Dancing About Sadness: Jenn Champion Talks Pop Music and Her Latest Album Single Rider

Interviews
08/28/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Jimmy Bazan

Jenn Champion has been many different people over the years. She came to Seattle as a founding member of indie rock outfit Carissa Wierd, ventured off solo as Jenn Ghetto, then changed her stage name to the single letter moniker S, before finally landing on the triumphant name she boasts today. In every iteration of herself, she’s carried with her a prowess for penning heavy-hearted works, songs that feel meant to be consumed alone and held close to their listeners in quiet moments. She’s still using her uncanny lyrics and melodies to craft brilliant, heavy-hearted confessionals, they just might feel a little bit different than what fans of her past works are used to.

Her debut album as Jenn Champion, Single Rider (out now on Hardly Art), is maybe the first time you can imagine throwing on her music at a party or tossing into a dancefloor mix. She's traded in her contempaltive, meditative arrangements for pristine, effervescent radio-ready aesthetics that also work well with calisthenics. From the undeniable hooks of the sensational pop anthem “O.M.G. (I’m All Over It)” through the head-bobbing grooves of “Holding On” and “The Move,” Single Rider is without a doubt a pop record. And like all great pop music, there’s a universal, human feeling embedded within each glimmering synthesizer lead and hip-shaking beat. In contrast to the last S record, 2014’s Cool Choices, Single Rider may seem like a striking left turn. While the tempos have changed, the same aching emotions are still wrought through every song on Single Rider. Champion refers to the sensation of “dancing about yours sadness” – not necessarily as a remedy, but the cathartic release that comes with embracing movement while you work out your own shit.

“To each their own, with how people deal with sadness,” Champion tells me over the phone. “But sometimes when I get up out of the ‘I'm on the floor mood’ and then maybe I'm dancing and still feel horrible, but now I'm dancing so it feels a little bit better.”

Now a resident of Los Angeles, Champion and I chat on the phone about this surprising but thrilling turn in her career. You can feel her excitement about this new sonic pallet she’s now has in her grasp – an homage to the sounds of Janet Jackson and Prince with nods to modern Top 40 artists like Ariana Grande. The music may sound less harrowing, but she’s still grappling with those same feelings. It’s a record that re-contextualizes sadness into something fresh and vibrant, an excuse to get up out of your dreary blanket fort, move your limbs, and let your feelings flow out of your body. Hearing her explain it, it’s hard not to believe in the invigorating power of pop.

 

KEXP: Prior to Single Rider you dabbled in pop style production with the "No One" single and also a bit on the last S album, Cool Choices, implementing more electronic elements. What inspired you to go all in on this very upbeat, pop and electronic sound for your latest album?

Jenn Champion: You know, I don't really know. It's like one of those things. I had been listening to a lot of late 80's pop music that maybe I was too young to really listen to when it was out originally [laughs]. I listened to a lot of Janet Jackson and other folks from that era that have like nine drum machines going – a lot of Prince and stuff, and I was, like, “This is so interesting.” I think I was like, “How did they make this music?” It just went from there. Getting on a drum machine and being like, “Okay, alright, synthesizers.” This seems approachable, and then I had started working with Brian Fennell, who produced Single Rider. We actually just started working together as songwriters and I think working with him, he just kind of did that kind of production style. So when we were writing he would be producing a song as we went along. And I'd be like, “Whoa, this is next level.” And then I was like, “This is what I want my record to sound like.”

Did you guys talk about that when you first started working together? Did it come up naturally as he was working with your songs?

Yeah, I think it was pretty natural. As much as I love pop music I can get a little tired of it. The production on pop music right now is just like, insane [laughs]. I might not even like a song, but the production is crazy. I think it was kind of like, “How do I get that and have it still be my thing?” So I think working with someone who was also a writer who gets that you want to have this vulnerability and be a songwriter but also, like, have some pizzazz [laughs].

What kind of drew you to that sound? You mentioned that you were listening to artists like Janet Jackson and Prince who were maybe before your time, but obviously that sound really captured you. What do you like about that type of production, and how did you want to utilize that with your openhearted style of songwriting?

