It’s incredibly tricky to maintain a unique songwriting voice when you’re an in-demand co-writer. It’s even more challenging to make that voice resonant and resplendent. That’s exactly what Los Angeles-by-way-of-New Jersey artist Jenny Owen Youngs has accomplished with her latest release. That self-released EP, Night Shift, out now, sees five songs take flight – there’s an immediate personal connection to these songs that makes them relatable and remarkable. The witty lyricism, the natural crescendos, and the immediacy of the hooks are all just wonderfully done.
Owens has written songs for, and/or with, Panic! At The Disco, Pitbull, and Ingrid Michaelson, among many others. So, is her mindset for others different than for herself? Is it easier to write for other artists?
“I’ve been writing songs for myself since I was in high school,” Youngs recalls. “But I’ve only really been exploring writing with and for other artists for about five years. When I was just getting started in the co-writing world, I held the missions of ‘writing for me’ and ‘writing for others’ in very separate parts of my brain. But the longer I co-write, the more clear it becomes that this is not the mindset that best serves my writing. The lesson I keep learning, over and over again, is this: the best songs come when I can suspend that separation and just say what I mean, say what moves me, regardless of who’s going to be singing it.”
“I think writing for myself is easy,” she continues. “In that I generally know what I want to say and how I want to say it. But I’m also my own harshest critic, so there’s a lot to live up to. To write well with others, I’ve had to cultivate a particular type of vulnerability – you have to be willing to say an imperfect idea out loud to another person, whereas when writing for oneself, you could just sand and sculpt an idea in your mind for hours or weeks before you ever commit it to paper. Co-writing requires a certain level of discomfort, but the upside is that you get to kick the ball with somebody else, and you have access to double the ideas for whatever you’re working on.”
Youngs recently relocated from northern New Jersey to L.A., and the experience has changed her perspective immensely.
“Living in Southern California as a transplant from the Northeast is definitely a very specific experience,” she notes. “Certain Los Angeles images have crept into my more recently songs, for example ‘Vampire Weeknight’ features a bobcat, as well as palm trees turning into black silhouettes with the coming of nightfall, two things I’ve only seen in California. But the most significant impact that living here has had on my music has to do with how the shape of my life has changed, rather than that the location of my life has changed. My musical work-life has taken a distinct lean towards the collaborative, rather than the isolated, and that is at the core of the recordings I’m making now. All of the songs on Night Shift were co-written with trusted collaborators, most of whom I met via co-writing sessions in Los Angeles. I also met Ethan Gruska and Jake Sinclair [who each produced songs on the record] through working in this community. Being here has brought me together with a landslide of incredibly talented people, who I might never have met otherwise.”
There’s a casual, almost conversational nature to Youngs’ music that’s like a hot cup of coffee shared between friends on a cold Saturday afternoon. Even the relatively bombastic “Dreaming on the Bus” feels relaxed.
“I think the conversational nature of the songs is a natural development in my writing style,” she answers. “Maybe the longer you write songs, the more apparent it becomes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the shortest distance between my feelings and your heart is me just saying the damn thing. Then, once you have that core pillar of honesty to work with, you find images to hang on it, and you tell your story, and you make it beautiful or bruised, or however it needs to be.”
The songs are connected by the goal of making sense of reality and wanting to escape into a dream world. That sense of escapism feels grounded in the lyrics, but is also something that is easy to relate with.
“The thread that runs through these songs is the connection between our dreadfully mortal bodies, fixed in space and time, and our minds, free to wander the universe, travel through time, go anywhere you can imagine,” Youngs notes. “The songs explore dream space, nostalgia, and memory. Nothing can be changed, but everything can be turned over in your hands, and perhaps re-contextualized through that examination. Maybe there’s something we can learn through our methods of escapism that can help us feel less afraid, or more prepared, to be here now.”
Top photo by Tucker Leary