October 2, 2017

Spotlight: Jen Monroe

Jen Monroe is a curator of experimental 70s and 80s music, digging deep 
in the corners of the internet to discover under-appreciated gems of the past.

Jen Monroe lives in Brooklyn and spends a large chunk of her time searching for perfect, under-loved mostly-experimental albums from the 70s and 80s for her blog, Listen to This. She has such an enormous knowledge base of music from this era that it is intimidatingly cool, and she can spend hours talking about it. I met with Jen and we spent a long time discussing ambient and 80s music, my two favorite genres. She calls her project the "last gasp of mp3 resistance," as music-listening has shifted to the cloud, and so far from the physical, that even mp3s are considered physical and too clunky. But Jen has such a love for the mp3--perhaps because our generation matured as mp3s were at their peak. "I don't even own a record player," she told me. "I would have no money left," she laughed. She explained that searching for music on the internet is a portal into another world, where she could get lost and spend the next 6 months of her life. As such, Jen is able to talk about music and her projects in serious depth and deliberation, illustrated in every respect in our interview below.

The Le Sigh: What is Listen to This? What is the format of the website?

Jen Monroe: Listen To This is an album download blog focused on older ambient and new age records, frequently those that I think are underheard. I originally started the site in October 2014 with Brian Sweeny, who departed from the project about a year and a half ago. I’ve been running it myself since then. The idea was that it would be a music sharing reference, initially between friends and eventually between people all over the world. People are always asking for guidance as to what they should be listening to--myself included--which I think is largely a product of having way too many options. I’m definitely making myself sound like an old lady by saying this, but I think it was probably a lot easier to listen to music decisively and attentively when you had to buy records and didn’t have access to so much stuff. The hope is that this site can help people who don’t want to spend too much time or research seeking out “new” music, or at least music that’s new to them. I’ve tried to make it as user-friendly as possible--you can read a little bit about a record it if you’re so inclined, or you can just listen to the YouTube preview clip to decide if you like it--and if you do, it’s right there to download.

My long term vision for the site is to have much more input from guest contributors. Though there are regular guest posts now, I’d love for the site to be very much a conversation with many perspectives--especially since there’s so much about music that I don’t know!

TLS: Can you expand on what kind of music you feature on Listen to This?

Jen: I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want to feature contemporary music. Most importantly it’s because I don’t know nearly enough about it--I know what my friends and peers are making, and I know a bit about Top 40 stuff, and that’s about it. It’s embarrassing, actually, because I know there’s so much amazing music being made all the time--I’ve just always felt daunted and unsure where to start, so I’ve mostly avoided it all together, because focusing on older music felt like less of a moving target. In terms of having an album download blog, I knew I wanted to be sharing a lot of records that are out-of-print, can no longer be purchased in a way that benefits the artist, or never got the attention they deserved--so that it feels less explicitly like stealing (though of course it still is stealing). You can’t do that if it’s new music. I also knew I didn’t want to be political about it, because invariably if you’re publicizing new music then you have friends and acquaintances pressuring you to share their stuff, and you have PR people hounding you all the time. Focusing on older stuff seemed much simpler, and also seemed like a better way to build a cohesive musical aesthetic, to world-build, so I set a sort of arbitrary cut-off point of nothing made after 2000 (with a few rare exceptions).

In terms of categories, it’s a lot of Japanese music, which sort of happened by accident. I had been listening to 80s synth pop from Japan, and early on I posted a Miharu Koshi record, not really having a sense of whether anyone would be interested--but realized pretty quickly that there’s a very significant audience for Japanese synth pop, so I started digging into it even more, branching out into more ambient and experimental stuff. In October 2015 we made a mix of all 80s Japanese music that went small-scale viral, so I think that kind of solidified Listen To This as a Japanese music blog for a lot of people.

It’s not just Japanese pop, though. I share a lot of new age and ambient records, and a lot of instrumental music that doesn’t quite belong to either category--music that’s texturally inspired by non-Western music, pulling influences from things like Indian classical, Japanese noh, Ethio-jazz, or gamelan, and often combining them with synthesizers. Andreolina, David Casper, Dorothy Carter, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, and Elicoide are all good examples of that kind of cultural borrowing. Some of these records veer more explicitly new age, folky, or minimalist, but I think that regardless of genre there’s an exchange that establishes a kinship between them. Jon Hassell called this “fourth world” music, but that term has always rubbed me the wrong way--it seems to simultaneously suggests colonialism, cultural hierarchy, and appropriation--so I’m still unsure how to classify it. Of course, a lot of those original reference points show up on Listen To This--a favorite santur record, Tibetan chant, Nigerian jùjú. I have a classical music background, so I love choral and medieval music. I’m slowly learning about jazz. Disco is probably my favorite genre, but I don’t post very much of it because disco was all about singles for club play, so there aren’t very many great disco full-length albums.

