Always buzzing, Jen David has an excited energy that’s infectious. This multi-talented musician, with plans of opening her own music shop in Detroit (soon!) has a voice so powerful that she gave me goosebumps the first time I heard her belting out ballads at MOCAD with her band Illy Mack. I interviewed Jen on Monday, December 9, 2013 at PJ’s Lager House.
Name: Jen David
Current Location: I live in Detroit, on Burnside in Banglatown, just North of Hamtramck.
Day job: I teach piano lessons and work at Cass Cafe
Which instrument(s) do you play?
I play piano, guitar, saxophone, drums, voice.. pretty much anything. If I can tinker around with it, I can play it.
Right now I’m in this band called Illy Mack with my friend Steve Kendzorski. It’s my first band, and my main project. We’ve been taking some time off because we got really bored when we took a break from playing live shows to focus on recording. Now we’re taking those recordings, adding a couple recent songs lo-fi 4-track style (my favorite style), and doing a cassette release in March. I have a new project with Jeffrey (Thomas), Corey (Wheedon), Todd (McNulty), and just recently our friend Kara (Meister) joined. We all kind of play everything. Todd mostly plays keys. I play drums, guitar, and sing. It’s cool, when we practice we’re set-up in a circle and we just rotate. It’s really fun. We have a potential name, but it isn’t official yet. Our first show will be at our house, where we practice, sometime around spring.
I do solo stuff sometimes, and I’ll always play if anyone asks. I’ll do saxophone improv on something if the Sugarcoats or James Cornish ask, or if anyone asks me to sing. I just like playing a lot, so I’ll take advantage of any opportunity. I play classical piano too. I’ve been organizing this classical music night with my friend Nick, called B.Y.O.Bach. We just hosted the first one, which went well.
How would you describe your music?
I think I try to write girl-group-y songs, but they usually end up sounding like something else. It’s usually my aim to write something with a really good melody that I really enjoy singing. Singing is my most pure joy. I find a lot of joy in playing instruments, but not as much as when I’m singing, so I’m usually writing around vocal melodies. So I guess I write pop music.
Where did the name Illy Mack come from?
Illy Mack is a street artist. He can do a caricature of anyone in like a minute! Me and my friend went to this soup kitchen once and we were just helping do stuff, and I saw his name on a sign-in sheet, and I was like ‘what the fuck – that name is awesome!’ I gotta name a band after this guy! So I did. We ended up finally meeting him at this hoodstock event at the CAID. Illy Mack’s brother lived right next-door to CAID, and Illy Mack would stay there sometimes. So he showed up and I was dancing on stage, and he came up after to talk to me and draw my picture, and I was like ‘it’s you! it’s Illy Mack!’ And then I told him about the band, and he was stoked! We became friends, and he drew our shirt and our album cover. It’s a good relationship, but you know, he’s all around so I can’t go out looking for him and find him. It’s just happenstance.
How long have you been playing together?
I think Illy Mack started in 2009. My boyfriend at time had a band with Steve and they had a practice space and I would come and watch their practice and convince Steve hangout and play with me after they practiced. I didn’t really know how to play guitar at the time, and Steve was a guitar teacher. I wanted him to give me lessons, but he wouldn’t teach his friends. So I figured if I make a band with him he’d teach me anyways, and I’ll be making music at the same time. So we were hanging out after his other band practice. he would play drums and I would sing. In 2010 we released a 7″ and I started feeling confident enough to plays shows.
Where did you grow up?
Sterling Heights, Creepsville U.S.A.
Do you remember your first experience with music as a child?
I remember it more from people telling me memories.. I feel like I remember it. I come from the musical family. My dad is a jazz pianist, my mom sells pianos. My earliest musical memories that I recall were of hanging out at Evola while my mom was working and playing on one of the Clavinovas. My dad taught me Prelude in C by Bach when I was five.
What was your first favorite song?
