Jana Pochop on The Life of “The Astronaut”
Great albums make you feel like you’ve been on a kind of journey, particularly when you listen to them all the way through. With Jana Pochop’s latest release, The Astronaut, not only is that true, but you find that the journey you’ve been on has been particularly scintillating, introducing new questions and encouraging further exploration. She and her longtime producer Dan Barrett had a particular folk direction in mind when working on the songs in the collection, focusing on a “less is more” aesthetic, but also one which embraced “richness” within those limitations
The Astronaut was also crowdfunded through Kickstarter and had an interactive life with Pochop’s Patreon supporters, making its story even more broadly interesting in terms of how music gets made these days. We spoke with Jana Pochop about the evolution of her working relationship with Dan Barrett, the aesthetic goals for The Astronaut, why she loves pop culture hero Baby Grogu from The Mandalorian, and where the more mysterious elements in some of these new songs come from.
Americana Highways: I’ve really enjoyed listening to the album, but I was also very interested to hear about the wider context of creating the album, with Kickstarter and Patreon both playing a role.
Jana Pochop: It’s been a journey, I’ll say that! It was the second time I’ve used Kickstarter, but the first one was for a solo EP around 2014. Then I took a detour and with a folk pop side project EP in 2018, which we called 123Scream. Then I thought it was time to do something solo, and we Kickstarted it. Me and my producer Dan Barrett have worked together on so many things for so many years that we were taking our sweet time in 2019. We were going to record in early 2020, but that got sidelined. Things took a little longer than we thought, but that’s okay.
AH: I feel like anyone who has managed to stick to the script in the past two years is a hero. You also managed to release the single “Oh My Heart” in 2020.
JP: Yes, I did a pandemic song. That’s the one where I sat at home and decided to record myself with Logic Pro. It was a total dive on in and I’m really proud of how it turned out. I was living in a 1947 Spartan trailer all through the pandemic, so it was a cool little retro spot like a tin can. You just make stuff work, whereas we got to make The Astronaut in a really nice studio in Austin.
AH: How long have you been working with Dan Barrett?
JP: When I moved to Austin, I was a fan of his band, and he had a musical school at the time. I thought that would be a good way to work on my chops since Austin is full of talented people. I started going to the school and that led to, “Hey, I think it’s time to record something.” I think we made our first EP in 2008. It’s a long history.
AH: What sort of things were you studying at the school?
JP: I think it was described as something like, “The Professional Track,” but I called it “Folk Music Grad School.” I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico which has beautiful art and culture, but wasn’t on par with Austin terms of live performing. I found Austin a little terrifying. We did guitar, and I learned a lot, even though I’d been playing since I was 11. We worked on voice and song development. We’d have group classes. It made a community for me really quickly and Dan and I have gotten along swimmingly ever since. That phrase that it takes a village is super-true.
AH: That’s a wonderful story. When you and Dan approached this album, were you aware and talking about sound-directions specific to these songs?
JP: Yes, because I have forayed into the pop world, but Dan felt that these were strong songwriter songs and wanted to put them in the indie folk vein to make a folk record. Because we’ve worked together for years, and share a nerdiness, I was able to bring up the fact that years ago I read a biography of Gordon Ramsay, the chef. I love that guy. What I love about him is that he’s very passionate about his craft, and when he yells, he cares about things. Dan and I were talking about a passage in the book where he mentions three ingredients. He says that if you’re making a dish and think you need more than three ingredients, you’re probably overdoing it.
Dan suggested we think of the three-ingredient rule when building the songs, using guitar, and vocals, and then asking, “What’s the other element that would bring this all together?” There are more than three instruments on some of the tracks, but we tried to keep it minimal but rich. We wanted the songs to taste good without being overly complicated. Another thing Dan would ask is, “Is it screaming for it?” about a sound element. For example, I had the idea to put trumpet on the first track, “Head Spin.” I’ve never had trumpet on anything before, and it’s a folk record, but I thought I heard trumpet. We decided that yes, the song was screaming for trumpet. It worked out and I’m so glad it did.
AH: Americana Highways debuted the video for “Matador,” which is so quirky and interesting. Do you think that “Matador” is the biggest love song on the album?
JP: I would definitely say “Matador” is about the initial spark, about enjoying the crush period, which I think everyone associates with love songs. Though there are also some sadder love songs on the record.
AH: How did this crazy Claymation video come about?
JP: I will give all the props to one of my best friends, Shawnee Kilgore, who’s also a co-writer. She has a way with video editing. I got really stymied with what to do for this video, though I often look for old footage, and Shawnee does the same. She volunteered to do the “Matador” video and found this Claymation film from 1926. I didn’t even know Claymation existed back then. It’s a story about a bull and a matador and Shawnee managed to chop up the video to fit the song perfectly. She really nailed it. All I did was add the title and the credits. It was meant to be.
AH: Do you write love songs much, or was this unusual for you?
JP: A love song will force itself out sometimes, even though I’m pretty much happily single all the time. But I observe a lot all the time and put all these things together. My writing style is very much jigsaw and mish-mash. Who hasn’t been infatuated or had romantic experiences in a dark bar? For being an introvert, I miss the hardcore people watching of the before-times, where I could build all these narratives in my head. We’ll get back to it soon!
