GTPulse: Jack M. Senff On Old School Music Making, A Cowboy and New Album ‘These Northwood Blues’
Local musician Jack Senff made it through the summer, and with him, a new album. ‘These Northwood Blues’ is the second studio album under his name Jack M. Senff and is a much needed break from the five playlist monotony I’ve gotten stuck in. Comprised of six songs, the folk-rock album was a collaborative process with other artists and woven throughout are themes of nature, love, letting go, and times past. A mixture of both airy and melancholy lyrics, storytelling, and recollections, Jack and his band have created something that takes no effort to like. It has a nostalgic richness that calls back to simpler times in the golden era of music. Fans of Neil Young and Ben Gibbard rejoice, ‘These Northwood Blues’ is going to find a new home in your music library.
GTP: I saw you read an essay of yours at The Little Fleet last winter and you read this really great piece about a road trip that you and your wife Em were on?
JS: “Yeah. It was like a little tour diary.”
GTP: She went with you on this particular tour.
JS: “Yeah, yeah. This was last fall.”
GTP: How long have you been making music?
JS: “Since I was 15, or 16, which to me is childhood. Roughly two years ago I stopped making music under a band name, I had this thing right after college called Boy Rex. I wish I remember why I picked that name, because if it would have been great I just would’ve kept it, but I’m very fickle about things so after a year it was like, this name is garbage. The Boy Rex thing, I did three albums. They were serious albums in terms of production and studio and blah, blah, blah. The things I had done before were high school bands, for better or for worse.”
GTP: So how did you get away from the kind of music you were making in high school?
JS: “My wife Em [Randall], who was just my girlfriend at the time, we moved to Seattle Washington. This was in 2010? 2011?”
GTP: Why Seattle?
JS: “No reason. This was pre-use of the term ‘hipster’ but I think we probably fell into that unfortunate category of 20-year old hipsters who had the world figured out. We had been to the East Coast. We had been South, but we hadn’t been to Seattle. So I drew a line in the sand and I was done with my old music. I’m going to you know, find myself or whatever nonsense you believe in at that age. So that was nine years ago, and in that time I started learning guitar because in my old bands I just was just the singer…or the screamer I guess.”
GTP: Like screamo bands?
JS: “Yes. My best friend Brian Morgante who plays in my band now refers to that as peak filth Myspace era. He’s from Erie, Pennsylvania which is right on the outskirts of the Midwest and we’re from here. It was a different time. But it had these ties to punk music and this subculture of pushing against what everyone else is doing.”
GTP: The music you make now is a lot different than what you did then. Where did that shift happen?
JS: “A couple of years ago I had stopped making music under the name Boy Rex and I decided that I wanted to be just Jack Senff and make music under my own name, essentially, take the mask off, don’t have anything to hide behind sort of deal. If you were to, for whatever reason, listen to everything I’ve done or pieces of it you would see this natural trajectory of like, really loud angry, angsty, screaming into whatever I’m doing now, and it softens out. Brian really put me onto the sleepier side of music. I liked emotional music of course, who doesn’t? But he put me onto this idea of just intentionality within the arrangement process of music. A lot of the things it turns out I like is decided by the arrangement. That idea of less is more. Parallel to all of this, Em has always had a wonderful taste in music. I started listening to these softer songwriters and it made me rethink how I want to shape a song. I really started studying these people that I heard about or touched on. James Taylor was the first one. I went and saw him in the concert with my dad that year. One of these later in life bonding moments, my dad would send me YouTube links of songs that meant something to him in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was like an education.”
GTP: In your album ‘These Northwood Blues’ there are strong Neil Young and Bob Dylan vibes, but I think this transcends generations and could be liked by both younger and older folks.
JS: “I’m very interested in this idea of accessible pop music that’s also creatively rich. So my job, to me, is how can I put a song together that’s dense in meaning or themes, but also, you could just listen to on that popcorn level and enjoy it. Like the cowboy song, I think it’s a pretty evocative song. If you just take the broad strokes I think it works, but it’s also one of the most deeply personal songs I’ve ever written.”