My mom would always play this Hap Palmer Baby Songs VHS for me, it was all 80s folk songs that are relevant to 80s babies with working moms. I was just listening to it last night, there’s this song, “My Mommy Comes Back” that’s all about your mom going to work, but she’ll always come back, she won’t forget you. I still can’t hear it without tearing up, it’s so heartwarming. I think that it really influenced my songwriting style. It’s folky, but really melodic, which is how I write.
When and why did you start playing music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was really young because my parents are both piano people. Then pre-teens hit and I hated everything, I hated my parents, and I completely disregarded music and just listened to rap until I was like 15 or 16. Then I started listening to Nirvana, Modest Mouse, the Beatles, and Built To Spill, and becoming obsessed – it brought my interest in playing music back. I got a guitar when I was 17, because I wanted to play Modest Mouse songs and Built To Spill songs, and I wanted to start writing and playing my own songs. Over time I’ve become way more interested in playing and teaching classical piano again too. It was kind of forced on me, and I pulled away because I wanted to rebel against what my parents do – even though what my parents do is cool.
What was the first song you learned to play?
Prelude in C by Bach on piano, and on guitar it was ‘David Bowie I Love You Since I Was Six’ by Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Describe your first instrument.
The piano I grew up playing is a Yamaha grand piano, which I have now. I bought it from my mom, because my dad fell in love with another one. It’s really nice to have it around, it makes me practice way more having such a gorgeous instrument in the house. I also still play my first guitar. It’s an Epiphone Casino. I got it because that’s what George Harrison played, and we have the same birthday. I was a Beatle-maniac when I started playing guitar.
When did you first play with a band/perform live?
Illy Mack’s first show was at Paychecks. I remember I stayed in the back room the whole time. We’d always start out with an improv song, and so I didn’t want to see anyone who was there until I got on stage so that I would just be able to look at one person and the sing a song about them. That’s how we operated for a while, I would get nervous and wouldn’t want to see anyone until after we played.
What was the first song you ever wrote called/about?
I don’t think it had a name. It was about being barefoot – I used to be barefoot a lot in public. It was about one time when I was in Kalamazoo, I was barefoot outside of a liquor store and a guy asked me if I needed him to buy me something from the store, because he thought I was poor because I was barefoot.
What instrument(s)/gear do you currently own/play?
I own the grand piano, which is the ultimate thing I’ve ever owned. The Epiphone Casino, which for the past few years I strapped a drum stick onto so I can bang a cymbal with it. It’s not the best guitar anymore, but I’m not really a tone person — maybe it’s like wine or something you learn to acquire a taste for. I have that with piano, but I just like the way my guitar feels and I don’t care how it sounds. I have a saxophone that my friend gave to me, because I lost mine after a show – I’ve actually lost two saxophones – but each time there’s always someone who took band in high school and has their old saxophone laying around so I get another one. I won’t lose this one. I have a crate amp that sounds like shit that I stole from my dad, and I have a Casio keyboard. My cymbal is a 16″ crash. I use a lot of Jeffrey and Corey’s stuff now too – the benefit of roommates.
What are your current influences?
Lately I’ve been playing a lot more classical piano and analyzing chords – why they sound good – Mozart, Bach.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground, because Corey plays a lot of records at home so I’m usually listening to what he has on. I’ve been listening to a lot of this guy Sean Nicholas Savage, who has a really emotional voice, it’s kind of like soft rock of the 70s-80s. I’ve been into playing softer stuff. I’ve also been listening to a lot more of John Cale’s stuff lately.
What is your favorite thing to play?
Sing, for sure.
How do you balance your music with other obligations?
My goal is to never work more than half of the week. I’m still learning to adapt, trying to make enough to survive, and also trying to make enough to buy gear. Mostly I tailor my schedule to keep as much time open as possible. Honestly I’m not that good at practicing, but I can always make time for a performance, and I can sing anytime, I can do it at work, on my way to work, whenever.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
I bought, all on CD of course, the Spice Girls, Will Smith’s Willenium, and the Marshall Mathers album, and Nsync. Those were my big four. One of the was first, but I can’t remember.
What was the first concert you ever went to?
I went to see Nsync at the Palace with my mom when I was 12. It was ridiculous, you couldn’t see or hear anything.
Who is your all-time favorite musician/band(s)?
