|Singer-songwriter and pianist Jenny Jarnagin at Lala's Argentine Grill in Studio City
At Lala’s Argentine Grill
11935 Ventura Blvd., Studio City
“Los Angeles is amazing. You can get any type of food you want, and the restaurants are so good,” begins Jenny Jarnagin. ”A friend who grew up in Argentina brought me here for the first time, and it was a special day. Every time I’m back in L.A. I come here to sit on the patio, watch people, ponder life – the songs I wrote, the business I did, the people I met – and just take a breath. This is the only place that has become a tradition, and it’s always the last day that I’m in L.A. that I sit here to reflect and take in L.A. one more time.”
The Phoenix-based singer-songwriter and pianist and I are at a restaurant that has become her L.A. haunt, Lala’s Argentine Grill in Studio City. It’s too hot to be out on the patio today, so we sit at the bar. Since it’s lunch time, the place is packed, and we are still able to do a fair amount of people watching as we talk about all of the exciting things happening in her life: a new EP, Heart Percent, releasing Sept. 9, a show at Old Towne Pub in Pasadena Sept. 30 and shopping L.A. studios for her next project.
“I was trying to sleep in this morning, but there were helicopters right above the house that were loud and hovering for a long time. I just learned what was going on: Chris Brown is a neighbor, and there was a situation with a woman and police. Isn’t that crazy,” she exclaims.
Jenny realizes that even with all the crazy there is plenty of good about the city, too.
“The last time I was here at Lala’s, though, there was a stranger that bought another stranger’s meal, which was really cool,” she smiles. “I’ve come here before and just had a glass of wine, but it’s still morning for me today, so I’m starting with coffee.”
Lack of sleep is nothing new for Jenny since the single mother of two is constantly balancing her home life and music career. She travels to Los Angeles at least once a month to meet with her management team, Mike’s Artist Management/Funzalo Records, and co-write songs with other artists.
“Lately I’ve also been shopping studios for my next project. There’s strong potential for my next album being recorded out here with a notable producer, so I’m super excited,” she shares. “Sometimes I play shows here, too. I just did one at Genghis Cohen, and I’ll be back with my whole band Sept. 30 to play the Old Towne Pub in Pasadena. It’s the first time I’ll have my full band out, so I’m sure it will be fun. It feels so good pulling into L.A. and getting here, but it also feels good to go [laughs]. I keep busy at home, too, constantly sending out vocal demos and staying in communication with people here.”
Driving out to Los Angeles from Phoenix is time alone that the busy working mom savors.
“Sometimes it’s nice to be able to have some solitude – just music and my own thoughts. I love to listen to all kinds of stuff, my background is pretty eclectic. I grew up playing piano by ear and was a church pianist by the time I was 7, so I love gospel, blues and pop music. I also studied classical, so I appreciate that, too. I have a really vast range of music that I enjoy, it really depends on the mood,” she tells. “Since I love to write pop music, I listen to a lot of Top 40. You can sing along and listen to what they do, how they write it, the beats they use and how they phrase things. A lot of people say pop music will dumb you down, but there actually is an art and a craft to writing a great pop song.”
As she sips her coffee and nibbles some bread with Lala’s addictive chimichurri dipping sauce, I notice a portrait on the wall that features a redhead who bears a bit of a resemblance to Jenny. We giggle as I snap a photo of her next to that painting and in front of massive wall art depicting a couple in the midst of a passionate Argentinian tango.
Two Argentinian transplants, Horacio Weschler Ferrari and Mario Balul, opened Lala’s original location on famed Melrose Avenue in 1996 and quickly gained a reputation for a great dining atmosphere and succulent grilled meats.
“Everything is really good here – the meat!” Jenny offers as we peruse Lala’s menu that is full of traditional Argentinian favorites like a chorizo sandwich, a fruity glass of sangria, Flan con Dulce de Leche and their famous grilled chicken entrées. Today she opts for the Griega salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, red onion, black olives, red and green bell peppers, feta cheese and house dressing), while I decide to try two spinach, cheese and onion empanadas.
We place our orders, and Jenny tells me a bit more about her childhood. She was born in Oklahoma, but her family immigrated to British Columbia, where they still reside. Although Jenny referred to playing piano by ear as she grew up, she neglected to reveal that she was only 3 years old when she started to play.
“My mom always wanted a child who played piano, so she prayed and prayed for one. My sister is the oldest and is very stubborn: She went through six piano teachers in a year and quit. I have two older brothers, but they didn’t take to it, and I’m the caboose,” she says. “We happened to have a big player piano that the previous owner had left in the home, and I just started playing it. I think it’s a blessing [she laughs]. Musicians, we’re a strange type, so that’s what my mom got with me. I was the kid in the basement spending hours at the piano because I loved it. I started with nursery rhymes and church songs – whatever I would hear I would play.”
Jenny started formal piano lessons at age 5, but the habit of learning songs by ear was a hard one to break for the mischievous youngster who fooled her teacher into believing she could read notes for two years. When she was finally caught, she says going back and learning everything by sight reading was “torture.”
Although none of her immediate family members were musically inclined, her mother provided constant support. She sent Jenny to study at the Conservatory of Music in Victoria every summer and took her to see every musical performance possible.
“We lived in a small town in British Columbia, but my mom would take me to almost every act that came through town: the symphony, rock ’n’ roll, backwoods hippie bands. Whatever was in town, she would take me. Isn’t that awesome,” Jenny gushes. “I had an eclectic group of friends who were more artsy, so in junior high when most people were listening to Pearl Jam or Green Day, I was discovering Simon & Garfunkel, Deep Purple and a lot of progressive rock bands. I always thought I should have lived in the ‘60s and ‘70s because that’s my favorite genre of music. You’ll hear a lot of stuff in my music, and what’s confusing to people is the back catalog because I’ve done 10 albums before this EP, and they’re all different in style. That was one of the hard things: trying to find my voice and identify what Jenny Jarnagin sounds like. It’s been a journey to try and find my stride, but I think I’m there.”
