THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Jen Olive

From Los Angeles
to Albuquerque to Swindon, England:
one songwriter’s travels, with XTC’s Andy Partridge as her virtual guide.

 

BY
JEN OLIVE

 

I’ve
spent most of my life moving from one state to another, one town to another,
one apartment to another.  By the time I
was 15, I’d lived in 34 different places in four different states. I developed
an odd habit of using different names and different accents for each new
place…at least to start out. My favorite by far was “Rebecca.” She was
English. I spoke in a Mary Poppins accent for two solid weeks once. I realize
now that I wasn’t fooling anyone, but it amused me anyway. As an adult, I seem
to have carried on the tradition of resisting permanence and getting on to the
next adventure. So, three years ago when I was invited to come and stay in New Mexico, I thought,
“Why not?”  I’d had enough of Los Angeles and the
legions of “beautiful people” and fake boobs and traffic and smog…I was fed
up with just about everything, and the desert seemed like the perfect remedy.
So I packed up all the essentials and headed for New Mexico.

 

Now
then, it was only a couple of months before my escape to New Mexico that I’d sent some demos to one
Mr. Andy Partridge, and I heard back from him rather quickly.  He said he was interested in hearing more if
I was interested in sending more. I felt an immediate connection with him. Of
course, I said yes, that I would send more as soon as I was settled into my new
digs in the desert. Needless to say, I was a little concerned at this point
that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, what with an impending
divorce, two kids, a move to a new state, no job and now the possibility of
recording an album…all at once.  But
apparently I like a challenge, so I just went with it. All of it.

 

Anyway,
Andy was curious when and if I was planning to record.  I had been looking at some local studios, and
even recorded in one, but it wasn’t quite working out as I’d hoped. Andy
suggested I might have a go on my own. It had only ever vaguely occurred to me
that I could make a complete album on my own with all the instrumentation,
etc., but the idea was quite appealing, and I did have some idea of what to do
– I’d self-recorded many times over the years, though nothing to this
extent.  For this, I’d need proper
supplies. My zip-drive digital 8-track was probably not going to cut it. I’d
need a computer and a proper microphone. I’d also need some drums and maybe a
couple bass guitars as well. (I had to try fretless!) I sold everything that
didn’t matter and then rallied all of my long-time supporters and friends,
explaining the situation. Everyone was eager to donate to the cause. (Yes, I
have amazing friends.) Even my ex-husband was willing to pitch in to see this
get done.  In the back of my house there
was a cabin-style Jacuzzi room that had only been used for storage in the last
few years. It was empty. It was private (sort of). It would do. I loaded it up
with all my new gear and got started.

 

When
I had a few songs done, I sent them to Andy. He liked what I was up to but
could tell I needed a little help. So he offered to mix them and gave me little
recording tips as I went along. Pretty soon we were on a roll but don’t be
mistaken – it wasn’t quite that easy.

 

I
was in New Mexico, and New Mexico is a strange place. It’s basically
rural with two major cities, and neither of them is really all that major. Santa Fe is the capitol.
It’s the smaller, lovelier of the two cities, aesthetically beautiful, gorgeous
actually. It’s culturally “correct,” quintessentially Southwest. It’s
progressive politically, environmentally friendly. There are lots of sculptors
and painters and little shops and galleries. There is The Opera and The Plaza.
There are also lots of all-grown-up trust-fund babies who don’t have a clue
what it means to hold a job – but hey, they can sit in a cafe and expound on
their own brilliance, their technique, their method…their aaaaaart…all damn
day.  Pretentious and annoying at best.
It’s why people to the south call it “Santa Fake.” By south I mean the other
city, Albuquerque.

 

Albuquerque is thought of as Santa Fe’s fat, ugly sister. Albuquerque is known for its stratospheric
teen pregnancy rates. It’s number one for drunk driving. There’s a tattoo parlor
on practically every corner, and let’s not forget the property crime.  They say you should prepare to get robbed if
you live in Albuquerque.
Now, I personally haven’t been robbed here (not yet, anyway), but I have had a
legless man in a wheelchair roll up on my front lawn and demand lunch and iced
tea. I’ve met lots of people fresh out of jail and asking for money so they
could get liquor. I’ve had a drug addict bang on my door at 1 a.m. wanting to
“use the phone.” And let’s see – there was the Vietnam veteran working on my roof
who’d show up at any time of the day or night and just start hammering. That
one was especially annoying because I’d be in the middle of a perfect take and
suddenly he’d be walking through the yard with some kind of power tool buzzing,
and no matter how many times I asked him to pleeeease come up with a schedule
so we could work around each other – I was trying to make a record for
chrissakes – he never did. “Only a couple more days there Joan and
uhhh…I’ll be outta your way” (yeah, well, a couple more days in New Mexico means “whenever I feel like
finishing”…they call it the Mañana
State for a reason). And
then there was his crazy, screaming wife eating a Snickers bar in one bite and
chewing with her mouth open. I mean reeeeally open. But that’s a whole other
story.

