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Interview: Jenny Owen Youngs

2 October 2023

Photo by Josh Goleman

Jenny Owen Youngs has been releasing music for nearly 20 years, whether it be singles, EPs, or full lengths and, in the last decade, the singer-songwriter has gotten into the co-writing game. If you check the credits on some of pop’s biggest hits by the likes of Panic! At the Disco (“High Hopes”) and Pitbull (“Bad Man”), you’ll see Youngs’ name. She’s hosted and produced two successful rewatch podcasts (Buffering the Vampire Slayer, The eX-Files), and, on a personal level, became a mother earlier this year when her wife, Jess Abbott (Now Now, Tancred), gave birth to a baby boy. And, somehow, with all this going on in her life, Youngs managed to pull together ten tracks for her first full-length album in ten years, Avalanche, released by Yep Roc Records in September.

Finding the rare free time on a Friday afternoon, Youngs joined me on a Zoom call to discuss her busy schedule, the joys of hosting podcasts, and explaining a few of Avalanche’s standout tracks.

The headline is that this is your first full-length album in 10 years but the reality is you’ve been busy the last decade, it’s not like you set aside music and just came back to it. What was the reason for a full length now?

JENNY: I think, to me, the question is, “Why other things instead of a full length?” The last record I put out was in 2012 and I did the big U.S. loop in the van. At the end of that, I was tuckered out. I had put out a couple of records with Nettwerk and then I had gone back to self releasing and I was like, “What’s going on? What’s next?”

I tried some things. I worked with prompts. I did this serial song project where I would go to a museum on a Tuesday when I was living in New York and then write a song inspired by something in the museum and record it and release it by the next Tuesday and then go to another museum.

I was playing around. I was having fun and kind of thinking about what was next. Then I started working with a manager who also manages Dan Wilson of Semisonic and of Adele smashola fame. He’s a very successful writer as well as an amazing artist. Our manager was like, “Jenny, I think maybe you could be good at this. I think maybe you should try writing songs with other people.”

I started taking trips to LA to do co-writing sessions. And then I ended up moving to LA because I was going there so often. I was very immersed in session writing with other writers to pitch for film and television. That was my Monday to Friday. And I started, on a lark, with my then wife Kristin Russo, this Buffy the Vampire Slayer recap podcast called Buffering the Vampire Slayer. I was like, “It’ll be so fun. It’ll be so easy. It’ll feel like nothing at all so we should also write a song for every single episode as we go through this 144-episode television series.” I was doing that on the nights and weekends.

Gradually, over years, while working on these other projects, I started to slowly accumulate these snow drifts of songs. I put out a couple of EPs over those years, a batch of songs here, a handful of songs there, that I either wrote by myself or with people I was getting to know musically through writing sessions.

Then the pandemic happened and I snuck out the back door of Los Angeles and moved to southern coastal Maine. I was like, “If I can leave Los Angeles, I can probably do anything including make another record.”

At that point I had 25 or 30 songs kicking around that felt like contenders and my current manager, Josh Goleman, encouraged me to have a meeting with Josh Kaufman, producer, multi-instrumentalist, mystical virtuoso. He’s amazing. We had a little getting-to-know-you Zoom call and decided to take the plunge. We booked a week-and-a-half, and I went to Kingston, New York, and we worked in D. James Goodwin’s studio. We spent a week-and-a-half going wild, making songs in a way that I had not made a record before, starting with vocals. I’d sing and play guitar and Josh would play something else – piano, organ, guitar, drum. That would be the foundation. I come from a recording background of stacks of tracks. Start with a click track, get a scratch guitar, get a scratch vocal, build the whole arrangement around that and then go back and do real guitars and real vocals, which is an effective way to do things. But Josh was like, “No, we should do it like this. It’ll feel more alive, it’ll feel exciting.” He’s like, “We could make it perfect but then it would be perfect.” I was like, “Wow, amazing. I love that. Let’s go.”

I feel like I answered a bunch of questions you didn’t ask, and maybe the one that you did.

That’s okay (laughs), I love hearing the stories. Video conferencing was around before the pandemic but it took on new life. Had you used it much?

JENNY: I had moved from Brooklyn to LA to do tons of writing, but a lot of my close friends, and my closest musical buddies, were still in Brooklyn. There were a handful of people that I would occasionally write with over Skype or FaceTime. I think I had a little bit of an advantage over my co-writing peers in that I had done a fair amount of it before all of a sudden the entire industry, and also everyone else’s industry, moved on to Zoom.

In my co-writing experience in LA, you’ve got to drive 30 or 40 minutes to get to your session. Then you talk for an hour. Then you walk to get coffee. Then you sit down and you’re like, “Okay. Cool.” We get a little bit of a melody and then it’s time for lunch. Then it’s eight o’clock and you’re like, “Cool, we have half of a verse and a chorus.” It doesn’t feel like my day’s work is really fulfilling me.

