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?”
Long story short, I didn’t end up signing with that label 'cause the paperwork wasn’t right and it was a little shady, but the producer reached out to me after the fact, and we got in the studio and just talked about the vibe for it and the feeling. We just had this awesome chemistry.
I think he was at a similar point where he was producing to pay the bills and very frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t make the music he wanted and make the money off of that. So we both just found this common ground where we just wanted to build something a little more meaningful. Once we got connected, I started getting in the studio regularly [with him] and we just built this project from that point on.
OKP: The other song you have out is called “Free.” Is that from the same sessions?
JM: Yup, but its actually the last song on the album. So you have the dark beginning and the uplifting end and then you’ll see what’s in the middle.
OKP: Roughly how much stuff is in the album?
JM: It’ll be ten songs.
OKP: And whats the plan from here?
JM: Right now we’re really focusing on the single campaign. This is really sort of the passion project for me, especially since this is where it all started. At the moment, I just wanna get as many people as possible to hear it. This is a very emotional project for me--and in a lot of ways people say that its a mistake for me to be so emotionally attached to my first album cause you didn't necessarily get the liberty of that creative freedom.
But now that I’m so married to it, it would be really hard for me to do it any other way. "Jail Keeper" is really the introduction to that story and what I'm hoping is that its gonna be something that people can relate to, that people are moved enough that they’ll be interested in the rest of the story...so I’ll be able to tell it the way I want, you know?