Lauren Jenkins on The Importance of Being The Real Deal For “Miles on Me”
Lauren Jenkins experienced the craziness of 2020 from the unique perspective of an artist who was abruptly dropped from their label the same week that Covid shut down touring and a tornado tore through her adopted home of Nashville. Jenkins began adapting very quickly to this new scenario and released the indie single “Ain’t That Hard” soon after to a resoundingly positive reception. Livestreaming also became a virtual way of life for Jenkins, road testing new songs and engaging with her fans on a wide variety of platforms over time. Those songs were building up to create a planned LP, Miles on Me.
Navigating this new terrain without a label meant planning and ingenuity to fund recording, for Jenkins, and the plan that took shape focused on creating three EPs, each of which would tell an “act” of an overarching story. The first act, Part I, released on July 9th and is currently available. Jenkins is intending for the sales from the first EP to help with recording and completing the third EP, and hence the full album in due course. The independent route has been a revelation for Jenkins in many ways, throwing things like genre restriction fully to the wind, but it’s also been a reminder of one of her core principles, the importance of being real with audiences. I spoke with Lauren Jenkins about taking the reigns to create her indie trajectory and her plans for Miles on Me.
Americana Highways: I think that the pattern you’re working with for these releases, following an EP system, is really interesting. It reminds me a little bit of what some more electronic musicians are doing for creative reasons. A shorter format can bring a lot of freedom.
Lauren Jenkins: I love telling stories in a complete form, so the idea of releasing singles has never appealed to me. That feels like one little snippet of a story. If you’ve got a bigger story to tell, I want the whole thing. So I love bigger albums. But the landscape of today has changed and people want constant material all the time. Working on a record like No Saint took years to come to life. Then once it was out, and done, people said, “Okay, what’s next?” So I didn’t want to wait around.
AH: That’s a pretty unforgiving pace.
LJ: Yes. I’ve always loved telling stories in three parts, which may be due to my film background. If you have a story to tell and can tell it in three parts, for me that’s the most interesting way to do it. This record just became that, without it really being a strategy of mine. But it made the most sense for how I wanted to tell the story. It’s also financially smart, because I don’t have Part III done yet, or funding for it. So hopefully releasing Part I will help with completing the ending of it, too. It’s sort of like filming a series with the first few episodes, but you don’t have the final episodes yet. I don’t have a studio paying for the record, it’s just me and the fans. But it’s been really fun and I also think it gives people a chance to digest the story in parts.
AH: I agree that one way of drawing attention to songs and making sure that they get their moment in the sun is to do EPs and singles. Sometimes when you release a full album, only the lead singles get attention.
LJ: Also, it’s interesting because some of the people who have been standing beside me since the beginning as fans and have been listening to the livestreams already know some of these songs by heart. They are asking, “What’s going to be on Part I?,” and now that they know, they are wondering which part other songs are going to be on. It’s a fun reveal for them since they’ve gotten to watch some of these songs being born during the pandemic on Instagram and have heard some of the acoustic versions of the songs from my living room. That part is fun for me, too.
AH: That’s a really cool way of engaging the fanbase and keeping them involved in the story of the album. I know that you have done a lot of livestreams as a really main focus of your time during the pandemic. How did you set that up initially and how did you choose platforms?
LJ: I’ve literally done everything. I could write a manual for any platform. When the world stopped, for the first time in ten years, I was in one place. I honestly have not been in one place for weeks at a time since I was in middle school. I was terrified, but at the same time, that storyteller part of me that’s used to going from town to town wasn’t something I could let go of. Things like TikTok are not very natural to me, so the idea of playing a concert via my computer and iPhone was uncomfortable for me, but after dozens of shows, which must be in the hundreds, things really changed for me.
I realized that all of us, as people, across the world, are really looking for connection. I was watching as people continued to show up, even if I did seven livestreams in a week. It was this very safe place of sharing music and talking to people through a screen. At the beginning, there was terrible audio, and I didn’t have a ring light, but eventually I invested in a light, an interface, and a microphone. Then I used StageIt, Twitch, Facebook, Instagram Live, Side Door, and probably several other ones. Maybe by the second or third show, the world really seemed to be falling apart, so with the virtual tip jar option, I added a charity component where I would pay forward part of the proceeds to a specific charity each time. It quite literally helped fund this record and the first EP.
AH: Was using the different platforms an experiment with formats, or did each of them also have a different reach you were engaging with?
LJ: It was kind of like trying out different venues. For me, I always love listening rooms, intimate clubs where people show up early. At first, Facebook and Instagram didn’t have a method to add a caption or pin information like the charity I had picked. With Instagram, it was kind of like playing a big festival, where people would hop on and off. For StageIt, you would buy a ticket, but they also took a fee. All of this was like a venue tour for me.
The most interesting venue I found was Side Door, who have secure credit card processing, so you can set your ticket fee, and it is also by Zoom, so you can see your audience. I did a Halloween show, and everyone dressed up. It was so fun. It was people around the world. I had a costume contest. It was like a one-off venue. I would equate it to when I opened for Willie Nelson. It wasn’t something that would happen every day but was so cool. Technology is a terrible thing but is also really beautiful when it’s used correctly. I was really grateful for it.
