“The more you play, the more confidence you begin to have in your own musicianship.”
Back in 2010, around the time Warpaint were beginning to whir into life, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg talked in interviews about the crippling stage fright that took hold as the band started to tour extensively; she usually stands centre stage with the group, but confessed she’d much rather have hidden behind her amp. Five years later, she’s the first of the four-piece to meaningfully strike out on her own, and accordingly, right on! - her debut solo record, under the jennylee moniker - feels like more than the culmination of the months she’s been spending in the studio, and more than just the fruition of a couple of years of playing around with her own material.
The fact that right on! is out in the world, and that she wasted so little time in turning it around once Warpaint decided to take some time off, speaks to Lindberg’s burgeoning confidence, both as a musician and as a writer; in the band, she’s used to working completely democratically. That she ultimately decided to construct and record the final versions of these songs with live shows in mind, too, says a lot about how far she’s come as a performer. At a recent string of UK gigs - only her third, fourth and fifth as a solo artist - she looked a long way removed from the laidback figure who usually takes a backseat to Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal at Warpaint shows; leaving her bass behind, she instead looked every inch the frontwoman, prowling the stage with microphone in hand. The intimate rooms she was playing didn’t provide her much opportunity to hide, but frankly, she looked in no mood to entertain the idea.
Reviews of right on! have pretty much unanimously noted that it doesn’t stray particularly far from recognisable Warpaint territory, which should come as a surprise to precisely nobody when you consider that Lindeberg’s bass playing is the beating heart of that band. Her uncanny understanding of groove and ability to lock in with Stella Mozgawa’s offbeat work behind the kit makes the rhythm section the group’s engine room; as, more pertinently, does the apparently limitless capacity for Lindberg’s basslines to generate palpable atmosphere. right on! is replete with that same kind of murky menace, but also pulls Lindberg in some new textural directions; ‘boom boom’ is scored through with urgency, an accusation you could never level at a Warpaint track, whilst ‘riot’ and ‘offerings’ play like sinister takes on disco. Lyrically bold, too, it’s a remarkably self-possessed piece of work from somebody who shouldn’t naturally take to going it alone quite this smoothly.
“I’ve always been a little bit insecure,” she says, when I meet her in Manchester ahead of a show at the city’s iconic Band on the Wall. “Something like public speaking is my worst nightmare - I’d rather die. There’s a bit of a conflict, because I’m a Leo, so there must be part of me that’s an extrovert, but I’ve always felt like I don’t want people paying attention to me; the first place my mind goes to is “are they judging me?” It’s not healthy, and I think I’ve moved away from that with the band, but it’s still difficult, sometimes, not to get too heavy. Somebody gave me some great advice - that it’s none of my business what the audience are thinking. Play your instrument, do your job, and have fun. That’s the one thing that saved my ass.”
Solo work of any description - whether or not it was ever intended to be aired publicly - remains relatively unchartered territory for Lindberg. She hadn’t written her first tracks on her own - ‘blind’ and ‘real life’, sparse, ghostly sketches of songs that bookend the album - until “roughly three years ago”, and work on some kind of individual project in earnest didn’t begin until late 2013, when Warpaint first set out on the road in support of their self-titled sophomore effort. “We’d come back home for breaks, but they were never particularly long. It was really a case of, “OK, I’ve got to use what time I’ve got to make a start on something.” I didn’t really know what it was going to be - I just wanted to start gathering up all these ideas, all this material, and over the course of those two years on the road, I gradually moved towards the conclusion that I wanted to make an album. The first thing I did when we finished touring was tell that to the girls.”
Even then, the idea of going into the studio had yet to make it onto the agenda, let alone shows, press or anything beyond a self-release; Lindberg instead spent the next four or five months at home in Los Angeles, working on demos that she’d originally planned to put out purely in that form. The turning point, when it did come, was the decision to draft in L.A. veteran Norm Block in a loose, hands-on production role. “Norm said he had ten days free, so I thought we could just go into the studio and have it done in that time; one song a day. It didn’t seem like a stretch, because I wanted to keep a lot of the instrumentation from the demos - we just needed live drums. As we went on, though, I started to realise I was limiting myself by trying to do everything on my own. I wanted to bring an engineer in; I knew that what I was envisioning in my head was bigger than what I was getting. Ten days became two and a half, maybe three months, but it worked fine that way. I was happy to do it like that, and for Norm, I think it was a lot of fun for him to produce something where the ideas were already in place. It was all pretty relaxed.”
