Interview: Musicians Jennifer and Noam from Jenn Hall talk vinyl, wardrobe and touring diets

A still from the music video for "Make it Out Alive" -- image via Jennifer Hall
A still from the music video for “Make it Out Alive” — image via Jennifer Hall

Jennifer Hall

The Mill — Sunday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m.

After speaking with Jenn and Noam from Jennifer Hall, I have a refreshed excitement for new music. The visceral, soulful music and lyrics come from a group of real artists making genuine music for true music lovers. Their new self titled album is gaining attention around the nation and will come to life this Sunday at the Mill in Iowa City. Dig this interview with these lovely folks and then get out to the show.

The instrumentation is immediately noticeable and interesting and I can really hear the room when I listen to it. Was it a conscious effort on your part to create an organic live room feel on the album?

Jennifer: To be perfectly frank, as much take as I have in the writing I don’t do any of the production. Our guitarist does the production. His name is Noam and he’s the guitarist and produced the record and he’s right here.

Noam: It’s definitely a conscious effort. We went through a lot of painstaking processes to do everything as organically as we could. So it was lots of sounds on the record where we went about getting it in probably the hardest way possible but the result is that it wasn’t computer made, its organically happening in a room.

Is the song and lyric writing a solo thing for Jennifer or is it more collaborative?

Noam: Generally, Jenn writes all the lyrics and a good amount of the melody and then brings songs to us usually in that form and we build music around it and then the music dictates the rest, changes the melody and changes the song and the song changes. So there is a bunch of those and a couple songs on the record I wrote myself and that Jenn wrote herself. Myself, Jenn and Ben the keyboard player are the songwriting team. Every song is really any combination of the three writing.

Did you record this at Rax Trax in Chicago?

Noam: I am one of the head engineers there.

So, do you use the studio as another instrument?

Noam: Absolutely. I am a better engineer and producer than guitarist.

Jennifer: I would disagree with that. I think the skills are pretty equal.

Noam: The production process and a large part of the song writing process as well was written with the studio in mind. We wrote a record that was unplayable live and made a big mess for ourselves first and then tried to figure out how to play it.


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Jennifer: It seems life the reoccurring feedback from folks is really wonderful and a pleasant thing to hear is that they heard the record and thought it was going to be as Noam said, unplayable, and then they walk into a show and feel like they are listening to the record. So somehow Noam and Ben put there creative heads together and figured out how to deliver that live spirit.

For you Jennifer, what the studio lend to your process?

Jennifer: Well, I think from a singing standpoint it was really nice to have different rooms that sort of have a different feel. Different days, different songs. They have a really large live room. Sometimes I guess it’s a little hard to decide justify why it is but somedays I wanted to be in a big room and sometimes a small room. Some songs have a personal private kind of feel and there is a moment when it was nice to feel I was in a small intimate setting delivering something private.

Have you been the same band since you started?

Jennifer: Noam and I have been together musically the longest. About six years in terms of writing and hashing out different ideas and playing together. The way the band is now is only about 3 years. We made a record with different people and those members parted ways except for Noam. So, it was so great to finish this project because it was finally a record of what this new group was capable of. We play with 6 of us, our drummer Mat, Ben Decoba from a really great Chicago band called Ace Reporter, Ben Joseph on keys, Noam, myself and another great musician, Matt Wilson, on bass.

The tour schedule has been really intense for you guys. Have you been writing on the road?

Jennifer: In the beginning, no. And then as time went on I would find myself really tired having to turn out 20 advances or promoting on Facebook for five hours and feeling completely, totally burnt out and feeling lonely and disoriented on the road. I felt overworked because we don’t have a manager or booking agent, we are self-sufficient in getting everything done which is very time consuming with 51 dates.

So, I had a moment half way through when I thought I have to remember what this is all for and why we are out here and a moment of renewal where I though this is about making art its ok to be spending a lot of energy on pushing the shows but I can’t forget to still make art. So, I had a moment of yeah I need to be doing that and since then I have gotten a lot of ideas on my audio player on my phone to show Ben or Noam.

It sounds like touring and road life have become the norm have you noticed your stage presence effected in any way?

Jennifer: One-hundred percent. I have a background singing in choirs when I was a kid and a lot of musical theatre so a lot of stuff that has one degree of emotional removal being other people. So when I first started doing my own stuff it was scary to be myself. In Chicago we play once ever month or so to keep our draw and to not be old news. So when we started doing it every night I thought, “will I be able to stand that?” I was getting very emotional each night and getting into the guts, but I think its improved the stage presence has improved, I’ve learned how to spill my guts and then put them all back together after. When before it would be very difficult, all I would want is to have a beer and smoke a cigarette and calm myself down. But now I am better and pulling my guts out and showing them off and then putting them back in my body.

A lot of music fans think touring is a party every night and don’t realize the grueling discipline it takes.

Jennifer: That’s the thing. You meet new people every day and its exciting and you’re in a bar and there are drinks and a lot of stimulation for a couple of hours. But during the day it’s a really strange pace of just waiting around or driving or hanging out. It takes a while to get used to the pace and ups and downs of just the hour to hour schedule and it is tempting when you’re in a new place and in a bar to party and be carefree every night but it doesn’t always work out that way.

How has that lifestyle affected your relationships?

Jennifer: I think for me and for all of us, we are used to having our day to day include some alone time and reflection. For me, I love them all and I depend on having time in my own thoughts and private time with myself. On the road you are with five other people nonstop so I was nervous about that.

