Jane Penny, Surfacing EP
Jane Penny has been fixated on duality lately. When two ideas are positioned in opposition to one another, their relationship forms a third meaning, a third way, and it is within this space that Penny began writing her debut EP, Surfacing. “I wanted to make music that is empowering about emotions that aren’t empowering,” she says. Surfacing opens with “Darkness Can Wait for a Night,” a song that begins with a wailing synth that could soundtrack the title page of a film, before Penny emerges from a bath of watery production. “If I could cross right through the door/ Find a new world lapping on that shore/ I’d take a running dive into the cold/ and I would come out fine,” she sings. The EP’s cover features an image of Penny smiling, unsettlingly, underwater, in the moments before surfacing.
Penny embodies this dualism, too. A self-described introvert, she’s boldly fronted the critically-lauded rock group TOPS for a decade now. Founded in Montreal in 2011, TOPS emerged from a DIY scene that Penny fell into while earning a liberal arts degree at McGill and has toured with the band internationally ever since. TOPS is still going strong, but when Penny moved to Berlin to pursue a relationship with Adam Byczkowski, aka Better Person, she found herself cut off from her usual collaborators, separated by distance and time zones that made it necessary for her to explore an independent creative practice. Referencing New Age music, and the electronic music she was surrounded by in Berlin, Penny got to work. “I wanted more intimacy, more softness, with this project.”
Penny moved from Pro Tools to Logic and wrote song after song until she found companionship in the seven that make up Surfacing. The move to a new city, coupled by the onset of the pandemic, pushed Penny to reflect back on the isolated childhood that made her the artist she proudly is today. Penny had few friends growing up in Edmonton, where she says “you’re either gonna be normal or you’re not,” and at 13, her mom enrolled her in flute lessons, telling Penny, who had no extracurriculars going for her: “You have to do something.” The flute was Penny’s first introduction to music, and she clung to it with the enthusiasm of a teenager who needed a place to belong. “It was my salvation,” she says.
Endless hours of practice and raw talent led her to study classical music at the University of Alberta, but she soon dropped out, disillusioned by the academic rigor of a classical program. Still, her love of the flute never dissipated, as evidenced by “Accelerate Slowly.” The intimate, emotional attachment to the instrument is deeply felt as Penny confronts an unknown future. “I don’t have a plan/ Accelerate slowly/ Look mom, no hands!” she sings. The instrumental outro has a breathy, atmospheric quality that suggests Penny has found some semblance of peace in her unmoored state, and it hints at the work she might produce in that unknown future. “I’ve always had dreams of doing other things, musically,” she says. “I want to score a film, and when I’m an old lady I hope I’m making ambient music in a room surrounded by plants.”
Indeed, Surfacing is cinematic, evidenced by “Messages,” a delightfully paranoid pop song illustrated beautifully by the video Penny conceived of inspired by Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). In it, a detective trails a woman at nighttime, a pursuit that culminates in their conflation and asks the viewer to question who is following who. Penny plays both roles, a direct nod to the binaries she’s been captivated by. “Messages” is followed by “Wear You Out,” a sensual song that features enchanting syncopated lyrical moments in the opening verse. It’s a love song, easy listening at a surface level, but the chorus can be read as uneasily erotic. “Baby I wear you out/ Like my favorite pair of jeans/ You make the rainbows fly every time/ Like a sixties magazine,” Penny sings, her lustrous voice like a magazine’s weathered sheen. In the accompanying video, a groomed Penny performs a choreographed dance while dirtying herself with white paint, pulpy fruit, and dirt from an upturned flower pot. “The principles of performance art have been guiding preoccupations throughout my career: breaking out of institutional structures and embracing art’s role in real life.” As such, the visual world of Surfacing is critical to understanding the EP as a musical endeavor; to Penny, performance is an intervention.
In the process of making Surfacing, Penny was stranded in Montreal in the early stages of the pandemic, living in what was effectively an office space. Fortunately, her neighbor was Patrick Holland, who welcomed Penny into the studio where he contributed production and added accents to the existing tracks. Their collaboration produced a climatic collection, one that fills any room it’s played in, contributing to its ambiance. Working with another person removed Penny from the emotionally remote place she’d been writing from, too. “A lot of these songs feel like a conversation between two facets of myself,” she says. In keeping with that theme, “Beautiful Ordinary” has a call-and-response quality, though Penny sings alone, each version of herself reassuring the other that “fear is an illusion.”
Penny claims that “only half” of the songs on Surfacing are love songs, and perhaps that is true, but while listening to it, one gets a sense that all of them are a testament to devotion, whether it be to another person, or to the practice of art-making itself. “This EP comes out of a period of darkness, and a point of weakness, but I feel responsible to leave listeners with a certain level of resilience,” Penny says. “As an artist, it’s my job to show people that it’s freeing to explore some of these feelings, but I always want to leave them with a ray of light, an escape hatch, because then I’m reminded of it, too.”
Publicity Contact: Jaclyn Ulman