Wherever You Go, There You Are: An Interview with Jen Trynin
'Nobody cares about what motivates me to make music. But what people are interested in are extreme situations. And that's what my book was about. That was my version of climbing a mountain.' Jen Trynin talks to Jon Langmead about Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be, a memoir detailing her almost-rise to rock stardom.
"The first words of the first song are the head of a snake. As long as I can remember them, I can remember everything." f a snake. As long as I can remember them, I can remember everything."
-- Jen Trynin
Describing the band photo that accompanied her Cockamamie album, Jen Trynin writes, "Everyone tells me what a great picture it is, how it really looks like me, but I know that's not true. It's just one of those pictures of you at your best, a best that doesn't really exist." She's not trying on humility here, her self-consciousness is the real deal, and a similar current underwrites the entire story she tells in Everything I'm Cracked Up To Be. The book's subtitle is A Rock & Roll Fairy Tale and what at first seemed to be tongue-in-cheek at best and hopelessly corny at worst has since become more than poignant.
Her story tracks the roughly 18 months between deciding she was ready to break out of the feedback loop of the Boston music scene to the multi-million dollar blood in the water feeding frenzy that greeted the completion of the Cockamamie album through to her dropping out of music almost altogether. "What I came to after the whole experience," she says, "and what the result was in me, was that I missed music but what I missed most was, when you're young you can have this wonderful dream of yourself that exists in the future and it's your fantasy vision of yourself. Because I'd gotten to live a little bit of my own fantasy and realized that I wasn't up to it and realized that it was never going to be who I really was, there was a big hole in my life." She gets close to a fame and success that most people could only imagine, but the feeling that resonates is more of losing as opposed to gaining ground ... at least in the short run. She keeps her writing crisp, though, and she steers away from melodrama.
"I love books by people who have done extreme things," she says, "by people who have done things I would never do. People who have criticized the book are people who are like, 'Well, she's not a real artist. All she talks about is how she made it and that's not real art.' The fact is ... nobody cares about what motivates me to make music. But what people are interested in are extreme situations. And that's what my book was about. That was my version of climbing a mountain."
Unless you were really paying attention in 1995 you may not remember Trynin at all, and you certainly won't understand just how hotly the music industry pursued her. Her biggest single, "Better Than Nothing", was a modest hit but chances are that if you heard it back then, should you hear it again, you'll remember it. She was a smart songwriter and a powerful guitar player who was probably just a bit too over most people's heads. By the time it became painfully clear that a label bidding war was no promise of radio success, the dance was over.
But her book isn't a cautionary tale and she recalls her "glory" days with no remorse or nostalgia. "I hate the word 'catharsis', but [writing this book] really sort of was," she says. "And I just started writing really to get it out of my own head because it was bugging me." A huge number of musicians have gone through the same music industry ringer, most with considerably more harrowing results. Trynin came out of it all with her relationship, her health, and her finances largely in tact and she was able to put the whole thing on paper and make a compelling read out of it. Like the great pop songs that her band and her boyfriend had to introduce her to, her writing gets by on small movements and perfectly chosen words that add up to much more. And like every great pop songwriter, she never makes it look practically impossible.
"Some interviews that I did right when the book came out, so many people would ask me about that time and they'd look at me and ask, 'Well since you've left music, what have you been doing?' I pick up the book and I'm like, 'Well, I wrote this book,' which I just found so confusing because they're seeing me like I just stepped out of a movie ... like I'm Pinocchio. Like I'm just the star of this book but I didn't sit and write this book," she says.
Whether it was intended or not, she should be taking this as a compliment. Her understated approach puts you in the center of whatever's going on and carries you through the story. Trynin can recreate the feel of clubs, of waiting impatiently for your set to start or for an opening act to hurry up and finish already, of losing yourself on a tour ("I remember being in those rooms and how different each one felt and how I took pictures of them all so I could remember where I'd been. It never dawned on me that later on, they'd all look exactly the same"), that few musicians could and in a way that non-musicians can relate to. "Had I been someone who couldn't put this stuff into words, I might have been a lot better at music," she says. And she ponies up to things few artists would; of bitter feelings of rivalry and competition and careerism (Her four page explanation of the mind twisting math behind a major label contract, even if it reads like a Monty Python skit, is as clear and plainly stated an explanation as you're likely to find on why so few bands seem able to make any money).
