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Sweet Surrender

Sweet Surrender

Singer-songwriter Jenny O. says good art can make you crazy. By Jessica Herndon. Photographed by Devyn Galindo

While cupping a cappuccino and gazing out the window of Lamill Coffee in Los Angeles, an angelic grin bathes Jenny O.’s face as she dissects her latest performance outfits. “I was all excited to talk about what I wear,” says the 30-year-old Long Island native, eyes widening with enthusiasm.

Tonight she looks nothing short of an effortlessly austere rock star. The folk-pop singer (born Jennifer Ognibene) dons the same fitted cream jacket she wore on stage a few nights before at the Bootleg Theater in L.A., and she lets her long black hair fall over her face while peering through the strands. “I have a really hard time getting dressed,” she says. “I need help. So you liked that black lace dress I wore? I’d rather wear what people have seen before, that I know looks good, than take any risks.” She takes a deep breath and adjusts her posture. “But I’m figuring it out and getting more cutthroat with my choices.”

She approaches her music with this same attitude. Five years ago, after relocating to L.A. from the East Coast, Jenny got financial backing to record an album, but then things fell apart. “Things weren’t developing in a natural and beautiful way full of love,” she recalls, “so I walked away.” What followed were admittedly hard times.

To make ends meet she worked as a photographer and a background vocalist. No restaurant would hire her. (“I don’t have that team player look,” she says with a smirk). She continued to perform in coffee shops and anywhere else that would let her do a set. Then arose another problem: her car kept failing smog checks. She quickly took matters into her own hands and learned how to fix her own ride. “Plus I needed a trade I could always use because songwriting was not working out,” she admits. In 2011 Jenny released Home, an EP she’d recorded on her laptop, and became a buzzed-about name after her tune “Well OK Honey” was scooped for television shows like True Blood and Wilfred and ads for J. Crew and Target.

Now she’s ready to release her full-length debut, Automechanic, a record inspired by country artists like Roger Miller and Willie Nelson and the vintage pop Jenny sang as a little girl in her dad’s ’60s cover band. Written over the past two years and produced by singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson, the album highlights Jenny’s honey-coated, childlike voice and explores love, longing, patience…and cars. Songs like the title track impart the lessons she learned while working on her classic ’79 Chevy Nova. “You have to help yourself,” she says. “Now I’m not afraid to muscle it.” Jenny says she never has a “Is anyone going to understand this?” moment when she writes. “But I do have a ‘Did I steal this or did I write this?’ moment,” she confesses, with a laugh. “After I hear one of my songs three times I go, ‘Do I recognize this because it’s a Tom Petty song, because I wrote it five minutes ago, or wrote it in a parallel time 20 years ago?’”

This April Jenny will head out on The Revival Tour with a few other folk acts including Rocky Votolato, and she plans to bring along her “treasure pouch.” In it are essentials like a rock she rubs before shows and a stack of incense to “maintain selfhood.” She also finds comfort in the crescent moon tattooed between her index finger and thumb on her right hand. “If I’m not wearing any jewelry and I am stuck somewhere, like in a Walmart, I look down at it and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah OK, I’m that person,’” she says. “I got it in a moment of complete joy in a magical place; Willie Nelson’s ranch in Texas. I freaked out after I did it,” she adds, with a grin, “but any good art project makes you feel crazy.”