Interview: Jack M Senff

Photo by Tommy Greene

Photo by Tommy Greene

Art holds tension. There is tension between the creator and the created, between process and consumption, between art and reality. The new music of Jack M Senff dances with those tensions in an album that is both gentle and decisive in its examination of what living an authentic life is. We spoke with Jack about his first two singles, “Old Days” and “Full Decay”, from his new album, Good To Know You, that’s set to be released on September 6th. He gave us a peek into his creative process, we dug into his choice to move away from his previous work under the Boy Rex moniker and his thoughts on using his music to honor his truths in an industry that demands commodification in a world that waits for no one.

hope: So far you’ve released two singles from your new record, Good To Know You. The first being “Old Days,” the second being “Full Decay”. How did you decide which songs would ultimately be the singles?

A single’s purpose is twofold: it has to represent the album or artist as a whole while simultaneously trying to convince the listener to spend money on the record, the cd, the shirt, whatever. While the name Jack Senff may be familiar in certain circles as “guy from that one thing,” as a stand-alone songwriter, project, band, Jack M. Senff is a new concept. So, for Good To Know You I had to pick singles that would sell both the record AND me as a new entity or commodity in relation to the infinite well of other consumable, disposable, hardworking artists trying for the same exact things. How do I stand out—how does anyone? Does this single or that single make you nod your head, make you feel something? But, also, does it make you want to spend money? It’s sort of gross when you lay it out there in the sun, I know, but I tried to be intentional and pick singles that actually meant something but could also, maybe, hopefully, sell you on this new idea of me as me and not just “guy from that one thing.”

hope: Historically, has choosing the singles been an easy or difficult decision for your past records? How did your experience this time around compare to previous efforts?

I’ve only done the singles thing for a few records, and every time it’s just a crapshoot. It depends, sort of, on who you have pitching them, on whether that person’s connections are better than your own. It depends on whether you have the money to afford a big PR firm, or someone smaller and independent trying to cut their teeth. Like, I genuinely don’t know if the actual quality of a song or album or artist plays that big of a part in the success of a single. It’s about name recognition, money, politics. But even then, nothing is a sure bet. I tried to pick good songs for this album to, like I said in that first question, represent both me and the record as a whole. But I’ve done that each time, for all three albums we (me and the label I was working with) tried to run through the machine. I thought, we thought, these are the SONGS, these are gonna DO IT, we’re gonna land a big playlist or maybe a small placement in a commercial or TV spot or something… so far that hasn’t happened. Maybe it will one day or maybe it won’t ever. That’s how it goes. I have to say, though, I’m pretty happy with the reception to these first JMS singles. Nik Soelter, who we worked with for PR to get the ball rolling, did a great job with premiers and coverage, and between his stuff and mine and Skele’s general grassroots social media ads/posts, things are looking okay. I’m feeling okay.

hope: Good To Know You, comes out September 6. It’s a beautiful journey from start to finish. For the people who aren’t familiar with your past work, how would explain this album in comparison to your previous albums under the Boy Rex moniker. Do you feel like Good To Know You is a departure of sorts?

This one’s just a little more raw, natural, “organic” maybe. Boy Rex was my attempt at indie rock—a loving and unabashed tribute to Ben Gibbard. All the albums had a polished, lush sound to them (thanks largely to Jon Lervold at Big Name for the first one, and Matt Riefler for the other two) that worked great for that time, that project, but here I really wanted to deemphasize production and try to let the songs stand on their own. In that way, yeah, this album is definitely a departure. With Boy Rex I wrote songs and then said, “OK, now what can I put on top to make them great?” Here, now, I just want to write songs where you can strip everything away except my voice and my guitar and they work just as well on their own. I’m also consciously trying to make the shift from indie rock to… I don’t know, Americana I guess it would be called. I pull from a lot of places, but these days it’s definitely folkier, more roots based, more old country and classic 60s/70s songwriters.

hope: Last year, when you announced your decision to go by your own name, you mentioned a “radical shift in interests and influences” and the desire to chase your dreams and happiness as fully you. Would you be willing to share more about what those shifts specifically were? Do you know when or how those changes came to be?

