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Interview with Jenn Champion

Jenn Champion

Images and Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“It’s hard to be a person in the world
and you struggle, but that’s part of it
—that’s the deal.” 
— Jenn Champion

Jenn Champion
Jenn Champion is a singer-songwriter and guitarist formerly known as “S.” She began making music professionally in 1995 as a member of Seattle-based indie-rock band Carissa’s Wierd, which released six albums. Champion has released five solo LPs, including her latest electro-pop album Single Rider (2018). KEXP called the LP “a strong set of moody, ’80s-steeped electro-pop combining sparkling synths, atmospheric guitars and propulsive beats with confessional lyrics of love, desire and connection.”

After her band Carissa’s Wierd broke up in 2003, singer-songwriter Jenn Champion focused on her solo career. On her latest album, Single Rider (2018), she employs the same open-hearted lyrics of her past work, delivering a collection of synth-filled dance tracks produced by Bryan Fennell (aka SYML). She speaks about failure, being a “goth kid” and her recent love of outrun music.

Where are you from?
I am currently living in Los Angeles, but I’m from Seattle.

When did you start making music?
Probably as a teenager—I’ve played music since I was a little kid.

Who did you listen to growing up?
Middle school was George Michael and Madonna, but they became closet faves in high school. I was like, “People can’t know I listen to Madonna.” There was also Jane’s Addiction, and The Cure. I was kind of a goth kid.

So how did you actually get started?
I had some friends that played music or played guitar, and they were like, “Hey, can you play this too?” Then all of sudden we were in a band together.

“It goes from a super fun dance record and by the end, you’re probably crying because it’s also sad.”
— Jenn Champion

When do you feel you got you first break?
Probably being able to play a show in some sense—somebody letting me get up in front of people and play music.

So, tell me a bit about your debut LP as Jenn Champion.
It’s kind of a record meant to be danced to—even chair dancing, bed dancing, on-the-bus dancing. I love dancing. I was going to use all these synthesizers and some drum tracks. Luckily I had help from a producer because I was like, “I don’t know how to do this very well.” I can make a beat on a drum machine, but for making it cooler, that’s when a producer really comes in hand. It goes from a super fun dance record and by the end, you’re probably crying because it’s also sad.

“Single Rider is kind of a record meant to be danced to—even chair dancing, bed dancing, on-the-bus dancing.”
— Jenn Champion

What would you say the big difference is between you now versus under the name “S”?
It’s a more high-fi sound, and I worked really hard to polish up a song more than I ever have. “S” was definitely curated.

Whitney (2018) is a documentary about singer Whitney Houston, written and directed by Kevin Macdonald. In the documentary, those who were close to Houston talk about her lifestyle and tragic death at age forty-eight. The film premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Miami Nights 1984
Miami Nights 1984 is the musical project of electronic artist Michael Glover from Victoria, Canada. He founded Rosso Corsa Records with a focus on developing artists who make modern, 1980s inspired music. Glover coined Outrun music, a genre also known as synthwave.

Cliff Martinez
Cliff Martinez is a musician and composer known as a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and has written music for films Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), Spring Breakers (2012), and Traffic (2000). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in 2012.

Drive (2011) is an action drama directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Oscar Isaac. The screenplay is based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel Drive, which centers around an unnamed Hollywood getaway driver. Several critics named Drive one of the best films of 2011.

What are some things that are important to you that you like to address through your music?
Feelings. Being able to talk about being sad or dealing with failure. It’s hard to be a person in the world and you struggle, but that’s part of it—that’s the deal. There’s a lot of failure, and there’s a lot of struggling. I guess to say, “I feel it too,” and hopefully bring some solidarity to other folks in the same situation.

Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
What comes to mind off the top of my head is Cardi B because I really enjoyed her album, and trap music is something I don’t know about very much—I haven’t taken it apart and tried to figure out how it’s done. Things like that interest me, and she seems like a wonderful person to hang out with.

What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I love dancing. My goal this year is to learn how to dance for real. I have two dogs. I enjoy lots of art—just being in the arts, being around people that do art and looking at art, and seeing what other people are making, talking to other people about making stuff.

What’s your favorite book, film and music right now?
Book: I don’t know. I know it’s a real faux pas, but it’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book. I definitely watch a lot of television. I watch a lot of movies.

I just watched the show Barry, starring that guy from Saturday Night Live. I did see the Whitney documentary. You could tell some parts were missing, but I cried through the whole thing.

I’m really into outrun music right now. It’s kind of 80, synthy and mostly instrumental. I think it stems from this video game from the 80s that had this synth soundtrack, but I found this song that I really liked and then I was like, “I gotta look it up. I gotta figure out this artist.” Then I dove into this whole genre. There’s a band called Miami Nights 1984. That’s probably my favorite one. There’s a band College who you might know from having a song on the Drive soundtrack. Also, I enjoyed that movie. Cliff Martinez does some scoring—who I think is quite amazing at it. I wish I could do that kind of thing.

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