woman at work
An interview by
Pamela Murray Winters,
All over America, outcasts and disaffected adolescents, gays and pagans and other square pegs get the same message, perhaps from the collective unconscious: Go to New York. Which is why New York has so many cool baristas, legal proofreaders and bookstore clerks.
Still, you can live in New York and be an artist -- however difficult the financial struggles -- and find people who will accept you.
Jenn Lindsay is part of an East Village movement known as "antifolk." The musicians in this collective share an enthusiasm for vital, not-necessarily-marketing-friendly music. This would include Lindsay's body of work: three CDs, including the recently released Fired!, and an EP, not to mention lots of New York gigs.
"When I moved to NYC after graduating from college, about a year and a half ago," says Lindsay, "I spent the first few months comparing myself to every other musician I heard, particularly the women. I was always hearing someone and immediately trying to tell if I were 'better' or not, and if they were 'better,' just felt suspicious and judgmental. It fucks you up to think like that though, and after a while you have to ask why you're writing music at all. And what I arrived at one day is that as great as other people's songwriting can be, as much as I could never write what they were writing, they couldn't write what I am writing.
"When I first started writing I tried to be Ani DiFranco and felt very bitter that I was still Jenn Lindsay. Until one day I wrote an honest song and it felt so good, and so different, that I decided to try to do that from then on."
Lindsay became hooked on music in high school, in San Diego. "I had the coolest math teacher in high school, Rob Ridgway. He taught math with a guitar." She demonstrates: "There once was an integer ... laa laa laa ... .We started a folk band, doing covers mostly, and played all over San Diego. In early college I found solace from my complete inability to relax or have anything other than intense, desperate friendships, by playing the same songs on my guitar. I started writing music one summer when I was living in Peru and supposed to be doing anthropology research. Instead I stayed in my hut and strummed chords on this backpacker guitar, singing lovelorn tortured songs for this straight girl I was in love with. I was positive that the perfect song would convert her. Thank god it didn't work, because she remained my tortured muse for the next year and half, until I started writing about other people I wanted, my frustrations at school, and the sense of responsibility I was developing as a folksinger to speak my mind about larger, more communal issues."
Among the issues that concern Lindsay is appearance. "I used to write a pathetic cavalcade of songs about body image because I felt so wronged by the fact that I am not a super-thin woman. And maybe it was those very songs that helped me out of the problem in my head, or maybe it was just a continual effort to remind myself that I don't really find women in the popular industry to be very attractive. I am continually rewriting the paradigm of beauty and body size, at least in my head. I think a lot -- more than I want to admit -- about the possibility that my appearance will hold me back. ... I find solace in the reigning truth that talent and drive persevere beyond appearance."
Lindsay's album Gotta Lotta reflects her growing optimism. "I used to write very long, very sad songs about the world, the Man, my belly, girls and boys who didn't love me back, sexual violence ... etc. But now I try to write songs that are more encouraging to myself and to the people listening. I say lots of things like 'Don't think there is something wrong with you,' because any thing that tries to tell me I am not doing okay just frustrates me. I say it to myself enough! One day I read this quote by Woody Guthrie: 'I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that just makes you think that you are born to lose. I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.' This helps me keep my priorities straight."
It also helps her get through the day jobs. "I have had a veritable cornucopia of stupid jobs: receptionist, admin assistant, program director, flower shop telephone girl, publicist, chiropractor's assistant. They never last long, but it's fodder for new music!" Of course, "this occurs to me only after I cry for three days straight after being fired." Hence her latest album, which she deems "one big middle-finger-thrust at the imbeciles of the job world."
Of course, there's every indie artist's dream/nightmare: What would happen if Elektra or Capitol came to call?
"I think it would take a lot of courage to reject any major label wooing," she muses. "The notion of playing huge shows and gaining enough recognition to carve out a long-lived career as a songwriter is super-dreamy for any performer. But once they start talking about the exploitative aspects of a major label deal -- the image construction, the surrender of copyrights and album rights, the notion of owing money to a conglomerate getting rich on my work, the writer's block that would ensue after being on the cover of Rolling Stone or winning a Grammy ... then I think I could walk away from it.
"Accepting a major label deal is no guarantee of success ... turning one down might even be a bigger sign that that person will get somewhere, because they've got guts and enough talent to get the attention of some businessmen who think they can make a wad of dough off their art.
"Overall I think remaining indie is the only way to maintain pride in your own career path. I would rather fail at my own projects, my own dreams, than succeed at someone else's plan for me," Lindsay declares. Especially if their plan involved them getting rich off of my work."