by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Before many of us had kids, life centered on long jam sessions with bands, and writing songs in uninterrupted spurts.
But Singer-songwriter Jess Penner — a self-described cheerful and cheeky, creatively ADD artist from Los Angeles, who was raised on a banana farm in Hawaii — did things differently. She became a mom in her very early 20s, after doing the band-and-tour thing with her husband in her late teens. And while she struggled with the same music-life balance that many rockmommies struggle with, that didn’t stop her from having the biggest career success of her life, as an artist and a producer.
Today, Jess is the mom of a 16-year-old and a soon-to-be 1-year-old, and she’s still killing it, musically. In addition racking up thousands of TV and film credits, not to mention her string of gorgeous indie-pop records, she’s carving a space for herself as an artist for all listeners, big and small. Her first children’s record — a lovely collection classic covers and indie tunes, flows effortlessly, note after note, inspiring listeners to indulge their creative sprits. Songs like the title track “Imagination” transcend age, and remind us that you can be an old soul while possessing the passion of a young idealist.
In August, Jess made time to chat with Rockmommy about her first kids’ recording, making music, life in LA.
Rockmommy: Can you talk about the inspiration for “Imagination?” Why did you want to make this record?
Jess Penner: The original idea for doing a kid’s record came from my publisher! Up until that point, I hadn’t thought about it at all. But then I started thinking about all of these iconic songs of my childhood, and how much I loved them.
Rockmommy: Can you talk about the songs?
Jess Penner: There are two originals — “Imagination” and “Forever in my Heart”— and interestingly I wrote these songs before I had the idea of a kids’ record. But until now, I didn’t have a record these could go on. “Imagination” is about trying to inspire other kids about the power of dreaming.
Rockmommy: How being a mom at such a young age affect your music career?
Jess Penner: My husband and I have been touring since I was 16, when we stated out, and did that for five years. We had one last tour booked when I found out I was pregnant. And so I toured when I was six and a half months pregnant. And then we moved back to Hawaii… and spent about two years adjusting to regular life, and my husband got a regular job and built a studio. So then we started learning how to make records. That was probably the best decision we made because we had an infant, so we could record during the day when he was sleeping, or at night after he went to bed.
My husband and I moved to Los Angeles when our older son was 4, and that was difficult because all his family is in Canada and all my family is in Hawaii. But we felt we needed to be in a musical hub city. My husband is a drummer and produces and mixes records full-time. Between the two of us, we pretty much do all of it.
I really think that having a child helps you focus on what your goals are, and it helps you prioritize your time. Because I had less time, the time that I had I took more seriously.
Rockmommy: So, when did you go back to touring?
Jess Penner: My late 20s, early 30s, I started to get more inquiries because of my decision to get into licensing. I had a residency in Singapore, and little regional tours here and there. But I’ve never gone back to touring 200 dates a year. It wasn’t until I was 28 until I started performing live again.’ I really spent my 20s writing songs, and trying to establish myself, while being a mom.
Rockmommy: Who are some of your current musical inspirations? Has that changed?
Jess Penner: In my early 20s, I was definitely more into the ‘shoe gazer’ stuff… like Weezer, Foo Fighters, Radiohead. I’m a ’90s girl, so I love all of that stuff. As a result, some of the early stuff I wrote in my first few years of self-producing was very emo and dark. But then, when I was 26 or 27, I was approached by licensing agent who pitched artists to brands, and asked, ‘would you ever be interested in custom composition for ads?” My husband was recording other bands, and that’s how we were surviving but my own music wasn’t doing much, so he started sending me briefs, like, ‘Dove Soap is looking for a new song, and they wanted it to be brief, light and happy.’ So being in this new realm forced me to craft for a target. Through that, I was allowed to play a role, to be an actress, so to speak, and learned to express myself many different ways. I became a lot more experimental.
Rockmommy: What is life like for you in the day to day in LA, as a mom and a musician?
Jess Penner: My 16-year-old, I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the most compassionate, kind, and respectful kids. I think that’s because we’ve both been fortunate enough to be stay at home parents. We’ve been fortunate to have a really cool relationship with him. Even with the new baby, I thought, ‘how am I going to have time to be productive?’ But I’ve gotten more done in the last two years than I have in the previous four. I think it comes down to focus and drive. I have less time so I’m more focused on getting things done.
Rockmommy: What is your advice to other moms who play music?
Jess Penner: Prioritize! I’m not good at letting people help me, but two weeks ago I hired someone to clean my house every other week, and it was so weird for me… I wondered ‘do I need this?’ and ‘Is this a reasonable expense?’ but as I get older and have more kids, I realize my time is worth more.
Rockmommy: This is your first kids’ record. Any plan to tour?
Jess Penner: My plan is to see what the reaction is. It’s not my strategy to tour to build an audience. My desire is to tour to satiate a need — it’s not part of my business model to go out and make new fans touring. I’m really curious to see what happens with this! I would love to do some live streaming concerts. But yeah, we’ll just see!
— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.