Jenny Owen Youngs: Threading tTe Needle With ‘Transmitter Failure’

JennyOwenYoungs-02-bigIt would be easy to compare Montclair, N.J., singer/songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs with Liz Phair based solely on her candid, brazen lyrics.

But, you’d be missing the whole picture of who Youngs is.

Youngs picked up the guitar at age 14 and went on to graduate from State University of New York at Purchase with a degree in studio composition. (The prestigious, yet obscure, art school also claims Regina Spektor, Jeffrey Lewis, Langhorne Slim, the Moldy Peaches’ Adam Green, and Kimya Dawson among their alumni.)

Youngs sparked national interest when she self-released her debut albumBatten the Hatches in 2006, and the song “Fuck Was I” was used in the second season premiere of Showtime’s “Weeds.” This led the blossoming singer to a record deal with Canadian indie label Nettwerk Records, which re-released her strong debut in April 2007, with new artwork and an additional track, “Drinking Song.”

Transmitter Failure is Youngs’ beautiful follow-up album. The 13-track disc finds the songwriter coloring outside the lines with the use of layered, electric instrumentation – like on the bass-driven, bouncy lead track “Led to the Sea.” Still, Youngs’ anchor in her music is her beautiful word play, comparing a failed relationship to surgery in “Clean Break” and cooking up elegant metaphors in “Here is a Heart.”

Yes, indeed, Jenny Owen Youngs is back in a big way with Transmitter Failure, and we had the chance to sit down with this cute, quirky musician to see what stories she had to tell.

Innocent Words: You’ve been compared to everyone from Liz Phair to Regina Spektor to Erin McKeown. How would you describe your music to those who haven’t heard it?

Jenny Owen Youngs: Well, I usually just say “pop music” and try to change the subject. I never know what to say that won’t err on either the side of self-deprecation or over-confidence. I hope that some people find my music smart and catchy and compelling, but that is of course up to everyone else but me. My songs are my blood and guts and brains stewed together, and then stuffed into delicate little miniature shepherd’s pies by Dan (Romer, producer). Gross, but as accurate as I can get. Oh and I love The Beatles / The Beach Boys / Elliott Smith / Sleater-Kinney / Joni Mitchell / The Strokes / etc.

IW: You seem to have a great sense of humor. How important is it to you to keep some of your songs lighthearted?

Youngs: Well, I can’t actually think of anything I’ve written with the intention of keeping it light. But once you make something and send it into the world, I guess that makes it open to interpretation, and that’s one of the great things about music. As a listener, songs I love mean to me whatever they mean to me, regardless of the writer’s intention, and that’s something that just belongs to me – my direct, personal interpretation of a song. I do try to keep things light during shows, as a lot of the material has to do with un-love, with the occasional cancer song thrown in there. But that’s just how I interact with anyone in real life, outside of a song – I’d rather be laughing than crying, if you know what I mean. And if you’re going to fill everyone’s ears with an hour-long set of sad songs, the least you can do is crack a joke once in a while.

IW: When you self-released your album, “Fuck Was I” was used on “Weeds.” How did that happen?

Youngs: The magic of the music industry! I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

IW: Did you have a lot of label interest after the success on “Weeds,” and what made you choose Nettwerk?

transYoungs: I met with a few labels, and I liked Nettwerk’s approach a lot; they have opinions but aren’t overbearing about my creative end of things, which is wonderful. They’re very tech-minded, and since we live in the future, that is important. And, they believe in grassroots growth.

IW: The new album is just amazing. You seem to branch out stylistically. How would you say this album is different from Batten the Hatches?

Youngs: Oh well, thank you so much!  I wanted to make an album that would be more fun to play live. I’d been listening to louder records.

IW: Is there any special meaning to the title Transmitter Failure?

Youngs: I chose to use Transmitter Failure as the title track for the album because I found the strongest thread running through this collection of songs to be an examination of our methods of communication as human beings in relationships. It has been my experience that when something (romantic, sure, but also otherwise) starts breaking down, or can’t get off the ground to begin with, the first thing to check is how we are attempting to communicate. For a species with many languages, a variety of communication platforms, and so many other relevant tools, we sure could stand to work out accurately expressing ourselves. Or, maybe it’s just me.

IW: I think you’re the first person I’ve ever heard use “battered and braised, grilled and sautéed” in a song lyric. Are you good in the kitchen?

Youngs: Only at pancakes and steamed vegetables so far.

IW: Like in “Here Is a Heart” and its cooking reference, in “Clean Break” you reference (compare?) a break up to surgery. Is double meaning something you look to do when writing a new song?

Youngs: Well, I try to keep things interesting, for myself and for anyone who is listening. I don’t want to just show you a Xerox of my divorce lawyer’s invoice. I want you to hear the plates break against the wall and smell the burning rubber when I peel out of your driveway.