Jennifer O’Connor needed a change of scenery.
The singer-songwriter-guitarist had been living in Greenpoint for six years, and while she liked the neighborhood, her apartment was falling apart–a dump, as she put it.
I sort of had an idea to make it sound a little bit like It’s a Shame About Ray-era Lemonheads
“We found this amazing place right away,” says O’Connor “and just on a whim [took] it for a year.”
O’Connor and Bezunartea moved to Nyack in 2012, and that year-long experiment quickly turned into a permanent relocation. O’Connor opened Kiam Records Shop there in December of 2014, something that she had wanted to do since childhood.
“I always wanted to do it but was always discouraged to by others,” she explains. “’Dying industry,’ ‘retail is hard,’ blah blah blah. I worked in record stores in Atlanta, New York City and Tampa, so I was not new to it. I’ve always felt at home in record stores…There was no store in Nyack. There had been some over the years but when we opened, there wasn’t one.”
Financed in part with what she earned when her song, “When I Grow Up,” appeared in an iPhone 5s advertisement, the store has been doing very well, she says. “We also sell books, vintage clothes and jewelry and things like notebooks and pins,” O’Connor says. “I love talking to people about music and seeing their eyes light up with recognition or agreement or disagreement even about a band or record.”
Kiam Records is a further extension of O’Connor’s business acumen–it was named after the indie record label that she created and whose its roster includes herself, Bezunartea, and acts like Tim Foljahn and TRØN & DVD. Some of those artists have also dropped by the store to perform. “We will be doing more of that,” says O’Connor. “We have a special wall in the shop for all of the Kiam Records artists releases, as well.”
In amidst of a very intense few years–O’Connor lost her mother in 2015, and in addition to opening the store, she and Bezunartea wed in 2014–she also made time to record an album. Surface Noise, her sixth studio record, was released this winter. Featuring O’Connor’s longtime drummer Jon Langmead and Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, it marks O’Connor’s finest album to date. But with so many other projects in play, it took a long time to complete–work began on it in 2013.
“From the get-go, there wasn’t really like a plan—I had a record written and we were gonna go in and record it,” she says. “I would go out to [co-producer] Tom [Beaujour’s] studio [Nuthouse Recording] in Hoboken and start working on songs there. Some stuff got scrapped along the way too, there’s probably another record’s worth of songs that I recorded that didn’t seem they fit the record to me…and I finished recording it this past fall.”
Musically and thematically, Surface Noise is a salve for anyone going through a rough time. In January, in advance of the record release, O’Connor unveiled “Start Right Here,” which she describes as her attempt at a pop jam. “That one was a pretty simple song I wrote at home on the acoustic guitar, but kind of came to life in the studio,” she says. “I sort of had an idea to make it sound a little bit like It’s a Shame About Ray-era Lemonheads.”
Another track from the new album, the mostly-acoustic “Falling Feeling,” is a sublime romantic ballad. The song was originally intended for a film titled There’s Always Woodstock, but a track from one of her previous records was used instead. “I do this sometimes where I write songs as submissions for various things, but often 98 percent of the time those songs are still based on my own experience, even if it was for a character in mind,” she says. “Certainly I was thinking about my own love life when I wrote it, but from the perspective of this person in the movie, too. In a lot of ways, I like having that as a jumping off point because you can latch on to one specific idea and kind of then take it anywhere you want.”
A few subtle stylistic departures—like funk, hip-hop, and electronic pop—can be heard on Surface Noise, but they don’t distract from O’Connor’s direct and intimate indie folk sound. “There’s definitely about half of it that’s sort of me trying to stretch out a little,” she explains. “The songs that I’m probably most excited about are the ones that began slightly differently or began with a drum machine or keyboards. I just tried to step outside of my box a little bit.”
With running two businesses simultaneously while still recording her own music and touring–she’ll be back in Brooklyn playing The Gutter on April 7–O’Connor is still fine-tuning her strategies for keeping all her projects moving forward. “We are definitely still figuring this out,” she says. “We do have a couple of employees now so that helps a lot. But it is certainly a juggling act and we’re always learning how to fine-tune things.”
Meanwhile with the amount of time it took Surface Noise to come to fruition, O’Connor is hopeful that the next record won’t take that long to produce. “In the end you just never know (laughs). And I spend a lot of time on the label now, too. We’re actually putting out a few things a year instead of one. Unfortunately and, or fortunately, I find myself to be really busy. But making music is ultimately one of my most favorite things to do, so I do hope to find enough time to do that as well.”