Jenna Cunningham, a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter, delivered a verified pop banger with her latest single “Blood In the Water”. The dark yet dynamic track highlights the broad spectrum of her musical abilities, while the equally gripping music video showed off some unexpected acting chops too. Vent’s got to have an insight into some behind the scenes workings, past and present influences and future plans. Take a look at our interview with the up-and-coming pop artist below.
What was your initiation into music, and when did you know you wanted to pursue it as a career?
I’ve loved music pretty much as early as any kid could love music. My mom has a videotape of a really young me, passionately singing “Cawas a da Win” (aka the most you can pronounce Colors of the Wind when you’re 2 years old). A few years later, I would always be banging on the piano or performing “In My Own Little Corner” from Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella to my parents and grandparents, hamming it up. I have been writing songs for as long as I can remember.
It actually took me a really long time to consider it a legitimate career though. I studied clarinet and math in college. It wasn’t until I took an internship within the math field that I realized that what I was studying wasn’t actually how I wanted to spend my life. That internship right after my sophomore year was a huge wake-up call. I wasn’t happy at the job, and it made me really ask myself what would make me happy deep down to do as a career. That was when I decided that once I graduated, I was going to move to Los Angeles and pursue being a singer-songwriter.
How has your sound and musicality developed over the years, and who were some of your major influences?
I was a sad song queen in high school, and always just stuck to my voice and the piano. My first EP, Gravity, was a bunch of love songs that should’ve come with a box of Kleenex. Then, I essentially 180-ed and decided I was going to do an EP where not one song was about love. I worked with some friends who were great producers to make my EP “Break Out”, where there was a full band, and some brass and clarinet.
Now, I just finished a 12 song album that I feel is so much more well-rounded. I’m not trying to be one thing or one sound, or purposely avoid any topics. All my lyrics are honest and the songs were written because I was feeling a specific emotion that I needed to express through music. I produced it myself so I got to really figure out my sound. I also re-worked the songs a lot to make sure the melodies were catchy and each moment gave the listener something to grab on to. That album comes out February 15th. My major influences are Florence and the Machine, Banks, and Gabrielle Aplin. Each of those ladies brings a totally different kind of honesty and sound to the table, but their lyrics are so unique and well-crafted, and you can tell they’re speaking their truth.
‘Blood in The Water’ is the first cut off your debut full-length Seizing Self, the track is not only haunting itself but the narrative behind it is also deeply dark with true crime elements running through it… what’s the story behind it?
Blood in the Water is essentially my exception to my rule that I write about things I actually experienced. One of my favorite past-times is, oddly enough, watching trailers for really epic movies. “Blood in the Water” came from a binge-watching session of trailers for action-drama movies and TV shows. Songs like Florence’s “Seven Devils” in the Beautiful Creatures trailer and Jack White’s “Love is Blindness” in the Great Gatsby trailer absolutely enraptured me. I put myself in the mindset of a writer and director of one of these movies and wanted that rush and epic thrill to be conveyed in one of my songs. The story I came up with tells the tale of a murder that was never meant to happen. I guess my hope was, that it could one day be used in a trailer for one of those bad-ass movies itself!
You also released a music video for the single. What was that experience like and was it fun to see your lyrics come to life?
It was so much fun! I am lucky enough to have some really talented and generous friends. I brought this idea and story to some friends and asked for their help, and they gave up their weekend to help me get the shots. My friends Leah, Marissa, and Sonia all helped me film it. My friend Ross played the murderer in the story. I love how he conveyed the distress of the character so well. At times, I did find myself getting stressed about all that had to be done to film and get the shots, but then I just had to remember that this isn’t supposed to be stressful, I’m creating something with friends and I need to live in the joy of the moment. Having to buy a ton of fake blood for the video was also hysterical to me.
How important is collaboration to you? And what does this process look like for you, especially as a solo artist?
I used to be sort of resistant to collaboration because I took a sort of pride in saying “I did every part of this.” But I’m so much more open to it now because I realized there’s a lot you can learn from other people’s creative processes. In the case of another music video coming out in January, my friend Jarod came to me with this brilliant idea for it after listening to my song “Fingernails.” I hesitated at first to give up creative control. But after talking to my mom and boyfriend, they really woke me up, like “Jenna, you can’t NOT go with this idea, it’s so good.” And the video came out incredible, Jarod is so talented.
