Newcomer Jenn Em caught our earbuds with her soulful new single "Jailkeeper," which premiered here on Singersroom.com. Classically trained, this budding singer-songwriter is equipped with all the tools to be a staple in music; she has killer vocals and tone and she's a great songwriter and musician. Jenn is offering something unique to music, and we're glad we can help bring that to the world. Check out our chat with Jenn as she talks growing up, being a rebel, learning from the greats, the harsh realities of the music industry, and more.
On Single "Jail Keeper": The single came about when I was living in LA for about six months. I moved out when I was really young; I moved out here when I was 17, right after I graduated from high school. I didn’t know anybody, and I think when I landed and I started finding my own way, I hit a lot of road blocks. I got a pretty heavy dosage of reality very quickly; I had to learn how to survive in a lot of ways. Writing has always been a release for me, that’s how I get through things, that’s how I understand how I'm feeling by reflecting on what I’ve written. And more so than any other song I wrote, like you sit down and you know, maybe I’ll have an emotion or a lyric in my head or a melody. With "Jail Keeper," it was completely different. I had nothing and I was feeling almost dead and I sat by the piano and it just kinda happened. It was like I blocked out, and I started putting my hands on the keys and my mind went somewhere else. I wasn’t consciously thinking of the next line or what words was going to rhyme, or what I was going to say. It was like the words already existed and when I was done or opened my eyes, I don’t really remember how I remember it, but basically my mind went to a place where as I was writing it, I was imagining, you know, the future where I was on stage talking about coming from this dark place and writing the song. It was like I already achieved success from it; It kinda burst this light, basically the light that got me there, the light that kept me going for the next four, five years. I wrote the song a while ago and then the journey from there developed. I met the producer who produced the song, but no matter where I went, I just couldn’t really let go of this one song. So it’s really crazy to get it released five years later.
On Musical Background: Actually, it’s kinda interesting; I don’t come from a musical background at all. My parents worked a lot, they were both lawyers, and the majority of my childhood I was raised by nannies. And this nanny I basically had from birth until the time I was seven, and she would always speak to me in German and listen to classical music. My parents were really good in getting us into activities, letting us experience different things. My oldest sister was into piano, but she didn’t love it. She wasn’t passionate about it. I would always tag along with the nanny to her lessons and I would always try to climb on the piano and play it from when I was two or three. And the teacher basically told my nanny, 'hey I know the older daughter is playing piano, I normally don’t teach kids this young, but clearly the younger daughter wants to do it'. So I started taking piano lessons when I was three, and I think that’s what kind of did it. When I could barely talk, my nanny would play me like few seconds of classical music; I can tell you which composer it was within 15 seconds. I don’t know, I guess I always had a love for sound.
But yeah, I started playing piano when I was three. And then a couple of years later, I asked for a violin for Christmas, and I played classical violin. I always was singing and humming, and I was always that kid who was writing little melodies, and played it for my friends at the lunch table. I think when I got a little bit older, it was a little difficult for me because I performed and people would … it’s not necessarily the most creative place to grow up, so I think people would say you’re a show off or whatever. So I kind of drew back and became more of an introvert, and I start focusing more on writing and not so much on performing. When I did that, I met the real music crowd in high school, who were sort of doing hip-hop and those who were really getting into music production; kind of underground. We did an R&B remix of Wale's track, “Nike Boots,” in my senior year of high school. It actually got a little buzz in DC, and it was kind of like the place for me to say, 'Ok, this is what I really want to do'. So, I applied to colleges just to kind of humor my parents and I got in, but I told them from the beginning, you know, I’m going to go LA to pursue a career in music. So, I hopped on a plane right after I graduated, and I think my parents didn’t really believe that was going to happen until I got on the plane.
On Being a Rebel Growing Up: I had a very structured lifestyle, and I was practicing my instruments hours and hours, and eventually I was too old to have a nanny, and what that meant was I was alone. My parents worked all the time, and I just had all of this time. Maybe a part of it was a cry for attention, I think just being a teenager and all of sudden being alone, having that alone time, I just kind of didn’t know what to do with myself, and I just rebelled. I lived in a city, its right outside of DC, it has a city vibe, but it’s basically politician kids, doctors, lawyers, so it was basically a lot of kids who had money and it was a lot of access to drinking, drugs, and all of that stuff, and no one around to supervise. It was really easy to do that then; in many ways it was a blessing and a curse because when I moved to LA, I kind of got over that, and all I really wanted to do was focus on my career. So, I think a lot of people move out on their own, party and develop bad habits, but I got my bad habits out of my system before that, so it’s a blessing and curse. It’s probably a curse to my parents [laughs].
