Analogue Music | Jenny O

Jenny O

By Matt Conner

The idea of a musical release means more than one thing to Jenny Ognibene.

Over the course of multiple EPs and three full-length albums, Jenny O. has developed healthier patterns over time in response to the demands of the music industry. The writing and recording parts are life-giving, but it's the release part that's always proven tricky—an act that comes with expectations and emotions that complicate the creative process. At this point, she says she's learned to "zoom out."

Jenny O.'s latest album, Spectra (Mama Bird), is lovely and layered, imaginative and inspired. Critically and commercially, it holds as much potential as anything hitting the market early this year, but as she knows, such responses are out of her hands. Thus, when an album is released, she also tries to release her hold on it in a different way—and off she goes onto the next creative project.

Before the release of Spectra, however, Jenny O. sat down with us to discuss the creative tension of making music and what she's most proud of on this latest set of songs.

Analogue: I want to talk about Spectra but I’d love to set the stage a bit. Just how far back does all of this go for you—performing, writing, singing, and playing? Or even the notion of a career in music?

Jenny O: Yeah, it started very, very early. It was definitely single digits. My father is a musician and it was always a major part of my life with that music around the house. He was in a cover band and he would cover ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s music—that’s where it stopped. So once or twice a weeks, we’d go to see them at a restaurant or there would be band practice. I learned quickly to sing harmony, and I started to play bass and guitar when I was little. I showed enough proficiency at it enough to think, ‘Oh, this is my thing. I’m into this.’ Then I just gave it all my whole life.

There are times when I was a teenager that I thought I’d find something else or a real job, since I didn’t think you could make a real career at songwriting. I didn’t have an awareness of that because all I knew was covers. So it took me a long time, but yeah, I started young and never ended up diverting from it.


Analogue: You’ve said Spectra is the most meaningful release to date. What’s the difference maker here?

Jenny: I’m not sure if I wrote this, but I’ve said it before, but the difference for me at this moment in my life is that I’ve been in a loving relationship and supported. That has freed me to focus on other things, to write about other things through the lens of that love and support. Before, I think so much of my work was focused on finding love, unrequited love, this or that kind of love, love lost. I couldn’t help but write through those experiences, which were such a focus for me.

I wrote through all of those for several records but I got to this place where it’s like, ‘Okay, what now?’ Not that it came so consciously, but I could pull back the layers of myself and my experience in this world outside of romance—life is long and nothing lasts forever.

I’m not saying I can’t write songs about love…

Analogue: Do you remember when you recognized that? Or was there a moment that you realize you have what you’ve been writing about chasing?

Jenny: I was aware of it while I was doing it. It was a focus of mine since I was very young, certainly as a teenager or even earlier than that. I’ve been so interested and intrigued and I still am. The energy of a crush—ah! What an inspiration! Even writing from the position of a crush or transforming one’s self while in a crush, they’re passionate subjects for me, so I devoted myself to them for so long. Then when I wrote about other things, I felt transformed. I was in a new place.

I will say that I still write about love. There’s no record I’ve put out that only has to do with one thing. If there are, say, 12 songs on a record, then more than half are about this and then there’s one song about that and another about this other thing and some existential piece and another about peace and that rounds out the album, y’know? I would say the ratio is the other way around, that the majority is elsewhere.

Moving forward, I’m now working a concept record, which I don’t want to talk about too much because it’s in the future, but it’s totally outside of that. I feel totally free to apply myself in that direction.

Analogue: So much great art has been made out of heartbreak and you’ve talked about writing out of the crush and the chase and all of that. But you’ve also said this is your most joyful record. Are you surprised by what comes out when the heart is full?

Jenny: It doesn’t feel surprising to me. It only feels abstract when I zoom out and then it’s different. But I don’t feel surprised.

Analogue: Healthier?

Jenny: Yes! And now it feels more interesting.

Analogue: Is that true for you as a person, not just the music?

Jenny: Yes. I think the music is perhaps a product of my well-being now. I’ve finally settled into some healthier habits as a human being.

Analogue: Does that change the way you approach this cycle, then, for Spectra—the writing, the recording, the release, the support?

Jenny: I think that’s only changed as I’ve grown up and put more things out. I’ve learned to expect less and less in terms of you putting something out there and then anything that happens after that is entirely random and unrelated. To put any weight or expectation on it is kind of insane, so as soon as a record is out, I think nothing of it.

I mean, of course, I want it to do great things and have success. Of course, I feel emotions when no one listens to it and the numbers are small. But I only look at that as attachment and my own work to do to be completely disconnected from the results. The results have nothing to do with the work and they never have. I mean, Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime and he’s the only artist anybody knows. So by that measure, it is the only way to live as an artist is to realize the work is the work and anything else is unrelated. Some people in some offices might do good work for you but it has nothing to do with the work itself.

Analogue: Are you good at crowding that out?

Jenny: I’m great at it. [Laughs] That is the maturity and that is the progress. Of course, I want it to do well, but I let go of it last decade.

Analogue: What was the secret sauce to get good?

Jenny: I wouldn’t say that I’m clean of it, of course, because I want this record to do well. I want people to give a shit. I want to be acknowledged for once. [Laughs] But zooming out is what helps. We’re on this spinning planet and we mean nothing and we will die and people will forget us. Eventually, even The Beatles will be forgotten, so it really doesn’t matter… that no one asked me to play at a festival. [Laughs]

Analogue: Let’s get positive here. What are you most proud of on Spectra?

Jenny: I think it’s “Pleasure and Function”. It feels very me. It feels like an embodiment of my spirit, and I say that having both lyrics and melody and arrangements come from somewhere within, where I didn’t consciously write it. I make voice memos obsessively and this music and lyrics kept coming to me and through me, so I just wrote them all down. I never wrote one line of that song; it all just came out. With the recording, the arrangements were all just how they felt they should be. It came out that way. So that I’m really proud of it because when I hear it, it’s exactly how I envisioned it. And it’s about something I believe in deeply which is the simple pleasures in life and how to stay afloat and that change is the only constant so you need to find pleasure in that process.

VISIT: Jenny O | PRE-ORDER: Spectra

Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg