jennifer o’connor is a smoky-voiced new york songwriter, bartender, ebay enthusiast and all-around pop girl extraordinaire. we caught up with ms. jen at the magician on the lower east side in the early days of summer. (this interview originally ran in chickfactor 16 and took place in 2004 in manhattan). interview by gail
chickfactor: when did you write your first song and what was it called and what was it about?
jennifer o’connor: it was in 1996 and it was called “circus” and it was for a band I had just joined—well, it wasn’t even a band yet. I didn’t really play music yet. this guy told me I should be in this band. I went to an open mike with him one night and played bass, then the next day I wrote a song. it was sort of about playing music. it was in atlanta, right after college.
cf: did you want to be a singer when you were little?
jennifer: not realistically. I wanted to be a basketball player. music was always my favorite thing but I didn’t really think of it as something I would ever really do. I played basketball from age 9 to 20.
cf: what was your first concert?
jennifer: van halen in 1987.
cf: they were so past their prime!
jennifer: I know. it was right when hagar joined the band. my first small club show was the replacements in 1991.
cf: first record you bought?
jennifer: probably “physical” by olivia newton-john. I used to buy top 40 singles every week. I used to have a notebook and write it down, the top 40.
cf: me too!
jennifer: you did that? I listened to it on my walkman and I would figure out which ones I wanted to go buy.
cf: you grew up in the south?
jennifer: I grew up in a small town in connecticut until I was 13, a really small town. we moved to florida before I started high school.
cf: when did you play your first show?
jennifer: after I moved here. it was at acme underground. I sent out a bunch of tapes after I moved here. that was in ’99. I tried to get shows at better places after that.
cf: what’s the best venue in nyc?
jennifer: I like, I play at the knitting factory a lot, it’s not my favorite, but I worked there. I like southpaw.
cf: has anything really embarrassing happened onstage?
jennifer: the last show I played was pretty embarrassing. a few weeks ago I played a show and there was no soundcheck as usual and it was the guy’s first night doing sound. I started playing and there was no guitar and somebody went to help him. they turned the guitar on and it fed back really loud. I picked the quietest prettiest song first. I spilled beer and thought I was going to electrocute myself. the snare was moving on the drum kit behind me. just a series of bad things.
cf: what did you do at the knitting factory?
jennifer: marketing and promotion. I wrote to writers such as yourself trying to get them to come to shows or preview shows. flyering and stuff.
cf: when’s the new album out?
jennifer: I don’t know. the beginning of ’05?
cf: do you record at home?
jennifer: a little bit. ultimately I would like to have the ability to do it all at home. I would like to have someone do the levels.
cf: are you bartending these days?
jennifer: no. I was. I really liked it but I was drinking a lot. I quit cause there was a gas leak in the bar and they weren’t fixing it and it made me really nervous.
cf: no one smokes anymore, it’s not that dangerous. do people smoke after hours?
jennifer: and even before.
cf: people are breaking the law?!
jennifer: they are, they do. a lot of places in new york start smoking around 2. but I haven’t had a cigarette in 18 days. but I want one right now.
cf: what’s the best bar in brooklyn?
jennifer: I like o’connors which is right down the street from me. I don’t go to bars that much.
cf: why would you want to play solo anyway? isn’t it scary?
jennifer: it is scary. I do it because…when I first started playing I was in a band and I don’t know. I like playing in a band but I also like having more control. I don’t like to rehearse so having a band…and I like playing with different people. I can’t commit to it. I like being able to do it when I want to do it. maybe eventually I’ll have a band but I like having it mine. plus when I was in a band I had some situations with other members, it’s hard to play with other people. I wasn’t treated very well in some instances and I guess I hold a grudge.
cf: you played at the new york party for the saddest music in the world, the fabulous guy maddin film. who won?
jennifer: did anybody win? I think I won. I was the saddest. no, it wasn’t a competition.
cf: there was a similar party in london, and they had a lot of crappy bands who weren’t nearly sad enough for me and I thought competing to see who was the saddest.
jennifer: we did have to give away tickets for the movie but that was the only contest of the night. kendall’s set was pretty sad too.
cf: what song do you wish you’d written?
jennifer: there’s a lot probably. “your song” by elton john. although I always think it’s weird that he didn’t write his own lyrics.
cf: even weirder that courtney love hired bernie taupin to write some lyrics for her.
jennifer: yeah! so weird. she’s just, sad.
cf: were you a fan?
jennifer: huge fan. huge hole fan. huge nirvana fan. I was in my freshman year of college when the whole nirvana thing broke. I saw hole in ’94. she was a mess then. she was talking to the ceiling and talking to him. I wish I’d written a lot of elliott smith songs. dylan songs. mark eitzel songs. I hung out with him one night on the lower east side, me and him drinking for hours, it was fun.
cf: what are your songs about?
jennifer: death. endurance. continuing. I used to write more about love and stuff but I don’t do that much anymore.
cf: what about driving?
jennifer: there’s a lot of driving and moving in my songs. I write a lot or come up with things when I’m driving. I like new york better with a car actually. I don’t feel trapped as much.
cf: are you still doing the ebay thing?
jennifer: I do that and I do a little promoting for bars.
cf: do you buy or sell stuff on ebay?
jennifer: I sell stuff. I can’t afford to buy anything! mostly I look to see what sells. I do mostly music stuff but I like it because I have a revolving record collection. and this time of year I go to a lot of stoop sales in brooklyn and find stuff. it’s like having a record store without having to buy anything.
cf: what made you the most money?
