Learning to Love the Fear
It’s noon, and Jenny Lee Lindberg’s caffeine has finally kicked in. Before starting our conversation, the Warpaint bassist, these days releasing solo music under the name jennylee, quickly phones her backing band to push back their practice session. She keeps the conversation short, ending it with a hearty “right on,” while stirring the remainder of her iced Americano.
When she hangs up, I make an off-handed joke about the ease she handles her business, my eyes trained on her goldendoodle Ludo, whose excitement over the tree-branch turned chew toy mirrors his owner’s effervescent manner. Sure, she likes humanity all right, Lindberg confirms. But it might be a bit of stretch to call her a people person.
“I do think that being out in the world and living amongst people, I get a bit anxious,” she confesses, shaking the ice of her drink on the hunt for one last sip. “Maybe other people don’t. It’s sort of nice when you’re in your own little bubble.”
But isn’t that difficult, given the social nature of being a musician, a job that requires copious amounts of travel, performance, and generally interacting with society? Surely after writing her solo debut Right On!, a song cycle that includes both a veiled love letter and meditations on both anxiety and depression, dealing with a noisy journalist is child’s play. Right? On the tail end of a long week of promotion, Lindberg chuckles at the assertion.
“People think it’s so hard to be yourself,” she continues in a tone that suggests it’s a concept that gets regular consideration. “Everyone has different masks that they wear. They’ve got their faces, their costumes. I think that it’s so much easier to be yourself. When you give into that. People think it’s really hard to be vulnerable. I think it’s easier. You’re scared of rejection. But if you really are yourself when you’re rejected, what does that say about you? I feel like most people don’t give themselves a chance. Or other people a chance to actually experience the realness of whoever they are. I would even say 100% of the time you will probably never lose if you are actually being yourself and being real and being truthful and being vulnerable. Being compassionate and kind, when you’re a little kid, before you’ve had all the things happen to you, and you get traumatized and start building layers and layers and walls and all these things come up. All of a sudden you’re this watered down version of what you were when you were free.”
At this, Lindberg pauses, taking a moment to digest her rapid-fire musing.
“Sorry,” she adds, her grin widening. “I just had coffee!”
Lindberg speaks in animated fits and starts, once apologizing for not directly addressing a question. Her mea culpa is needless though. In the musician’s world, art and life inevitably intertwine in ways that, if it weren’t for her unflagging honesty, would sound fit for a biopic.
Born into a family that encouraged creativity, Lindberg spent her childhood dabbling in dance and music—choir mainly, since, as she recalls, her parents never wanted to buy her an instrument. At eighteen, she followed her sister (actress Shannyn Sossamon) from Reno to Los Angeles. The move wasn’t driven anything other than familiarity. The sisters were friendly, and the city had been a family vacation spot for years. (These days, Lindbergh calls herself a native, having lived in the city for longer than she has anywhere else.)
Music, she says, is something she picked up at nineteen “just to see what happens.” The drums required too much space. The guitar wasn’t calling to her. So the bass it was. She acquired an instrument and a teacher who taught her three songs in short order. Armed with Weezer’s “Only in Dreams,” “Sexy Boy” by Air, and Cure classic, “Lovesong,” it wasn’t long before Lindberg began experimenting textures and chords. Her drum machine and click track were the only witnesses.
“I was very adamant about not letting anyone hear me or playing in front of anybody,” she recalls. “It was a very private thing. All I wanted to do was get good at it. I had no real plans to be in a band. The thought of anyone even seeing me play made me really nervous.”
It was a few years later when Lindberg felt confident enough to break her vow of solitude. Recruited to be part of a cover band a neighbor’s house party, she describes the scene as less than glamorous. Suffering from an intense bout of nervous, she spent the performance in a chair, gamely picking her way through a rough version of “Roxanne.”
“I found my boyfriend at the time afterwards and went and cried,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘what’s wrong?’
She pauses and pantomimes a series of theatrical series of sobs. “‘That was terrible!’ ‘No it wasn’t it was great!’ There was a bunch of people in there, everyone was drunk. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I just didn’t think I did a good job. It wasn’t very empowering, but it was nice to get that out of the way.”
"Even now I miss that time where I would just have hours a day to perfect the craft...the only responsibility I had was to myself and to my craft."
Shortly after, Lindberg began to double down, quelling her stage fright by acquiring the kind of technological knowledge of her instrument that can only come with practicing four hours a day. She also began airing her largely instrumental compositions live, regularly performing at Los Angeles’ Hotel Café (a tiny Hollywood club that hosted early performances from Adele, Laura Marling, and Haim among others).
“Even now I miss that time where I would just have hours a day to perfect the craft,” she reflects. “Even though I’m doing that now in other ways. It was nice; the only responsibility I had was to myself and to my craft. Just to get better at my instrument. There wasn’t any other pressure.”
