May 7th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 14
I recently rediscovered your Smalltalk blog after a hiatus of a few years, and I was so happy to see that you're answering questions and communicating in this way.
I think Smalltalk is really special - it's honest and poetic, and your writing is wonderful. Also, I don't know anything like Smalltalk on the internet - it's hard to find classic blog sites nowadays. As you've said, Smalltalk is much more of a personal space than social media, and more conducive of conversations like this. I think it's fantastic.
At risk of making you feel old, I remember reading Smalltalk when I first discovered your music a decade ago, when I was 13. It's amazing that you've kept up this public, archived diary for such a long time (with some gaps I'm sure) and that you've kept posts online from the very start in 2004 for all to see.
My question to you is this: how do you feel about this huge archive that you've created over the last 17 years, which is a social document of sorts? Do you ever look back on the old articles and reminisce? Finally, what motivates you to keep writing on Smalltalk and has that changed over the years?
From a big fan,
I noticed that you mentioned the birth of your friend's son coincided with your finishing Night Falls... and how that has become almost a physical measure of the time between your work then and now.
I suppose my question is about how you relate to work you did back then now, looking back. The Rocky Dennis era was almost 20 years ago now, for instance - does that distance give you a perspective on your own work that you might not have had before?
Personally, I struggle to recall anything older than about a week and actually being able to remember things from 20 years ago summons up all kinds of existential angst but that's just me!
Dear Xanthe and Connor
Have you read ”Life: A User’s Manual” by Georges Perec? I don’t remember much what it was about or if I even finished it but I remember there's a man in the book, Bartlebooth, who spends his life painting watercolours of harbours and seaports. Then he has them sawed into jigsaw puzzles which he assembles. He glues the puzzles back into paintings, removes them from the wood and places them in a detergent solution that removes the colours. Eventually all that’s left after this whole process is the white sheets of paper that he started with.
I often think of Bartlebooth's undertaking when I think of my own back catalogue. I think of preserving and archiving. Being a hoarder in spirit I know that there’s a thin line between an archive and a dumpster. What is invaluable information for some is clogging up access to invaluable information for others. What is a precious collection for one person becomes a cleaning job for their relatives after they pass away. I remember reading ”The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges, about a library so infinite that it contained every book that could ever be written, every possible combination of every letter in the alphabet. Because of this overload of information, the library was useless, leaving readers and librarians in a state of suicidal despair. We need to be selective, we need to erase things. 15 years ago I erased a harddrive full of songs. Hundreds of songs. I did it because the songs weighed me down. I kept returning to them as if I was watering dying plants and people kept asking for new material and I knew this wasn't it. In order to reinvent myself and make something good I needed a clean slate. Years before Marie Kondo I was asking myself ”do these songs spark joy?” and the answer was no.
I have a complicated relationship to the past. Everyone who writes and has had some form of success does. When my album Oh You’re So Silent Jens was taken down ten years ago due to sample issues, I almost felt a relief. The past had become too heavy. It's hard to explain but it used to bother me when someone said they liked something I’d done in the past. It was like... Imagine you’re 40, like me, and someone said ”I saw a photo of you when you were 21, you looked really good back then”. That's a nice thing to say but it can also unintentionally translate to ”you don’t look that good anymore”. And it feels the same way with a song, especially if you’re still trying to write new songs. So the album was gone and I thought that would make me feel better but the effect was much more extreme than I thought. Because of streaming and the way we've been listening to music the last ten years it was like the album had never existed. For any new listener that album is not even a gap in the record collection. It has no absence, there's no void, unless you know exactly where it was supposed to have been. And over time these old songs have become like new songs. Several times after playing Black Cab live, a young person has come up and said ”I liked that new song you played called Black Cab, when is that coming out?”.
