While she might not yet be a household name, singer-songwriter Jenna Isn’t Famous is truly a star on the rise. The California-based singer-songwriter brings a refreshing new take on the term “art pop.” While her vocal performance calls back to the ballroom darlings of the 50’s and 60’s, the electronica and jazz-inspired melodies inject her music with the innovative trends of today. Aside from her vocal performance, Jenna also flexes her lyrical muscles in a roster full of intimate yet empowering words of wisdom. Through themes of independence and self-reliance, her lyrics burst with commanding energy while remaining witty in their self-awareness. Jenna’s music speaks to people, especially women, who have falsely been made to believe that being polite and not causing a stir should be their priority. It inspires listeners to build a fire within themselves that they can access at any moment to stick up for themselves, their friends, or what is right. Her badass, authentic style encourages listeners to respect themselves above all else.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jenna Isn’t Famous to discuss her life in music and her newly released single, “Disconnect.” Along the way she offers up an inside look at her journey as an independent artist, her artistic evolution and much more!
What are your first memories of music?
One of my first memories of music was watching Brandy and Whitney Houston’s Cinderella and falling in love with it. I was probably around 4 years old, and I would perform “In My Own Little Corner” to any family member that would listen. My parents and grandparents indulged me as I pulled up my own mini rocking chair and broom (just like the character in the movie) and sang around our living room. I absolutely loved putting on a show, and that desire has never gone away. Luckily I have a brother and sister, so the attention was spread out among us and I didn’t get a big head haha.
How did you first start getting involved with the arts?
I’ve just always loved music even from a young age, so I got involved in many ways. I started piano lessons in second grade and clarinet lessons in 4th grade. I actually played clarinet all the way through college; I really love symphonic music. Marquez’s Danzon No 2 is my all-time favorite! I also tried to assemble a girl singing group in 3rd grade called “52 Street,” I was nuts, I was trying to be a manager or something at 8 years old lol. During playtime, we would rehearse by these big trees near the playground. I have no clue how long that lasted, maybe only a couple of weeks, but I remember writing a couple of songs for it at the time, “The 52 Street Song” and “Take Me Away.” I actually have a folder at my parent’s house that still has the lyrics to those songs and others from that time in it.
What can you tell us about the process of finding your creative voice as a young artist?
It definitely took me a while to find my own voice. Interestingly enough, when I found my own voice in real life was when I also found my voice in my songwriting. I’ve gone through a lot of phases, the sad girl on piano, the angry rocker, but they didn’t always feel like who I was as a whole, or who I wanted to be. When I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of agency, I always wanted to be seen as the cool girl and songwriting was the only place I let myself be vulnerable. Once I started sticking up for myself in real life, I realized I wanted that same honesty and accountability to be expressed in my lyrics. I’m a very independent and direct person now. When I handle conflict, I try my best to approach it through respect for both myself and the other person, and I hope that comes across in my lyrics.
Who were some of the people behind the scenes who helped to shape the artist we see today?
One of them was my college clarinet teacher Jean. She taught me how important it was to prepare before performing. She taught me you have to do more than just warm up your voice/instrument, but you have to warm up your emotions too. She holds herself and her students to a high standard and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. I continue to be really inspired by her.
My family and friends have also been really supportive of me and my music which I am always so grateful for. I send them songs in their early stages to get their feedback and constructive criticism. Their advice and support help me to become the best artist I can be.
I’m sure you get asked about your influences quite a bit, so I wanted to change it up a bit. What springs to mind when you think of the albums that impacted you the most at key points in your life?
I absolutely love this question! I’ve also always loved Banks as an artist, she usually has such a dark, slithery and vindictive sound. But one of her most impactful albums for me was her album ‘III’. It had all these gentle songs that I did not expect, that felt like healing to me. I thought I needed an album to sing evilly in my car, but I actually needed that soft embrace. It came at a time where I was just stepping into who I was meant to be, sticking up for myself at work and in my home situation.