I guess it was this cross between those kind of late 80's songs and then what pop music is doing now. I think with pop music – especially today's music – I think, for me, there's still something appealing about it… you know, you have really smart musicians working on that stuff. I think it was pretty organic. Sometimes when I'm really interested in something that's just generally how I'll start writing. I'll be like, “How do I figure this out? How do I do this?” So I'll just tinker around with the drum machine for a long time. I spent so many hours looking at YouTube videos of people playing synthesizers… trying to just learn about it, I guess. I guess anything that I'm just really interested in, that's just what my really nerdy quality is. It's like, “Oh, I've got to do this thing. I've got to know about it, and then I'm going to make something with it” [laughs].

 

I feel like that attention to detail and wanting to learn really shows because the album is such a wonderful, great sounding pop record immediately when you put it on. With having all these tools and all these ideas, was there a cohesive vision that you were trying to execute with these sounds that you're playing with? Was there something you wanted the record to not just sound like, but also feel like?

I think I wanted it to feel dance-y and current. Not that it needs to be next to Ariana Grande or anything, but, you know, I don't want it to sound too throw back-y. I don't want it to sound like I'm trying to do someone else. I think when I had brought all my demos into the studio I think just talking about it with Brian enough and, you know, I think we did "O.M.G" first, and then we were like, "Okay, this is what this record is going to sound like" [laughs]. I was kind of like, “I want this to have this level of production and feel current but not overdone.” I don't know how to say that.

No, I think I get what you're talking about. It's like a balance between you not going this full on into, like you said, Ariana Grande territory, right? It's this really sweet balance you have. I guess as a listener it's definitely a leap from the Cool Choices record, but it doesn't feel like you're just throwing someone into the ocean or something. It feels definitely like a part of you.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of the reactions from people who really liked Cool Choices have been super positive. It's just almost like you didn't expect this, but you're like, “Oh, okay” [laughs]. You know? I'm into it? I feel like a lot of people were like, "I wasn't sure. I heard there was a lot of synthesizer on it...[laughs]."

Totally, and this is your first full length album under the Jenn Champion name. Is that correct?

Yeah. That is correct.

You've had different names in the past, and it most recently was S. Was there any special significance to making this the first Jenn Champion record? It definitely has a celebratory feel. I'm curious if that was an conscious thing?

I think it was a little coincidental. This album had different players on it, and I didn't make it with the Cool Choices band even though I had changed to Jenn Champion before. I wouldn't say we disbanded or anything like that. It's just the band had their lives to live. They were like, “I want to go to school, I don't want to tour” and that kind of stuff. It's hard to be a musician and something else. When I talked to Hardly Art about it they were like, "Yes! Please change your name [laughs]." S is so hard to find. When I was touring for Cool Choices a lot of times it just gets lost in a marquee. It gets lost in the paper. I was just kind of struggling with what do I do with this letter name? I'd get messages from people like, "I don't know how to find you. I want to buy your music." And I'm like, “Oh, this is really getting to be a problem.” So I had a meeting with everybody at Hardly Art, and they're like, "Do it." So it was kind of nice to put out this whole new sound out with a new name, too, because it kind of felt a little fresh. If you didn't know me from S you might be like, “Who's this hot new artist?!” [laughs]

Do you feel any different using that name? Does it give you a different feeling onstage when you're presenting the music to have a different moniker at all?

I think so. I mean definitely the album and playing new songs is really different. I feel like there's so much more showmanship when you perform music like that. I was like, “I gotta put on my performance shoes and get out of my comfort zone.” So I guess maybe present the record live how I wanted it to feel.

What does that look like? I haven't gotten a chance to see you on this tour.

I think mostly it's like everything's very intentional. There's outfits and dancing, and I think trying to be engaged with the audience more. Of course there are some real downers on this album too [laughs]. It's not all fun and games. Being able to turn this show into having this cool feel to it, but here comes some sad songs, you know. I do feel like some of the upbeat songs are still, like, “but that's sad too!” But people can still dance to it, I guess.

 

Obviously it's easy to compare Cool Choices and Single Rider and be like, “Wow, these are drastically different.” But there's still a good amount of sadness on Single Rider that you're reckoning with and dealing with. You've said before that sometimes you're sad and you just want to dance about it. I'm kind of curious about that idea. What do you find cathartic about the dance about it approach?

