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Oct 08, 2008

With simple yet beautiful songwriting, this singer-songwriter quietly keeps hope alive on her new album, Here With Me.

By Michael Tedder

Just a few blocks away from The Pencil Factory, her favorite Brooklyn bar, Jennifer O’Connor sits outside a park near her apartment and explains that she’s trying to stay positive these days.
She admits with a quiet laugh that this new attitude is “a little bit” of a change for her.
Though she stresses that as a songwriter she rarely plans out her subject matter, her lovely new album, Here With Me “ended up being a record kind of about love and kind of about loss. Sort of like some of my other records, but I think a little bit more hopeful. And a little bit more buoyant.”

Watch a video in which Jennifer O’Connor speaks about her music and performs.

Flying Under the Radar

For the past decade, O’Connor has been writing melodically sturdy songs and singing them with an understated beauty. Perhaps because her music is simple, straightforward and decidedly free of flash, critics and indie rockers have a tendency to pass her by.
She released her own self-titled album in 2002, and her 2005 follow-up, The Color and the Light, was picked up by her friend’s label, Red Panda. Matador contacted O’Connor right before the album was released.
Her career since has moved at a careful, deliberate pace that feels in tune with her character.
Even after signing with the house of hip that is Matador Records, with whom she released Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars in 2006, she has kept such a low profile that (at the time of this writing) she has neither a Wikipedia page nor an entry on Metacritic. It is the Internet equivalent of being completely invisible.
Considering how well things have been going for her lately, all of this is likely to change soon. Here With Me has been lauded by NPR and Spin, and already this year she has appeared with such high-profile artists as Jamie Lidell and Wilco.
“I don’t know if I would consider it overdue,” she says. “But, it does feel good.”

Memories Captured

O’Connor recorded Here With Me with producer John Agnello, who has previously worked with Sonic Youth. Her three previous albums were recorded piecemeal, and this was the first where she recorded in the studio with her backing group.
“We actually have a couple of songs on the record that were literally first takes,” she says. “It just seems like a more natural way to make music.”
The recording process wasn’t the only thing that changed.  “Generally, I just sit down with a guitar, singing nonsense over melodies,” she says. “I’ll frame a song around one line that I like.”
But for Here With Me, she made an effort to tackle specific ideas. The opening track, “The Church and the River,” is a “love song about a new relationship and wanting to be a certain kind of person for another person.”
The album’s haunting highlight, “Valley Road ’86,” also “came about differently than usual. I was looking through some old journals, and I found something that I had written about a particular memory. I took a couple lines from it and built a song around it.”

We asked Jennifer O’Connor to pick her favorite five singer-songwriters, and in our interactive feature, you can read about them and listen to one of their songs.

Scene Change
O’Connor was drawn to her mother and brother’s record collections when she was young. “Once I actually started playing and tried my hand at writing a song, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment where I knew that was really what I liked doing.”
She wrote that first song in 1996, but says she didn’t write a song that she actually considers good—“Laugh Lines,” available on her first EP—until 2000.
After finishing college in Atlanta, she took those songs on the road, performing for the first time before live audiences.
Her first band, alt-rockers Violet, garnered comparisons to X and the Pixies. But life in the Deep South left O’Connor feeling restless.
Deciding she needed a change of scenery, O’Connor headed to New York. Working as a bartender at The Knitting Factory, a famous New York bar that plays hosts to a steady stream of up-and-coming artists, O’Connor was inspired: “Just seeing all these people doing it, it did make it seem more possible to me.”
She insists that her main goal is “just to be true to whatever it is that I feel like I want to do at the time, and not listen to much to outside forces. I find that everybody’s opinion is different, so really the only thing you can do is follow your own inner compass.”

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