When asked what provoked her move from Los Angeles to Nashville, Jenny O. is at a loss for words. “I don’t really know what to say. Did you ever want to just pack up your stuff and go?”
The singer-songwriter thinks a bit more — while many people being interviewed fire off stream-of-consciousness responses, Jenny pauses to sort her thoughts and curate her words. “I’m being thoroughly honest about not knowing. I could sit on a therapist’s couch for a few years and get back to you,” she says with a laugh. But she's happy she came back to L.A. to record her second full-length album, Peace & Information, released Aug. 4.
Finally she comes up with a possible answer. “I’d wanted to see how I’d do in a new town, because it took me years of stumbling around in L.A. to find my footing,” she says. The move followed a two-year run of touring with the likes of Leon Russell and Father John Misty behind her debut album, Automechanic, which she wrote as an exploration of her desire to be self-sufficient (for example, being able to fix her own car — hence the title). “As a person who interacts with other people, I’m not graceful or sociable, so it just took me a lot of awkward experience to get somewhere. I wanted to go to a new town and hold my own in a new way.”
After picking up stakes for Nashville, where she moved into a little cabin once owned by Jimmy Buffett, Jenny O. traveled to Austin for South by Southwest in 2014, the same year in which a drunk driver crashed into a crowd, killing four. “I was crossing the street when that car hit a bunch of people,” she says. “I jumped out of the way and watched everybody else get hit. And it fucked me up, and I’m still fucked up. So the rest of my time in Nashville was spent recovering from that.”
As she was trying to make sense of the SXSW tragedy, a friend suggested,"You need to go and sleep, for a start." Three days after the accident, Jenny O. found herself at a Buddhist institute in the desert. She spent two weeks there, sans cellular service, in the pursuit of a reset — something she had been desperately in need of for a long time, she says. “I gave myself permission to rest.”
While at the institute, she refrained from making music. “I wasn't trying to write,” she says. “It took me about another six months before I wrote anything.” As she eased into crafting lyrics again at her cabin in Nashville — something she describes as a “seasonal” process in which, after a year and a half or two, she’ll take collected notes and churn them into poetry for six to eight months — a swarm of topics announced themselves. Out of a laundry list of concepts, she lists a few: “Several different romantic relationships I had during that period of time, two years. There’s a song about trauma. The subject of compassion was driven home with Buddhism. I’m not a Buddhist, but I was applying that to all things. I was thinking about assuming one’s purpose — assuming my full power, which is something I’ve struggled with, as everyone does. Realizing the human experience is more universal than I thought.”
Speaking about the track “People,” which she wrote during the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Jenny O. reveals a passion for the justice that she believes is still generations away. “We’ll be talking about racism, unfortunately, for our generation’s life span and certainly the next. It’s like a pimple has just popped, but the pimple was there,” she says. “Sorry to get gross, but it’s a gross subject.”
Most days, she finds it hard to justify writing anything but protest songs. As an artist, she feels a responsibility to face the conflict of racism and speak about it bluntly, though she suspects that writing a whole record of protest songs is not the right thing for her to do. “Writing a record of protest music sounds like the most insurmountable mountain of difficult work I could ever try to do. I would die before hitting halfway up that mountain. Maybe two-thirds of the way,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve never even been one genre of music. I’ve never been like, ‘I am this sound,’ so to be like, ‘I am this subject’ feels even more absurd to me.”
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Jenny O. finds the most purpose in writing about everyday occurrences — the trivial things that everyone experiences. And these days, she prefers to keep it light. “There were a bunch of sad songs I made for this record that I just didn’t finish because I was like, ‘I definitely don’t want to be playing all these songs for the next two years. I want to be playing fun, rock & roll songs.”
No matter the tone, though, Jenny O. always keeps it personal — remarkably so, for someone so admittedly shy. “Everyone’s living the same questions, and so much is universal that I wanted to share my experiences, and my experiences analyzing my experiences, for the benefit of others,” she says. “Even if it’s just one other person.”
Check out the premiere of Jenny O.'s "Case Study" video below, and catch her with Tristen at Resident on Saturday, Sept. 16.