There’s also Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U Next’, which came at a time where I was just finding my sexual power. There are so many incredible songs on that album, and I love how sexy and empowering they are.
Also, an honorary mention to Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Good News’, which made me feel like a bad bitch even when we were stuck inside for a year due to quarantine.
At what point did you realize a career in music was something you had to pursue?
I studied math in college and I was on track to be an actuary (similar to an accountant). I was at a point in my life where everyone around me was being very practical and I thought I should also go into a practical career and maybe just make music on the side. I took an internship at an actuary firm for the summer and was bored out of my damn mind. To this day, my friends tease me about the Snapchats I used to post working at that job. I’d think the day was almost over and it was only 10 AM. That’s when I started to really be honest with myself about what career I really wanted to pursue and what makes me happy, and it was obviously music/being a singer-songwriter. I spent a lot of time that summer researching the best city to move to for music and open mics/music events in those cities.
Dedicating yourself fully to your art is a big step. Did you ever have any reservations about taking the plunge?
After that internship, I had no more doubts about pursuing music, because songwriting has always come pretty naturally to me and performing was what made me truly happy. I’d been writing songs since at least 3rd grade, it always felt like home. I made the decision that summer before junior year to move to Los Angeles after I finished college.
How did that experience of making the jump to Los Angles impact you as an artist?
It’s been huge. In my hometown and college town, I was one of the only singer-songwriters. It was my thing and what I was known for. It was definitely a wake-up call coming to Los Angeles, where being a singer-songwriter isn’t what makes you unique, it’s what makes you part of the crowd. So there was definitely a bit of an identity shift for me. At first, I didn’t like the idea of no longer being unique from that standpoint. But then I chose to start learning from all the incredible artists around me. That decision has made me such a better songwriter, performer and singer.
You are clearly very driven when it comes to your career. In your opinion, how did that drive end up in your DNA?
I think part of it is knowing I will never be fully satisfied in any other career. I want to leave a mark on the world. When I’m older, I don’t want to look back knowing I didn’t do everything I could to make my dream a reality.
What lessons did you learn early on in your career that continue to resonate?
That I can’t do everything myself, and I need to let go of some control. What they say is kind of true, jack of all trades master of none. I’ve learned to trust other people to take some of my responsibilities away, such as producing and booking my shows. It took me a while to get there because I thought the only way to do things correctly was to do them myself. But that’s sort of a narcissistic view, and it made my life very stressful.
Also, other people, and the universe, sometimes have an entirely different timeline for you than what you intend. I’ve learned to roll with the punches and accept things I can’t change. I’ve tried the controlling route in the past and it doesn’t work. I wanted to release Disconnect a full year ago, but with the pandemic, everything got derailed. I could have stressed and tried to control other people and things, but instead, I chose to go with the flow to the best of my ability, and tell myself “everything’s going to happen exactly when it should.”
You just released your new single “Disconnect.” What can you tell us about the song and what it means to you?
The first layer of “Disconnect” is about someone who was sending me mixed romantic signals, and me in turn asking them directly how they feel about me. The second layer of that is me stepping into a new power, choosing to face my fear of being vulnerable head-on, and learning how to communicate clearly and stick up for myself.
Songwriting is often intensely personal and allows one to bare their soul in many ways. “Disconnect” is a great example of this. Was it difficult to get to the point where you could share your emotions so freely?
Songwriting has always been a place where I’ve been super comfortable saying all the things I was scared to say in person. You can be as expressive and emotionally vulnerable as you want, because there’s some distance from who you are as an artist and who you are as a person. I am now finally in a place in my life where I now have the tools to have those conversations in person too. But it is still always the most natural for me to express it in a song.
In your bio, you reference going to therapy, which was an experience that changed your worldview in many ways. Can you tell us a little about the experience and how it broadened your horizons?
