuzzy, unconditional love.

AD: What will you be doing next now that it’s done?

Jenny O: I’ve been working in climate awakening, and I feel like devoting the next years of my life to that.

AD: Really? Doing what?

Jenny O: As a communicator. 

AD: Okay, are you writing or speaking? 

Jenny O: I’m writing. The last couple of years I’ve been getting an education in it. I could choose to go to school, but I can’t afford it, so I’m doing the school of hard knocks. I’m learning to be able to speak on the subject and finding my footing, but I’ll be writing about it because that’s my skill. My skill is not as a speaker.

AD: Do you have any special focus in terms of what part of the climate crisis you’re interested in.

Jenny O: I think that what is most essential is the psychology of it. What’s so fascinating is our denial and paralysis. I want to defuse the paralysis and communicate the plan going forward. Climate scientists have a PR problem because many people don’t realize that there’s a plan. And so I want to communicate goal words like drawdown and regeneration. I want to communicate the plan and how one can be transformed and inspired when going through the fire of activation. It’s not a paralyzing force. It’s actually quite exciting and inspiring. I want to somehow dispel that fear.

AD: Good. Sounds like a big project.

AD: Have you read any good books lately?

Jenny O I really like All We Can Save. It’s by many women but it’s edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Catherine K. Wilkinson. 

AD: What’s it about? I’m not familiar with it?

Jenny O: It’s All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. It actually covers all these different subjects and lets us all know where we’re at and how we can move forward. But honestly, so many books about the climate crisis say the same thing. This one says it really well. And I did like it because it’s written by women. But it’s not like there are various plans. There’s one big plan.

AD: I read the Gates book recently. Have you read that?

Jenny O: I haven’t because initially I was like why read the Gates book, because if he could do it, he should just do it himself. But lately I’ve been thinking I’ll read the Gates book. But before I read it, I need to read the Indigenous books and the Black books. But yes, I will read it. 

AD: I really enjoyed it because, as you were saying, it was about potential solutions. It really wasn’t about how we’re all doomed. It was about what we can do about it. I found it really heartening that there were some things that could be done. 

Jenny O: That’s something that many people need to hear. And there’s definitely a gap in pop culture and pop music. I’ve written about love plenty, I’m good now. I’m ready to devote my life to this. The idea is that we’re stuck in this place. But really the conversation is stuck in this place. We’re not actually stuck. The conversation is stuck in a place where we think about the problem and we don’t envision the future. Other than apocalypse. We’re permitted to envision apocalypse. There are movies to support that. But we’ve not been invited to envision the future that we want. And I think it’s important to communicate to the public, the future, the plans, the goals so we can move past the place of grief into acceptance. 

AD: The Gates book, instead of doom, was all about here’s where we are in batteries, and here’s what we can do about concrete. It was really interesting and also encouraging that there was so much that could be done. 

Jenny O: Yes, it is encouraging. I’ll read the Gates book. I just wanted to read some others, first.

AD: It’s probably a bit out of date now. It’s all about technology, and I imagine the technology has moved on over the last several years. 

Anyway, I have a kind of an open-ended question for you. What do you think makes a great song a great song? 

Jenny O: I think for me, there’s two things happening simultaneously. One is universal message, or at least a message I can get behind, lyrically. When you say song, I think Western, lyric-based song. So, for me, it’s like, what’s being said? And if I’m like, yeah!, then I want to hear it. The lyrics are big for me. But then secondly, it’s the music, it’s the groove, it’s how does it feel. And that can be simple or it can be complex but usually it’s pretty simple. 

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