I just got to a point where I was trying too hard to “make it.” The songs, especially on that last Boy Rex album Live! From the Far-Away, started to get written and made from a bizarre place of desperation. They’re good songs—and the records all sound absolutely killer—but the “energy” behind it, my personal relationship to everything, felt inauthentic. It just burned me out and put me in a terrible creative… space. I needed to hard cut Boy Rex and hide out for a while, reassess and focus on what actually mattered. It would be great to get huge streaming numbers, to play big theatres—it would be great to find what you might consider “real success” in music, but I need to do it on my own terms, with songs I feel good about 100%. Maybe more practically speaking, Boy Rex was just getting too loud, too busy. I listen to simpler, quieter music—my work should be reflective of that.

hope: Your message has consistently been, “Hey it’s still me! I’m still the same person writing this music! You liked my other tunes for a reason, so stick around”. That being said, have you noticed any changes in what feels accessible for you to write about and share with this new album versus older projects?

Yes and no. For me it’s not so much about the… theme, I guess, of a song, but the language inside it. There are a lot of universal ideas we all fundamentally engage with, are moved by, and so if I get tripped up on “have I written this song before? Has someone else?” I may never write anything again. I should say though that, yeah, with Boy Rex I felt myself starting to put up barriers, starting to censor how I said or did something with the lyrics—at the end I was wrestling with every song, wondering if it was “commercial sounding” enough without losing the integrity. That sucks. These new songs, my whole thing going forward, is who cares! Do I like it? Good.

hope: Are there certain moments that drive you to write?

Writing guitar? No. I just love to play. I’m always, always writing songs. I have about twelve sketched out already for the next JMS record that I’m anxious to start working on proper. Writing lyrics… yeah, that takes a certain inspiration. Writing anything with words is a pain in my ass because I’m so particular about it—I hear everything a certain way and it has to be just right. So when I do get a snip of lyrics or or an interesting idea for a song that floats in unprovoked, unannounced, I jot it down so I won’t forget when I am sitting down to actually work and write write, not just play guitar and sing absently over the top, looking for a melody.

hope: And are you the analog artist who keeps pen and paper on them at all times or are you an electronic scribe?

Oh wouldn’t it be just so quaint to keep a journal and record all my demos on a 4 track. No, unfortunately I do most work and archiving on my phone. I would love to have an analog set up, or the patience and dedication to handwriting, but life moves too fast. My iphone is just too practical and efficient for what I need and when I need it.

hope: Is there a memory or event that you want to write about but haven’t figured out how to yet?

My mom. That’s a terrifying beast of a relationship I have a hard time committing to mentally, emotionally. Some day I’m going to have to figure it out and come to terms with those feelings, those memories. The farther I get from the epicenter of that love, that time and trauma, the more complicated it all becomes and the harder it seems to sort through.

Photo by Tommy Greene

Photo by Tommy Greene

hope: Good To Know You feels like the hazy, twilight ambling summer album that sings its praises to all the beautiful, hair-splitting and transformative ways a person can navigate their world. It never manages to feel truly regretful of anything that comes to pass, though. Was there ever a time when you did wrestle with regret in choices made or unmade?

Damn, that’s big time! I really appreciate your read, means a lot. I think I set out, originally, to write a slightly more direct and biting record. I wanted to skip the abstract and just dive in: here is what I am feeling, here is what the song is about. Turns out I like softer edges, I don’t know. Or maybe I just didn’t want to commit to all one way or all another. There are too many great ways to say the same thing—sometimes it makes sense to do it straight, other times it lands better with a little poetry. After fourteen years making music there are a lot of songs that hit, and a lot of songs I wish maybe I had done different. At the rate I like to work I just don’t have the time for regret. The years pass and the light shifts—everything registers different when you look back. When something happens here and now in the present, that’s how it should be. We don’t grow as people or artists without that perspective of wanting to do better, to be better.

hope: The last time we spoke to you, you mentioned a point in your life, after listening to Transatlanticism when you started to think about music from a more “craft standpoint”. I know that this album gets brought up often with you, but I’m curious if that experience, or epiphany of sorts, factored into the creation of this album, if at all? If not, did any other album-induced epiphanies influence this record?

