Abby Jeanne’s path from Bay View jukeboxes to Philly soul
Theater arts parents. A stereo console in a garage stocked with ’60s and ’70s classics. Public art school. A “rock n roll café cult” that doubled as an artist haunt and hangout. Life in a Midwest city filled with vibrant people and culture (including radio culture).
These things are what Milwaukee x New York artist Abby Jeanne considers essential to her being. Take one away, and would she have become the artist she is now? Would she have attached herself to all things in the vein of free-spirited art, punk and “rock ‘n’ soul”? Would she have felt inspired to move to New York to deepen her cultural experience and let her old soul voice have a chance to breathe and grow?
Fortunately for her (and us), the right pieces fell into place to create a perfect storm, sparking to life a budding talent and nudging her toward fully committing to the life of an artist.
On recent single “That’s Where We Are,” Abby sings, “Winds of change are blowing” — an appropriate mantra for the artistic lifestyle she embarked on post-school. These particular “winds of change” directed her to settle in as an official New Yorker and more recently, as a signee with Philadelphia “synth & soul” label Eraserhood Sound.
Eraserhood is a rare bird production team and record label combo built to honor and continue the legacy of Philadelphia-based soul music. Abby's signing with the label was notable for a couple reasons: she was just their second artist and a non-Philly one at that.
Those of us around Milwaukee who have seen and heard Abby know her recent career moves are well deserved. She captivated ears early with one of her first projects (circa-2012’s EdenAbby), and now she gets to share her talents more widely, including the UK.
As Abby gets ready to release her official “Know Better” 7-inch vinyl record April 21, she took the time to talk about her recent adventures in London, growing up in Milwaukee and her first singles out with Eraserhood Sound.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You just got back from London; that's pretty wild. Was this your first time performing and/or going to London?
Well, the first time I actually went there I was 16 because I was fortunate enough to go over there through High School of the Arts, where I went to high school in Milwaukee, and I had a host brother there and everything. Then when I was in Europe again later on in my life, I was living there for a while. I had passed through, but this is the first time I played there with a full band like actually, formally. Before, I was down and out with a guitar [laughs] and not even really legal. I couldn't even really go into bars and stuff.
I've been to the UK before, and I know firsthand that British food is notoriously not so great. Were you pleasantly surprised?
Oh my god, it was so pleasant. Are you kidding? Oh my god. The food there was amazing, actually. Everywhere I went it was like cuisine. But I feel like they just do food differently. Like there are a lot of pastries made from scratch and a lot of places that take pride in their food. It's less packaged and microwaved, you know?
Okay, awesome. I like to hear that they're ramping things up over there.
I was super surprised. I was like, are you serious? This is amazing.
Did you catch any shows or see any exhibits? Anything else? What was your favorite part of being in England?
Oh, man. Well, I walked every day. I was getting in, like, 20,000 steps a day, just walking all around town. If we weren’t rehearsing and playing, I was literally just exploring. And I live in New York City, so I'm used to just walking all around or taking the train, but it's so much easier to get around New York because it’s just so compact. It’s just tons of people-on-people-on-people. Hard to live here. It's dirty, it's scary, it's messy, you know? Obviously, we love it! [laughs]
But the experience of getting on a clean train [in England] is like, “What!?!?” It really changed my mind about a lot of things. I don't remember America being so dirty [laughs] ‘til I got home and was like, “What the heck is going on here? This is crazy.”
It’s not an assault on the senses over there, you know? It’s still big and boisterous and beautiful, but it's also historical, and it's just the temperament there is a lot more reserved. So I think by nature, the culture is just less abrasive than the United States. I really like it, actually. It makes me feel like, “Oh, I can take a breath.”
“Keep calm and carry on?”
Yeah! Here, it’s like, “What are you doing with your life?” [laughs] “Quick, quick, go!” You know?
So, they're more Zen than you expected.
Yeah, for sure. Definitely.
You were born in Milwaukee, but you’ve also lived the artist's life across the country in places like L.A. and New York. Where feels most like “home” to you? And do you think you'll ever stay put or remain a “rolling stone”?
I think forever transient. I really do. I think I wanna be in multiple places at once. I love New York City. New York City's probably the place I’ve felt the most “me.” I feel like I can be myself everywhere and anywhere in New York City because New York is the ultimate. There are no ends, and there is no end, so you can just be yourself and carve out your own thing.
There aren’t as many people trying to tamper with what you're doing ‘cause it's all artists in a crazy sea of opportunity and people, you know what I mean? I feel free here in that sense, but I also love being in places like the UK where — like I said — there's almost more peace there in a sense, just culturally. ‘Cause New York … it's just hard, you know? It's the best city and the worst city at the same time.
I would say, to answer your question [laughs], I feel the most home here in New York. But right now I feel called to go to other places. So, in the future, we're looking to be kind of in multiple places at once. We've been doing that really from the start, whether my band was in Milwaukee or in L.A., or I was here for a while and my band wasn't. I'm trying to move as much as possible.
