Jennifer O’Connor has been making under-the-radar, intimate, and emotionally affecting indie pop music for many years. After a stint on Matador Records, she broke off to start her own label, Kiam Records, in 2014; Kiam is also a brick-and-mortar record shop in Nyack, NY. Her sixth record, Surface Noise, is her first LP since 2011, and it is smart and hooky, the kind of record that will immediately catch your ear and that you can continue to find new aspects to love within as you dig into it further.
O’Connor continues to work with her longtime collaborators on this album, James McNew of Yo La Tengo on bass and Jon Langmead on drums, and their chemistry as a band lights up O’Connor’s taut songwriting from within. The album comes at a time of great personal change for O’Connor, so we interviewed her about all that’s been going on in her life and how that affected her new work.
Surface Noise is available for preorder from Kiam Records. You can stream Surface Noise in full below, and read on for our interview with Jennifer.
You opened up Kiam using money from selling a song to Apple for use in advertising, right? I think about that whole ‘selling out’ dichotomy a lot – what it means to take money from a corporate entity and use it to fund underground art indirectly. I’m curious as to your decision-making process around all of that.
Yes, I did start the store that way. The label (also called Kiam) I have been doing since I put out my own first record in 2002. We just opened the store with the Apple money in 2014. I was on Matador in the mid 2000s for a couple of records and I didn’t really do all that well financially taking the traditional routes of making records, touring, etc. I did however do well with licensing my music to TV shows, movies, etc. And that has continued to grow over the years. So I have really just done what I’ve had to do to keep making music. For me, that happened to be through licensing my music. When I got that substantially bigger pay day through Apple, I thought it would be cool/rewarding/smart to invest it in the culture that I came up in – records/record stores, etc. I don’t know if that makes sense…
That totally makes sense. Really resonates with so many of the conversations that we all have about how to make a music career sustainable. Are there any other ways you find that are useful to support yourself as a musician? (Given the failure of the industry as it was originally built and all.)
Well, I think if you actually get to the point where you are supporting yourself as a musician, you are one of the very few. I think it’s mostly important to find a healthy way to support yourself so that can continue to make music – and often times that can be a mixture of a few different things. That’s kind of what opening the store was about for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and now I’ve essentially created a “day job” for myself that I love and it is in many ways very very good for my music career and label as well. I find that they are all supportive of one another in ways I didn’t quite foresee going into it.
That’s so rad, and I see that kind of dynamic reflected in my life and my friends’ lives as well.
To switch it up a little bit to talk about the record – it’s a really emotionally affecting record. What were some of the driving factors behind your songwriting this time around?
Survival, I think. It was a hard time, and a good time at times. But so much stuff happened over the few years I wrote it. A lot of it is me trying to talk myself through it
that and also trying to move in a somewhat different direction sonically.
I can hear that. What influenced that musical direction-change? Was it just a natural growth thing?
It was me trying to make something I think more in line with the kind of music I really like to listen to, I think, which is more and more hip-hop. And also just trying to grow and change and stay excited by the process.
Yeah, when you’ve been making music for a long time it can be hard to find that freshness and drive. Who are some of your favorite hip-hop artists?
Yes, it can! Pusha-T, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z. I like all kinds of stuff. I got really kind of obsessed with making beats, which i’m really still learning how to do, but it’s really different and I find I come at a song very differently when I start that way, obviously.
Totally. The whole structure is so different when you start with the rhythm instead of with the melody. I’m excited to hear the beats you come up with in your future work, too.
Do you think that’s something you’ll do?
Thank you! Yes, definitely, and I’m actually working with a hip-hop act [Tron & DVD] on the label now too so I’d love to get into more production-type roles as well as incorporate these types of elements into my own work. But, you know, I also want to do, like, a totally acoustic record at some point too (which I’ve never done. Having the store has really reignited my love affair with music in general so I’m feeling pretty musically inspired these days.
Awwww, that’s so rad. What’s some other music that’s making you feel inspired lately (beyond the artists you already mentioned?)
A lot of jazz, like Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Thelonious Monk. I love the new Ty Segall record. Amy Bezunartea’s record New Villain, which came out on our label, has been very inspiring to me. Oh, the last Sufjan Stevens record—that was the best thing i heard all of last year, for sure. Oh, and BEYONCE. That song [“Formation”], Jesus Christ.
YES. SO GOOD.
That song is everything. What about you?
Man, seriously. “Formation” is a big one immediately/recently. This Brazilian punk/post-punk band, Rakta: I’ve been in love with them for a couple of years now, and they just put out a song a couple of days ago out of nowhere that is blowing me away. G.L.O.S.S.. Jenny Hval.
Cool, I will check that out. Yeah, I like that Jenny Hval also.
Ebony Bones, who I think is really, really underrated. Circuit Des Yeux. Ooh, the new Essaie Pas! Abdu Ali!
I’m taking notes.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about your record that isn’t out there in the world already? I always ask this question – I find that journalists often shape narratives about musicians’ work that musicians themselves don’t necessarily want. I’ve seen that happen with both myself as an artist and with your work, getting slotted into HEY GAY ARTIST GAY THING even though we don’t necessarily deal directly with our sexuality in our work, and it’s something I like to avoid. It’s so trivializing.
I tried to operate from outside my comfort zone musically. I wrote in new and different ways, I used lots of different instrumentation (melodica, piano, drum machines, etc) – I did mostly all of my own lead guitar playing and did all the vocal harmonies myself. It feels like a leap in that respect and I hope that it comes off that way to people who have heard some of my older records. And yes, thank you. The gay thing was the worst. I’ve been pushed in the past to do that with my music. I think people weren’t so sure how to market me, and they needed an angle, so they were grasping. In some ways I get it, but at the time I wasn’t strong enough, I don’t think to be like “No, we don’t need to do that.”
Jennifer O’Connor tour dates:
26 Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theater
27 Buffalo, NY @ Babeville
28 Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre
1 Portland, ME @ State Theater
3 Lebanon, NH @ Lebanon Opera House
4 Tarrytown, NY @ Tarrytown Music Hall
5 Troy, NY @ Troy Music Hall
7 New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge (Record Release Show)