L.A. Exes Serve Up Sunny Queer Surf Pop on Debut LP Get Some

Photo Credit: Molly Adams

Good vibes for dark times is the motto of four-piece L.A. Exes. Their beachy-meets-pop punk sound makes light of longing – not necessarily for a long-lost lover, but with a general sense of nostalgia expressed in a sonic wonderland of rock, pop and groove. The sonic signature of their debut album Get Some (released August 20) recalls the sunny-on-the-surface but malevolent-edged songs of the girl groups making lushly melancholic love songs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“We knew that we wanted to do this throwback production, and really play around with Beatles, Beach Boys, Shangri-Las references that we loved, and do our version of it,” explains bassist and vocalist Sam Barbera, who also helms her solo electropop outfit BEGINNERS, has collaborated with Kygo, and voiced an Apple campaign, too. “Creatively it’s nice to have different outlets like that, for whatever your mood is,” explains Barbera.

Barbera met L.A. Exes guitarist/vocalist Jenny Owen Youngs via Jake Sinclair (the Grammy-nominated producer of Panic! At The Disco, Weezer, et al). Guitarist Rachel White was his assistant, and Youngs knew drummer Steph Barker from the New York scene, rounding out the low-key supergroup line-up. “[Initially], it was very casual,” Barbera says. “The idea was, let’s just start writing and see what happens. In the very beginning, me and Jenny went to Jake’s house, and we wrote every song on acoustic. We’d write a song a day in a matter of a few hours, and just hang out.”

Youngs has three solo albums and a bunch of EPs under her belt, and has lent her captivating voice to TV soundtracks for Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, Nurse Jackie, and Bojack Horseman. When she moved to LA in 2015, she began co-writing and collaborating up a storm, not least on chart hits “High Hopes” (Panic! at the Disco) and “Band Man” (Pitbull). She also founded podcasts Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars Investigations, in which dissects each of the cult series episode-by-episode alongside different co-hosts.

New Hampshire native and Berklee College of Music graduate Steph Barker has toured internationally with Kate Nash, Coast Modern, and Love Fame Tragedy. Her solo project Baby Bulldog released EP Rodney in August. She moved to L.A. six years ago from New York, which is where she’d initially met Youngs. She’d had been skeptical when Youngs explained that her friend Jake was looking for a female drummer, but when she met the band, she was all in.

“An all-gay band that’s doing everything that you’ve dreamed of and want to play, with all of your friends that are going to become your best friends? It was like, cool, yeah!” she recalls with a laugh.

The metallic buzz of surf guitar opens the album with “Skinny Dipping,” a foamy, salty wash of dissonant harmonies somehow swinging hula-hoop style into a joyful oneness by song’s end. Queer love song “Totally Worth It” introduces girl-group backup singers, with Youngs’ sweet falsetto wondering, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, “Maybe I’m a bad person?”  The plaintive admission on the title track (“I just wanna hang out with my ex… get some”) dissolves into accusation (“You don’t love me like cocaine”) over a purr of “waahh-ooohh” harmonies on “Cocaine Girl.” A twist in tempo results in the mariachi-meets-marching band beats on “I Got Half A Mind.” It’s all dreamy, slightly kitsch-camp, guitar-and-choral hooky surfer pop, prompting the suspicion that Barbera and Youngs might actually be crying behind their chunky, ultra-dark sunglasses. Both women were experiencing heartbreak during the writing of the album, but it feels cathartic to listen to these songs, rather than somber.

Says Barbera: “At the time Jenny was going through a divorce. Our first writing session ever together, my girlfriend had dumped me the night before so I walked in literally in tears… that’s when we wrote ‘West Keys,’ so that song is about her… Steph fully wrote ‘Not Again’ and Rachel brought in ‘Cocaine Girl,’ then Jenny and I brought in the rest.”

Try not to shed a tear during the band’s dusky, pared-down cover of Cranberries hit “Linger,” a paean to the dearly departed Dolores O’Riordan that closes out Get Some. Including the song was a unanimous decision, according to Barbera. “When it came up as an option, all of us were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is perfect.’ It’s a song that moves all of us, and a lot of people. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who doesn’t like that song,” she says.

But L.A. Exes’ biggest influence is even more classic; Barbera says their inspiration was ultimate pop foursome The Beatles, approached through a queer lens. “Our closest reference to style of chord changes and harmonies was The Beatles, really. What would The Beatles be if it was four women?” explains Barbera. With their magnetic tunes, earworm melodies, and girls-to-the-front attitude all wrapped into a couple of minutes, L.A. Exes don’t stray far from that lofty mark. “We all come from different backgrounds. We’re into indie and punk. Those kind of leanings, once we were actually writing, filtered in there as well.”