So during this pandemic I worked on restoring a lot of my old recordings from this era to be able to re-release them. Some songs had to be re-recorded from scratch as I’d recorded over the original tapes. Others could be remixed or left as they were. Unreleased demos were dug up and finished. If I was Bartlebooth I guess I would be in the jigsaw puzzle phase. It’s been fascinating, like I’ve had a compassionate dialogue between my current self and my 21 year old self. I think I look a lot better today than when I was 21 but I could write some pretty good tunes back then. It’s made me like myself more. It’s made me understand where I am. To know where you are you need to know where you came from.
Sometimes I’ve fantasized about including a clause in my will about having all traces of myself erased once I’m dead. Placing my songs in a detergent solution and leaving nothing but white sheets behind. But that’s nonsense, I know. Pure narcissism in disguise. What I leave to the world belongs to the world. I donate it to you like I donate my body to science. I will from now on carry a donor card in my wallet that says ”after my death - (1) any song I’ve ever written (2) anything I’ve ever posted on my blog - may be used for the benefit of others.” Take this old flesh, learn something from it. Carve in it. Tear it to pieces. Delete it if you want or frame it in a museum. Read my growth rings like a tree, my musical calcifications. Laugh with me and laugh at me. I was a human. No more, no less.
April 14th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 13
Dear Jens, how are you doing in these times? I been wondering about something I read a long time ago. It was that you consider yourself as an miniature worker in making music. Do you still feel that way? If not what has changed?
I wish you a great week full of wonder.
I think the image of the miniature artist came to me after reading a short story by Steven Millhauser called ’In The Reign of Harad IV’ about a king’s craftsman who makes miniature sculptures. I recognised myself in it. Miniature art in all it’s forms - from the typical hobby railroad models one sometimes finds in the basement of an excentric grandparent, to Hagop Sandaldjian’s microsculptures only visible through a microscope, have always fascinated me. It’s the attention to detail I think. My brain wants to go there, further into the microcosm. In my songwriting it is a form of obsession, I can spend many nights working on details that no one will ever hear or care about. I’ll zoom in on a snare drum hit and curve the pitch of it’s tail for a tenth of a second. ”Amazing” I’ll think to myself. ”That’s just the way it should be”. Or I’ll go into Street View on Google Maps to see exactly where the fire hydrant is situated on a street where I have placed a story. Or I’ll sit for hours researching what songs were in the top 10 in my town on August 31st 1997. Some of these details you will recognize, maybe even appreciate, but most of them are details that only I hear.
I made my first music video with the production team from Roy Andersson’s Studio 24 and while I was waiting for them to wrap up their equipment I got to see a scene they were about to film for ’You, The Living’. They had set up a room, grey and gloomy like most of Roy’s sets, with an aquarium. Inside the aquarium they had put candywrappers on steel wire. I wasn’t too impressed by this, you could see it was just candywrappers. But a camera operator had me look through the lens, he adjusted the focus just slightly, and all of a sudden the candywrapper became a goldfish. They had worked on this for a month he said. I often think of Roy’s films when I write my songs. One aspect we have in common is his attention to what goes on in the background. His films are like living paintings that you can view for hours and discover new details in. I understand why it takes him a decade to complete each film.
As I thought about these things I decided to read Steven Millhauser’s story again. It truly is a great analogy for any kind of writing or creating. But this time it felt more tragic. It reminded me of the loneliness involved in writing and how you inevitably start disappearing into your own work. In the end, the miniature artist is visited by two apprentices who want to see his work. They praise him, tell him that they have never seen ”anything so remarkable in both conception and execution”. But the miniature artist knows that they haven’t seen anything, the details are too tiny. He knows they’re just pretending to see what he sees and that they probably think he’s mad. He returns to his work.
”…and as he sank below the crust of the visible world, into his dazzling kingdom, he understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.”
March 26th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 12
I'm writing you again, this time to have more of a discussion (hopefully, anyway).
Basically, like many of us, my life in quarantine hasn't gone swimmingly. I won't get into things too much, but the short of it is that the life I had planned on living after graduating college last May has been looking ever out of reach - I wanted to get out of my shell after a few years of living like a recluse, and also to gain some concrete direction in my professional life. As a result of the pandemic, however, I've been mostly living at home, rarely interacting with others in person besides my immediate family, and it looks pretty unlikely that I'll actually get admitted to any graduate school I submitted applications to, due to applying in the most competitive apps cycle in history. I feel lost at sea, yet without any concrete actor (even myself) to assign much blame to about my misfortune.