I feel like the last handful of years, as a whole, have been a deep dive into the idea of songwriting as a craft. I feel like I can’t consume enough. Within the general framework of a pop song there are just… what feels like an infinite number of ways to put chords and instruments together. Transatlanticism might have opened my eyes to the idea of like… what if music is bigger than the emotional connection to the singer or the lyrics or whatever, and what if it’s the sum of all the parts, all the sounds? To stay with that example, I used to think Death Cab WAS Ben Gibbard—it was only later I realized the importance of their rhythm section, or how paramount Chris Walla was to their entire overall sound, not only as second guitar but as the producer for most of their albums (seriously, listen to the difference between their new one, Thank You For Today, and Narrow Stairs, it almost sounds like a different band). All of that is to say that, yes, the epiphany of craft and deeper listening 100% informed my new album. Chris Staples’ Golden Age would be another good choice, or Andy Shauf’s The Party, or Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. When an album works, to me, from start to finish, I take great pleasure in diving in and figuring out why.

hope: Reflecting on your process and creation of Good To Know You, what part feels the most significant for you to bring to the world? Is it the chance to release under your name? Is it the music you’ve arranged, the stories you’re telling or something else entirely?

Yeah, going under Jack M. Senff feels pretty huge. Removing the mask of a band name just puts me that much closer to… total authenticity, I don’t know. I used to need separation between Jack the human and Jack the songwriter—like I needed there to be wiggle room for creative space and ambiguity. It just took time to realize they were one in the same: who I am is what I do, and what I do is who I am. Could be the music, could just be the way I interact with the world. Anyway, just being Jack now feels like a needed breath of air, or like the rest of my life has opened up before me and I can go anywhere, do anything, write whatever music I want so long as it’s true to me.

hope: And to follow that, does anything about the album make you nervous?

Sure, for all the reasons going by own name feels empowering and creatively freeing, it also makes me that much more vulnerable. Even with Boy Rex, still sort of freshly ended, it feels like a completely separate project and idea, like a box in the attic labeled “nice try” or something. With me making music now as JMS, especially in the digital age, I’ve basically committed to art and songwriting as my identity. I mean, it IS my identity, but after this album and however many I do that’s what I’ll be, forever, in the public directory. Google my name in ten years and whether I’m still making records or not, this conversation could pop up on the search results.

hope: You and Tyler Daniel Bean are playing another show here in October - how does it feel to play in the same room with a friend? And how often do you get the chance to play with people that you’re this close with?

I love Tyler. He is an odd goose, in turns brooding and kind, a man uniquely his own and someone with which I share a deep and almost unqualifiable bond. It was a shitty tour, a transitional period for both of us, and I think something just naturally fell into place. I am friendly with a lot of people, but as an adult I don’t actively make a lot of friends. Does that make sense? Tyler, for whatever reason, is someone I could probably call in a time of need, maybe for the rest of my life, and he would help me. There would be long silences, and pointed questions, maybe a few obscure literary quotes, but I could go to him. That doesn’t happen all the time in this life, those relationships, and so, to answer your question, it is an unfortunately rare but wonderful occasion when I get to play and catch up with a friend like Tyler.

hope: You and Tyler both write music that seems to hold the hands of hard times and walks with them honestly into the “now”. Was that authenticity and presence in your writing a factor in your connection as friends?

I think it has to be a factor, absolutely. We are both pretty different people, on paper maybe not even that compatible, but there was an energy there for sure. Some, again, unqualifiable connection came about easy and unprovoked that must draw from the deeper waves we’re both putting out into the world, through our work or otherwise.

hope: Last question…do you have a go-to “I need a mood boost” song and what is it?

“Your Smiling Face” by James Taylor. Absolute hit. When it breaks down in the bridge and he’s singing over the drum and bass? That’s the best.

- hope all is well

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G Cenedella is a writer, performer and curry-enthusiast in Burlington, VT. You can follow her work and shenanigans on Instagram @thesweetbbyg.