“I’ve been writing songs, lyrics, poems my whole life and for the past couple years I’ve felt this demanding need to get something out of me, and photography and writing alone didn’t feel like enough of an outlet.” Known for her intimate and introspective poetry and photography, in the past year or so, Jenna Putnam has been in search of a new output that better represents her current mindset: having always found solace in lyrics, a gearshift into music was a natural progression and has given her an added freedom of expression that resonates true. “There’s something about being able to feel something and put it into melody, to just fucking sing, that’s so invigorating.
Putnam’s debut release as a musician, Make War, exemplifies this emotive gearshift. Backed by louche basslines, lounge tones and reverb riffs, Putnam responds to the current anxieties and anger of the world and offers her own escapist manifesto. Written in collaboration with LA musician Calvin Love, here Putnam and Love connect against a deep West Coast sunset to discuss creative freedom, love and fear.
Jenna Putnam: Hi Cal, what are you doing right now?
Calvin Love: I’ve just had some breakfast and now I’m playing a little guitar. It’s kinda cold outside today. What’s new, how are you?
JP: Not much, I’m okay. There’s a lot of things I’m trying to work on internally right now but it’s good to be aware of what I need to work on, how about you?
CL: I’m feeling pretty tired today actually. I played a show on Friday, and played for like two hours, and yeah I really gave it.
CL: Yeah it was the first time I’ve stayed up until 3am in a very long time, so I’m still kind of recovering. It’s Thanksgiving here so I’m going for dinner at my Dad’s place in a couple hours.
JP: I like Thanksgiving, there’s no pressure, you just eat and hang out with your family and friends. So where should we start? We met at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn a few years ago while I was bartending and you were playing a show. I thought your music was amazing. You know, working there you see so many people every night that play shows and I was super into your music. I met a lot of musicians through working there and a lot of people that I would work with as a photographer too, which is kinda funny.
CL: Oh yeah I’m sure. Well I remember ordering peppermint tea and you gave me your card, and that’s when I knew you were a photographer, before I’d even seen your work.
JP: Yeah, I need to order new business cards. I haven’t had business cards in a while.
CL: Yeah I guess people still have business cards. I’ve never had one before.
JP: Really? I think it’s kind of different as a musician, but yeah I feel like nowadays people just trade Instagram handles and I don’t know if I respect people that hand you a nice ass business card, you know?
CL: So when did you decide to start making and performing music?
JP: I mean, I knew I wanted to start making music for a long time but I just didn’t really know how. I’ve been writing poetry and songs and just doing little recordings on my phone for a long time… but I guess it wasn’t until the past year or two… basically after I released my first poetry book. Putting my writing out made me wanna go deeper. I don’t know, you think about doing something your whole life and you’re too scared to do it. I think that that’s what was happening with me, I just hadn’t found the right people to make music with. I decided that I didn’t care anymore and felt that the need to get something out became more important than my pride or being too cautious or whatever.
CL: Yeah you wanted to prove to yourself that you could do it by releasing something and getting these melodies out of your head. You broke down the wall, that fear wall!
JP: You were there for that entire process, I feel like I was so manic. I mean, I’m manic anyway, but I feel like that week we were recording I was really, really broken down and it was great but also super terrifying, as you probably know.
CL: Well yeah for sure, it’s an emotional experience. I was more referring to you breaking through that fear wall, you know? The one where you’ve got that voice that’s like, “Yeah, I really wanna do it but…” I had the same experience too when I first worked up the courage to sing.
JP: Tell me about that.
CL: Oh, it was many years ago, probably when I was like sixteen. Same kind of thing where I played in a band and I saw other people singing, and my Mom sings too, she comes from a musical theatre background and I was around that a lot, so melodies were floating around all over the place but it was just kind of working up the courage to do it. I don’t know how it happened, eventually it just kind of melted away and I started doing it and got better through practice.
JP: If you’re around it so much, especially if your family comes from a musical background, it’s probably just ingrained in you.
CL: Yeah and I was fortunate enough to have friends at an early age that started playing before me so I could join the band, you know?
JP: We were talking the other day about how scary it is to put music out. This is my first time obviously but you’ve been doing it for years, do you feel like it gets any easier to put something out or do you feel like you go through the same process every time?
CL: I guess I still go through the same process. I think it’s gotten a little easier as I’ve evolved my work, my writing and confidence as a singer and a writer. Also through people’s responses, that’s all so empowering and inspiring, knowing that the music has connected, and it’s slowly just burning along but right before I release a song I still get that, “Well, here it goes!”
JP: Yeah, like there’s no turning back now…
CL: It’s no longer mine, it’s everyone else’s now. But it’s good, as long as I’m proud of my work and I feel like I put all my honesty and everything into it and I did the best that I could, that’s all you can do. It’s just like a little snapshot, so it’s cool. I just released a song a couple of days ago and felt good about it.
JP: It really sounds like a tune that belongs in The Breakfast Club or a David Lynch film, it’s so good.
CL: I recorded many versions of that song before finally settling on the vibe it is now. So I think it will get a little easier. When I released my first album on New Radar I was shitting my pants.
JP: [laughs] Yeah, I think it always gets a little easier.
CL: It’s a hard thing to do, not many people can just be vulnerable in that way. I don’t think a lot of the public knows how much work and emotion goes into a four-minute song.
JP: Yeah exactly. They just hear something that sounds digestible and they think it just appeared or something like that. There are so many different steps that you go through in order to put together an actual fucking song.
CL: Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of your poems and lyrical content tend to reflect on relationships and the dark twisted nature of the 21st century, do you feel there’s still hope for the future?
JP: Yes, I do…
CL: Was that accurate, my observation?
