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Recently I spent a couple of days listening to the (digital) pile of new music sent to the Daily Planet by artists hoping for some coverage. Most of it wafted by in an undifferentiated sea of indie-rock angst and overpolished pop, but Jenny O.'s EP Home caught my ears and kept them.
The five-song set is a debut release recorded and produced by the artist herself, a singer-songwriter who grew up in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles. It's a quiet collection—shuffling opener "Well OK Honey," which is available as a free MP3 download, is about as raucous as things get—but it's insistent and delicately melodic without being precious.
The EP was released on November 30, but most listeners who are introduced to Jenny O. this month will likely meet her through The Christmas Gig, an album of holiday songs available for free download from Target.com. The collection—which has attracted widespread buzz for its inclusion of "Got Something for You," a collaboration by white-hot indie-rock darlings Best Coast and WAVVES—includes Jenny O.'s "Get Down for the Holidays," a song with a title that belies its acoustic intimacy. As copies of the album poured through networks at homes, coffee shops, and (shh!) workplaces around the world, I spoke with Jenny O. by phone.
You've been making music for a while. Why do you think things are clicking now?
I made a first record, but I didn't own the masters. I was in a position of relying on people, and I recognized that the only way to pull out of that was to do something entirely on my own. I made this EP, and that propelled the motion. I could move forward because I'm in charge. I'm not waiting on a call or a contract or an e-mail. Once I started putting this together, I got a little bit of attention and excitement out of that process. When I was ready to release it, there was a label [Manimal] ready to do it. I have a new manager, Laurel Stearns, and she's helped the motion to snowball.
Why release an EP and not a full album?
I needed something to put out—that was the point of it. An entire record is a lot of music. It consumes a lot of time and effort. I needed something out on the Internet and everywhere, where people can get it.
How did you choose your peforming moniker, "Jenny O."?
I didn't. My last name is Italian, and it's very hard for Americans to pronounce. My last name is no big secret, but it's impractical. So I just go by "Jenny O."
You're a talented songwriter and performer—but with all the music being released now, is talent enough, or do you need something more to succeed as an artist?
Drive is almost more important. Being good is number one, but I have a lot of brilliant artist friends who are their own worst enemies. You can watch that talent stagnate in a vortex. Or they get too driven, and get off focus. You have to have the right intent: that drive to pursue your goals, without forgetting that this is supposed to be fun.
What's a reaction someone's had to your music that's been gratifying to you?
I have a friend who said that she wants to live inside my songs, like each is a separate room. It was just a random comment, but I remember it.
You moved from New York to L.A., and it seems to have had a positive effect on your career. As a musician, does it really make a difference where you live?
It did in my case. For one thing, the weather is enormous. It's unbelievable to remove the cold harsh survival factor from your daily life, and also it's not as hard financially to live here. In New York, you always have that [the cost of living] beating you up. When I arrived here, I settled into a group of musicians who have a similar approach to music. I sort of felt stagnant in New York, but there's something about the physical setting here—there are mountains, trees, desert. Most people have backyards. It's like living in the country, but in the city. There's nothing like that in New York. There's a more community-oriented music situation here. I met people here who were willing to delve into the elders [older music]. I don't think it's very healthy to draw from the present all the time.
Do you have plans for a tour?
No. I want to plan the right tour. I wouldn't thrive best by just hitting the road in a van and seeing what happened; I think it's best to wait until there's a demand for it, or until I can be on another tour that's working.
In a perfect world, who would be the ideal artist for you to open for?
I don't know. Tom Petty? He's pretty huge, but...
Well, in a perfect world. Have you ever been to Minnesota?
I spent time at a lake there once. An ex-boyfriend had a family house there. I also visited St. Paul. I remember an incredible brunch at Meritage, and a cold walk across a windy bridge, trying to find a bathroom.
Your new Christmas song is charming. Do you like Christmas?
I do, though scrambling for flights always stresses me out.