I think it was Sylvia Plath who said, “There must be quite a few things that a new Jenn Champion record won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Jenn’s records seem to come out almost eerily at the most perfectly disastrous times in my life, ready to coax me through whatever emotional crisis I’m experiencing, and her pop masterpiece Single Rider is no exception.
Jenn has a long history of making music that cuts straight to my heart, from her contributions to the beloved sadcore band Carissa’s Wierd to her solo music, recorded under the moniker S, until recently. When S’s record Cool Choices came out in 2014, I was freshly heartbroken and had moved from Denver to Seattle on an inspired whim. The candid, vulnerable lyrics of what Jenn calls a double breakup record were exactly what I needed. If I had a dime for every time I found myself cry-singing along to lyrics like, “It’s you that I’ll remember when I think of love and awful things,” and “I know about the girl you fucked, and now I think I might throw up,” well, in the words of country star Maren Morris, I’d basically be sitting on a big-ass pile of dimes. The record taught me so much about songwriting and moving on, how saying those truths everyone knows but are too afraid to speak can be cathartic and healing, both for yourself and for others. Around that time, Jenn and I worked together at the Seattle bar the Redwood, where she was the bartender and I was the cook. We would listen to pop music and I would blab to her about whatever dramatic thing was going on in my love life or the process of making my record, and she would give me as wonderful and sage advice as any therapist. (No offense to my actual therapist. I love you, Carly!)
The Redwood is sadly closed now, and Jenn lives in LA, so as I find myself heartbroken again in 2018 by love and the world, I’m incredibly grateful that her voice is talking me through another tumultuous time in the form of a soaring dance pop record. Jenn’s pop genius has been there through all of her projects, even at their most lo-fi. I dare you to listen to the layering vocal melodies at the end of “Wait,” off of 2010’s Sadstyle, and tell me that’s not a perfect pop song. But the electronic pop production started to peek in more with the synths on the Chris Walla-produced Cool Choices, hinting at what was to come in this full on Carly Rae/Robyn/Katy-style record. And instead of crying and puking about all the troubles of the world, this record offers a different solution: dancing it all out. Jenn Champion is the pop star we all need, and when she sings, “We’re gonna let go of all these problems / find yourself free again” on “You Knew,” I believe her.
Is every breakup worse than the last or does it just feel that way in its hopeless freshness? Single Rider is decidedly not a breakup record, but it is about breaking up with old patterns and moving toward something better both on a personal and global level. I feel like Jenn is directly singing to me on “I’m Coming For You,” a cut that could have been an E•MO•TION B-side (which we all know are as good as the A-sides). “Tell me about the lines you fell for,” she beckons on the driving track, “And tell me how they always break your heart.”
Though the record is more pop-oriented, it still has some of those classic S twist-the-knife-into-your-guts lines that roll around in my mind and make me think deeply about the properties of love. On “The Move,” she sings “I think you wanna cut me open / and take out all my ribs count them one by one / You wanna look around inside.” Isn’t that the terrifying nature of love? It rips away the pieces of us that protect our hearts, the vulnerability of letting someone else in who might completely take advantage of those squishy, exposed, tender insides or maybe, hopefully, one day, fingers crossed, might care for them instead of tearing us to pieces.
I like to imagine it’s a combination of the sunshine of LA and having a beautiful marriage that makes Jenn so refreshingly hopeful on this record. It’s an album about standing up to adversity and pushing through and dancing it out, being sad but also having the ability to step outside yourself and see beyond it into something better. I feel it on the album’s centerpiece, “Never Giving In,” when she sings “I’m falling on my knees / walking in my sleep / choking on my own news feed.” The devastating news cycle hangs over everything, a mist of hopelessness that lingers and dampens every joy and makes every heartbreak even more horrible. But in the midst of those feelings Jenn says that “I’m gonna tell you that we all gotta get out and fight / There’s no other way we all get through this.”
Even on the quieter piano ballads that hearken back to Cool Choices, like “Hustle,” there’s an element of hopefulness, inviting us all to hang on. Producer Brian Fennell, aka SYML, brings the electronic pop production of the record to the next level, making my heart swell at a time when it’s really difficult to get my heart to swell. It’s a testament to Jenn’s songwriting and wisdom that she can get us to dance about such a dark time, and as it always does, her music ushers me inside from out in the cold to someplace warmer and better and more empathetic—and with killer hooks.