It was during that time when Lindberg met her future Warpaint bandmates. The narrative shortcut here would be to say, “The rest was history.” But given the speed that the band conquered musical milestones, the cliché isn’t far from the truth. Their first EP was released in 2008. Two years later they were nominated for BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll on the strength of their debut full-length, The Fool. By the time their self-titled second album was released, they had been produced and mixed by iconic engineers Flood and Nigel Godrich, appeared on a slate of magazine covers, and circled the globe multiple times.
Lindberg never shelved her solo ambitions, even at the height of Warpaint’s promotional/tour cycles. When the band finally closed the book on their self-titled sophomore album, she saw her chance. Her aims were modest—to self-release a handful of the demos that she had been quietly developing. There was just one problem. Singing her own material just wasn’t working.
“I just didn’t know how to use it,” Lindberg says of her voice. “It just didn’t sound good. I had find it. And then once I did, it was kind of quirky. It’s not your classically trained voice. I always wanted one of those voices. But I don’t have that. I have a different kind of voice. Once I realized that, now I want to bring it out even more.”
Summoning her creative ambition, Lindberg soon talked herself out of releasing her demos as-is, instead recruiting friend/producer Norm Block for what she thought would be ten days of uninterrupted studio time in early 2015.
Even when their work sessions stretched passed the two-month mark; the creative team had one priority in mind—to preserve the bluesy ambles, droning bass, and general vibe of the musician’s original recordings. For her part, Lindberg recognizes that many critics and fans will be quick to call Right On! a dark song cycle. But she prefers another word: raw.
“Even in Warpaint, I love when we first write a song,” she says. “We make it and we go back in and refine and refine and refine and refine and refine. All of a sudden it’s wow, we’ve lost the plot….That’s what I didn’t want to do on this album for any of the songs. Even if you don’t relate to it or you’re not feeling it or you’re not in that mood four hours later. You were at one point in time. I feel like it’s important to honor that. This album was very much that. I want to honor wherever I was when I wrote it. I might not be feeling it four days later. But I sure was feeling it four days ago! There’s something to be said for that. I’m not always going to be in that mood. I’m a fucking moody person. I’m fickle. I’m changing my mind all the time. I’m indecisive. I’m this and that. And I didn’t want to taint my artistic and creative process.”
"I’m a fucking moody person. I’m fickle. I’m changing my mind all the time. I’m indecisive. I’m this and that."
Right On! is a layered outing. It’s fair to say that fans of Warpaint will be interested—but boiling down Lindberg’s work as an offshoot of her parent band only tells a small fraction of the story. Woven into the garage-worthy rattle is a lifetime of experience, her musical diary meandering from The Cure-leaning refrain of “Never,” to the gritty shouts of “White Devil,” to the ambling R&B riffs of “He Fresh,” an ode to her husband, video director Chris Cunningham.
“Shit is coming out from high school!” Lindberg laughs. “All the versions of myself, since I’ve been born, all the phases of life that I’ve been through, I feel like can identify with these songs.”
She points to “Long Lonely Winter,” a haunting ballad where, against a sparse bass and drum line where she breaks down a chilling sense of weakness. It’s a song that particularly resonates with her these days.
“It’s this place you get where everything sucks,” she muses. “Or I suck. Or I’m not doing good enough. Whatever. Many of those kinds of thoughts. Your demons. Whatever you have that’s holding you back. That’s what it’s about. I’m freaking, having an emotional breakdown. Internally. That’s what the song’s about. I was like, wow. Months later I was like, shit. It’s almost I put that out into the universe and now I’m actually going to experience feeling lonely and freaking out. And having things you want to tell people and can’t tell them. Certain shit where I’m like, ‘whoa. That song is so relevant right now.’ But when I wrote it, it was like poetry. You have felt that way in your life, but that’s not how you’re feeling right now. You’re pulling from a pool of thoughts and memories and feelings and emotions that maybe you’ve felt before that you’ve seen someone else feel. One of those things. Not every song. It’s always open for interpretation. I can identify with them. But then lo and behold, I definitely identify with that right now.”
But for all the gloom and doom inherit in that statement, rest assured, her bout of self-awareness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As she tells it, making her debut solo album helped her redefine where she was, both as a musician and as a person. And that is nothing but a good thing.
“Sometimes I get lost in, ‘I don’t know if I can do that!’” she says. “Or, ‘I don’t think I can do that, it’s too scary.’ I like the challenge. When I’m presented with it, it’s really scary. And I go through this process with myself where I’m like, ‘whoa, no.’ Then nos turn into ‘maybe, maybe.’ Then ‘Yes, definitely I’m doing that. That’s how I started playing bass. No one is going to see me playing bass ever, this is just for me. ‘Okay, sure I’ll play that show.’ ‘Okay, I guess I’ll be in a band.’ I set myself up for no and then slowly give into what the next thing would be. It’s my way of easing in to something that really scares me. Making Right On! was the most empowering, liberating experience that I’ve ever had. I’m definitely going to make more for sure.”