Of course! I started going to therapy because I was extremely conflicted avoidant. I was a huge people pleaser. And there were things happening in my life that were a bit scary and I knew I needed to learn how to stick up for myself. My therapist is wonderful, she taught me how to approach conflict in a way that was both respectful of myself and my needs, and respectful of the other person. The biggest thing that stuck with me was that she said, “if you handle the situation with respect, and they choose to react badly, you are not responsible for their emotions.” That was so huge for me because in the past I had tried to do everything I could so that the other person would not be mad at me. And that didn’t even always work lol. But I was just sacrificing so much of myself in the process. It was really hard and scary the first time I tried sticking up for myself, but it honestly gets easier each time I do it.
What can you tell us about the songwriting process for your music?
I almost always write at the moment, on a car ride home after an event that made me feel ~some type of way.~ I rarely sit down at the piano and think “Hmm, let’s see what I write today!” I’ll finish songs in a more regimented way, but I always start songs spontaneously. Sometimes lyrics and melodies will come to me through the course of a normal day, so I’ll sneak to the bathroom or my car to record the thing that came to me, before resuming my day as usual.
What was the first song you ever wrote and what was the last song you were working on?
The first song I ever remember writing is one called “What Should We Do Today?” in 3rd grade when my friend was over and we were bored lol! The most recent song I wrote is one called “Bad For You.” I feel like I’ve been stepping into this new sexual power and confidence recently, and that song sort of exemplifies that.
Inspiration can strike at any moment. Do you have any specific processes or methods
for logging your ideas?
Voice memos and the Notes app are my best friends. I need to figure out if there’s an easy backup method for Voice Memos to my desktop because I have almost a thousand by now! I also have a journal for lyrics when I’m writing at home, but I don’t carry that around with me.
What genres do you gravitate to as a music fan?
I love pop of course, but I also gravitate towards anything groovy that will make me want to dance, or makes me feel like a badass. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Megan Thee Stallion, Remi Wolf, and Ashnikko. I also dig RnB, hip hop, and alternative indie rock.
Any guilty pleasures?
Oh absolutely. I love Sailor Moon and astrology. I find astrology is a cool way to better understand yourself and the people around you. I also am a huge fan of Glee and all its campiness, and Nancy Drew computer games, which I usually play with my sister. Those games are the perfect combination of using your analytical and creative skills.
A career in music has a lot of moving parts. What do you consider the biggest challenges you face as an independent artist moving forward?
There’s definitely some business stuff I’d love to develop a team for. I currently don’t have a manager, but if someone who I can trust and believes in my music comes around I’m completely open to the opportunity. I’m really fond of the people I work with now, from my booking agent Carly to my producers Akshay and Lucas. I have a pretty good bullshit meter, so I try to surround myself with authentic and trustworthy people.
As an artist, so many things can be said about the current state of music. What excites about the music today?
I love how many artists are staying independent. As someone who really loves her independence and maintaining creative control, I love that there are a lot of options for artists today to be successful beyond just a record deal. I am particularly inspired by LAUV, who basically created his own team that has similar roles to a record label, but where he maintains creative control.
What’s the best way for fans of your work to support you and help grow your art?
The best way is to tell your friends about me if you like my song or if something about me as an artist resonates with you! I know I always listen to my own friends’ recommendations and I think word of mouth is so important. Also, follow me on social media @jennaisntfamous (@jennaisntfamoustho on TikTok) and adding my song to your Spotify playlists!
Where do you see yourself headed in the future — with short and long term?
I have so many songs I’ve written over the last couple of years that I can’t wait for more people to hear. I’m working with Lucas Sader on the production and it’s been a really great collaboration process. Also, I can’t wait to play live shows again. I hope that with this song and future releases I gain an audience across the country and I can go on tour!
You can serve as a great inspiration for so many aspiring artists and young people. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey so far?
That you will never regret using your voice to stick up for yourself, your friends, or any vulnerable person around you, as long as you do so with respect.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.