“I wanna die fighting a bear in the mountains of Seattle!” laughs Jenny Westbury as we discuss “going out in style” on a sunny day outside of the Lawndale Art Center where she’s preparing for an art opening. It’s not exactly the way most people would like to meet their maker but, then again, Jenny doesn’t live in the same place we do. In her world, there is always something clever, beautiful, and exciting about the everyday. She expresses that sense of wonder in her songs where you’ll hear an expressive voice, impeccable vocal phrasing, engaging melodies, and lyrics that can tickle you with their wit or touch you with their humanity. Her subject matter is eclectic – friends, family, animals, history, the Bible, and anything that falls out of her head are all thrown into the pot. On a song like Klepto Sister, her haunting harmonies and tense acoustic guitar work drive a dark comic narrative in a song that is as disturbing as it is gorgeous. That lies in sharp contrast to the upbeat pop of a song like Gadget where Westbury’s voice floats unadorned in a sea of bobbing electronic drums, bass, and keyboards. In Plight of Leah Westbury interprets the Old Testament story of Leah and Rachel with emotion and empathy. The song concludes with a rousing chorus where the competing characters sing, “God is on My Side” – a coda that worries Westbury as possibly being too cynical. If that’s too heavy, she’ll bounce back with the bright melody, and playful words of a song like Frogs and Bears, Cats and Bees that kisses your ear like a spring breeze. If all this sounds like the Pop! Pop! Pop! of someone whose brain can’t stop poking around, that should be no surprise as, in addition to her music, she is also a gifted A/V artist and, I think it’s safe to say, an all around certified dabbler.
Over the years, she has written many songs on guitar yet she describes her abilities on the instrument as limiting. Yet, ask her about her Hawaiian island four-string and she lights up, “I never picked-up on the guitar but the Uke – I can’t stop playing the Uke! Most people hate it but it’s so easy to play, I can carry it anywhere, and I can write in my car. I’ll drive with my knees, set the phone in my car, and record.”
That same joy is also in her writing. “I can write songs all night. I’ve never struggled with writing songs. If I did, I wouldn’t do it. Some people get frustrated but if I can’t say what I want to say, it’s just not time to say it. I write songs in 30 minutes and let them go; music is everything and nothing. I write because I have to get a song out of my head or I’m trying to catalog a thought. It’s about the process. I love the process.”
I mention her aversion to promoting herself and she replies, “A lot of people want fame and that’s contradictory to my faith and my faith is so real. I’ve always struggled with being a musician and promoting myself.” She pauses to think and continues, “Read Ecclesiastes. It should technically be a downer of a book, but it really encourages me in that it’s realistic and sobering. There’s this theme of ‘pursuit of the wind’ – chasing something intangible. I think every artist and musician deals with that question of ‘What am I doing with my life?’ or ‘Is this worth it?’ or ‘Am I any good?’ I originally thought art and music were meaningless but I came to realize that they themselves are not the end but the means – the means to relationships, learning, community…”
Perhaps, because art and music are not ends to her, Jenny is someone who doesn’t mind roughness around the edges of her work. “I’m someone who never finishes things and it’s not a problem. That’s why I’m graduating with an art degree. Most professions are more rigid but with art there is more leeway to explore possibilities. See, I’m a fan of The Basement Tapes and Daniel Johnston. I love that Johnston doesn’t edit himself. You have bands with these bodies of work that are tight – you can’t deny that – but I’m the kid that wants to look at everything Why doll yourself up? Just so people think that you didn’t score on each record? That’s a vulnerability we owe each other. I feel we should be real and not hide so much.”
Suddenly she realizes she needs to get back to her installation but before she leaves she stops to remind me of one thing, “There’s a bear with my name on it!”
Jenny Westbury and Alex Nguyen (her video collaborator) are working on Heartbone Records – a label for bands and AV artists.
Jenny Westbury will be performing an early show on Thursday June 19th with Cryptacize (Deerhoof/Nedelle) & Blacksnake and Kangaroo? at the Backroom at the Mink.