Surface Noise, Jennifer O’Connor’s sixth full-length release and the first since 2011’s I Want What You Want, is an album about the survivalist’s instinct to persevere in the face of all of life’s delightful and often horrifying twists and turns.
An album of mini-documents, Surface Noise explores the gravity of imminent loss, cautious hope and the touch-and-go nature of daily life. More importantly, perhaps, it features some of O’Connor’s best songs. You will not find a catchier piece of pop music in O’Connor’s catalog than first single, “Start Right Here”. Propelled by longtime drummer Jon Langmead’s driving beats and a buoyant bassline from Yo La Tengo’s James McNew (also the band on much of her 2006 Matador debut Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars), “Start Right Here” is a statement of purpose about hanging on and hanging in despite whatever chaos is afloat.
“Many important things happened in my life during the long process of making this record – high highs and low lows,” O’Connor stated. “I moved out of New York City where I had lived for 15 years. I got married. My mother got increasingly sick and passed away after a decade long illness. I wrote a song in a couple of hours that ended up in an iPhone commercial.” That song, “When I Grow Up,” was featured in Apple’s 2014 online ad for the iPhone 5s. O’Connor used the money from the placement to open the The Kiam Records Shop (named after her record label) in her new home in Nyack, NY. The store, which focuses on selling new and used vinyl, has thrived.
In the midst of all of this activity, O’Connor kept writing and recording the songs that would become Surface Noise. A short tour with Neko Case in the summer of 2015 would provide O’Connor with the final push of inspiration needed to finish the record. Co-produced by O’Connor and Tom Beaujour at Nuthouse Recording in Hoboken, NJ, over the course of three years, the songs incorporate a variety of instruments played mostly by O’Connor herself, including organs, keyboards, guitars, melodica and piano – all in the service of the same kind of musical economy that’s been O’Connor’s hallmark since the beginning; not less is more, but instead, an “include-only-exactly-what-the-song-needs-and-nothing-more approach.” Many songs began with beats composed at home by O’Connor on a drum machine (a first), such as on “Tell Me What You Need”, “You’re Not There”, “Mountains” and “It’s a Lie” and in the studio, Langmead’s organic drums mix with the original drum machine track. Others, like “Falling Feeling” and “The Road” are stripped to just acoustic guitar but reflect a more mature attention to song construction than ever before.
In the time between this record and the last, O’Connor’s career as songwriter flourished, co-writing new songs for the television shows Sons of Anarchy and Orange Is The New Black as well as having her own songs featured in dozens of television shows and films including Parenthood, Private Practice, Catfish and Grace and Frankie. Additionally, O’Connor’s song “Beg or Borrow Days” from 2005’s The Color and The Light was recorded by Laura Cantrell for her most recent album No Way There From Here.
“Life is weird and the path from one thing to the next is often more direct than I had previously thought,” O’Connor stated. “Through a very tumultuous time, I wrote these songs and recorded them piecemeal whenever I had the chance – because that is what I do.” Surface Noise is the sound of a truly musical artist, who has ridden the ups and downs of a career in music, fully coming into their own and building a home where they can thrive.