Words by Sean Moeller , Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Photos by Jesse Codling
Of the myriad concerns that have to be dealt with by all of us over the course of our lifetimes, it's those of the garden variety that really give us the chills. The ones that make us shiver to our cores are the unanswerable questions that stalk us, usually from the first days of cognition to the times when we're moving slowly and on our last legs, shaky and even more concerned because we never got a fucking answer to any of them. Just watch, it must happen, right before we kick off into a great sleep or whatever's promised as the everlasting, we'll have this pause -- just seconds before the very end -- where we all get a chance to float a big, hard mental curse word at the stark realization that we're still clueless and all that brow-beating and nervous energy spent on the silly little loves, their aches and their contrivances was for naught.
All we did was take in the contour of the big picture, failing to really appreciate the thirst for the solutions rather than actually getting anywhere. It's these two very familiar and conflicting issues of love and death that seem to really force us into different stages of dementia, give us quivering extremities and lips when they back away or come too close. We're worried about if we'll find love, how much of it we'll be allotted, how long it might last, is it the right kind and when will it all be taken away, reduced to a bittersweet lesson or a wisecrack depending on the circumstances upon its departure and who's departing. We worry about the love we can't control and the love we never controlled. And we worry about time that we don't stand a lick of chance against.
There should be rules for these sorts of things, clues that would give us warning signs that we should perk our ears and pay the closest attention. Brooklyn songwriter Jennifer O'Connor uses all of the above as her subject. Love is a lab rat. Her loves, specifically, are lab rats, but not in the torturous, experimental way. She treats this love - in quotation marks, if you will - as the fluttery, unpredictable bird it is. She's constantly cocking her head off to the side, suspect of the intentions of it. It's what we all do when we're trying it on, We test drive and keep a good mind to understand that there are options, so many options out there for everyone to choose from. There are no rules here. Love is not a pacifist, by nature. It is a beater. It is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and it is the victim of circumstance - but the best victim you've ever seen. It will really have you going.
You will fall prey and it will let out a laugh that will wake the dead and get them laughing because this is a sight that they had happen to them and now they're thankfully at peace and released from being fraught with impending sadness. O'Connor's worries are of all things inherent in the game of love and the loss or anticipated loss of it. There are those who believe that the light at the end of the tunnel is going to be wide open spaces and refreshments, out and away from the confining rock or concrete and dark. There are others who believe that the light seen dead ahead is a train, barreling without a governor. The songs on O'Connor's triumphant new album, "Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars," her first for Matador, the impresario that brings us everything we want from Stephen Malkmus, Cat Power and Yo La Tengo, straddles the territory where these two differing mindsets spread apart from one another, saying their sayonaras. A number of songs from the record were written in dedication to and as assistance to her sister Heather who battled with brain cancer, but lost her struggle last October. Still more of the songs were laments of the vagaries of love and the various positions it puts one in as it proceeds. O'Connor, who does more with simplicity on this album than you could ever do with a bullhorn, gets sentimental about her relationships in these songs as if they've already reached their expiration dates and are ready to be pitched. She also gets a touch of that sentimentality when she looks at relationships that neither person wants to end, but they both realize they will having thought it and diagramed it to death. There's a sense that the real dooming for most of these songs is a lack of faith that "you're who I want and we both know it," but then on the very same hand there's this acknowledgement that "we're all we've got and there's no one else I'd rather be with." Go figure with love. There's a wonderful illustration in the CD's booklet, done by Brittney Crump, which depicts a floating balloon and a prickly cactus. The balloon tells the cactus, "I love you" and the cactus responds, "I know," both owning solemn faces of understanding that they're hopeless. Love pulls the rug out on itself and O'Connor knows it too. She knows what it is to be sentimental about a love that's still mathematically and spiritually alive.
"I think for me, when I do this, it's because I probably wonder in the back of my mind when it's going to end," she said. "When will the good stuff go? Has it gone already? And in some ways, these questions may in their own way begin to destroy the love. Or lessen its strength. I'm not sure if that makes sense."
