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Jenny Lee Lindberg: true spirit

The Warpaint bassist and ultimate on-stage crush is striking out solo with a dark dream-pop debut – she talks growing up on goth and learning to love her voice

“I may be loose,” says Jenny Lee Lindberg, aware of her own hippy reputation. “But I’m a perfectionist within my looseness.” Over the course of an hour spent with the LA-residing Warpaint bassist and newly solo artist, I grow convinced that there is a method to her free-spirited yet self-controlled madness. True to form, we meet at a coffee shop, but immediately go with the flow, abandoning the Silverlake watering hole and driving to a nearby doggy park where Lindberg can smoke and let her puppy, Ludo, roam at large. I also notice that her t-shirt is on inside-out (I make the decision not to tell her). Whether Jenny put her t-shirt on this way intentionally or not, it’s clear that her life is no longer about overthinking things.

Under the solo moniker jennylee, Lindberg has recently taken far bolder steps towards turning her entire life inside-out. An imminent album, right on! (out December 11), and a tour with a new band releases her from the shackles of a bass strap and invites her centre stage. Today she’s just returned from New York where she played her second show in support of the release (the first was in a local bowling alley: “I didn’t want anyone to come. I was tripping, losing sleep over it.”). New York was similarly terrifying but, to Jenny’s comfort, also fun. Having alleviated herself of her neurosis, leaving the bass parts to someone else, she’s focused entirely on living in the moment. “I love just letting go. I don’t give a fuck, I’m gonna go for it, roll around on the floor. It’s so liberating.”

“The album’s about being frustrated with me because I wasn’t allowing myself to just be for so long. It’s about not letting other people push me around... Don’t move to someone else’s rhythm” – Jenny Lee Lindberg

Her laidback attitude as she puffs through a pack of American Spirits, ruminating on the idea of getting a mid-afternoon massage, belies some deep-rooted anxieties that have surrounded this year-long project, one she’s wanted to do for ages but never had the guts. “I didn’t feel confident. I was too hard on myself. I thought nobody would wanna know. Then over the last year I thought, ‘You can’t live like that. Stop holding yourself back from all the things you should do.’” Right on!, with its beguiling mix of bass-heavy motorik, Cure-ish guitar lines and dark dreampop melodies, has grown from a self-released demos compilation to a Rough Trade debut LP with a proper live tour. By initially denying the full extent of her solo plans, Jenny was protecting herself from herself. “That's my process,” she admits. “I create barriers and get overwhelmed because I’m trying to go five steps ahead. The album’s about being frustrated with me because I wasn’t allowing myself to just be for so long. It’s about not letting other people push me around... Don’t move to someone else’s rhythm.”

The rhythm Jenny Lee usually moves to is that of the quartet Warpaint. For those unfamiliar, Warpaint remain a fully functioning band, but one that always takes its sweet time before a new chapter gets off the ground. They once described themselves to the NME as a “democracy of dictators”. That loggerheads collaborative process has resulted in critically-acclaimed debut The Fool (2010) and follow-up Warpaint (2014). But like many other bands prone to elongated periods of downtime, the four need to scratch their own itches whenever they’re not on the road together. Stella Mozgawa (drums) is currently performing live with the likes of Kurt Vile and Jamie xx, Theresa Wayman (vocals, guitar) has formed another band called BOSS with members of NZCA Lines and All We Are, while Emily Kokal (vocals, guitar) has taken to remixing Sister Crayon and working with folksy artist Paul Bergmann.

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Jenny Lee Lindberg

Born in Hawaii but brought up in Reno, Nevada, Lindberg has attracted a cult following over the course of Warpaint’s 12-year history. 'fuckyeahjennyleelindberg’ Tumblrs are a dime-a-dozen online. Brummy indie lads Swim Deep dedicated one of their singles to her with a chorus that dreams: Fuck your romance, I wanna pretend Jenny Lee Lindberg is my girlfriend. Last time I interviewed all of Warpaint earlier this year, Jenny was the most aloof of the four, sitting in a different LA doggy park (minus Ludo – he was at the vet’s that day) behind a pair of psychedelic sunglasses. She’d offer the odd additional comment, coming across as self-assured in her effortlessly cool way. But perhaps that wasn’t the case. At the close of the conversation, she revealed that the thing she was working on was learning to be more comfortable in her own skin. I tell her today that I found that surprising.

“That’s where people get it wrong,” she says, no sunglasses this time. “Everyone’s trying to survive. Even famous people – it’s a facade. They’re just at home making toast. Everyone shits, everyone pees, but people lose themselves when they’re put on a pedestal.” All the same, Lindberg doesn’t count herself as ‘famous’. “I’m obviously not Katy Perry. Warpaint have a solid following but the pace at which we’ve grown is so comfortable and steady. I’m happy. Nothing goes to the head. I’m not the type of person that would allow that to happen. I like to keep things real. It’s important if you’re in the public eye to do that even more. Being yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world but it’s easier to do that than to not be yourself.”

