Interview by Rivka Yeker
Jenn Champion first entered my life through Carissa’s Wierd, a slowcore band that originated in the ‘90s. The band was there for me in my most deepest of depressions, the sunken moments, dark and drowned in the tunes of sad people. It wasn’t until years later that I was introduced to S, Jenn Champion’s solo project, which released its first record Puking and Crying in 2004.
While her work has witnessed the growth and decline of my life, it held me in a chokehold during my first break-up. The album im not as good at it as you became the only thing pulling me through the muck of a disastrous first relationship. Recently, I was able to talk about the record in front of an audience of people at a Chicago venue for a literary series where locals are invited to speak on the records that influenced them the most. This record wasn’t the first record I ever listened to, nor was it the one that necessarily inspired me the most, but it was one that resonated with me so deeply during a time that I sincerely believed I couldn’t ever escape.
Jenn, who is in L.A. spoke with me over the phone about the way her music has evolved, emotions, and queer visibility. I ask her, “All of your solo records have been either gut-wrenching break-up records or processing weird feelings in relation to them. You seem content and good. You have a wife, you’re teaching guitar, this album is going to be a pop record, what is the inspiration behind these songs?”
She says she writes about what is currently happening to her. She half-jokingly talks about how she’s been around “indie-rockers” for so long, how now she’s being inspired by pop, and it’s usually rooted in the actual production of it. Brian Fennell, also known as SYML, is producing her forthcoming record Single Rider. Fennell is also in the band Barcelona, but SYML is his slower, more pop inspired project. While they both come from indie rock backgrounds, they are working to put together the ultimate Emotional Pop record. Jenn says, “It’s almost like a reaction to Cool Choices” which was her most recent S record. Cool Choices was sort of the slow introduction to the pop music she’d segue into, with its quiet electronic beats and catchy choruses.
I am curious about the transition into pop music, more so because I am all for it. Lately, there has been a resurgence of pop music in alternative spaces, where pop icons are more celebrated and it is more acceptable to like pop than it ever was before. In the music industry, she says, “It’s hard to be authentic, and I’m not very marketable.” It makes me wonder, what is marketable anymore? While she’s experimenting, not necessarily with the intention to be marketable, but mostly to play around with the music itself, she is working hard to master the art of pop. She says, “If I pissed off the punk rockers, then I absolutely made a pop song.”
Her records for so long have been deeply sad and I ask earnestly, “Do you think you need to be sad to write music?” It is not always easy to write when you are in the lowest of slumps; creative energy is often stripped from us when we need it most, and she agrees. She says, “Sometimes I have to work through it all, before I can write about it,” and then continues, “I think I’ll always kinda lean sad, no matter what I write, it’s always underlying. I can be content and say I’m also sad at times.” This makes sense to me. Sometimes sad is just what we know best, like a comfortable home in which we have always lived.
It is impossible to listen to Jenn Champion without picking up that she is writing about queer relationships. Yet, I know identity is a confusing and strange concept to navigate. I ask her if she’d rather be referred to as a “queer musician” or to just let people figure it out on their own. She says, “Right now, it feels important to be visible as a queer artist.” I agree with her, especially as the term becomes more nuanced, more fluid, and potentially more complicated, I think since she has been a musician for a long time, let alone a queer musician for a long time, her presence is a strong one.
I ask her about the first project she worked on at 17. She says, “We [Carissa’s Wierd] were a tight crew (as friends). It was cool to have those types of relationships growing up.” I think about being a young person in a scene like that, how it molds you and transforms you. I think about how it was always different for me because I was never part of the band, but merely the attendee, the overseer, the community member. She talks about shows with only ten people in the audience. She says, “Music that was being made at that time was so raw.”
The music that she’s referring to was this sort of sub-genre of indie and punk adjacent to the grunge scene. It was for the people that preferred basement shows and tiny venues. The late ‘90s were filled with an onslaught of early emo, slowcore, and screamo. I think of bands (aside from Carissa’s Wierd) like Pedro The Lion, Cap’n Jazz, Saetia, and so forth. I envy anyone that was able to experience those bands at their most stripped down and fresh, barely adults who just wanted to make loud, emotional music.
Jenn had other major influences including: Cat Power, Arches of Loaf, and Sleater Kinney. Each with their own authentic sound, their roots buried in punk and indie rock, were major icons in the ‘90s. She says that she likes the way Spotify operates as a music platform, says it “feels like MTV. It’s gotten back to this ‘unknown artist’.” The unknown artist is the artist we all spent our time searching for, whether it was via MTV or Fuse or Vh1, or it was on Yahoo music digging through music videos. Perhaps it was even when we got poor quality songs (or even an entirely different one that expected) through Limewire. Jenn even says she’ll still go to the record store and just choose any random $1 record. There is still something magical about stumbling over an artist for the first time and genuinely being taken aback.
Jenn says, “I recently got into a subgenre of ‘Outrun.’ It’s like you’re watching a car driving in an ‘80s music video.” The name comes from the 1986 driving arcade game “Out Run” which was known for its synthwave soundtrack. It’s clear the Jenn’s most recent work is being inspired by that, since she’s taking us back to the ‘80s with spandex workout music videos and moody electronic beats.
Jenn Champion, has always stayed true to her music, producing what she wanted to hear in the world and unapologetically putting herself into it. I ask her what she could say to people who aspire to do what she does, to no matter what, not be swayed by an industry just for the sake of being marketable. She says, “You really have to deal with disappointment. Accepting disappointment and learning to not let it shut you down is the key. You have to be able to keep getting excited about things even if no one might like it. Be disappointed and move on.”
This is important for me to hear and is something I am always struggling to grapple with. It is the foundation of experimental and avant-garde art, yet somehow it feels impossible to ignore the desire to please the masses. It also doesn’t help that our success is tied to how commodifiable our art is.
Jenn emphasizes the need to stay excited about your work. She says, “Don’t say ‘I don’t care.’ People are so afraid of being disappointed or getting their feelings hurt by the industry.” But it is bound to happen. Critics might love your work while the masses don’t and vice versa. Regardless, there will be people who love it, and that’s what counts. Jenn Champion’s fanbase is dedicated and has stayed by her side throughout the years, and I think that counts more than anything else.
It is important for her to meet people who appreciate her work, to speak with them after shows, to engage with them over time. Jenn Champion’s aim is to create, to bond, and to put something honest out in the world. For her most recent record, and her upcoming record, it also means putting something that you can both dance and cry to, maybe even at the same time. Her work is so special because it isn’t asking you to choose. It is providing a space and expressing vulnerability, embracing emotion while simultaneously capturing the pure essence of pop; I’d call it intentional pop music.
Jenn Champion once wrote songs about deep melancholy, abusive relationships, and toxic behaviors. All of those things are a part of her. In everything she does, she cannot detach from experiences and emotions she once had or still has, but now she is moving towards a new era. One that is filled with celebrating love, friendship, and dancing. Her work has impacted many people over many years, all of us holding her music close to our tender hearts and relating our pain to hers. It is an inspiring thing to watch a musician grow into a sound that makes most sense right now. It almost feels like we can do that, too.