h3. The Daytrotter Interview
*How were those shows opening for Jens Lekman, Jeff Tweedy and Silver Jews? Please go into detail. We want to know EVERYTHING!*
Jennifer O'Connor: The Jens show = OK. He was sweet and he had an all-female backing band, which was pretty fucking cool. I played a solo set and hung out with some visiting friends. I didn't really hang out with Jens too much. The Silver Jews = AMAZING. The Jews are one of my all-time favorite bands so I can not stress enough to you how much this night meant to me. You should check out my MySpace page, I got a really cool photo with David. They were all super nice to me and my band, even letting us use some of their gear. The show was sold-out -- the crowd really loved us, which was especially wonderful as this would be THE crowd I would want to win over. This seriously might have been the greatest night of my life. David Berman dedicated "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You" to me from the stage, which just about killed me. Jeff Tweedy show = also pretty unbelievable. Biggest show I've ever played. And again, Tweedy was amazing. So nice to us. Hung out with us for quite a while talking music and about his kid and stuff. Super guy. And his solo set was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
*What did Jeff say about his son's band (9-year-old Spencer plays drum for The Blisters)?*
JC: He was a beaming dad saying that his son was one of the best drummers he's ever played with and that they go down and play in the basement together all the time. He said that his wife handles all the band business stuff though and that he stays out of it.
*What's your background like? Have you been writing songs and playing guitar for a long time?*
JC: I started playing guitar in 1996 -- pretty much right after college. So not too long. And I started writing songs very soon after. Not very good ones. It took a long time to get to a place where I wrote something that I thought was halfway decent.
*What was the first song you ever wrote about?*
JC: The first song I ever wrote was about playing music, actually. It was called "Circus." I still write a lot about music. Music plays a big part in my life.
*One of the things that I really like about the way you write is your efficiency and the ability to do so much in what seems like a simple setting. Do you kind of believe in keeping it sparse and letting the emotions of the lyrics just kind of take you away?*
JC: I would say that that is a fair assessment -- at least it was what I was going for with this record. I'm not sure that I will always be shooting for a sparse sound, but it was definitely the direction I was going for this time around. It seemed like the right choice for the material I had written.
*These songs (on "Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars") sound so personal. Do you feel at all strange playing them in front of people?*
JC: They are very personal. And no, I don't feel strange at all playing them in front of people, and I don't know why that is. I just don't. I can imagine why you might think it would feel strange, but honestly, it feels really natural to me. I feel good when I'm singing them. Much better than when I'm sitting around thinking about the things that I've
written the songs about.
*Do you get scared of much?*
JC: I'm scared of a lot of things. Mostly things that have to do with me being out of control....like flying and bridges, death. But I'm starting to accept the fact that almost everything is beyond my control. I actually have this quote written on a piece of paper by my desk. I'm not sure what it's from. It says, "If you aren't afraid of dying, there is nothing you can't do." That's what I'm trying to get to.
*How did you land Britt for some vocals on the new album? Had you been friends?*
JC: We had met once before. Chris at Matador had brought him to one of my shows, and we talked a lot that night about music and stuff. When I started to plan the record, I wanted to have a guy sing with me on a couple of songs and he's one of my favorites, so I just asked. And he said yes. It was quite an honor.
*Are you a sentimental person?*
JC: Isn't that fairly obvious?
*Along those same lines, do you get sentimental about a relationship while it's still going on, before it's physically gone away? I kind of get the sense of that in some of these new tunes?*
JC: Wow, that's super perceptive of you. That's something I hadn't really thought about but I think you are probably right.
*What moves you when you're listening to something?*
JC: Lots of different things, but mostly probably when I hear someone say something in a way that I've never heard it before. I think Joanna Newsom is amazing at this. The other thing I really like a lot is an unexpected chord change or melodic change in a song. Elliott Smith was a genius at this. God, there's lots of things really.
*What other interests do you have outside of music?*
JC: I love reading and movies. Walking. Taking pictures. Record shopping. (I guess that's music related though)
*What would be a dream collaboration for you?*
JC: I think it might be really hard to collaborate with certain artists that I like a lot. I think the ones it might be the most fun to collaborate with are the more traditional type songwriters, like maybe Aimee Mann or Tom Petty. But for real, I would REALLY love to sing and write some hooks on some rap records. That's right, I'm talking to you Kanye, Jay-Z, & 50 Cent. I'm totally not kidding.
*What's this about a hip-hop infatuation? Are you in deep?*
JC: Yes, pretty deep. I love it. It's just so much fun! To listen to, to sing a long to... And it just has such a different affect on me than rock music. It makes me want to MOVE!
*Could you tell me a little more about your sister? What's her name? When was she sick and what was she sick with? Is she okay now? You were super close, huh?*
The sister I'm referring to in the songs I played at the session was named Heather. She died in October of brain cancer.
*Also, Who is the amazing person who did the art inside your album sleeve?*
JC: Her name is Brittney Crump. She is so fucking awesome. I saw one of her drawings and fell in love. And then I asked her to do some for each of the songs.
Jennifer O'Connor Official Site
Purchase Jennifer O'Connor music at Insound