jennifer: I sold a couple of loren mazzacane connors records for $200 or $300 to jim o’rourke! it was pretty exciting. and I did a good deed because they’re using them to remaster and make the records.
cf: you couldn’t just give them to him?
jennifer: I didn’t know he needed them! he has the money! two records I sold allowed me to pay my rent and continue working on my music.
cf: you’re the middle man.
jennifer: I’m a recyclist.
cf: I hear you signed to red panda records.
jennifer: it’s a big up and coming indie label.
cf: why did you choose to go with them after that huge bidding war?
jennifer: I love the idea behind it and the people running it and I trust them.
cf: what’s in your fridge?
jennifer: romaine lettuce. tomato paste. seltzer water. milk. that’s it.
cf: what were you doing touring france? are you big in france?
jennifer: I used to know a lady in new york who’s french and moved back and she was helping put on a festival in lille and they wanted to do a night or a series of nights of new york artists and they liked my record so they flew me out there and paid me.
cf: didn’t you play a ladyfest once?
jennifer: I didn’t make it. I was supposed to play ladyfest richmond.
cf: didn’t you play one in new york?
jennifer: I was on a compilation but I didn’t actually play.
cf: what’s the pop scene like in nyc?
jennifer: I don’t know. there’s so much here but most of it is williamsburg type stuff. I haven’t found much of a community but I think red panda might change that.
cf: who’s your favorite new york band?
jennifer: I don’t know. I suddenly like the yeah yeah yeahs—they were on mtv awards the other night and it was so gorgeous.
cf: aren’t they from new jersey? have you ever dreamt about a song and remembered it?
jennifer: I do but I don’t remember it to write it.
cf: have you had a dream with rock stars in them?
jennifer: I’ve had dreams with courtney love and nirvana…oh, you mean a hot sex dream?
cf: have you had a hot sex dream with someone you really don’t like?
jennifer: oh yeah.
cf: what melody is stuck in your head?
jennifer: that britney song “toxic.”
cf: do you like any mainstream bitches?
jennifer: not really. I listen to a lot of mainstream hip-hop. I like the franz ferdinand single. I didn’t buy it but I listened to courtney love’s album at the jukebox where I worked. didn’t really stick for me. I probably should buy it—the last album was like that for me at first too.
cf: if you buy it maybe it’ll keep her out of prison.
jennifer: it’s so sad, it really is. did you read that interview in something online? I couldn’t believe how sad it was. she’s broke.
cf: not another behind the music story.
jennifer: that’s what it was like.
cf: kurt must sell a lot of records. sounds like she hasn’t done a very good job of managing her money.
jennifer: no, she hasn’t. that’s exactly what the article is about.
cf: it’s kind of embarrassing to be a celebrity and to talk about that stuff in public.
jennifer: I guess that’s part of the job.
cf: she doesn’t hold back.
jennifer: she doesn’t hold anything back.
cf: if courtney asked you to be in her band, would you do it?
jennifer: you know it’s funny that you should ask that. did you know they took out a full page ad in the village voice last year for a bassist. and I thought about it for a whole day. the ad said they wanted somebody who looked a certain way.
cf: a goth metal chick like auf der maur?
jennifer: I was like that’s not me.
cf: they could do your hair and makeup.
jennifer: they wanted someone who behaved like flea but didn’t play like flea or something.
cf: why do you think they wanted a girl?
jennifer: um, I think that’s pretty cool. that’s something I waffled about if I put a band together. I prefer to play with women if they’re good. it’s easier. my first band was with two guys and that’s part of the reason I don’t want to have a band anymore. some bad shit happened and I think it was in some ways because I was a girl just learning how to play. I’m not saying all guys are like that because they’re not.
cf: do you like to sing karaoke?
jennifer: not really. I’m kinda shy about it. I like watching people.
cf: what’s your sign?
cf: ever been to a psychic?
cf: what did they tell you?
jennifer: stupid shit. when I lived in florida a while ago, I wanted to find out if I should move back to new york. said I was going to be very famous and rich. of course I’m still waiting for that. have you been to a psychic?
cf: hasn’t everyone? are you going to check out the spongebob movie?
jennifer: I want to.
cf: who’s your idol?
jennifer: sleater-kinney. as a group.
cf: all three of them?
jennifer: yeah, they’re great.
cf: better than hole?
jennifer: they’re better than hole.
cf: they’re definitely better than hole. who’s your favorite writer?
jennifer: I like michael chabon a lot. I read the mysteries of pittsburgh in high school. I read a lot of music stuff. I just read the bob dylan bio.
cf: you have any phobias?
jennifer: I don’t like to fly. I don’t like heights. I don’t like the subway. I have a lot of anxiety issues in general but I’m working on them. I don’t like elevators either. I don’t like to feel like I’m out of control even though I’m really not anyway.
cf: who do you have a crush on?
jennifer: I have a crush on the brenda character on six feet under. I also have a crush on the amy character on judging amy. she’s sexy. david berman. I love him.
kendall: maybe gail can introduce you.
cf: talented man.
jennifer: is he a jerk? I used to have a big crush on carrie brownstein but I think I’m over it. don’t print that.
cf: right, we won’t. off the record. you’re the first one to have a crush on her.
jennifer: I’m more interested in corin at the moment. I really like the song she wrote about her kid. they’re good rock stars.
cf: who would you want to collaborate with?
jennifer: the guy from neutral milk hotel. kevin shields. dizzee rascal.
cf: what are your top 5 records?
jennifer: the self-titled elliott smith record; bringing it all back home; what would the community think; blue; american water; plastic ono band.
photograph by amy bezunartea. jennifer runs a label called kiam records and her latest LP is called I want what you want.