Interview with vocalist/pianist Jennifer Bartlett | By Sean Gonzalez | Photo by Ryan Miller
“We were exploring our dynamics musically and personally,” Jennifer Bartlett, vocalist and pianist of Grand Rapids, Michigan, quartet LOKELLA, reveals about the writing process for their new record. The five-track EP, Censory Overload, out May 17, is patient with its discovery. The magnitude of sounds involved in the listening cycle are carefully detailed, ever-expanding, and emotionally full.
The third track, “Good Girls, Like You,” bursts from the starting gate with grounded, driven riffs but drifts into the elegant breeze of the atmosphere with plenty of breath. “It’s the one song that always messed with my head,” Bartlett explains. “I felt great about the melody, the verses, but the chorus always messed with me. I loved what the lyrics said but wondered if they ever fit the song at all—but there is a weird chemistry with the song. It’s flowery, it’s light, but it’s very percussive. I ended up loving the message so much.” The flowery nature of the song is led by Josh Poel’s drumming, which moves through different progressions with power and instinct.
Bartlett’s lyrics across Censory Overload reveal the personal conflict that follows people as they navigate their courses. The fourth track, “Chasing Ghosts,” is sonically warm and reflective, even with the eerie atmosphere swelling in the background. To Bartlett, it’s a triumph of bringing her piano-based songwriting to the table and a touching memory of loss. “The biggest thing is that the lyrics stem from when my grandfather was dying and in hospice,” she shares. “It was about visiting him there and watching him die as he is dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s and cancer that had moved up to his brain. It affected me at such a deep level that ‘Chasing Ghosts’ is going to be really hard to sing live onstage while playing piano and not be overcome with emotion too. It has so much personal meaning that it never really needed much else.”
The closing track, “Messiah Complex,” is about the abuse of power. “Truthfully, when I wrote this, I was thinking about our asshole of a president. When everybody is going through this, it is still affecting us whether we like it or not,” Bartlett comments. “If we weren’t to write about things directly or indirectly affecting us, what else should we write about?”
“Wicked,” the second and most seductive track on the record—thanks to the push and pull from guitarist Chris Bursley and Bartlett’s partner, bassist Evan Bartlett—pulses with steady jazz tones. Initially, when Evan asked about the song’s meaning, Bartlett froze up. “The song is about, all of my life, having this physical attraction to women separately from men,” she says. “I never really opened up about that in my life, nor have I ever dated any women, because I have never had the guts to do that.” Beneath the song’s sexy dancehall feel, it took strength for Bartlett to write these lyrics. “[Evan] knows that I am bisexual, but we don’t always talk about it, because it’s not a topic of conversation,” she says, “but it is what the song is about. It still feels like I have this secret, even if it’s not a secret.”
Censory Overload is aptly titled. In today’s world, there are constant distractions flying through the periphery, whether it’s organized religion, politics, or personal hardships. It’s hard to stay focused and even harder to compartmentalize and hide the resultant thoughts and feelings. LOKELLA’s new EP is ready to balance those scales and hold nothing back.