Once she became a teenager, she was so good on piano that people would ask her to teach their children.
“Teaching is something that I’ve always done and enjoy while I’m doing it. The income is nice, but it’s not my first passion. It is rewarding in its way, to see kids develop those skills, become better and get so excited at their small successes. I’ve had students for eight, nine, 10 years go to high school then college, and it’s cool being part of their lives, watching them go out into the world,” she admits. “For a while when I was studying music, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I just kept going to school.”
Jenny majored in piano performance at Texas A&M University, and spent a “life-changing” summer at the Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg Russia. After graduation, on the way back to British Columbia, she dropped by her parents’ winter home in Phoenix, and ended up never leaving Arizona.
“I stopped to see my mom, but within a week I had a job at a girls prep school because they needed a pianist for their music program. I stayed a little longer, then I met my ex. I feel like my whole life I’ve been trying to get back to Canada, but it just never happened, and now I’m pretty content with where I am. I realize that I can’t necessarily do what I’m doing if I was up in Canada since my dad is a farmer, and my family lives off the Alaska Highway in British Columbia where it’s beautiful but isolated,” she confesses. “Here in L.A., you’re in the thick of it. I love the music scene in Phoenix, but it’s small. There are great musicians, bands and more music venues opening up, but I know someone who has been playing the same wine bar for 30 years, and that’s what made me make the jump to L.A. If I have the opportunity, I’m going to take the chance, spread my seeds here and watch them grow.”
She has continued to push herself academically, obtaining a master’s in Music Education at Northern Arizona University, as well as musically.
“I’ve always known that I was meant to do music in some way or another. It wasn’t until I started writing pop music six years ago that I knew I hit what I was supposed to do. All the natural talent, the love for pop music and the training came together and made sense to me. I always knew I could write, but it wasn’t until then that I ended up diving in,” she recalls. “I didn’t sing until I started writing pop. Six years ago I wrote my first piano instrumental album, and I told the producer I was working with in Phoenix at the time, ‘I have these pop songs, but maybe you can find a singer to hire.’ I played the songs and sang them for him, and he said, ‘Nobody sounds like you. I think you’re the singer.’ That’s when I started singing, and I love it. It fits and feels good to sing. At shows with my full band, I’m out from behind keys a lot of times. At first it was strange but liberating because at some of the high-energy shows, I feel trapped behind the keys when I really want to connect with the audience, move and speak to them.”
When it comes to writing lyrics for her songs, Jenny finds it’s best to step away from her keyboard.
“If I’m sitting at a piano, a few words might come out with a rhythm and then I’ll get a melody going, but usually I have to really hone in and focus on the lyrics because they’re harder for me. Once I get the melody in my head, I go away from the piano and work on lyrics,” she says. “What I do a lot in Phoenix is go to a coffee shop and work on lyrics because I’m removed and can really think about what a song should say.”
Our lunch arrives, and Jenny divulges a little secret as we enjoy the crisp salad and delicious empanadas.
“When I’m here in L.A., I’m mostly working, making the most of the time, but the other day I was supposed to write with somebody and I was tired and felt zero inspiration, which is not like me. So I called the co-writer to ask if she would mind taking the day off. I went to the beach! It was awesome, and now my batteries are recharged.”
Thankful for little moments of ‘me time,’ Jenny has a lot on her plate since the Heart Percent EP releases this Friday. The title is such a unique phrase, so I ask her where it comes from.
“I recorded a bunch of songs and chose five to go on the EP. There was one song that was going to be on it in the beginning but ended up not making it, called ‘Own It.’ The song talks about buying into a relationship: Are you 100 percent in? How much of your heart are you going to give? How much do you care? The heart percent was an idea that bubbled out.”
One track that did make the cut is Jenny’s current single, “It’s Not Right,” and the song has strong meaning to her.
“My sister is 10 years older than me, and not only did my mom pray for a kid that played piano, my sister prayed for a baby sister. So we’re really close, and sometimes I use her ideas in songwriting. One day she had an argument with her boyfriend at the time where he had turned everything around on her, and she ended up apologizing. She said to me, ‘I didn’t really do anything wrong, and it’s not right to not be me. I just want to get back to being me.’ It’s interesting when you’re in a situation that changes you into something you’re not, and you wake up one day and realize you’ve become something you don’t want to be,” Jenny says. “I think a lot of people can identify with that. I know that I’ve been through circumstances even being an artist, feeling the pressures of society like, ‘You can’t do that. You’re a mom, why would you think you’re a pop artist?’ When you take a risk, people can put you down, so the song pinpoints the pressures that you feel being different, doing your thing, and how people will try to keep you so you’re more like them.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my lunch date with Jenny Jarnagin, it’s that this hard-working artist has no fear when it comes to pushing herself or boundaries that others may try to force upon her.
“It’s my hope that my music can motivate people, speak to them or make them feel like somebody understands them. I want my music to bless people’s lives and mean something to them. It goes both ways, when someone really likes a song that I wrote, it feels so good. It’s give and receive,” she concludes. “I would love to do a tour across Europe playing shows. It’s amazing how many doors music has already opened up for me – the places I’ve gone, experiences I’ve had and people that I get to meet. It’s such a cool way to experience life through that lens.”
The Heart Percent EP is available Sept. 9. Jenny Jarnagin performs Sept. 30 at Old Towne Pub in Pasadena. For more information, visit jennyjarnagin.com.