I feel that so much of art is giving attention to where attention is due, whether that's romanticizing the big and small meaningful moments in life or lamenting terrible pains you've experienced. Either way, though, these situations have generally been caused by someone; you have a person, real or fictional, to associate the given feelings with. With your music, for example, even though you have songs with themes and ideas that are off the beaten path, so much of your catalog is about the clearly and obviously emotional - being in love, being heartbroken, supporting/being supported by a friend, etc. It's been a great soundtrack for when I've either experienced those things or wanted to explore those situations vicariously.
But a lot of what actually affects us in life isn't so tangible or obviously personal, right? For me, this pandemic has been one of the most significant events I've experienced, changing my life's direction for the worse, even though I don't really feel I have the grounds or makeup as a person to feel anything other than a general sense of dismay about it. The whole thing reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's quote about how artists refuse "to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain."
My question - do you yourself ever feel like art is insufficient for situations like these? If so, how do you deal with it? Either as an artist or as an art appreciator.
Thanks for listening,
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
Sorry to hear that your life has been so hard lately. Your story reminds me of how much harder it must be for a young person to deal with the effects of the pandemic. Your whole life has been paused just when it was about to start.
As you say, music and art often focus on the events that involve another person, love and loss, while the more difficult and abstract feelings and events remain unsung. I can't stop thinking about the interview I read last year with a guy who had defined himself as an incel but didn't anymore because he had met someone. "How long have you been together?" asked the interviewer and the guy replied "Actually she broke up with me after two months". But it was being dumped that made him stop being an incel because it was an experience that brought him from the abstract pain that turned him into a bitter incel into the more concrete pain of being dumped. Having lost someone, either in love or in life, is a pain that's sanctioned. It's a pain we sing songs about. The dull pain, the pain that seems to have fallen on us, that makes us feel worthless, give up on hope, retreat into ourselves, that prohibits us from reaching out, is often met with indifference at best.
Olivia Laing searches for this pain in her book The Lonely City. After experiencing the kind of loneliness that you can only experience in New York City - the kind of loneliness that seems to make no sense when you're surrounded by 18 million people - she turned to art for consolation and company. She found it in Edward Hopper who in his classic painting Nighthawks saw the big city loneliness like she saw it. She found it in Henry Darger, whose life illuminates the forces that create isolation and loneliness but also the way the imagination works to survive. And in the work of artists who took up arms against isolation, like David Wojnarowicz who fought against the stigmatization of people with Aids in the 1980's. In an article in The Guardian she wrote "There is a gentrification that’s happening to cities, and there’s a gentrification that’s happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amid the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice."
I had to look up that Ursula Le Guin quote you mentioned and found it in it's whole to be about the myth of the tortured artist.
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
I think this is from a fictional work so I'm not sure if I'm to attribute it to her or a character in a book, either way I agree to a certain extent. As we hide away the difficult, abstract feelings we simultaneously seem to be obsessed with the recognizable, tangible kind of pain and we are required to always have a good old trauma story in our back pocket to show that we have worked our way up and deserve to be where we are in life. I've experienced this first hand as journalists have tried to squeeze the trauma out of me, because without it - how do you build a story? All stories these days are like this - "something awful happened to me but I made it through and now I'm stronger than before". I did a project called Ghostwriting in 2015 where I asked people to send me stories from their life that I could turn into songs and most of the stories, about 300 in total were like this. Especially the ones from the US. I think it's a way to make sense of the injustice and inequality of our society. To not have suffered raises suspicion. Do you actually deserve to be where you are? Is your story even worth telling? After a while it becomes self fulfilling. The trauma becomes the purpose, not the healing.