It’s a funny time to write an album download blog, since the format peaked about a decade ago and has all but disappeared since then, largely because a lot of web hosts have cracked down. But the demand has fallen off too, because people don’t listen to albums as much and streaming services are so convenient that for many people, the idea of an iTunes library with files that require sorting and moving around feels like a time suck, feels clunky. Which I totally get--I do sometimes feel like an mp3 dinosaur chained to my giant external hard drives. It’s funny, even though the demand for vinyl is still resurging hard, the mp3 is dying because of a need for convenience. I think what I’m doing is kind of the death rattle of music blog culture.

Top tags on Listen to This

TLS: What is your curation process?

Jen: I don’t really have an explicit process for deciding what to post, but it does involve a lot of listening! I spend a lot of time trawling YouTube and Discogs, and a lot of time listening to records that aren’t necessarily very good. A lot of my favorite music isn’t particularly obscure, but I try not to post too much music that’s super well-known and easily purchased, because then it really does just feel like stealing, and (without wanting to invent some kind of illusory nobility for my theft), it’s lazy--plus it makes me all the more nervous about having my site shut down (which I realize will almost certainly happen eventually anyway). So there’s definitely a threshold of obscurity that I try not to cross too much, though it’s less about snobbery than about cohesiveness and a desire to surprise. I also do my best to post music that I think is very listenable for lots of different kinds of people--for example, there’s so much experimental early electronic music that I think is important historically, but at the end of the day I don’t really want to listen to it for three hours straight, so I don’t share that kind of thing much. And to that same end, I try to post records that I believe in from start to finish--nothing patchy, no questionable tracks. This is, as you might imagine, really hard, as there are so many mostly-great records out there, but for the time being it feels important. Other than that, there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what I post. Learning to trust my impulses has been a really rewarding aspect of this whole project for me. I’ve found that if I love something, someone else probably will too, and it makes me feel enormously grateful for the internet.

Speaking of, I recently posted a guest mix made by someone named DBGO, who has the most amazing YouTube channel. He’s based in Barcelona, and awhile back he started linking to his mixes in the comments on Listen To This (in a relevant way--like, “If you like this artist, you should hear this mix of similarly-minded artists!”), and the mixes were these wonderful, transportative windows into very specific musical sub-scenes that I often didn’t know existed. One day I landed on this track that he uploaded and just fell so head-over-heels for it, but couldn’t find the record anywhere--largely because finding things with Cyrillic titles is kind of tricky--so I left him a bunch of desperate YouTube comments being like “pleeeeeaase email me!!!” Later on he wound up making a beautiful mix of French ambient, synth, and folk avant-garde from 1980-1991 that he shared on Listen To This. Another time, someone submitted a really beautiful, well-researched guest post about a terrific Brazilian funk record, which I happily published, and found out later that the author was still in high school. I was thrilled! That kind of thing is the most exciting aspect of this project. It’s corny, but being introduced to amazing music and getting sweet emails from strangers all over the world every day makes the world feel smaller and better. I feel really grateful for the opportunities and connections that the platform provides.

TLS: Do you make music yourself? Jen: I had a failed opera career as a teenager, and I still love to sing but haven’t done any serious music making since then. I still fantasize about finding an ideal musical collaborator, but it’s hard because I can’t write songs to save my life, so I’m sort of a one-trick pony. I’d love to be in a country cover band, because I would love to be Patsy Cline. Here’s a recording of me covering a Patsy-Cline-by-way-of-Hank-Williams song one million years ago, if that counts. Other than that, it’s just DJing, which I’m slowly learning the ropes of. TLS: So you like performance art in a way - DJing, opera. And you also have a project called Bad Taste. What is Bad Taste and is there any connection between it and Listen to This?

Jen: Bad Taste is a project about approaching food as fantasy, and as an immersive experience. Throughout college I was cooking in restaurants, writing a food blog, and cooking obsessively at home, and after the opera plan didn’t work out I thought that I would pursue a job in food media. At the time, though, there weren’t very many avenues for creative food exploration, at least not outside of fancy restaurant culture, so while I figured out that traditional food media wasn’t really the right fit for me, I was also thinking about what I wanted to contribute to the food conversation. My sister and I were living together at the time and had both read À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which is about a wealthy French aristocrat who decides to hole himself up in his mansion and spend the rest of his life and fortune on over-the-top aesthetic experiments. One of his projects is an all-black funeral banquet for his lost libido, featuring all black food. My sister and I both really loved that sequence, so we decided to do our own version at home for some friends, and from there we wanted to try other colors. I eventually took it out of our apartment and turned it into a ticketed event series of monochromatic dinners: ten courses of food based on a specific color, visuals, performances. It was my crash course in immersive dining, so it’s been cool to see immersive dining become more and more recognized as a valid format of food and art making. I also make soundtracks for the dinners, which I try to loosely time in a way that certain food events will have an appropriate sonic pairing. Something I’d love to do more in the future is try to to tie sound in with eating even more significantly--like scoring a dinner with 3D sound, for example.