It's not like I'm feeling sad, and I put on a record and I'm dancing. I'll just find myself dancing. If I have my headphones on or something and then I'll just be dancing to the song, and I'm, like, really dancing, but I'm alone in my house. I think there's something that must kick off some endorphins or something that feels good. Maybe it's movement and being able to see that sometimes feeling sad isn't all bad. It can be this... there's like an enjoyment for me in sadness and being in it and being like, “I'm so sad.” Somehow I think just having movement and not crying in a puddle on the floor feels a little bit different. You know, to each their own, with how people deal with sadness, but sometimes when I get up out of the “I'm on the floor mood” and then maybe I'm dancing and still feel horrible [laughs], but now I'm dancing so it feels a little bit better.

You mentioned that “O.M.G. (I’m All Over It)” was one of the first songs you wrote for the record, and I feel like that song kind of captures the idea that you're talking about really well. It kicks off the record really wonderfully like that too. Could you talk a little bit more about how that song came about? It seemed to kind of guide the direction a little bit, maybe.

It's funny because I feel like it was a song that I almost didn't put on the record [laughs]. After we had played it in the studio and after people heard the demo they were like, "Yes. Do this one." And I was like, "Oh, okay, it's good. Okay, I didn't know. I wasn't sure” [laughs]. I had written that song on the piano. It was like a piano ballad with a drum beat to it. I'd kind of tried to upbeat it a little even though it was kind of a sad, piano song. Then I just kind of got really stuck with it. Sometimes I'm trying to convey something, and I'm not sure how to do it, and it can take me... I probably started writing that song in 2016 and didn't finish it until a year later [laughs]. Just being stuck on one part, like “this has to be different” and then being like, “I guess this is it.” This is the song. I'm going to just throw this on the album. If no one likes it I'll take it out, and everyone was like, "This is your lead track." Oh, okay. All right. You never know.

It's crazy because it seems so undeniable from an outsider's perspective. It's fun that it worked out that way. I love the video, as well, and the aerobics theme. Did you co-direct that, and how did that come about?

Yeah, I did. I tend to be very hands on in the videos just because I love making videos. I knew we needed a video for it. I wanted it to be 80's [themed] because you kind of feel like it just has a bit of that feel to it. I just am drawn to that era. It's just so glamorous and weird [laughs]. Then I actually met some people when I moved to L.A. that did this weird 80's aerobics class. And everyone ducked out, and then it was kind of like, "Hey, do you guys all want to make a video if I could pull it together?" Then we found a director, and then I think I was like, "Okay, let's do this, let's do that," and he was like, "You're kind of co-directing" [laughs]. I was like, "Alright." It was really fun to put together and have this aerobics instructor choreograph the aerobics for the video. I think being in L.A., too, so many people are up for being in a video because of what they do. People were like, "Yeah, I'll be in a video. I just gotta come do aerobics for three hours? Alright." My legs were very sore the next day from doing so many squats [laughs]. Three hours of squats, because they're like, "Do it again, here we go."

You mentioned moving to L.A. What brought you there from Seattle? What's it been like adjusting to that?

It's been really cool. My wife actually got a job offer at a radio station down here, and she [asked me], “Do you want to move to L.A.?” It was very unplanned. It just happened all of a sudden I was still making the record. I was like, “I do, as soon as I'm done with this record.” I finally finished mixing everything and then moved down. I love it here, except I miss my friends, that's what I'll say. I have really enjoyed meeting new people and the musicians and people that are doing art down here because everyone is so intense about it. Everyone's got a dream in Hollywood. I'm fascinated by actors, so when I meet actors down here they're going on casting calls and making audition tapes. It's different, but I do miss my Seattle friends. It's such a cool city, Seattle.

What kind of modern top 40 pop music are you into? What are your favorite jams right now?

I re-tweeted that Hayley Kiyoko [Video Music Award] performance. I just adore her right now. She’s just like a cute, popstar queer. We haven't gotten to see a lot of that, which is exciting, you know? I'm trying to think... I've been listening to that new Ariana Grande record because she's also just adorable. I feel like [Sweetener] isn't as pop-y as the last one, but still just, like, an undeniable talent and like, "Oh, I guess that's your voice. [laughs]" I'm always impressed with people who have that natural, just born with it talent. Not that they probably don't work extremely hard to keep it intact and be megastars, but it's always incredible.

