Jenny Owen Youngs’ Transmitter Failure Still Provides Inspiration a Decade Later

Jenny Owen Youngs photo by Tucker Leary.

It was the spring 2009, and I had a leisurely day off, getting ice cream and going to see a tribute event to the Brothers Quay. I rode the subway back to Davis Square, checked my voicemail, and panicked. I knew I was interviewing Jenny Owen Youngs for Venus Zine that day, but I had miscalculated time zones and missed her call. I sat on a bench behind the subway station and called her back, super flustered and apologetic.

I’d only been writing music journalism for a few months and had yet to make a dime off it. But it felt like my dream collision of music and writing, far more akin to a true calling than my dreary day job of trademark research. I couldn’t believe I’d done something as stupid as forget how time zones work.

My memory jump cuts from that anxiety to laughing a lot as she put me at ease, joking about how often she’d been described as “angry” after people heard her song “Fuck Was I” in Weeds. Which was extra funny considering it’s a ballad with strings and self-indicting lyrics that happen to include the f-bomb. I remembered that and how she kept saying she wanted to melt faces and how palpable her love for her new record Transmitter Failure was.

At the time, I’d been working too much and taking on way too many interviews and reviews. I’m mortified by a lot of things I wrote. I hate it that my review of a Peaches album is referenced several times on Wikipedia pages. I hate a lot of the dumb, pseudo-clever things I had to say then, but I stand by the Jenny Owen Youngs interview and a lot of things I wrote in a review of the album.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I talked to Jenny Owen Youngs that day. Like that ten years later I’d be on disability, but bringing in income as a freelance writer. Or that I’d be living far from Boston. Or that Transmitter Failure would have only grown on me more after all these years.

I’ve always loved the album cover, how Youngs looks like a science student attempting to fix a radio. To fix something that’s broken. To literally make music. And, just as I wrote back then, I love how the songs are diverse but still cohesive. The barroom stomp of “Clean Break” sits alongside the tenderness of “Here Is a Heart,” yet both are fairly bitter songs, lyrically speaking. “Clean Break” wishes for a breakup to happen via surgery. “If I come to and still feel you/creeping in my skin/It’s back, I lie under the knife/and start over again,” she promises. On “Here Is a Heart,” she willingly delivers her heart “battered and braised/grilled and sautéed/just how you like it.” Youngs’ skill at archiving manifestations of broken-ness is undeniable.

The album hit me hard when I started painting in 2013. I needed to express things that words couldn’t get to, so I took it up with the same ill-informed but enthusiastic approach with which I’d begun music journalism. I attempted a lot of ridiculously over-conceptual paintings that I lacked the skill to pull off. But, as with music journalism, I gradually learned to find confidence that my own ideas had a place. To slow down and let art speak to me the way music did. To ask the canvas questions the way I interviewed musicians.

“Clean Break.” Alcohol ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Of course, selecting a good art soundtrack was important. I wanted to have feelings without drowning in them. I wanted music that helped me trust in my process, not chase down some perfect crystallization of rage or sorrow. Once again, I found a friend in Transmitter Failure. Youngs uses a light touch to maneuver the songs from section to section, and I needed that in my art. If I have a night I need to turn off my ringer, clear my head, and hunker down with paint and ink, it’s Transmitter Failure I put on. Sometimes I try to paint what the songs look like to me – so far I’ve painted “Clean Break,” “Dissolve,” and “Here is a Heart” in watercolor and acrylic ink. I hope to paint the rest and then do them all again.

“Here Is A Heart.” Watercolor and acrylic ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Back in 2009, Youngs invited me to a concert she was playing near Berklee College of Music. The show made me feel contemplative, and I took my time walking to the subway. I put on an hour-long piece of piano music and listened as I walked to the subway, rode back to Davis Square, drove to my apartment, and fed my cat. I wrote a friend saying how I didn’t know how one song could hold so much.

Of course, I also didn’t know that the songs Youngs played that night would hold ten years of growth, change, and inspiration. Not bad for an album about things falling apart.

“Dissolve.” Alcohol ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Jenny Owen Youngs released an EP this year called Night Shift. Follow her on Facebook for ongoing updates.