 

In
spite of all that, Albuquerque
is a really beautiful and soulful place. It’s deep.  It forces you in and out of yourself. It
destroys a lot of preconceptions you might have about yourself and others. On
the surface, it sounds like any other ghetto, but it isn’t. The context is
completely singular. It’s hard, yeah. Mean sometimes. But it’s also warm. It’s
friendly. It’s tolerant in a completely authentic way. It isn’t judgmental.
It’s real. And I don’t care what Jessica Alba says, the food here is GOOD…I
have developed a serious addiction to green chile and sopapillas! So yeah, it’s
a dive, but I live in Albuquerque, my record was
written and recorded in Albuquerque,
and it’s informed as much by this city as it is by my life.

 

I
started in mid-March of 2008. Slowly but surely I’d gotten the hang of things
and my creativity was always boiling. 
I’d gone into it with the same feeling I go into everything, which is,
“How hard can it really be?” and “Rules? What rules?” So, I was
trying any and everything. I was playing whatever I could get my hands on, from
rocks and bottles to the chairs and the walls. I love puzzles and I love mathy
guitar riffs, so working out bass parts and percussion parts to fill in the
holes was a thrill. Funny story: I‘d done quite a few tracks of percussion for
the song “So Funny,” which has some odd time signatures in it. I had
to actually count the beats in it to play it. I got an email from Andy later on
saying, “Jen, try not to count out loud when you’re recording the
percussion.” Buried in there somewhere there’s a whisper of me counting,
“1,2,3,4-1,2,3,4,5,6,7″…I was rather mortified, but thinking back, I guess
it’s pretty hilarious.

 

By
July, I was about halfway done. I was struggling a lot less with the recording
process and was on a real writing streak. Things were going well but it was
easily over 100 degrees in the daytime, and in my “shack,” as I called it, it
was even hotter. I’d run the air conditioner to cool it down and then I’d turn
it off quickly to record, trying my best to get it in the first two takes
before the shack started to heat up again. But my computer was shutting down
from the heat and I was feeling like I’d pass out every five minutes, so I
finally opted to record after dark instead. 
Around 9 p.m. every night I’d down a pot of coffee and head out. I’d sit
back there in the shack, perched on a stool, the world’s biggest cockroaches
running around below me, and I’d write. Then I’d record, and – like I’d been
doing for months – I’d send what I recorded, track by track, across the pond to
the UK
and into the hands of my co-conspirator, Andy Partridge.

 

Back
in Swindon, which I’m told is the English equivalent of Albuquerque (although
when I visited Swindon, I gotta say I didn’t see it), Andy would be mixing and
fixing the things I’d sent, adding a touch here and a sparkle there. As we got
to know each other through the work, the songs started to reflect that. For
instance, Andy didn’t add much to the first song I sent, “Franscrams!”.
The bass drum was replaced by a better sounding one and there was a percussion
thing at the top…a little edit at the end. In contrast, the song
“Pieces” has quite a few additions, including a great mellotron
squeezebox (among other things). The thing was that without telling Andy – but
very much on purpose – I had begun leaving open spaces in the songs in the
hopes that he would fill them with something. And he wouId. And it was always
spot-on.

 

I
started to really live for the thrill of Andy’s “NEW MIX” email.
Things continued to get better and better all the way around. My recordings
were sounding cleaner, and Andy was reading me easily now. We went on like that
for quite some time with few troubles, if any. 
For months we just kept at it, emailing back and forth, rarely even
speaking on the phone. It was very bizarre. Very focused. Almost cosmic, if you
go for that kinda thing. Andy was absolutely brilliant to work with. He was
very respectful and attentive, and just smart as hell. He nudged me down the
road, kicking things out of the way so I could get by. You know…the coat over
the mud puddle? It was like that.  I
learned a lot through that. I would listen to the mixes and the next time I
sent something I would try to copy what he’d done, as far as the panning and
the arranging. If he put the bass at 10 o’clock then I’d put the bass at 10 o‘clock…that
sort of thing. 

 

By
November of 2008, the recording started to wrap up. I had to move…again. So,
the final two songs were recorded in new shack in a new house, and by the new
year, I was done with my part.  We made
it all official in February of 2009, after which time I took a long breather to
process it all. In December, with the release getting closer, I decided to fly
out to England
and meet the mysterious Mr. Partridge face-to-face.

 

It
wasn’t nearly as weird or as mysterious as I thought it’d be. It was, in fact,
very normal-feeling. It was lovely.

 

Today
is the day my record, Warm Robot will
be officially released. I’ll be in England again in less than a week
to play some shows and promote it. From Los Angeles
to Albuquerque to Swindon,
it’s been quite a trip and I’m only now just taking off.

 

Round
and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows….

 

Jen Olive’s Warm Robot is out this week on Andy Partridge’s Ape
House label
. Songs, news, tour dates (a UK tour starts next week) and more
are at her official website.

 

 

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