GTP: That song ‘Real Life Cowboy’ was modeled in a storytelling style that was interesting and could be open for interpretation. You’re a stranger at a cowboy’s funeral? Or are you the cowboy?
JS: “I think it’s my favorite song in the entire album. Sonically it’s very pleasing. It’s very moody, it has that incredible groove. There’s not an ounce of fiction in there, that’s just me at Em’s grandpa’s funeral last year. It was important that I didn’t exploit that. I wanted to mind Em’s emotions and her family’s grief. I wanted to write a song about her grandpa because he was a literal cowboy. He had this ranch in Bear Lake called The Rockin R and he recreated an authentic, old western town. I guess it is a ghost town now, but back in it’s prime, families would come from all over. There was something so vivid and real and powerful about his funeral. How do I write about these things that are so powerful when it’s not my grief? I don’t want to appropriate that. So I had to write it literally from my perspective. The first line, ‘All in black, stranger in the back of the room,’ that’s what I was. Em and I put on all black, Frank Sinatra’s ‘I Did It My Way’ was playing on the speaker. Her grandpa was a very romantic, literary, old-world man. He was a f*cking cowboy and I wanted to honor that somehow.”
GTP: Morgan Arrowood from local band Little Graves plays piano and does backup vocals on the album. That piano intro in Quiet Love invokes so much feeling. Your style is so different from Little Graves, have you two worked together before?
JS: “I worked at a coffee shop in town called BLK MRKT for a couple of years and she and her band would come in to get coffee. As I was putting this album together I knew I wanted to have piano on it and I just emailed her about playing on the album. She invited me over to jam, I played her the one song I had fully done and then we just talked. Her process was, I would come over and say, ‘Here’s the song,’ and I’d see her brow furrow and then she’d scribble something and I’d say, ‘What key is it?’ and she would find it on her piano and we’d start playing and she’d start doing these out of nowhere, first keys, gorgeous chords. It was just this immediate sense of yes.”
GTP: There were themes of memories, letting go, and love in this album. Was that intentional?
JS: “With my first album I was sort of fumbling around with, ‘Well what do I want to sound like? What do I want to talk about?’ With this album I wanted to start writing less about myself. And I’ll probably always still have a few of those songs, but I want to start writing about the people around me, the things that I see, more observational, sort of based on, that still feel very personal and are very personal, but not necessarily like, you know, I went to the store today and saw someone who reminded me of my mom. I can still write a song about that, but I need to dress it up. I want to have characters. And so I started writing this album loosely about Northern Michigan, you know, some of the people in my life. Em’s family takes up a lot of the album, my own expectations, like you say, leaving things behind and starting over.”
GTP: You recorded as a live band as opposed to recording everything separately. Why?
JS: “All the greatest songwriters back in the day, because they didn’t have that technology, would record everything basically, in a room live with very minimal overdubs. Most of the album’s backup vocals and harmonies were unpracticed. They were first or second takes, but that’s the root of something I’ve been trying to find for years of my life; that organic process. And it’s indicative of those ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s songwriters and stuff, but for me, it felt so good. It was that full on release where I could just play, there’s no other word for it. Everything came together.
GTP: You said something about this sense of perfection in making music that’s just always slightly out of grasp, and you often go back and critique old work of yours. In five years, do you think you’ll do that with this album?
JS: “There’s a song on this album called Quiet Love which is very accessible and while we were putting it together in the studio jokingly called it the wedding song. It kind of feels like a first dance song at some pastoral looking place in Leelanau County for an $80,000 wedding. Because we did everything live it was important to me to be true to that and not do any vocal overdubs. The Quiet Love song, I could have done it better, but we had four or five takes and picked the best one. I will always know I could have sang a few lines better, but the second song is called Another Day and that’s a greatest hits for me in terms of things I’m proud of. Things fell into place, they work, they’re good. The cowboy song, these are songs, if I can ever figure out how to make enough money to pay my bills doing this, I’ll always want to play. So the short answer is, in five years I will look back and feel pretty good about this one.”
Jack M. Senff’s album ‘These Northwood Blues’ is available digitally this Friday, 10/23 via Skeletal Lightning Records. You can pre-order the vinyl or CD along with a handful of special merch items at http://skltl.co/northwood-blues.
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