I feel that you become more of a well-rounded individual and artist when you do something like that.
It lets the experience move because this is a journey that I'm on, you know? Whatever this career is, it's a journey for me ‘cause I'm an artist. So I don't know what's gonna be next. I'm living in a flooding basement in New York, and then the next day I'm in a castle in the UK. Like, holy crap, how’d I get here, you know what I mean? It's like a dream kinda. It is the dream.
I always like to ask people what was on the home turntable when you were growing up. What was your family playing? What was on in the background?
My family didn't actually have a turntable in our home, in the living room. I had one in the garage, which I still have now. It’s a big old ’70s console, the kind with the radio in it. And you'd open it like a big chest, and you could play records, and I’d have to push it along to play it. And my mom had ’70s, classic rock music and then a lot of 45s — ’60s music. I remember her playing a George Harrison Apple Records [song]. [Starts singing] “Hallelujah … I really wanna see you!”
I remember playing that in my garage and being like, “Yeah, dude, this is so cool.” Dreaming about going to different places and then went to those places. But those are the memories, exploring old crates in my garage. A lot of ’60s and ’70s music, for sure.
Total clubhouse vibes.
Definitely. Yeah, I did make the clubhouse. I put a couch in there and everything.
When you were first introduced to underground music and the pop, soul and rock ‘n’ roll genres, it feels like that’s where it all started. But you also mentioned this “rock ‘n’ roll cafe cult” [the Hi-Fi Café in Bay View] and the haunted jukebox there. Was there anything that just leapt off that jukebox?
I don't think the jukebox probably works now, but at the time when I was that young — I was like in eighth grade or something — putting a quarter in the jukebox and playing some song you never heard of, it just felt like destiny. It was literally like, “This is it. It's over.” And I think I played the song four or five times. Nobody cared. I was just in there again. And again. “Can I please hear this song again?” [laughs]
That was a huge turning point in my life. Hi-Fi is always gonna be a huge part of my life ‘cause it was such an influence on me — and music and art as well. I was meeting artists [there], and I was already in art school. My parents were in the theater, and art was all around me all the time — and records, too. That was really kind of essential to my being, you know?
In terms of music, there were so many cool people that went through that cafe. I just found the other day that there was a video from 2006 of The Black Lips playing in the corner [at Hi-Fi], and I was like, “Man, I was like 14!” I posted it the other day, and they were like, “Oh man, we were babies.” It’s so cool. I love that — the connections and the music. It's still the sphere which I'm existing in. I just realized that it's so broad. It's all over the world … if that makes sense?
Makes sense to me.
Music brings you together, right? [laughs] It's magical.
Do you think Milwaukee in particular really helped solidify your love of old-school sounds? There’s a generation in Milwaukee that grew up on classic stations [like WOKY, WZMF and WQFM] and it feels like there's a culture — and also a ripple generation — of hardcore soul, funk, oldies and classic-rock-loving people in Milwaukee.
That’s the other thing outside of records. It's radio. Listening to the classic rock station, listening to the ’60s, Motown, Detroit rock and soul. I mean, it's Motown, you know? It’s the industrial cities and where we grew up.
I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee and then discovered the south side of Milwaukee as a teenager on one of the city buses. If people ask me what my music is — Is it soul? Is it rock and roll or whatever? — I'm like, “I don't know.”
Because of where I came up from, which I do believe is more primarily soul music and rock and roll, which is what influenced me later, when I started really getting into garage music and punk rock music as a teenager — it’s all just stealing from all of that. It’s interesting. I feel like a rocker, but I also make soul music. It's weird. It’s like they’re all the same thing. In my mind, it's all the same thing, but we still separate it for some reason.
Going back to the records, you seem to be a 7-inch kind of girl, so I have to ask: What's your most prized 7-inch or 45?
Oh, that’s so awesome! [laughs] Oh my god, I’ve got so many recently. I’ve been getting just crazy ones ‘cause I'm DJ’ing out here [in NYC], too. What’s my favorite one? Oh my god, that's such a hard question! Recently I got [something by] Crazy Elephant. They sang the song [sings] “gimme gimme good lovin’ every night.”
That song, first of all, is a soul bubblegum bop. But then on the other side there's this psychedelic jam that just goes on in this drone-y, trippy form, and it's called “Dark Part of My Mind” — one of the coolest, most unexpected B-Sides that I've ever found. I love that.
The second one is a song called “Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box” [by The Toppers]. It’s from the late ’50s, I think, and it’s a real underground soul bop. I don't know how to explain it. It's one of the craziest songs I've ever heard. I tried to cover it once; it’s one of the coolest songs I've ever had on record. But there's a lot! Those two are the recent spins.
How did you come across the folks and sounds of Eraserhood Sound? Had you been following Karma Chief and Colemine Records before y'all met up?