Here are two favorite things from the color meals. The first one is the table from Red Meal. I knew I wanted the whole dinner to feel like a painting, so I turned the table into a giant still-life. I covered it with red velvet and 60 pounds of produce, all of which was sent to loving homes after dinner.

Red Meal

The second one is from White Meal, and it’s the “hors d’oeuvre” that guests were served as soon as they walked in. White Meal was all about advertising, and how the color white is used to sell people things, often things that are “hi-tech” or related to purity or science. The first course was chawanmushi, which is a savory Japanese egg custard, but since I wanted the food to feel futuristic, I served it out of eggshells in an incubator. I flavored the chawanmushi with chicken broth and put a few chunks of chicken in it, so it turned into a kind of fucked up “chicken-or-the-egg” joke. It’s a joke that the Japanese are well acquainted with--oyakodon, for example, is a chicken and egg rice bowl, the name for which literally translates to “parent-and-child donburi.”

White Meal

Earlier in September, I worked on a dinner about climate change. An author whose work I really love asked me to co-present a short story that she’s written that takes place 30 years in the future, by which point ocean warming and acidification will probably have made some big changes on what sorts of seafood are readily available to us as food sources. So I designed a dinner that imagines how some of those changes could manifest.

TLS: When I first reached out to you, you were interested in focusing this interview on Listen to This for The Le Sigh’s mostly female and non-binary audience (instead of Bad Taste). Can you speak to this choice?

Jen: I’ve noticed that the food work I do through Bad Taste seems to already appeal heavily to women/femmes, at least based on the guests who come to dinner. Which is great; I love women and femmes! :) The flip side to that has been that the readership of Listen To This skews more male. Which is great, I love men! But it made me want to take the opportunity to reach out to female and non-binary readers to talk about music moreso than food. A lot of music writing is presumed to be innately geared towards men. When Pitchfork got bought by Condé Nast, I kept seeing quotes about how Condé Nast was excited to have acquired Pitchfork’s “strong millennial male readership.” I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see it spun as a publication for men, but I was, and I don’t think the phenomenon is specific to Pitchfork. It may be that a lot of music writing brands itself with a politics of exclusion--being able to know enough, be enough of a gear nerd, being able to “win” any conversation. It’s actually why I try to avoid most conversations about music--I find that more often than not, they’re less about an exchange of ideas than they are a contest to see who can correctly use the most music nouns. Obviously women should read whatever the hell they want, and I don’t know that I’m in a position to pinpoint why it is that they ostensibly read less music writing than men do, but I think it could very much be that haze of competitive machismo that keeps a lot of women out. And I think it might be less that women are intimidated by it than that they’re bored by it, because it’s boring.

Anyway, I’d love to see more female and non-binary readers on Listen To This, and I’d also love to see more female and non-binary artists featured on it! Sadly, the records I’ve shared are overwhelmingly made by men, which I don’t need tell you is a result of historical barriers of access, meaning that the scope of music by men is so much bigger, broader, and more visible, blah blah blah. But I know there are so many amazing records made by women that I don’t know about, so my hope is that by roping in more guest contributors, people will bring those records into the fold. I don’t think you have to know much about music to be a serious music listener, if that’s a real thing. And, that being said, I think my musical tastes are pretty overtly feminine, if that’s not too grossly essentialist to say. Listen To This is all about music that’s unabashedly pretty, and even poppy, when it boils down to it. Most of my favorite vocalists are women, because theirs are the stories I like to be told.

So, that all being said, here’s an all-female musician mix I made specifically for The Le Sigh!

1. Wendy Carlos - Electronic Pointillism & Hocketing (from Secrets of Synthesis) / Sonata in G Major, L. 209/K. 455 (Scarlatti) 2. Phew - Expression 3. Delia Derbyshire - The Wizard’s Labratory 4. Pauline Oliveros - Wolf 5. Michele Musser - In The Air 6. Pauline Anna Strom - The Unveiling 7. Laurie Spiegel - Drums (Excerpt) 8. Deutsche Wertarbeit - Auf Engelsflügeln 9. Virginia Astley - I’m Sorry 10. Laurie Anderson - Kokoku 11. Miyako Koda - A Story Teller Is The Sun 12. Björk - Come To Me 13. Kate Bush - Delius 14. Bridget St. John - Many Happy Returns 15. Joanna Brouk - Winter Chimes 16. Alice Coltrane - Er Ra 17. Claire Hamill - Winter: Sleep 18. Suzanne Ciani - The Third Wave: Love In The Waves 19. Gal Costa - Volta (Live) 20. Nina Simone - Don’t Smoke In Bed (Live)

Jen can be found on Instagram, Twitter, Mixcloud, and Youtube. Be sure to follow Listen to This and Bad Taste!

Written by Hayley Cranberry