I know you didn't write to criticize me, John, but I feel an obligation to think more about these things after reading your mail. You and Ursula are right, us artists need to lift the difficult feelings to the surface and not get stuck writing the same sad love songs and underdog trauma stories. I've often felt like these feelings are hard to go into. I've often said that I feel a responsibility to not leave the listener in the darkness. But what I've forgotten is that when you take a listener into the darkness you don't leave them there, because you're there with them.
I hope that things work out for you.
March 26th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 11
Hello! I wanted to ask, do you consider yourself a person of faith, and/or a religious person? Has that identity changed over your life? Does it influence your art life?
Thank you for offering Life Will See You Now on cassette - I listen to it in my car, and I always cry during Evening Prayer, both because of the story itself, and because I don't often hear other people like me (I'm also an artist, and your sister's age) talk about prayer as a normal part of our lives.
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
Me in the Sedlec Ossuary, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
I’m not a person of faith but I’ve always liked people who are, probably because I’ve always enjoyed the discussions. Because I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants and a lot of different cultures I had friends who were muslims, buddhists, christians, jews and hindus. I loved talking to them about how they saw the world. I did have a short atheist phase when I was 17 but I quickly realized that it was a weak form of rebellion when living in one of the most secular and non religious countries in the world and I dropped it. I suppose I am an agnostic.
I do pray sometimes even though it's not to a particular God and I think every song is like a prayer. It is my longing, my pain, my gratefulness, my joy that I send out into the Universe. And I go to church sometimes. I love the idea of going to church. I often look for places that resemble churches, where an agnostic like me can experience the same feeling. When I was going through a hard time a few years ago I started going to clubs alone, just to dance and be around people. It was a new experience for me and I realized when I was there that I wasn’t the only one doing this.
There’s been a number of times in my life when I’ve longed to belong to a church or be part of a congregation. I remember being in a car ten years ago, on my way to a show, when the driver turned on Bob Dylan’s ”Gotta Serve Somebody” and it suddenly meant something to me. It could’ve been existential dread, a longing for someone else to be in charge of my path. A longing for a parental figure in the newfound chaos of adulthood perhaps. But I think there was something else at play too.
John Lennon released a reply to Dylan’s song, a funny tune called ”Serve Yourself” where he criticized religion and scolded Dylan for taking the easy way out. Lennon had effectively assassinated God nine years earlier in his song ”God” but it wasn’t just God that he had declared dead. The final line of the song, "The dream is over” was interpreted as declaring the end of the 1960’s and its quest for meaning in utopian movements. Lennon was saying that meaning lies within oneself. "If there is a God," Lennon explained, "we're all it.”
I had a friend who was into new age and more alternative beliefs and this was his main thesis - that we’re all God and that we’re here to experience everything that can be experienced, from total bliss to total suffering. We’re ”God’s whiskers”, he explained followed by a look that said "now you probably think I'm some kinda nutjob". But I didn't think he was a nutjob, I kinda liked that thought as much as I like all the fringe theories of a conscious universe. As much as I like the idea of Einstein's "cosmic religious feeling" or Freud's concept of an "oceanic feeling". Freud explained the latter as a leftover from our infant days, the time before we developed an ego or self, when we didn't know where our body ended and our mother's body started. I think Lennon was saying that we should find something else that unites us as religion and political movements often do the opposite. But since Lennon died our society has become extremely individualistic. Religion hasn't been replaced by anything and the grand political narratives that used to unite us have faded away. We're all islands on a vast ocean now. Tiny gods, writing our own bibles.
I think my song To Know Your Mission represents this split between individualism and belonging to something bigger. Serving somebody vs. serving yourself. There’s a conflict between young Jens and the Mormon missionary. Jens isn’t interested in his religious faith. He’s trying to find his own inner truth. He’s an individualist much like everyone else. But the final line is ”I know who I’m serving. I’m serving you.” When I play it live I always gesture with my arm at the crowd when I’m singing that. Because you are my congregation.
February 28th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 10|
Dear Jens. What’s your favorite ailment?