"My grandmother, Sadie, she's like 93 or 94--she and I have always been very close," says guitarist/vocalist Jennifer Trynin. "And since she's getting older, she can be kind of out of it--she's not always all there. But on my thirtieth birthday, she suddenly became as lucid as she was when she was forty. She was like, `Jen, I thought you said if your music career wasn't happening by the time you were thirty, you were going to quit.' And I'm thinking, `You don't remember anything anymore, but you remember that. Oh, great.'"
Her grandmother's comment stung Trynin in part because she'd been thinking the same thing. She'd been steadily pouring herself into her music for seven years or so at that point and had very little to show for it. Moreover, her quit-by-thirty promise wasn't the first pledge of its kind she'd made. "At first I was like, `If it doesn't happen by the time I'm 26, I'm hanging it up.' And then I was like, `By the time I'm 28...' And then it was, `By the time I'm 30...' So I kept extending my own deadline. But I knew I was getting older, and it was definitely shit-or-get-off-the-pot time." Still, she recalls, she told her grandmother, "Sadie, you've got to give me a little more time."
Sadie did--and it turned out to be one of the better decisions she made. That's because Trynin, now 31, is finally receiving payback for her years of unrewarding toil. Her debut CD, modestly titled Cockamamie, has just been released by Warner Bros. in conjunction with Trynin's own Squint imprint, and the vast majority of the reviews it's garnered thus far have been rapturous. Trynin's melodies, her skill at pulling brawny riffs from her guitar, and her observational/confessional lyrics have led to a slew of flattering comparisons; Rolling Stone recently likened her to Liz Phair, the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and (no, this isn't a misprint) Joni Mitchell. Trynin is appreciative of the attention, but she's bothered by that stereotypical something that lurks just beneath the surface of these kudos.
"It annoys me that people seem to think the only things they can say are, like, `It's a girl dog, and she's like this other girl dog,' instead of going, `It's a dog, and she's like this other dog,'" she notes. "I mean, it's true, I was born a girl, but I didn't do anything to make that happen. It's not my fault--and it's also not to my credit. It's just the way it was. But when I think of myself, being a girl isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Believe me, I know I'm a woman, and I love to have sex with men and the whole bit, but it's not the number-one thing that I think is interesting.
"It seems to me that with the musical climate the way it is now, women are obviously being much more accepted," Trynin continues. "But more than that, it's gone beyond `Do we let women in?' to `We all want a woman artist of our own, because everybody has one now.' They have a Chevy, a horse and a girl. It's like a weird kind of affirmative action. But my thing is, let's get on to the next level, where it doesn't matter if you're a girl or not. I had somebody tell me the other day that I reminded him of Jimi Hendrix, and I'm like, `That's great, that's excellent, because that shows you're thinking. You're looking at me not as a girl, but as a person.'"
Jennifer Trynin the person first emerged from her mother's womb somewhere in New Jersey circa 1963, and by the time she was in fifth grade, she was already teaching herself how to play the guitar. She continued writing songs and playing them, mostly for her own amusement, through her years at Ohio's Oberlin College, where she sought a liberal-arts degree. "My plan was to make a lot of money," she says, her tongue practically jutting through her cheek. "I was a sophomore in college when I thought, `I want to make the big bucks, so I'm going to major in creative writing and philosophy, and then I'll be all set.'"
Actually, as Trynin concedes, "I did not have what we could term `the big plan.' I would spend most of my time writing songs, stories and plays. I'm just an artsy-fartsy little fuck."
Upon graduating, Trynin was dismayed to discover that there weren't a lot of high-paying job opportunities for artsy-fartsy little fucks. At loose ends, she moved to Boston with a vague plan to become a journalist--a vocation for which she felt no passion, but one that her grandmother figured was perfect for her. She subsequently landed at a publication called The Boston Parents Paper.
"I learned a lot about what people's neuroses are about parenting," she says. "You know, I may sound insensitive and crass, but I'd be typing in and editing these articles about how to discipline your child, and I'd be thinking, `This is ridiculous.' Because to me, it's pretty cut and dried. My parents brought us up to be polite and respectful, especially to elders and sick people, but no meant no--end of story. So I'd read all of this whining, sniveling stuff about making a deal with your kid and I'd be like, `No way.'"
In spite of this attitude, Trynin freelanced at the Paper for several years and found time to run her own desktop-publishing business (she also waitressed on the side). It wasn't easy to keep making music on top of everything else, but she didn't give up, in spite of the usual career downturns; for example, she issued an EP on tiny Pathfinder Records, but the company folded before the world at large caught wind of it.
The turning point came when Trynin met Boston producer Mike Denneen, who oversaw the recording of the tracks that wound up on Cockamamie. Trynin subsequently formed Squint and pressed some seven-inch singles that she got to local Boston record outlets and selected radio and press people. But before she could even consider releasing a CD followup, Warner Bros. came calling. More surprising, the label agreed to release Cockamamie without changing a note. In a matter of months, Trynin went from being a one-woman operation to a priority at a major media conglomerate. She's still getting used to the transition. "I really liked doing things myself in some ways, because I could be gratified on a much lower level," she allows. "If I sold fifty records in one store, I'd be ecstatic, and now I don't get to appreciate that kind of thing. In fact, I don't even know about it. But I think I made the right choice by going with Warner Bros. I hate to phrase it this way, but the people there seem pretty sensitive to what I'm going through."
More likely, Warner bigwigs recognized Cockamamie for the impressive bow it is. The single "Better Than Nothing" (featuring the disarming couplet "I'm feeling good for now/But I know that by tomorrow I'll probably come around") is far from the only memorable track here; the propulsive "If I Had Anything to Say (Don't You Think I Would Have Said It All?)" and the self-explanatory "Too Bad You're Such a Loser" establish Trynin as a promising wordsmith capable of both bracing insights and enjoyable snottiness. She gets strong assists from the other members of her band (bassist Mike County and drummer Chris Foley), whom she insists upon crediting whenever possible--even going so far as to insist that any publicity photos of her include her bandmates. "It's always bummed me out that the only people who seem to get any attention are songwriters," she says. "Granted, songwriting is very important, but the men and women who play instruments and don't write the music are incredibly key to the sound and texture of a song. Because depending upon what kind of drummer and bass player I have, the music can sound very different."
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Trynin's sonic vocabulary would be a challenge to any players; she's equally adept at crunching rockers and hushed ballads like "Beg," which contains ambitious poetics such as "Lay my limbs along this beach/Do what you want to do to me in my sleep." Tunes like this one have inspired those wacky Joni Mitchell mentions and caused Trynin to worry that she may be typed as a singer-songwriter in modern-rock clothing. And pigeonholing is something she wants to resist at all costs.
"What I aspire to as a songwriter, a musician and a singer," she says, "is that when you come to our music, no matter what it is that's important to you--cool guitar playing, solid song structure, singing, lyrics or whatever--you'll find something interesting. Like, if you're a person who likes lyrics, you may not actually like my lyrics, but you can look at them and see that I actually put some thought into them. And if you like guitar playing, you may not like my guitar playing, but you can see that I do something that's not the most standard thing in the world.
"When I finally got my deal," she goes on, "I didn't feel mean towards the people who'd been hinting that I should get on with real life. Instead, I felt like saying, `Okay, everybody can relax and stop worrying about me. I'm not going to be homeless, at least for a while. I'm going to be okay.'"
No doubt Sadie is relieved.
Jennifer Trynin. 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $7, 830-TIXS or 322-2308.