JP: Yes definitely. More recently I’ve been super inspired with the sort of 21st-century, doomed generation vibes. But yeah I think there is hope, I was actually writing down in my little journal the other day, I think a lot of the younger generation is very proactive in politics and climate change and all that jazz and there definitely is hope, I think these newer generations aren’t even going to be so obsessed with social media. Like generation Z, or whatever the hell people call it, you know, this social media-era where kids are being brought up on Instagram being your personality. People are just glued to their phones, but I think that people are growing up and seeing how fucked up everything is and I think that’s really going to change things when they speak up. I feel like Instagram is on the downfall anyways and I think there’s going to be a resurgence of people really wanting something raw and real. I think that’s going to happen in music too. I think people need poetry and rawness and tangible things because I just feel like it’s human nature.
CL: I completely agree.
JP: But it does feel hard to have hope sometimes when things are so dark but you know, it also breeds creativity so that’s nice.
“I think it’s better to take it slow and capture the moments of true inspiration, because it’s the stuff that’s really coming to you, not something you’re trying to force or create out of thin air.”
CL: There’s solace and comfort, and we need more of it.
JP: I concur. So were the songs that we worked on together a newer thing for you, was it was different writing and recording with someone who had never done music before? Do you do a lot of co-writes?
CL: Yeah, I’ve done a few other co-writes, I think this one was the first time I just came up with stuff from scratch. Like with your playlist idea… I just took those colors and made some tracks. So that was different, that was the first time I’ve done that.
JP: And we were doing it from a distance, which was interesting.
CL: From a distance and over the internet, I would just kind of sit there with your poetry and then come up with these arrangements for the vocal, I really had fun doing it.
JP: Really? I’m glad, so did I. I definitely feel like you were the perfect person to work with on that, you were my mentor in a way, for sure. I’m always interested to hear more about other people’s processes. With writing songs do you have a certain routine that you go through every single time or is it always different?
CL: I’m very disciplined so I did have a routine, but I think I did that for too long and I stifled myself a bit. Now I don’t really have a routine, I have a setup. I have the instruments around and I kind of just catch it. I don’t try to force it anymore or be like, “You know, I gotta work on these songs like boom, boom, boom.” Sometimes I will, but now it’s a little freer where I won’t work a song ’till I’m totally exhausted and I hate it. I’ll catch quick bursts of inspiration. Usually I’ll just go in at home or whatever, get some ideas and just do like five hours in the morning and maybe take the rest of the day off, maybe do a little bit more at night, come back and chip away at it. That’s for the writing practice and the routine I guess. Getting good sleep, eating, stretching, exercising, it all helps with writing and performing and everything.
JP: Yeah that helps tremendously. You capture the real essence of what you’re putting out. You’re not just sitting there in a room for twelve fucking hours trying to make a song out of nowhere. I think it’s better to take it slow and capture the moments of true inspiration, because it’s the stuff that’s really coming to you, not something you’re trying to force or create out of thin air.
CL: What’s next after these songs come out? Are you excited for next year?
JP: Yeah I’m excited for next year, I’m working on a few different things, I really want to work on more filmmaking, writing, music and combining those three things together. I think they sort of inform each other. I’ve been working on an EP for the past year so I’m hoping that will see the light of day at some point in 2020. There are a couple of songs that I’m super excited about and there’re some others that I need to develop more but I still want to take my time with it.
CL: Yeah, everybody has their own pace. Everything I’ve ever rushed I’ve never been proud of. Haste makes waste.
JP: So when can we expect Night Songs to come out?
CL: That’ll be early February 2020.
JP: Is it a full-length album?
CL: Yeah it’s like eight songs. Perfect length, probably around 33 minutes. Yeah, I got lots of stuff, working on lots of things, feeling inspired. Tell me about your artistic practice.
JP: I think I’m similar to you in the sense that I wait for the inspiration to strike or I wait for something to come out of me. I don’t try to force it too much. Most of the time it comes to me first in the form of a melody, a little phrase or an idea that I sort of just jot down a lot of times on the go and I’m just like, “Oh, I have to get this idea down before it escapes me,” and then later I’ll develop it, for the stuff I’ve been writing lately I’ve been playing a little more guitar and have actually written the guitar parts first and then come up with an idea for the lyrics. It depends, but I think most of the time it comes in the form of writing first, words first, and then goes into the fully-formed song.
CL: It’s the opposite for me.
JP: I’ve always written down words first. I don’t know, it’s weird things really that just come to me in the form of a melody already where a lot of times I’m like, “Should I just tell the person I’m working with the melody and then write the guitar parts after?”
CL: Yeah I mean if you’ve got some sort of melody, you can start the whole song with that. So what are you scared of?
JP: I mean there’s always fear of losing loved ones, that’s never a fun thing to have happen, but at the same time I’m trying to accept that death is a part of life, it’s not something to be scared of.
CL: I’m scared of deep, deep water.
JP: You are?
CL: I know you surf, which I totally respect… I’ve never surfed, unfortunately. I’m from Northern Canada so there’s nowhere to surf up there, but just being… maybe for you it would be peaceful, but being out on the water, on a surfboard and just floating there, or in a lifejacket and not being able to see the bottom. It’s one of my external life fears.
JP: Yeah the ocean is a very powerful and mysterious thing. It’s kind of crazy, some people are like, “Aren’t you scared of sharks?” There was this time I was in Malibu the other day and it just felt like there should be a shark, and you can’t really see anything beneath you. It just had that vibe. I guess I’m kinda scared of heights. I have all these weird recurring dreams where I’m on a very tiny edge of a building and my balance is off or I have vertigo or something, so I think heights would be kind of up there.