Pandemic or not, musicians and songwriters want their music to be heard. Iowa City's Jordan Sellergren released her new album "Sweet, Bitter Tears" on May 1.
Sellergren began work on her first album in 2009 under the band name Milk & Eggs. She was born in Burlington and grew up mostly in Cedar Rapids and has lived and worked across the Midwest and as far away as the U.S. Virgin Island and New Zealand before moving to Iowa City in 2010.
Her newest album is the first under her own name. In addition to being a recording musician, Sellergren is also the art director at Little Village in Iowa City. I asked her about the new album and her life these days.
How (and when) did you start playing guitar and writing songs?
"I wrote as a kid for fun. I was never good at reading music, but I loved to compose songs on piano. I got a guitar in high school but didn't take to it until I needed an outlet in my late 20s. I taught myself to play from tunes I was listening to at the time...old delta blues and bluegrass and stuff like that and started writing seriously when I realized I could use metaphor to mask my issues as a sort of confessional therapy."
Why did you not use the name "Milk & Eggs" for the new album?
"I was just over it. It was a struggle to drop it, though, because I felt I'd made a commitment to the identity, but if I saw one more person abbreviate it to Milk 'n' Eggs like I was some small town breakfast diner, I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I do not recommend using an ampersand in your nom de plume. And I wasn't playing with a band, so it seemed silly to use a band-type name even after using it solo for years.'"
"Sweet, Bitter Tears" is edgier and electric, which is different from your previous releases. Why?
"Once I got an electric guitar in 2017, I found that my sort of delicate fingerpicking style wasn't doing it for me. I wanted to give the notes space and hear them ring out, and I wanted to play louder. So I was playing old songs differently, but it was like having new material. I was having a very good time, which is awesome because I'd gotten super bored with my music. Having a band has definitely changed my approach, too. Gotta be louder and keep up with the rhythm section! It's been fulfilling for me in part because many of my songs were written to be performed the way they are now."
Tell us about the recording of the new album.
"We recorded every song live, only overdubbing vocals and some instrumental detail, at Flat Black Studios. Luke Tweedy engineered and mixed the whole record, and Todd Rittmann of Dead Rider mastered it. I can't remember if I went in with the intention to record live or not, but it's what we did. It just feels very fact-based; what you hear is what you get. So, ironically, the album is a celebration of the live performance which is sorta out of the question right now. We'd had only a handful of practices and played one show together (Grey Area 2019) before starting the record in September. The band came in and learned a couple songs on the spot. It all felt fairly spontaneous, and I like that. We kept four and did some light mixing during the first session, then went back to track the rest of the album in January.
I wanted a portfolio album, a place to put old songs I loved but hadn't released, and I was lucky to be able to develop them with everyone involved.
The band on the album is Randy Davis, Rich Wagor and Matt Bernemann. The engineer Luke Tweedy, whose sensibilities are all over the record, and Paul Cary who came in for a duet on 'Luggage Full of Stones' killed it, too. Cary's voice is like the butterfly joinery of the whole record...it just seems to anchor it for me, aesthetically and conceptually, and that makes me very, very happy. (He also just released a record, 'Raven,' so be sure to check that out!)"
What desk are you behind in your Tiny Desk Contest video?
It was a whole ordeal. I ordered pizza and everything. We recorded it on February 23, just about three weeks before shutdown. It certainly had not occurred to any of us that things would change so much so soon. Randy and I had recorded a submission in 2019, also behind my desk at Little Village, but this year I got to squeeze in a whole band, including Rich who is 6'8", behind my desk. That was a lot of fun.
I'm really proud of my job and my workplace, and I wanted to share it with the world in this format. Both this and last year's entries were shot by Jason Smith, Little Village's wonderful videographer, and I brought Alex Body in this year to run sound. To be perfectly honest, I must have been getting over a cold or something because I just couldn't hit the notes that day. We ran through a bunch of songs, and went with 'This Is Not All I Have,' which I believe was the first take from over an hour's worth of footage. That's why it begins so abruptly. But it is always a fun project and I'll probably do it every year, and every year I'll learn how to do it more efficiently and more about people's taste in pizza."
How are you doing in this pandemic world in which we are now living?
"Pretty well. I've been walking miles per day, gardening a lot, pulling invasive weeds, cooking elaborate meals, spending a lot of quality time with my kid, and playing a bunch of guitar. I've been working on my livestream audio/video setup, so I can do performances from my house. I've just now returned to a regular work schedule. I guess I go in and out of feeling really quite normal and experiencing brief bouts of depression, but humans have a remarkable ability to adapt. We've definitely had to cancel some shows, beginning with our Codfish Hollow Basementstormers show in March, then our release show May 23, and several throughout the summer, but some good news is that I just got word that the test pressing for our LP has been shipped and should be delivered to my house any day. The record plant has of course been non-operational for the last two months, but once the test pressing is approved, records will be soon to follow. I can't wait. Some have asked, why not just sit on it and release it when things are normal? Well, what's normal and when will that happen? I just wanted to get this album out there."
"Sweet, Bitter Tears" is available at jordansellergren.com