AH: “Solar System” is one of those sadder love songs, and from it comes the title of the album. It’s such a strong statement with such strong images, but I feel like part of why people are having a big reaction to it is because they can relate to the isolation that we’ve all been feeling.
JP: I hadn’t thought about that point. This record was all written before the pandemic, which surprises even me, since “Exit Plan” sounds like a pandemic song. The sense of foreboding for me was there long before. Hopefully songs grow with us. I love reading about how the universe exists, which is insane if you think about it. We’re moving at very high speeds and yet we feel like we’re hardly moving at all.
All these nerd things do parlay into the artistic expressions that I put out. I’m relating all our mushy feelings to concrete things that are occurring. So “Solar System” relates to that. I feel like we’re all just hanging out in a vast expanse and sometimes we’re just reaching out to make that connection. Sometimes that works and sometimes you’re just hanging out by yourself.
AH: You seem to have a great love for The Mandalorian’s Baby Grogu, aka Baby Yoda. Are you a big science-fiction nerd?
JP: Not so much, but I’ve always watched Star Wars. Then The Mandalorian came along and I was able to watch it again while we were all stuck at home. I don’t know why I love Grogu, and my friends and I all talk about it. We’re all in our 30s, and I have never had the urge to have kids, but that little creature just pokes at something in my cold heart. It just makes me say, “You’re adorable.” He’s utterly adorable, and in the past couple of years, amid very dark stuff, I was very happy to have this little delightful creature to watch.
AH: He seems like the perfect receptacle for everyone’s hopes and dreams. The show is just so beautifully shot, too.
JP: Absolutely. I’m in New Mexico visiting my mom and we just watched Boba Fett. It’s not The Mandalorian, but quite good while we wait for The Mandalorian. I’m so glad you asked about Grogu!
AH: I found some of the songs on the album to be more mysterious, possibly more about mood. “As Long As It Feels Right” has a lot of images that resonate with me, and a lot of the feeling of it does too.
JP: I think I’ve always been drawn to more abstract writers where I could put my own feelings into their songs, like Tori Amos, but “As Long As It Feels Right” has two origin stories. I’ve been a fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter for a long time. She was hitting the country charts when I was a kid and she’s grown into this beautiful Americana Folk artist. I’ve seen her play a ton and she’s one of the reasons that I started playing a guitar.
When I was 11, I saw a video of a live concert performance of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” on Country Music Television. She was on stage playing a badass blue electric Rickenbacker. Then the credits came up, saying “Written by Carpenter,” and I thought, “So you can play the guitar and write your own songs and be on TV?” I can do those things! So I started taking guitar lessons. I’ve had this whole life trajectory because of it.
Well, a few years ago, I was feeling very grateful about this, so I wrote her an e-mail saying, “Thank you for being such a great example.” I lost my shit when I saw that she wrote back, but she wrote a very kind response. She said, “When you’re in an artistic career, it’s hard to measure anything, and some days you just don’t think you can do it anymore. You just keep going as long as it feels right.” She said that a couple of times in the e-mail and it just seemed like such good advice. When I ask myself, “Am I making a folk record? What am I doing?”, I then ask myself, “Does it feel right?” and say, “Yes, let’s do it.”
The title came from that. The song itself was something I wrote in the summer of 2017 when the whole country’s politics had been turned upside down. There seemed like there was so much cognitive dissonance between what people preached and what they did. I could not parse it. So that song makes sense of an upturned feeling. It was like I was walking with a flashlight and just had to keep moving, no matter what was out there.
AH: “Quiet All The Time” is also very mysterious. The sound mood could be taken as ambivalent, but the bigger feeling of the song itself might contain positive aspects.
JP: That song is a great example of our Gordon Ramsay “three things” rule. We had me and Shawnee singing some vocals, then some great pedal steel. Then we added drums and bass, and when we got that mix back, I said, “Dan, I think that’s too much.” He thought I was right and we took out all the rhythm parts, which I think it adds to a wide open feel for it. This song is also built off of a specific life experience that I hope applies to other people.
The song got started when Shawnee and I were on tour here in New Mexico, and Shawnee had never been, so I was excited to show her everything. We went to the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, which is my favorite place to go. As a weird aside, Diane Keaton was at the museum while we were there. We were then driving to Amarillo to play a house concert, and I started that song in the passenger seat, just because there’s so much to New Mexico.
It’s a beautiful state but there’s so much darkness in its history. They call it “the land of entrapment” when you grow up here. Sometimes it’s hard to leave, it’s pretty impoverished, and there are social issues. But it has this presence of a huge Native American population, a Hispanic population, a heritage of Spanish influence from Spain, and I’m so glad that as a kid I was exposed to all those cultures. In the song, there’s a line about the billboards and the ugly stuff we’ve propped up along the highway right next to tribal lands. These are questions that come up when you’re a white person who loves New Mexico.
Then, the other part of the song is that I grew up as such a quiet kid and my parents’ friends would comment on how quiet I was all the time. I learned that that just made me want to be quieter! So I wrote a song about being quiet all the time. How those things go together, I don’t know, but they seem to work.
AH: That really does seem to relate to the different aspects of the song, with the darker and lighter elements that work together.
JP: Yes, it’s acknowledging that I can’t change that I grew up in New Mexico, but it’s also acknowledging the privilege I’ve had in growing up there.
Find more about Jana Pochop including tour dates, here: https://www.janapochop.com