I found that moving on to Skype, you take out the possibility of walking to get coffee and ordering lunch together. You take that out of the equation, and it pairs things down. I was finding writing a whole song in two or three hours to be the norm on Zoom versus the uncertain results or the much longer writing sessions in person.

Are you able to make some money co-writing?

JENNY: I’ve been really lucky and I’m so grateful for that luck. I’ve been involved in a couple of songs that have either had success at mainstream radio or had a really robust licensing life.

For me, it’s been a huge part of being able to take a minute to make this record and pivot. The hit makers, the people who are just like making tons of smasholas, are living life and they’re doing great. In the more middle-class of songwriters, if you are lucky and you work hard, then you can definitely at least make a living or supplement your living. I always think about my sort of livelihood as like a lot of pots under a leaky roof. And I’m like, “I just go shift the pots, prioritize these leaks, and pray that at the end of the month, everything is cool.”

What’s the oldest song on Avalanche? And what’s the most recent one that you wrote for the album?

JENNY: “Goldenrod,” “Next Time Around” and “Bury Me Slowly” are all from 2014, 2015-ish. The last song I wrote might be “Set It On Fire”. I wrote that in maybe August of 2021. I was in Nashville for a writing trip and I wrote that with Mikky Ekko. And then I went in to make the record in November of 2021.

Having written some of those songs 8 or 9 years ago, do those songs mean the same thing to you today as they did when you wrote them?

JENNY: A lot has happened in the last 10 years. I feel very comfortable singing and playing those songs. I’m not cringing internally like, “What version of me wrote this song and where can I find them to kick their ass?” I think if I felt weird about them, they would have fallen by the wayside and not been in the big pile of songs that we were pulling from. As I made some EPs here and there over the years, I kept these songs to the side because I felt like they’re important to me and I wanted them to be in a specific kind of context, an album context.

The way music has changed, does it feel like a full length isn’t as important as it used to be now that you can write a song, record it, and upload to Bandcamp or Soundcloud all in the same day?

JENNY: So, like, what’s the point of a record? You can work with singles or work with albums or make EPs or do a variety of those things. I have done a variety of those things over the last bunch of years. At the end of the day, you can’t control who finds your music. You can better your odds by finding a good label partner or posting things on TikTok around the clock and just crossing your fingers. Having done this for as long as I have, I feel like I at least know that I can’t control how it’s received so what I can control, what I make and how I make it and how it sounds is where I try to put my focus and then hope for the best. And I wanted to make a record because I hadn’t made a record in a while. It felt like the time.

I value the idea of a body of work, whether it is an album length, an EP, a two-song single. I think there’s validity in all of those formats and I celebrate all of them and this was a collection of songs that I wanted to exist together.

In the last ten years, you’ve been married, divorced, remarried. You’ve become a mother. You started doing multiple podcasts. You write for other people. Does having such a full plate change the way you spend time writing your stuff for your own releases?

JENNY: I’m always trying to refine the system because there are so many different creative settings that I have to move through in a week of work. Right now, I’m not in songwriting mode. That’s something I’ve had to figure out is okay. I can only have so many plates spinning at a time. I’m going to have to come back to writing sessions or writing for myself in a few months after I’ve toured for this record and done all of the promotional extracurricular activities.

Right now, I am a little bit more than halfway through writing a book with my podcast co-host and we also launched a new pod in the spring. That’s been a big lift and been where a lot of my focus is. And then getting ready for this album release, all of the stuff that goes into it. Thinking about the visuals for visualizers and canvases and all the things that I didn’t have to do the last time I put out like a proper record, but which have cropped up in the meantime. And figuring out the band I’m assembling for the upcoming tour and all of that administrative stuff. There are so many things to do when you put out a record, it’s almost like there’s no time for music.

I’d like to talk specifically about two of the songs on the new album that I keep returning to. Let’s start with “Knife Went In”. What can you tell me about that song?

JENNY: “Knife Went In” began as an idea that I had. I had a verse and a pre-chorus. I put together a writing session with my friend Bess Rogers – we’ve been friends since college, we toured together, and we’ve done a lot of collaborating – and Tyler Demarest, who I met doing pop and sync focused sessions in Los Angeles. The combination of them was very exciting to me. We got together and found that third section, the “Hold me / Hold me close” section. This is a good example of where I am now versus where I was as a much younger songwriter. I don’t know that I would have ever thought that it would be okay to say something so direct. But over the years of writing and trying so many different things and being in a safe space with Bess and Tyler, we got into that section and at first I was like, “This feels a little finger-on-the-nerve” but we just kept working on it. Once I got over my initial skepticism or worry, it felt amazing.