Jenn Em Interview
On The Harsh Realities of the Music Business: I grew up with this vision of being a superstar, being a pop star, in my mind, I always wanted to be this famous singer; I wanted to be famous, and I moved to LA to be famous. I got into the music industry, and I got to see what it really was, and it was really kind of heart-breaking. Not only is the industry corrupt like a lot of people say, it's also not the most creative place to be, especially when you’re 17 and you’re getting scouted by major labels; they don’t really want to hear what you want to do. They see you as a product and want to market you as a product. I think that was the most difficult thing for me deciding what kind of artist I wanted to be for quote on quote “fame,” and I think that was something I struggled with for a long time. I think the reason why I am finally feeling like I’m getting a taste of success is because I managed to tune all of that out and sort of make the music I want to make, tell the story I wanted to tell instead of the story someone else wanted me to tell.
On Influences: I’m the type of person that go through musical phases. I'm very much influenced by the people I surround myself with, and at different points in my life, connected with people who listen to different kinds of music. Growing up, I was living in this strict environment, listening to all classical music, so I think the root of my love for music comes from that. I think that is very present in my sound today, because even though it’s developed, and I listen to a lot of hip-hop music, rap, jazz, and soul, it all started there, so you can hear all of that in the production element of the song. But then again, in middle school, I listened to a lot of punk bands, punk rock, and my older sister went off to college, and she came back with all of the hippie music and that I think that was a turning point for me to listen to classic rock. Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence; Music during the 60’s and 70’s was so influential on society and not only in pop culture but in the world. I think that was something to learn about that was moving for me in terms of how powerful music really can be, and not to mention, the vocalists were incredible. When I moved to LA, and I started doing it more professionally, I started listening more, that’s when I got into old blues and soul like the power vocalists Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. See, I have a lot of different musical influences, but I think most of it comes from the older generation and trying to keep current by hearing what’s on pop radio and what’s playing now; trying to keep that fresh side, and add some elements to what is new.
On Life Without Music: I don’t know, I think about that a lot, because it’s not always a for sure thing, and God forbid something would happen, and I couldn’t sing anymore; I can’t really imagine a life without music. I think even if God forbid something happens, and I couldn’t sing, I would still find a way to be involved, whether it would be developing other artists or just writing on instruments. I can’t really imagine a life where I wouldn’t be doing this.
On The Upcoming EP: Basically, after I wrote "Jail Keeper," I had been talking to a label that was trying to sign me to a development deal. They put me with a producer, and they had me cut cheesy cookie cutter pop records and during one of those sessions with the producer, and I said, 'hey you should really hear this song I wrote,' and I played them "Jail Keeper," and they stopped everything they were doing. They were like 'why are we cutting these records when you are a good writer?' And long story short, with my lawyer parents, I got the contract from that label, which a little bit shady, and the label didn’t have the best reputation, so I ended up not signing with them, but the producer they connected me with reached out to me after the fact like, 'hey, I know you’re not working with this label, and you don’t really have a lot of money, but I think you really have something here'. We produced that song and we had this amazing creative energy. When I had the budget, once I signed with my independent label, I started recording more regularly; I didn’t want to get in the studio with anyone else. So we basically just locked in and I managed to tell this musical story of my journey, and where I'm from through records. It’s classically influenced, all of the records have their own place on the EP; it’s meant to be listened to in a certain order, all of the songs kind of pull together to tell a story. In my mind, all of the videos are pieces of the same story. But, yeah, all of the writing is done, just tweaks to be made, we’re not really sure if we’re going to release it as an album or EP, but its 10 songs. And yes, I am excited to put it out. Releasing "Jail Keeper" was a little crazy for me, because I was finally able to turn that page in my life that I couldn’t do before, so I think being able to release this album will be rewarding in that sense.
Transcribed by Dominique Carson