Once Lindberg embraced collaboration and a longer working window, right on! began to come together. There actually isn’t a great deal of guitar on the record, but what little there is sprinkled across it came only in part from Lindberg herself; she drafted in a handful of friends to help inspire her on that front. Having previously only made music in a manner that depended on collaboration and compromise, she was suddenly able to take up something like an autonomous role - bouncing ideas off of acquaintances, sure, but retaining the final say. “That was a whole new position for me to be in,” she explains. “I’d probably liken it to being a director, or something. It wasn’t totally dictatorial; at the end of the day, I wanted input from other people because if I’d known for sure how I wanted the guitars to sound, I’d have played them myself. I wanted some solid players on the record - again, to avoid that feeling of limiting myself. Plus, I wanted to bring boys in - I wanted the record to have a masculine feel, for a change. It was nice to throw ideas at them; sometimes they’d nail them, sometimes they wouldn’t, but we don’t get to do that so much in Warpaint. We all take pride in being 25% of that band, and no one’s really in charge. No one person gets to direct things like I did here.”
It was the increased sense of control that Lindberg was enjoying that helped nix the idea of substantial contributions from her bandmates; Mozgawa, who seems to have played on every record under the sun this year, cut drums for three tracks, but it seemed to work out for the best that, otherwise, right on! remained a separate entity to Warpaint. “Those girls are my homies,” laughs Lindberg, “so I did ask them about it. It would’ve been weird for them be totally removed from it, because we’re all working on things together outside of the band all the time; Theresa and I have been talking for a while about a separate project, for instance. People were out of town a lot, which is why I think it didn’t end up happening, but I was kind of glad to be able to direct things without feeling uncomfortable - just for me, because I’m super hard on myself, and I’d hate to think I’d made somebody else feel that way. I would probably have tried to skirt around being the voice of authority with the girls; not that they would have put up a fight, but I just didn’t personally want to feel awkward. I’m glad I kept it to myself.” You get the impression, anyway, that Lindberg’s mind was already made up as far as putting herself front and centre with this record was concerned. She could have chosen to put it out under a pseudonym, but she hasn’t - not really, anyway. She didn’t need to put herself on the cover, but there she is - albeit with her face obscured by a shock of dyed red hair. She could have opted for a low-key self-release, which “Rough Trade indicated they were open to, even though they have first refusal until the contract with the band is up”, but instead, she’s taken advantage of their promotional and distribution capabilities. At every turn, this is her record, and at every turn, there’s that creeping touch of insecurity, too; she paints a picture of the weeks and months leading up to her very first solo gig as fraught and nervy, but tonight’s show in Manchester, only her fourth, is carried off with a verve and self-assurance that seems to confound her words.
“I was terrified when I booked that first show! And I didn’t really need to be; it was a bowling alley in New York, and that was just about the most mellow location you could ever play in - I might as well just have played at a house party with a bunch of friends, you know? It was really nothing flashy, and expectations were pretty low - it was just another punk rock show to people. But three months ahead of it, I was already anxious, already losing sleep - how am I gonna pull that off? I think it was the fear of how vulnerable it was going to be - me up front, me singing, me without my bass. Oddly enough, it’s actually turned out that it’s more nerve-wracking playing bass, because there’s kind of nowhere to go. When I’m singing, I’ve discovered I can turn my back, close my eyes, get into my own world. It feels very natural, getting to dance around onstage. The idea of not moving to the music seems boring now.”
right on! has clearly been a real labour of love for Lindberg. She’s poured a lot into it, not least her own money; “and there’s something amazing about that. It’s expensive, but it feels like it’s mine. It feels like an investment in myself.” All of her downtime from the band has gone into the production of the album, too; given how relentlessly Warpaint toured behind their second LP, she probably could have been forgiven for putting her feet up for a while. “I didn’t think I could do the record justice if I didn’t go out and play shows. Luckily, it’s very raw and elemental, so it translates well; in fact, that’s a big part of why I recorded it that way. I’m a perfectionist, but I’m flexible, too. I didn’t want to polish it up so much that it wouldn’t work on stage. Once it got to the point where I knew I’d be doing promo, and the label were going to put the record out and push it, I thought, “OK, let’s just maximise it.” Whoever might enjoy it, whoever might love it, I want to make sure they get to hear it.”
How much time she’ll get to keep right on! on the road, though, remains to be seen, because contrary to previous reports, work on the third Warpaint record is already underway. Around the time of their last UK tour in March, they put out a double A-side single - ‘No Way Out’ and ‘I’ll Start Believing’ - and indicated that perhaps that’s how they would go about releasing material for the foreseeable future, with no plans for a third album and a more flexible release schedule allowing them to put tracks out as and when the inspiration grabbed them. It now looks as if they’ve already reversed that decision.
“I think we could leave it for a while, if we chose to. I was ready to work on something else when we finished the tour, but only as long as music wasn’t being written with the band. We weren’t working, so we kind of drifted into doing our own thing, and I think us suggesting that we might just put things out sporadically was intended to give us that breathing space. I don’t see us doing that into the future, though, because at the moment, we’re working on the third album - and it is going to be an album.”
right on! is available now via Rough Trade