I had just discovered Colemine Records when I got here. Somehow, Dan [Backhaus] — my manager — saw some work that they had done. I didn't even find them. He said, “Hey, you should check this out.” And I was like, “Oh, this is really cool. Who are these people?” Because I’d never heard of them before.
So it was just kind of happenstance from my manager who heard it. I was kind of peering around for the right people to do the selection of songs that I'm putting out, so it really just kind of magically happened. At least I feel that way. I'm like, “Holy crap!”
Yeah! We really got to know each other working together. We met only a few times ‘cause they don't just pick people up. They’re a production house where they do [both] the production and the instrumentation. We do it to tape; it’s part of their vibe. And they haven't — up until me — actually worked with an artist who brought their own material; they've been writing material for other people.
So this is a really interesting thing for both of us because I was obviously bringing the material, written, and I was then working with them and their kind of vibe and sound, and we're just doing this together. It doesn't always work like that, you know?
Describe bringing your most recent single, “Know Better,” to the folks at Eraserhood Sound. What did you bring to them initially, and what did they do with it?
I had written that song, and at first I hated it. Then I changed it up. Jenna [Rades] and Mark [Yencheske] came to New York at some point during the pandemic and fleshed out demos with me, and then I really just fuzzed the whole thing out. I found this really deep groove that I ended up making while I was writing the song. And I was like, “This changes the whole thing.”
So I took this really kind of lo-fi, hard-hitting song, [and] first it was too pretty. It was kind of disco, and I was like, “That's not something I wanna do.” Then it just got really gritty, and I was like, “Yeah, this is what I do.”
I think what Eraserhood did — once I explained that to them — we took those two ideas and then blended them together so you get a little bit of my grittiness and then you also get some of that rounded-off sweetness from them. That real smooth, groovy thing just ended up coming out pretty timeless in my mind. I feel like it was a good collaboration. It’s a balanced sound. It elevates the idea of the song.
You had another single that came out, “That's Where We Are.” It's got this super slinky vibe to it that's a little bit different than your usual “rock ‘n’ soul” vibe. How did this song come to be?
That song is actually a pretty strong co-write with Jenna and Mark, and that was one of the first songs where we just started hanging out and jamming. I was also really super into Funkadelic; I just went heavy in on Funkadelic, couldn't stop listening to it. It’s always been really influential, but I just wanted to try something new and a little more funky.
I remember Jenna was on bass just grooving, and I heard the melody [sings the main hook], and I was like, “Oh, this is so cool. We need to follow this.” So we just started following it. Then I was kind of stealing little things from songs I like. I took a little drum part from [sings] “uh, can you get to that?” They have a really cool “da da gah gah gah” [voicing drum parts]. I'm like, “Oh, we need to throw that in.”
It was full-on collaboration, starting from an idea of a feeling that I just wanted to get out. I didn't even think I was gonna be able to record that song ‘cause it's such a composition that we built together. I was like, “Who's gonna be able to record this?” It's such a conceptual journey, that song. I pulled from a lot of stuff like Fifth Dimension — the vocals, the harmonies and then Shuggie Otis [sings melody from “Strawberry Letter”]. I'm just really happy we were able to find a place to put it together.
And you’ve got more songs coming out. “Know Better” is gonna be part of a new 7-inch coming out in April. Can you talk about the 7-inch a little bit? And I think you also got a special update today.
I did! Okay, I'm gonna be a dork and be like, “Check it out! I got my test pressing today!”
That's so cute. Congrats!
Dan brought this over to me with some flowers ‘cause I just love records obviously, and getting the test presses is such a fun moment. I get to hear it on my own speakers, you know? On my sound system.
But, yeah, this is coming out in April, and it's the first 7-inch that I'm putting out on a label, which is obviously with Eraserhood. So I'm really excited ‘cause I'm pretty sure it's gonna get distributed to many record shops throughout the United States and throughout — I believe — the UK and some other places, too.
It’s great ‘cause I've always been doing this alone, and it's nice to get the support and the resources to share the music with people. That's what I want, especially with people who love records, you know?
So when should we officially look out for this in our record shops? When will it hit the shelf?
It's hitting the shelf in April [the 21st]...
And where should people follow you for Abby Jeanne updates?
I hadn’t been active on social media for a while, but now I'm mostly active on Instagram and my website. But Instagram and Spotify and YouTube — all the music comes out on all streaming platforms, but depending on where I am in the world and tours and stuff, I would refer to Instagram for sure.
Is there anything else special you've got coming up that you wanna shout out?
Well, if people are in New York City, I got some cool shows going on in New York! I'm playing a really great venue called Brooklyn Made with two bands from Colemine/Karma Chief Records: Kendra Morris and GA-20. They’re just incredible artists. And we're having this great show that's on Feb. 24.
Then I’ve got a string of shows coming up in New York where we're going to Woodstock, and we're playing in Woodstock, and then coming back to New York City, and then playing Ithaca, so people can look out for that if they're gonna be around.