With a sense of self-criticism and not believing her own hype, Lindberg decided to throw caution to the wind and set further personal challenge. She taught herself production techniques, worked together with producer Norm Block (a very old friend), and prepared to lay herself bare before an already-established fanbase. The album title, right on!, reflects the enormous exhalation she’s taken now the process is done. It’s a phrase she peppers conversations with naturally. “I say it all the time. My mom and dad say it all the time. It’s lighter. I don’t take myself too seriously,” she laughs.

“Everyone’s trying to survive. Even famous people... They’re just at home making toast. Everyone shits, everyone pees, but people lose themselves when they’re put on a pedestal” – Jenny Lee Lindberg

That ethos of right on! also informed her approach to creating the album. “Ten days turned into two and a half months,” she says of the recording process, near here in Norm Block's house studio in Silverlake. “I had no rules, I didn’t put any limitations on myself, I just went in there and said, ‘Whatever comes out comes out.’” As she puts it, she didn’t want to “perfect it for seven months, water it down and lose the plot”. “If this album has a concept it’s, ‘Do whatever, don’t get heady, don’t overanalyse, and if you get stuck? Move on!’” Sounds like the opposite experience of how Warpaint music gets done. How does Jenny decide whether a song is for Warpaint or herself? “If I have a vocal idea, a bass, a guitar and I know what the beat should do, then it’s blatantly my vision,” she says. “It didn’t feel fair bringing something to the (Warpaint) table where there was no flexibility.”

That said, right on! was still a very collaborative process. Lindberg employed the talents of guitarist Dan Elkan (Broken Bells, Them Hills) who she met through Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Warpaint colleague Stella Mozgawa for some of the drumming. But the vocals? Suddenly they were all hers. “I didn’t like my voice for a very long time,” she says, revealing that for years she imposed unrealistic demands upon herself. “I’d have to tell myself, ‘You’re not gonna sing like Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston… Eventually I asked myself, ‘What is your strong point? Go there.’ And when I started doing that, all of a sudden I didn’t hate the way my voice sounds. You know what? Now I kinda like it.”

In terms of lyrics, Jenny writes like a bassist would, blurting out lines like she’s feeling out a groove, always via stream-of-consciousness. “I wanted to be vulnerable with myself, dance like no one’s watching,” she says. On the likes of “Long Lonely Winter”, “Offerings” and (Jenny’s personal favourite) “Never”, there are elements of entrapment, self-assertion and taking back control. “I rarely sit down and say, What is this song gonna be about? I’ve tried to just sing poems I’ve written or stuff from my journal. Doesn’t work. It has to come in the moment.” Like “White Devil”, which I suggest sounds a bit like a horror movie.

“Haha! ‘White Devil’ is an interesting one,” she says, telling the story of its birth years ago when her sister, actress Shannyn Sossamon, was still in Warpaint and they took a trip to Deep Cove, Vancouver with one of her best friends, hardcore drummer Kris Byerly. Apparently, Byerly started screaming “WHITE DEVIL!” during a jam-session one night. When it came to making right on!, Lindberg suddenly got the idea to call him just before midnight one evening, begging him to come into the studio and scream his face off with her. “We had some beers, closed our eyes, and did our own individual thing, then both started trancing out, shouting: ‘White Devil! White Devil! White Devil!’” When he left, Lindberg performed a sort of exorcism on the track. “I did some surgery, wrote a new poem over it, then realised what it was. This was a song about a possessive relationship.”

Right on! has also been an opportunity for Lindberg to revisit every stage of her musical past, including a throwback to her youth growing up on goth and new wave. “The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie & The Banshees, that’s all the shit I geek out to whenever I’m in the car,” she says. But right on! doesn't sound like a goth or a new wave record. It makes sense that it resonates like the lower end of Warpaint. “Like with Warpaint, when people ask, ‘What does your music sound like?’ I always answer, ‘I have no idea!’”

And what of the next Warpaint chapter? “We’re all agreed that the next Warpaint record will be dance-y,” she says. “Let’s fucking move! Let’s pick up the BPMs a little.” The Warpaint collective is very supportive of all four women’s schedules, but I wonder if this new lease of life will make Lindberg even more dominant within the “democracy’ – particularly now she’'s leader of her all-male touring pack, a dynamic she’s relishing. “Collaborating with women is super-empowering but also really hard. So much communication is required. I’m the captain of this project (her live band) but I’m not bossy. I’m not good with confrontation, but I’m learning that you don’t get what you want unless you ask for it. Do your own fucking thing.”

right on! will be released via Rough Trade records on December 11