Follow L.A. Exes on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Jenny Owen Youngs Paints Vignettes of Simple Childhood Joys on Echo Mountain EP

On her latest EP Echo Mountain, singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jenny Owen Youngs uses everyday storylines to dive into themes like powerlessness, self-compassion, and complicated relationships – big ideas rendered in small-scale details from childhood games to natural scenes. The songs give off a stripped-down, whimsical folk vibe, with languid guitar-strumming and mournful strings. Youngs wanted to make Echo Mountain a continuation of her 2019 EP Night Shift, but one more connected to the details of daily life than its predecessor, with a “body of vignettes that kind of melt into one another.”

“I was interested in, rather than a God’s-eye view, kind of a microscope,” she says. “I was excited to explore a sonic space that was a little more intimate.” Youngs pulled inspiration from pastoral scenes and childhood memories, her vocals sung slowly and clearly, painting vivid pictures of emotionally-laden events.

On her latest single “Dungeons and Dragons,” for instance, she juxtaposes the role-playing game she enjoyed as a kid against a far more foreboding reality: “Inside the game, you’re okay/longswords and spellcasting keeps all the bad away/and the monsters look how monsters do/not like neighborhood kids with their hands full of rocks for you/and not like the grown ups who should be protecting you.”

“When you have so little power as a kid to affect your surroundings or circumstances, it’s incredibly powerful to enter the world of a game like Dungeons and Dragons, where you can get wherever you want to be and whatever you want to do and the world can look any way the dungeon master wants it to,” she recalls.

“Sunfish” deals in a different way with escapism, recalling the New Jersey house where Youngs grew up and the woods, streams, and bears surrounding it, where she’d retreat when she needed time alone.

In “Little Bird,” she addresses her teenage self, who was struggling with being in the closet about her sexuality in high school, and offers herself the compassion she didn’t get at the time.

“I think at least for me, it’s very easy to look back on earlier iterations of myself and just kind of shake my head like, ugh, what an idiot! But I think the older I get, the more I’m able to kind of move past that and into a space where I can have compassion for myself,” she says. “I think it’s much easier to have compassion for other people than myself, but once I sort of let myself find some peace and stop stressing out so much about that part of myself, I think it became a lot easier to feel the compassion for somebody else.”

The EP takes a melancholy turn on “Long Long Gone,” a song grieving the end of a relationship with natural imagery, almost whispered vocal layers, and minimalistic instrumentals.

“Follow You,” a meditation on the inscrutable nature of relationships, has more of an indie pop aesthetic than the rest of the EP, with the catchy refrain: “Follow you all of my life/chances I can’t leave behind/I can believe what I want/but I can’t believe what it cost/how’d I get lost.”‘

Youngs’ friend John Mark Nelson remixed “Follow You,” giving it a fast-paced, fun, danceable feel by bringing up the tempo and using synths to add a dreamy vibe. “I sent him stanzas and just kind of said, ‘the reigns are yours, do as you will,’ and I think he has fantastic instincts and I love his sonic tendencies,” she says. “He brought in these elements that make me think of artists like Pale Saints and Kate Bush — there’s a certain kind of jangliness but also this sort of fretless, flighty feel he brought into the mix.”

Echo Mountain was released on March 10th, and in the absence of live touring, Youngs is playing the EP in a livestream performance at 8 p.m. ET on March 25th (tickets are for sale at NOONCHORUS).

Youngs, who is currently based in Southern Maine, released her first album Batten the Hatches in 2005, followed by 2009’s Transmitter Failure and 2012’s An Unwavering Band of Light. Over the course of her career, she has toured with Regina Spektor, Against Me!, and Motion City Soundtrack, co-written songs like Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes,” Pitbull’s “Bad Man,” and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Miss America,” and played in the band The Robot Explosion.

Currently, she’s in a new band called  L.A. Exes with Sam Barbera, Rachel White, and Steph Barker, which she describes as “a quartet of queer women making kind of jangly Beatles-y surf pop.” L.A. Exes released their first single, “Temporary Goodbye,” in February.

The highlight of her career, though, was having one of her songs, the emotional, key-heavy “Wake Up,” played during the credits of BoJack Horseman‘s season four finale. “I was a huge fan of the show, and when they reached out to me, it was a tremendous honor,” she says. When she’s not making music, she hosts two podcasts centered on popular TV shows: Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars Investigations.

Though her interests and professional activities have been wide-ranging, her goal with her music is simple: “What I hope is that somebody listening to a song that I’ve made will hear something that is true for them in whatever way it can be true for them,” she says, “and for that to make their experience of listening to the song yield a slightly better vibe for them than three minutes ago when they started.”

Follow Jenny Owen Youngs on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

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.