Have you had any formative mentors?
Yes! My clarinet teacher in high school, Gerry Zampino, and clarinet teacher in college, Jean Kopperud, have been huge inspirations on me both musically and in life. One quote of Gerry’s is “each note a gem.” He brought focus to that fact that even the shortest or lowest note should still be beautiful.
Jean was the first teacher I’ve had who went beyond teaching me how to practice, she taught me how to perform. She taught me that the moment you hit the stage, you make the decision to have people’s attention or not. She teaches you to go out of your comfort zone and to not only prepare technically but also emotionally before a performance. Jean also helped me realize I needed to pay more attention to the crowd around me, and exposed a bad habit in me of only singing to myself instead of trying to connect to the audience. She also inspired me in the sense of how she lives her life. She respects herself and the hardworking people around her and holds herself to a high standard. She wouldn’t take shit from anyone. She is an extremely unapologetic and authentic person and really cares about her students and their artistic growth.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an artist?
I’m still struggling to stand out and to sort of get people to listen. There are so many people doing exactly what I’m doing and I’m struggling to be heard above the noise. My goal with songwriting is to phrase things in a way where people might go “whoa, I’ve felt exactly that, but I’ve never heard it phrased like that before.” And then with performing, I want people to feel my authenticity and passion, and I want the emotion to be able to reach past the barrier of the stage and into the crowd and for people to genuinely connect to that emotion. And then of course, for them to want to hear more.
From writing to performing to touring what is your favorite part of the creative Journey?
There are some really special moments with both writing and performing. Often with writing, if I’m struggling to articulate how I’m feeling if I try too hard to think of the perfect line, it doesn’t come. I have to almost take some time away and trick my brain into believing I’m not thinking about the song anymore, and then the perfect lyric will come. It always surprises me when a lyric falls into my lap, where I think “holy shit I didn’t know that’s how I felt, but now that it’s there, that perfectly describes how I feel about this topic.” It sometimes scares you how accurately the nail is hit on the head. With performing, I love when a song can quiet a crowd. That’s how you know the song is good. It feels really powerful and also terrifying when suddenly the focus switches and everyone is tuned into what you’re doing. You have the power to keep their focus, but you also have the power to lose it. The only option is to sink as deep as you can into the emotion of the song, feel the beat in your body, and believe that it will speak to someone.
How’s the music scene in your locale, and if any, what kind of impact has it has on your music?
The LA scene can be really competitive but also really supportive. You have to learn to not take anything personally, and also to cherish the people who care about you as a person. I’m lucky enough to have musicians who join me in my band who are not only super talented but also just genuinely good people. My drummer and guitarist, I met through open mics.
Through the last year of living in LA, I’ve also gotten a better understanding of what venues/ bookers are artist-friendly and which ones aren’t. I don’t book with people who say I owe them something if I don’t bring x amount of people. I’m much more open to playing free shows though because I feel it’s a mutual relationship: I’m helping the venue by providing entertainment, and they’re helping me because they’re giving me a platform and exposure.
What is the best show you have been to recently? And what do you personally like most about playing live?
I just saw Lauren Ruth Ward at the El Rey and she was fucking incredible. Every move she makes has a purpose. You can tell she feels every lyric to her core. That’s how I want to be as a performer too. I love the spontaneity and unpredictability of playing live. The risks are so much higher but I also like to think that that makes the reward so much higher too. You could think of it as “there’s so much potential for things to go wrong!” but I choose to think “there’s so much potential for things to go right!”
What are you working on right now?
I spent the last year writing and producing my album, Seizing Self. It was a stressful year because there was so much new to me on the producer side and I wanted to get everything just right. I spent almost all my free time working on it. It feels so rewarding to have that finished and I can’t wait to release it to the world in February. So now I’m enjoying having more time for friends and self-care. But I don’t want to stop grinding: I still have a lot to do to get the buzz out about the album. I’ll be doing an album release show with my full band, venue TBA. And once the album’s released, it doesn’t stop there. I want to work on my craft and work towards playing larger/cooler shows. Sofar Sounds is a dream of mine, as it is a dream of many artists. So I’ll start playing live more, and then there are more songs I have unreleased that I’ll start to record. I don’t want to look back years from now thinking I didn’t do everything I could to pursue my dream.