Ronnie Spector, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, Ronettes. The Beatles are my all-time favorite, number one. And pretty much everything that influenced them, which was primarily girl groups, which is why the Beatles were so good. I still like Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, Brian Jonestown, really melodic 90s bands. I’ve been learning to love the 70s and 80s too. I like Laurie Anderson a lot.
Who is your favorite Detroit musician/band(s)?
Max Daley has some of the best folk stuff I’ve ever heard – like ever. He’s my all time favorite. If I could hear anyone just play acoustic guitar and play their own songs it would be Max. I really like the music my friends Jamaican Queens are putting out, and I really like Casual Sweetheart, I’m into what Dina (Bankole) is playing. I’m into whatever Liz Shar does, because she is so talented. Eminem is my favorite national Detroit performer. He has this song on his new album that’s an apology to his mom – it’s pretty much his version of John Lennon’s Mother – it’s really good.
What is your favorite local venue to play?
The Lager House for the way they treat the bands. And MOCAD because they pay better, and the audience is in a different mood there.
Have you ever toured?
No, but I want to. I just need to figure out who I can drag along. Steve doesn’t drive, so if we toured I’d have to do all of the driving, and I don’t really want to do that. We played in Dayton, Ohio once. They loved us in Dayton!!
What was the best show you’ve played?
The best show would have to be our first Blowout. It was at Whiskey In The Jar. We were the headliner, and they let us play for like two hours. At that point we had a cement block that would hold up Steve’s snare, that he would play with his foot, and we couldn’t find the cement block, so we bought a case of beer off of the bar for like $12, to use instead, and we started selling the beers to the audience from on stage, and they (the bar) just didn’t give a shit. Then we found out that the Blowout gave every band twelve drink tickets, so during our set we had twelve Jameson shots. We covered a bunch of 60s songs like ‘Be My Baby’ and the Shirelles, and when we would take breaks during our set, people would play those same songs on the jukebox. You could still smoke in bars then, and the bartender stood and held Steve’s cigarette for him while we played. I broke a string, and (Frank) Woodman changed my string while I just free-styled. It was amazing. Now I care much more about songwriting and playing.. at that point I didn’t know what I cared about, and it was just really fun.
What was the worst show?
The worst was when we tried to play at this art gallery in Grand Rapids. We set a show up with a couple of local bands, and only four people showed up. My boyfriend at the time heard the owner talking about how I sounded like shit. It was just not good overall.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I want to write more songs than I do. I’m not prolific in any sense. I need to experience things and kind of wait for a melody to come to me. It’s more rare that I can sit and write a song than a melody will pop into my head and I’ll write lyrics. I also get bored of my old songs before I have new ones written yet. I’d like to write a lot more without feeling like I’m forcing myself.
What advice would you give to other women who do or want to play music?
My only advice would be to do whatever you want whenever you want, and don’t let anything stop you. The trouble is figuring out what you want.
What are your immediate (1-3 year) goals for your music?
I want to get the Illy Mack cassette released, work on the new project, practice more piano, get the BYOBach thing going, sing more, write more R & B songs.. and I want to open up a music shop – which will happen in about 18 months, in the Forest Arms building.
Are you interested in working on new projects with new people?
I’m interested in collaborating on more short-term things, like if there’s a certain performance, or an artistic idea that someone wants to achieve. In the moment, I can create anything, but I’m too invested in too many other things to commit to anything long-term right now.
If you were to interview one female musician in Detroit, who would it be?
Betty Lavette. She’s an R & B, soul singer who’s been singing since the 60s, and she’s just now starting to get a little bit of recognition. I don’t think she’ll ever get the height of recognition that her talent deserves. Basically I’d want to interview anyone who’s been around forever.
Do you have any shows coming up?
We’re playing Valentine’s day at New Dodge. B.Y.O.Bach’s happen every month at the Jam Handy. March 22 is the Illy Mack cassette release with Pretty Ghouls and Casual Sweetheart.
Where can people hear your music and/or get in touch with you?
Either e-mail or call the house phone email@example.com, (586) 549-9023