It’s a song that I wrote thinking about how falling in love is wild under the mildest of circumstances, falling in love, post-divorce, in a particular time in life, it was a bit of ride and it was kind of amazing and humbling to to discover that love could still level me in a way that I had almost forgotten about. Falling in love as an adult and kind of getting to know someone at a point in my life where I had more experience and more baggage and more scars, physical and metaphorical, and taking in someone else’s experience and baggage and scars and kind of seeing where those maps line up. That’s kind of where the song came from.

The other song I’d like to know about is “Bury Me Slowly”.

JENNY: That’s one of the oldest songs on the record. I wrote it when I was just really starting to be in therapy as an adult and I was sorting through some stuff from growing up that I had not looked at very directly for most of my life. I think what is at the center of the song is growing up in a house where there was some unpredictability and how that has informed my entire life up to the point where I started thinking about, “What’s up with the shape of my brain? And is that connected to anything from way back when?” and picking that apart.

The Buffy podcast really took on a life of its own. What may have started just as a chance for you to talk about your favorite show turned into something that gained a following. Are you still recording that one?

JENNY: We finished our episodic coverage of Buffy just about a year ago. We got to the end of season seven, the final season.

When it started, we were doing an episode every week, but I was also writing and recording a song for every episode. Then we took it down to three weeks on, one off. For most of the run of the podcast, we were doing an episode every other week.

Now that we are covering the X-Files on The eX-Files: An X-Files Rewatch Podcast, we are back to the three on, one off because I was very compassionate to myself and decided that I would not write a song for every single episode of the X-Files.

For Buffering the Vampire Slayer, I would say I just loved TV recap podcasts, I thought they were really fun, and I loved Buffy. I thought it would be fun to try it. When we released our third episode, we got a shout out in the print edition of Entertainment Weekly. Things continued very organically from there to grow and the heartbeat was steadier and steadier and louder and louder and people kept getting on board and coming along for the ride. It was very amazing and unexpected, an absolute thrill and, now, Audible just announced that there is a brand-new audio story that’s expanding the Buffy universe that’s coming out in October. So we’re going to do a pod about a podcast.

Once you were in the groove, did you feel like you had to keep releasing episodes because you had built an audience and people were expecting it?

JENNY: I would never want to let the listeners down, for sure, because like they’re such a treasure in my heart. I will say that it was hard to make the podcast a couple of years in the middle where my ex-wife and I were separating and getting divorced and things were very fraught. But, we had a love for the community of people who had amassed around us. We were this accidental hub for these amazing people all coming together around a story that they all collectively love.

We have people in the listenership who’ve met and got married. There are beautiful things that people do for each other, and they found each other because of this podcast, which is like totally bananas. And those are the things I like thinking about. If my co-host/ex-wife was here, she would agree that thinking about those folks and the gift they gave us of their participation in that community was what made it possible to grit our teeth and get through the most difficult parts of separating from each other personally while remaining intertwined professionally.

Has the podcast been more successful than your music?

JENNY: What an interesting question. It’s funny because I’ve been doing music for so long and I was rather young when I started. There have been periods of very dense activity and periods where I’m focused on co-writing or I’m focused on podcasting. There have been amazing things that happened to me in my music life. But Buffering has been a condensed, six-year sample where it felt like a constant, things got more and more wild and fun as we went on. So, I would say it feels that way, but I think that’s in large part due to the compactness of time.

Do you see a crossover between your music fans and your podcast fans?

JENNY: Yeah, there is definitely crossover. I see a lot of our Buffering folks coming on over when I come through town on tour. They definitely come out. And I think a big part of the jumpstarting of our success and visibility at the beginning of the podcast was because I was coming from a place where I already had some people paying attention to me because of music stuff. And Kristin had some people paying attention to her because of her LGBTQ activism and public facing stuff in that world. We brought people with us right from the start.

How has motherhood changed your life?

JENNY: Well, it was just completely tear it all down and start from the foundation. It’s exhausting and incredible and humbling and frustrating and so joyful. It’s everything cranked up to 11 all the time.

Does that make touring difficult?

JENNY: I haven’t toured yet, so we’ll see. But I’m not looking forward to it with the reckless exuberance that I once had. I’m excited to do stuff, but I’m also dreading being away. I’ll leave for like an overnight thing and come back and he looks older. And I’m like, “How did you do that? I was gone for 24 hours!” I’m going to leave for a week to go play shows and come back and he’s going to be chewing bubblegum and like blowing spitballs? He’s like eight-and-a-half months so his growth really shows in very short amounts of time.

With everything in your life keeping you busy, do you have any time to listen to music or podcasts? Anything that has caught your attention?

JENNY: The free moments are few and far between and Jess is the house DJ so every time I get into a new artist now or an artist that maybe has been around for a long time that I’ve never been into before, it’s always because Jess brought it into the house.

And recently, we’ve been enjoying the new May Erlewine record and there’s a Faye Webster record that’s not super new, but that we listen to a bunch and also Limp Bizkit, lots of Limp Bizkit in the house to even things out.