Throughout, she drops you into scenes from her life with the good and the bad and the hurtful and the discouraging and the invigorating parts all intact. It's a gutsy move because she leaves room for interpretation, for you to make your own judgments, about the decisions she made during that time and, ultimately, about her. "The truth is," she says, "that real rock stars, and I don't say this outright in the book -- real rock stars are people who are so self-involved and self-obsessed that if they wrote this book, they would do it very differently and they would probably try to portray themselves as somebody who is not that way. Because they're really self-conscious about it or they would never dream to be honest about that or they're so used to lying about that but those people are the ones who usually break through and really are rock stars because they are so singular of mind that they just cut through everything else around them." That she never betrays a vested interest in making you like her or side with her, makes her even more reliable. And through her arrangement of the narrative, she allows us to stay three steps ahead of her in the book. We cringe when a woman at Maverick records mentions that a new musician that the label has signed is the reason they're not actively pursuing Trynin. We know, even though she didn't at the time, that the musician the woman from Maverick is talking about is Alanis Morissette and that her eventual success was what every other label had imagined for Trynin.
Her writing also shows off an eye for picking out snappy, telling details. Her drummer's drums are "dirty and his cymbals are cracked." Crystal Bernard, who she sees on the set of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, looks "bloodless and Lilliputian." A makeup artist "smells like crayons." Drew Barrymore, who she sees backstage at a Hole concert, is so short that she imagines putting a drink on her head. Even while storming out of a room, fuming at her bass player, she takes note of how lovely her assistant smells ("Lemony, yellowy"). The appearance of Morphine's Mark Sandman ("...the coolest guy in the world. Scary cool, not chill cool") is one of the book's most memorable moments:
"I've been talking to your old manager," I say, trying to speak slowly, like he does, but it's coming out fast anyway.
"Really," says Mark.
"Randy Sway," I say.
Mark looks at me with his I'm-seeing-right-through-you eyes. "Ah, my good friend Mr. Sway," he says and takes a drag from his cigarette.
"Yeah," I say nonchalantly, as if Mark's the one who brought it up. "I'm talking to a bunch of different people," I can't help but continue, just in case Mark doesn't know about my newfound rock-star-to-be status. "So I was just wondering what you think about him, you know, as a manager."
Mark grins. "So you're talkin' to Randy," he says, raising his eyebrows.
My heart is pounding. Finally.
"I have six words for you," says Mark. He ticks them off on the fingers of his nonsmoking hand. "Hard. To. Get. On. The." He puts the cigarette in his mouth and sticks out his thumb. "Phone," he says. Then he takes the cigarette out of his mouth.
I return to my table and sit down again, staring at Mark's back.
The music industry stories that she includes are related straight, with all of the weirdness still palpable. David Geffen calls her at home and tells her that she reminds him of Linda Ronstadt (though he's referring to how they both share the same insecurities). Danny Goldberg tells her that he hopes his relationship with her can be like the one he had with Kurt Cobain. The president of Geffen offers to buy her a pair of boobs just like Courtney Love's. And though Trynin never gets comfortable in the music industry fast lane, she doesn't try and portray herself as somehow above it all. She's as hard on and unforgiving of herself as she is of everyone else; the book wouldn't have worked as well had she approached it any other way. "That's the only way I could get away with portraying the other people like I did," she says. "You could just as easily hate me as hate them."
Her memoir doesn't look away or cringe and, to her credit, makes no moves to sell herself to the reader, to soften the self-centeredness of egos on the line. "It was one of the reasons I stumbled around while I was trying to write the book for the first couple years," she says. "I wasn't sure what to do. Should I make it fiction or non-fiction? Just because of my fear of revealing other people, not just myself. In the end, 95 per cent of the people in the book are based on themselves and they know who they are, if they're them, and the 20 people who were around during that time in the music business know who each other are. But I think that I represented them and their place in my life, which is all I knew, pretty fairly. And, anytime there was a problem between me and someone else in the book I hope, and I believe, that I showed my fault in the fight as well as them." That she's willing to not back off makes the character she creates even more engaging.
But what pulls hardest in the book is both how ably she can retell her run through the music industry and how she applies the same lacerating eye to her personal life and her own conflicting motivations for pursuing music and different relationships; from the live-in boyfriend she eventually marries, to the bass player that she engages in an on-the-road fling with, to her parents, to her music business handlers, to the tax accountant that she has to let go when her finances start to get complicated. After coming home again after being away on tour for several weeks, she describes talking with her boyfriend as being like, "I'm talking to him through a spacesuit, where all you can hear is your own breathing." It's the line in the book that hits the hardest and stays with you more than all of the others. It has nothing at all to do with music.