We certainly have moments when we get on each other’s nerves but for the most part we are all artists and have moments of sensitive reflection where we each open up and really connect with one another about something that’s happened at home or on the road. We are all getting better communicating and we are getting closer. I actually tour with my boyfriend and that’s to not always easy separate professional and personal time but somehow we are making it.

How does tour affect your eating habits?

Jennifer: Oh my god, girl, I have to tell you my sister is in integrative health care and getting her masters in nutrition, which has affected me. And then going on the road is a shock to my system. I am always the one popping probiotics and trying to find farm to table restaurants and looking for greens.

My relationship with my sister goes on, and I am realizing that is important to think about long term health. it’s definitely interesting, I try to bring my little goodies and whole foods things on the road. So, you have to plan well. If I found kombucha in a gas station I would ask to speak to a manager and say thank you so much and give them a record. We try to be smart about balancing eating a meal for funbecause it is part of a culture of a new city and eating healthy because it definitely will catch up with you. The road is inconsistent, you’re in a new bed, a new city every night and long hours driving so it can be strenuous.

How does it affect your wardrobe?

Jennifer: I have a suitcase that is 12 inches by 6 inches, I am not exaggerating. I love traveling in that way. I will pack really really lightly like 2 pairs of bottoms and a different top for each day. I pack very thin and very small things and that somehow gives me this excuse to not take a lot of baggage with me emotionally. I think small about it, small stuff, pack light and I love not having to worry about it.

I don’t consider myself to be necessarily fashionable and I don’t wear big shoes every night and lots of jewelry. So it’s kind of nice and motivates me to pack small, think light and get out the door and every once in a while we are lucky enough to come across a laundry machine.

It’s really powerful you release stuff under your own name. Can you speak to any challenges or empowerments to what being a woman on the road?

Jennifer: Well, frankly I think I have been treated pretty fairly. My mom is a physician and my dad is an engineer, both ambitious, smart people. I was never raised to even think about if this is a man vs woman situation. It’s not something I have on my radar to watch out for not being treated fairly. I was raised for it to never be an issue or consider gender norms as an issue so I guess I don’t think of that often. Every once in a while I will wonder if I should be more firm about it but I don’t equate it to being a woman. I just think about is this fair in negotiation terms.

Do you feel like you have strong women influences, specifically female vs musical?

Jennifer:vTotally, my sister. She’s older, she is incredibly intelligent, she is getting her masters in nutrition making incredible strides in a new genre of study in integrative health. She graduated from Northwestern. She is really cool.

I love that your answer is your sister and not Patti Smith.

Jennifer: And Eleonore Roosevelt. No, my sister is someone I definitely look up to. She reminds me to never sell myself short and that I can do all these crazy things that I want to do.

Ideally, music is made to feel not be analyzed but unfortunately we live in a culture where everyone like to assume the critics role. From what you’ve seen or heard have you been labeled in ways you agree or disagree with?

Jennifer: For the most part we have gotten positive feedback. Not that much press but most of the time I read it and think “oh that’s real nice, cool, thanks guys.” Sometimes it is needed self-affirmation because I am so doubtful of myself as an artist.

Have you had any surprises in your fan base?

Jennifer: I have to be quite frank, I always thought our stuff has a rock edge to it with some driving guitars and it can get kind of rockin at times. I guess I never thought we would have as many people in an older demographic come out but that seems to be the case. We are spanning from teens to 60, 70, 75, 80.

We have seen people in all age groups and all genders and its really lovely and a beautiful surprise. Something for everybody.

On your Facebook page the other day there was a link to the increase in vinyl sales and the record has a style that hearkens back to a more vintage sound. What kind of vinyl do you collect?

Noam: Our drummer Ben is probably the biggest vinyl collector of the bunch and has a mess. He’s immediately to the nearest record shop. Myself, I work at a studio, so I like vinyl but don’t have a good enough player to be able to appreciate it in the way that I would like. So to me the choice is always to listen to vinyl on a not pristine vinyl player or listening through a really high quality studio system and I am generally choosing the studio. So, I don’t have a huge vinyl collection.

Do you agree that there is a vintage sound?

Noam: I honestly think that the reason vinyl is surging so much right now is because it is a physical thing for people to buy and there is a need for that right now. People who are purchasing music they are going to rip a CD on their computer if it has a CD drive and throw it out. People can buy shirts and stuff like that but they want to be connected to music in a more physical way. As much as I think people are enjoying the sound quality of it I think they are enjoying the fact it’s a more tangible, substantial item.

Largely also, a lot of the reasons people hail the sound of vinyl from a sound standpoint is that it is not digitized so you are not losing sound frequency, you lose them when you put them on a cd and you don’t lose them on vinyl. However, a lot of vinyl is now recorded digitally. So the vinyl is a little bit of nostalgic reasons, it is fun to hear your stuff with a crackle and the warmth of a tube amp and shit like but it is more that physical thing to take home.

Have you heard yourself on the radio driving around?

Noam: We heard ourselves with his record on local anesthetic on XRT a month after it came out which is incredibly exciting and surreal. As an engineer, I submit myself to it sounding how it’s gonna sound and get the sound as best as it can be out of my speakers.

Have you developed any pre or post show rituals?

Jennifer: I take a minute or two of quietness in my head. Like a two-minute meditation. I am a bit of an analytical person and my thoughts race and I get my thoughts centered to make sure I am delivering as great of a show as possible to be fair to the audience and go to the places I need to go.

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