S Pushes Jenn Ghetto’s Whispers to the Spotlight

Patrick Rapa

By Patrick Rapa

on 09.25.14 in Features

Jenn Ghetto was once the kind of artist you had to hunt for. For one, her music hid behind her nearly unGoogleable “S” moniker, a feat of self-sabotage she laughs about now. Her music was similarly difficult to grasp; in an era where technologically produced, homemade music can fake studio-style lushness, Ghetto’s bedroom recorded albums were steadfastly claustrophobic and introverted. Lo-fi to the core, her anxious, whispery vocals try to exhume themselves from layers of hiss and guitar. You could make similar observations about her old chamber rock band, Carissa’s Weird, whose pretty, understated rock achieved cult status in Seattle and beyond.

‘I’m really interested in jealousy…I guess just being curious what part of your brain is it activating. Why did we keep it as part of our traits? ’

These days, however, the wallflower seems to be pushing toward the spotlight. On Cool Choices — S’s newest, produced by recently-departed Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla and released by Sub Pop‘s daring Hardly Art imprint — you can hear Ghetto’s vocals louder and clearer than ever. Her guitar and piano flourish in a static-free environment, hinting at a growing confidence from this famously shy performer, even in the midst of, “Losers,” her most defeatist heart-breaker yet. (On the track she sings: “You kinda think that things might change but you turn around and you’re still in last place.”) That said, Cool Choice presents Ghetto with her biggest change to date; she’ll be fronting a full-band for the first time since Carissa’s Weird. “Maybe [I'd be] less worried about what people will think if I was not so mysterious or something,” she says about taking her solo work to this bolder, braver place. “Like, is it okay to be kind of goofy and let people know that? We’ll see.”

We caught up with Ghetto on the phone to talk about surviving breakups, making Cool Choices and crying on the bus.

Do you rule over your bandmates with an iron fist now that you’re a band leader?

I do. They’re scared of me.

Were you worried about losing the intimate sound you’re known for?

Totally. I am still worried about that; being someone who has very bedroom-y, I’m-gonna-put-this-on-headphones-and-cry-a-little-bit kind of records. I was really not wanting to lose that, but also wanting this bigger sounding record. I hope that it’s somewhere. I hope I didn’t lose too much, you know?

Do you picture your fans as introverts? Goths without the goth music?

Certainly, yes, there are some sensitive folks. But I also feel like the people who really like S have all been so supportive. No matter what I’ve put out. It makes it easier to take a risk. Like, what happens if I have a band?

You joined Twitter recently, right?

I did it! Dude, I’m tweeting.

Why did you do it?

I guess part of it was understanding that Twitter’s a way to let people know about stuff, or interact with people — and I guess maybe not having this record be such a secret. And Hardly Art was like, “You know, it might not be such a bad idea to get a Twitter.” I was like, “Okay, whatever you guys say. You guys are smart.”

Did you used to be okay with being a hard-to-find artist?

Yeah. I was going to call this record The Internet, just to make it really hard to find. But then I was like, that’s probably self-sabotage, I probably shouldn’t do that.

Searching for “S” on Google…

It’s already hard. I didn’t foresee this happening when I named the band. But it’s been pretty hilarious.

You wrote Cool Choices following a breakup?

It was a really difficult breakup. It was very unexpected. And I think sometimes when that happens — I certainly retreat into music as my expression or whatever. I guess I had a lot to say that maybe I didn’t get to say to that person. And then I was mostly like, “Well, at least I’m gonna get a breakup record out of this.”

‘I’m wondering why sad emotions are less acceptable in public than [ones] more on the happier side. Like, you can’t be crying on the bus. You can’t do that. You can totally be laughing on the bus.’

Do you hope the ex hears it and is devastated by it?

No. At this point, no. But maybe at some point I did.

Do you listen to it and think, “I’m not in that dark place anymore?”

I feel definitely like I made it through something. The record was like pretty cathartic in like getting through a breakup, but I still certainly ebb and flow through some depression issues, so I can still go there.

You can still call it up when you need to.

Maybe when I don’t need to, it shows up.

You’re a bartender, right? Does that ever clash with your solitary nature?

It certainly does. It’s pretty weird. I mean, I luckily work in a bar that, you know, the owners are pretty chill [and I don't] need to be super chatty with everybody.

You don’t have to flip bottles around and light drinks on fire?

No, but it can be kind of difficult. It feels a little exposing, especially if I’m serving someone and they’re like “Carissa’s Wierd is my favorite band,” which is a huge compliment. It’s so great to hear but at the same time like, “Uh, here’s your beer.” It’s a really weird dynamic sometimes.

If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about?

That’s a good question. I’m interested in brain stuff. I’m really interested in — this might sound weird and see I’m not a scientist so I couldn’t really do this TED talk — jealousy, and what happens in your brain. I guess just being curious what part of your brain is it activating. Why did we keep it as part of our traits? I get why we eat and are attracted to certain things. Jealousy is a weird one.

Like what evolutionary purpose does it serve? Interesting.

Also, I’ll tell you this — and this will sound probably funny coming from me, too. I’m wondering why sad emotions are less acceptable in public than [ones] more on the happier side. Like, you can’t be crying on the bus. You can’t do that. You can totally be laughing on the bus. I don’t know, just weird stuff like that. Our reactions to people’s feelings are interesting sometimes.

Do you cry on the bus?

I really try not to. Like, “Don’t be that girl, crying on the bus. Don’t do it.”