AH: How did you pick all your content for so many shows? Did you have any strategies?
LJ: When I first started out in music, I wanted to play anywhere that I could, from a coffee shop, to an airport, to a seafood aisle at a Walmart, which is probably the worst gig I’ve ever done. With all those gigs, I kind of felt like I tricked the people who hired me. Because I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll play covers,” but really I would play whatever I wanted to. I was the girl playing at the National Airport after signing a record deal, and I would go in there and play two covers, and the rest would be originals. With the livestreams, luckily, a lot of the people in the audience were down for me to play whatever I wanted to play. They’d request originals.
But the biggest positive and most surprising moment was that I played a song that I thought would be on the record but wasn’t sure yet, thinking it was too simple and personal, and people flipped out over it. It became the official quarantine song. That meant I was wrong. I didn’t think it would mean anything to anyone, but I saw from doing these livestreams, even before I had recorded it, that it meant a lot to a lot of people. That was fascinating to me but it also proves why sometimes labels and A&R companies get it wrong. Sometimes it’s the really simple songs that actually resonate.
AH: I saw a mention that you felt less genre-restricted on recording these new songs. How did that affect you?
LJ: Genre has always been such a fascinating bullshit conversation to me. I honestly think that it’s asinine. I think, generally, trying to place people in a lane is so counter-intuitive to how life actually works. None of us are in one lane. Our lanes shift. With music, what I consider country is not what you hear on the radio. I remember back when The Lumineers came out with that song “Flowers in Your Hair” and they were on NPR. I thought this was fantastic. It was Americana, Country, Folk, singer-songwriter, and they were being played on NPR. I thougth then, “Lauren Jenkins has a chance.” Then, moving to Nashville, I realized that no one thought that.
With this record, once I split with my label, I had a conversation with my co-Producers and my band. I said, “All the things that you think you have to do, or boxes that you have to check, just go ahead and burn that paper. Let’s just serve the music and the songs.” That took a little doing. I had to start asking, “Do you want to add a cello on this song? Then that’s what we’ll do.” The main thing about this record is that I wanted it to be honest, to say what I wanted to say, and I wanted the final recordings to be what the songs needed regardless of genre or what is popular. I think that we’ve actually captured that, which can be tough to do.
On one of the songs on Part I, “My Own Advice,” I just about drove my co-producers crazy because we did at least three different versions. Then I finally landed on what the song wanted to be. We could have stopped at version one and it could have been great, but it was about actually caring and actually getting it right rather than phoning it in. That’s a luxury that I’ve been able to have as an independent artist that I’ve never had before. That part of it is just so rewarding.
AH: I did notice that the sound, stemming from the specific instruments involved, really added to the mood of the songs on this EP, so it’s great that you were able to make those choices.
LJ: I think as human beings we can tell when we’re listening to the real deal, regardless of whether we like it or not. We can tell when something is manufactured or when it’s 100 percent coming from the source. That’s more impactful. Intention is the main thing. My intention with music has always been to do this for the rest of my life. It’s not about trying to get as many fans as possible to make as much money as possible because I’m on a time limit. I want to have a career that expands until I can’t play, sing, or write anymore. To do that, I think the best way to go about it is to be very real and honest. I don’t plan on getting off the road.
AH: Does the EP Part I represent part of a specific narrative in a bigger story?
LJ: Yes. I’ve had this wall of post-it notes going with a bunch of song titles. They’ve shifted around a little and a couple of things have been added during the course of the pandemic, but for the most part, it is picking up from where No Saint left off, including the three-part video series and the short film that I did. It is the story of that character, and of me, after we leave her on the road in New Mexico, wondering, “What the hell is she going to do next?” Miles on Me is what the hell I had to do next in 2020 and 2021. It’s all very intentional, whether it’s the songs, their order, and the way that it unfolds. It’s been wonderful for my nerdy mind to actually be able to put thougth into these things rather than wondering, “Where’s our rodeo hit?” Instead, this is what comes next because it needs to.
AH: What led up to the decision to release your first independent song, “Ain’t That Hard”? Is there a reason why it wasn’t part of the EP?
LJ: “Ain’t That Hard” will be on the full record when it’s released, but it represented an “Ah-Hah!” moment for me. I had just received the news of touring stopping, people I’d worked alongside losing jobs due to the pandemic, my record label and I splitting ways, and then the tornado hit in Nashville. All of this chaos happened within the course of a week. I had to respond to this and what it meant to me. Because I tell stories and make music, I did that. That was the first song that came to mind, so we recorded it that week and put it out shortly after. There was no messing around.
I had to remind myself that even though the world was falling apart, I’ve known since I was a child what I wanted to do with my life. Being able to record, release, have the artwork done, and go and make a video with a friend was a reminder, “You know how to do this. It’s okay.” It was also a reminder that the world kind of needed to hear. Our hearts are really fragile things and it’s our calling as humans to take care of ourselves and those around us, all while trying not to be a shitty person. That was really the moral of the song.
Find more about Lauren Jenkins and follow links to listen to and order her music here: https://www.laurenjenkins.com