First Look Friday: Jenn Em - "Jail Keeper" + Exclusive Interview
Long before DMV-bred singer Jenn Em came by to wow the OKP office (a week or so back) with her powerful vox and classical chops, she was as starry-eyed as any young hustler in NYC or L.A.’s music scenes. She hit the open mic circuit with a vengeance, clocking the road hours of a seasoned, disciplined musician as a still-adolescent singer and keys player. After our impromptu in-0ffice acoustic session we quickly understood the nature of the vocal beast at hand.
She played us a stripped-down cut of her booming blues ballad “Jail Keeper,” effectively channeling the often-embattled life of a young musician (even more, a young female musician) into an powerful, earnest anthem. Following a moving performance (strutting a freakish display of vocal prowess,) we caught up with the Chevy Chase, MD native to find out how such a young talent could have already developed the callouses of a veteran in the music industry. At 22, her journey has already taken her across the country and back, landed her on a remix of fellow DMV-native Wale‘s “Nike Boots” and captured the attention of L.A. producer John Q Ho. Safe to say, her travels are far from over. Watch the video for “Jail Keeper” below and read our Q&A with the young Jenn Em for some backstory–and an idea of what to expect from her forthcoming full-length.
OKP: If I was going to describe the sound of “Jail Keeper” I would say there’s a very strong blues influence. Do you consider this to be blues?
JM: Yeah, definitely. I’m not as versed in blues music, so I not try not to talk about it, ’cause I don’t want to sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about! But I’ve definitely listened to a fair amount of blues and been influenced more by that sort of vocal. Not necessarily sounding pretty, but sounding really raw and emotional.
OKP: You mention Janis Joplin as an influence, are there people out here closer to your generation own that have similarly influenced you?
JM: I mean Amy Winehouse has an incredible voice and I get those comparisons a lot. I’m influenced by them vocally and melodically, but I try not to write love songs. So yeah, I try to keep the subject matter different.
OKP: Do you ever listen to blues rock stuff like The Black Keys? White Stripes?
JM: I listened to a lot of White Stripes when I was in high school actually. “Seven Nation Army” is the only song I know how to play on the bass…as it is with most people.
OKP: Do you mind expanding a bit on the backstory of “Jail Keeper”.
JM: Well, I just hit the ground and I didn’t really know where to go, didn’t know how to navigate. I think when you’re young and in a city like that (L.A.), it’s easy to get taken advantage of and lose yourself in the process. I kept making mistakes over and over again and not realizing how to learn from them, how to grow or do things differently.
That, to me, is something that’s very frustrating. I don’t like to make the same mistake twice, so if I can change it or figure out a way to get out of it I just find myself stuck in this rut. So that’s where I found myself then and just didn’t know how to talk about it and or how to do anything about it.
I basically wrote this song and started performing at open mics and put a video up on Youtube of it. Basically, I was talking to a record label and they were interested in signing a development deal with me. Then they put me in the studio, without knowing about “Jail Keeper” or the record.
I told them I wrote, but they didn’t really care. So they put me in the studio while they were working on the paperwork and they just had me cutting these cookie cutter pop records; very Disney. I just wasn’t feeling it but I mean I wasn’t in a position to say “this really isn’t me” cause it’s my first opportunity. So while we were in a session, the guys were mixing and I said “hey, while you guys are playing around, you should hear this song I wrote. And I played it, and they literally stopped mixing the record and were just like “why didn’t we record that?”