I do really like Rihanna a lot. I enjoy that new Drake record, and then I'll always be like, wow, Drake is number one in the world streaming, and that is just... that's so crazy. Music is so weird now. Like there's no top album sales, really. You know, it's funny, a lot of Single Rider I was writing about how it is as an artist to struggle with an industry, as a musician and the business side. Like, “Oh, so you want to make a living?” You kind of have to wrestle with it, and I'm going to say that 90 percent of artists have to deal with that. Maybe there are some that don't ever have to do that, but it is kind of the weird balancing act. The kind of working that angle and making art at the same time. That's probably a dramatic way to put it, but...

It's interesting because you made an album that sounds most in line with Top 40 radio, but you've kind of existed in this more indie rock part of the industry. That has to be kind of an interesting cross section to be living and working in.

I was actually just talking to someone about this the other day, how I think because people listen to music so differently now that there's a lot more folks that kind of have this really broad spectrum of music that they like. You could be at a Beach House concert and then go see Ty Dolla $ign. You know? It's like, you like both. I think when I was growing up that maybe didn't happen as much. You liked your indie rock or your punk rock, and you kind of stayed in your zone. You know what the shows you went to were, and there was no internet to be like, “oh, this music!”, you know? I feel like I have more of a sense of intriguing folks that really are into the indie rock scene, but there's also this kind of music...

Totally. It's kind of this wave of "poptimism." Again, it sounds dramatic to say you've infiltrated indie rock or something, but Carly Rae Jepsen is an indie rock darling and that's kind of cool and freeing in a way. It's cool to see artists like yourself breaking down that arbitrary divide between the two.

I did really enjoy her last couple records. I was like, “Yeah, someone's doing it!” [laughs].

 

You end the album with a trio of these really gorgeous piano ballads, "Bleed," "Hustle" and "Going Nowhere." After traversing so much of this upbeat, pop territory for the most of the record why did you want to kind of strip it back near the end?

You know, it wasn't my original intention. I was figuring out the sequence. There's so much momentum at the top of the record. I was like, if I throw "Hustle" in here it's going to really take a turn. And then, I think just thinking about, like, “Well, why can't I just really bring it down at the end?” When I'm in a mood of “I want piano ballads,” I don't want just one. I want to keep going there. So I was kind of like, “Maybe I can bring it down.” But I think at the end "Going Nowhere" still has this really cool beat to it. I think it's one of the sadder songs, but there's a little pick me up, it's not just strictly a piano ballad. There's some whimsical stuff going on.

That's a really great one to end it on, too, because it fuses everything together. I just love how you sequenced that. It kind of feels like you're having this great dance party and there's this comedown at the end where you're exhausted and then just like letting it go.

When I was playing the sequence for my wife, I was like, "So this is what's going to happen." And then she was like, "Yeah, it's kind of like your getting ready for the party, and you go out and have a really, really great time and you're like, this is pretty good. And then you come home and you're like, was it great? And then you're crying in the shower at the end." I was like, "Yeah, this is like a regular Saturday night [laughs]." You thought you were having fun, but maybe you weren't. Or maybe you're at home alone. I don't know. I kind of like that analogy of how you can go through a real spectrum of emotions in a period of time.

Do you think this is a direction that you will keep pursuing for future releases? Do you feel like you've learned anything about yourself or your songwriting going through the process of making this album?

I definitely learned way more about synthesizers [laughs]. I can't imagine not keeping going in this direction for a while. I still love just playing a song on the guitar and the piano, but it is a lot of fun to kind of piece together different instruments. I've been playing music for so long and I never got into synthesizers because I always thought they seemed so complicated. Or like, “that's cheating” or something like that [laughs]. But I think the more I learned about them [I realized] these are actually pretty hard. I just enjoyed making that record so much, and I think I just always want to make sure that when I'm making something I'm having a really good time and that it's fun. So right now I'm still making the stuff that's pretty electronic and more on the pop angle, but you never know.

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