Photo: Adrien Leavitt

Like Gangbusters!: An Interview with S

Jenn Ghetto is well known for co-founding Carissa’s Wierd. Now as 'S', Ghetto has crafted an indie heartbreak record inspired by Katy Perry.
Cool Choices
Hardly Art

At 3AM Pacific Time, Seattle, Washington band S returned home from an eight day tour of the American West Coast. Singer Jenn Ghetto caught up on sleep, cuddled her dog Swayze, and presumably began the unwinding process of decompressing after being on the road. S has been the moniker Ghetto has recorded under for over 10 years since her previous band Carissa’s Wierd split up, and she has made it her job to route her own tours, working with venues to book shows, and load in her own gear.

What made it different this time from previous years is due in small part to Katy Perry. “There was a lot of pop music,” she tells me when we discuss her musical influence for her most recent album, 2014’s Cool Choices. After getting tired of the familiar, she put on a Katy Perry Pandora station and paid attention to the level of production on Perry’s songs, Beyonce’s, and others, noticing how many hits came from those records. She wanted to push herself to progress the level of the production while still staying at her same budget.

“I think I thought it would be a new experience,” Ghetto explains, “to see how much I could do for a record. I’m usually just make it and put it out and then, like … I did that. But what if I got a band? It was kind of like a challenge, like, ‘Can I get Chris Walla to put out a record?'”

She mentions playing with her friend Carrie, a guitarist in other bands in and around Seattle, and it occurred to her that Carrie should be in the band. “She wasn’t doing anything, and I was like ‘Do you wanna do this? It’s, like no money, and it’s touring,’ and she’s like ‘YEAH!'” Her drummer, Zach, was a co-worker at a rock camp for queer youth Ghetto teaches at in Washington. “We both got along, and we started playing together when I realized, we need to put drums to these songs.”

Pushing herself further has certainly paid off. While previous S records blend the spare, heartbroken singer-songwriter with a dose of experimentation, Cool Choices sounds like the same sort of mentality but tightened up. The subject matter is the same, but condensed into deliciously palatable sad pop songs, as if still tinkering and experimenting but this time around experimenting with a perfectly composed heartbreak song, just to see if she could. Turns out she can.

“I think every record I’ve ever put out has been sadness over someone not liking me,” she says and laughs from the safe distance of perspective. “And this record in particular definitely got spun that way. Maybe it was a little more intense, or, I don’t know. I tend to write more sad, nobody-likes-me songs, without being too trite about it.”

Songs about insecurity, rejection, and jealousy are all themes that our favorite Top 40 pop stars sing about, often given to them by songwriters hired to help collaborate on a record. But Ghetto is the songwriter here, and the stories she’s telling are coming from an authentic place, using a richer tapestry of imagery, and a deeper well. So when she says, for example, on “Pacific”: “I’ll find a home on the floor of the ocean / I won’t have to see you with someone else there / I’ll leave you a note, all the things that I never said / ‘believe there is someone who loves you.'” It captures isolation better than “Do you ever feel / Like a plastic bag?”

I ask her why they chose to tour again three months after their last tour ended, and the answer makes sense if you think about it. The album had just come out when they toured the first time, and audiences didn’t really have a chance to ruminate in concert-goers’ psyches. “We tried to tell people about it as much as we can, but there’s some magic involved in that. It seems like through word of mouth, people are hearing about it [now]. So we were kinda like maybe we should do another tour and see if more people show up.”

During their first tour, ten dates on the West Coast in October, and four out East at the end, the tiny venues they were playing in at first gradually became packed. These included places like the venerated club The Smell in Los Angeles which boasts a punk ethos that limits price of admission to five dollars and prevents you from buying tickets until you get to the door. Fast-forward to February and S is playing 500-person clubs like Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. It was an adjustment to play in these bigger venues that aren’t filling yet, being used to the smaller clubs. “Everyone’s packed into a tiny room and it feels cool because it seems like so many people,” she laughs, “Even though there’s just as many as the concert venue, but it’s so big, you know?”

But Ghetto feels as though these are welcome changes, like having a sound person and nicer sound equipment to perform with. S is also at a place where they no longer have to book their own tours and can go through a booking company. “I normally book all the tours, and I was like ‘If I could not book the tour [this time], that would be great.'”

She loved playing shows in Portland at Mississppi Studios and in San Francisco with the New York band Slothrust. But when she played a house show in Arcata, CA, a progressive city whose population is halved when the college kids go home for the summer, everyone was dancing and singing along to every word she sang. Ghetto has started to notice what a widening fanbase can feel like. I ask if she will keep this momentum going and ride this wave out as long as she can.

“I guess I’ll feel it out,” she tells me. “I’m really enjoying it right now, I think, as long as it stays fun. But it’s a lot of work, for sure. It’s a lot of work to make a music video, but in the end it’s worth it. If it stays in the realm of this is a lot of work but i really enjoy it, you know?”

The music video in question was released the same day they started their February West Coast tour, this time for the song “Tell Me”. Their previous video “Vampires” starred Bree McKenna from labelmates TacocaT, moping in bed and attempting to reintegrate herself into social life after a breakup. “Tell Me”, however, stars Ghetto, looking at you as if through a Skype window, mouthing her own words, pacing around her apartment seemingly trying to relearn how to spend time with herself.

And the location of “Tell Me” on the record is interesting too, because your ear gets so used to its series of guitar-driven pop songs that when the song starts with an upbeat piano jingle before hitting you with a synthesized drum and an almost ’80s feel, it wakes you up like a shot in the arm. You also get a glimpse of Swayze walking across camera. As the video continues to get more hits (4500 the first week, 6500 the second) the word of mouth machine will continue.

Another welcome change is not having to go out on the road alone, facing those long highways and hotel rooms by herself and no one to share them with. “It’s a lot of fun to be on tour with other people. When it’s just me it gets lonely. It was cool to have a band, and some camaraderie and dance partners.” Her favorite part of the tour was when she and the band drove up to Torrance and photographed themselves in front of Torrance High, the facade of the fictional high school in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. They also dressed up like the characters too, with Jenn as Buffy (obviously).

What’s next for S includes her stated intention of a summer tour of the American Midwest, including Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin, and more dates out East, as the momentum carries them further. In the mean time, she is teaching music to kids. They don’t know about her career as a recording and performing artist. She laughs and says, “No, one girl asked me, do you play guitar better than you play piano? And I’m like, I do, I do.”

Splash image: press photo of S by Christopher Wilson from HardlyArt.com