Meet Jen Kingwell. Born in Darwin, raised in Canberra and now based in Melbourne, Kingwell is gearing up for the release of her first single off her debut solo EP, The Lotus Eaters, due for release early next year. ‘Kissing in Tutus’ is a bold declaration of resistance and love in the face of war and chaos and Kingwell is only a few weeks away from releasing it at the Empress Hotel in Fitzroy. Formerly known as one-half of the indie-cabaret sensation The Jane Austen Argument, Kingwell will be joined on the night by her new band, The Garland Thugs. Sitting inside her cosy flat – complete with Film Noir artworks, scattered keyboards, an overstuffed bookcase dedicated to Jazz music and an adorable black pussycat named Maceo – Jen openly discusses her new tunes, The Jane Austen Argument, her nostalgia for Casio keyboards, her fascination with Greek mythology and her upcoming collaboration with Neil Gaiman – yes that Neil Gaiman.
It all started with a Casio keyboard. You know the one – that basic beginner’s instrument with the “cheesy backing tracks.” Laughing, Jen recalls her first instrument, the first medium that really kicked off her love for music. She even wrote her first song on it: a country love ballad. How old was she? “I was six,” she cackles. How cute. After graduating from the school of Casio, Jen went on to study classical piano, a study that evolved into the dream of wanting to play professionally. After high school, Jen was accepted into the Canberra School of Music. However, halfway through her degree, she dropped out. Her heart wasn’t in it anymore and she had lost her perseverance. “I didn’t have the disposition to stay in a music room by myself for eight hours a day, pumping out classical tunes.” She then did the polar opposite and began a degree in Electronic Music and Interactive Multimedia, where she stayed until graduation.
With a degree under her belt, Jen then took her boyfriend and bike to Central Europe, where she rode the streets, sightseeing. After doing a few odd jobs here and there, she returned to Australia, moved to Melbourne in 2006 and went back to school to study a Masters of Communication.
It was at RMIT where she met Tom Dickens, a cabaret aficionado who was in desperate need of a pianist for his upcoming show. They formed a duo and started performing under the name ‘Tom and Jen,’ a temporary title that was officially replaced with ‘The Jane Austen Argument.’ Did the name come to them whilst arguing about Miss. Austen perhaps? Laughing, Jen replies “I’m a huge Jane Austen fan and Tom can’t stand reading her. He is under the impression that all her novels are about doilies and balls. We needed a name and Tom came up with it – I don’t know if he had been thinking about it for a while or if it just came to him – but we were at the pub and he was like ‘How about The Jane Austen Argument?’ and I was like ‘That’s a terrible idea!’ but it somehow caught on.”
A blend of cabaret and indie folk music, Tom and Jen were taken under the wing of the infamous Amanda Palmer, a kinship that led to the duo supporting Amanda on her Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under tour in 2011.
After three years together which saw the release of two EP’s and one LP, Somewhere Under The Rainbow (recorded in Seatle last year), Tom and Jen separated with the motivation of beginning solo careers. Will we be seeing The Jane Austen Argument again? “Absolutely! We haven’t officially stopped doing stuff.” So it’s like an indefinite hiatus? “Yep, exactly.”
In saying this, Jen emphasises the importance of moving away from the Jane Austen sound in her solo release. “I wanted to pursue something that wasn’t necessarily right for The Jane Austen Argument. I want to explore different sonic possibilities and weave in electronic elements. I want to push the limits of a three-minute pop song and I want to work with other musicians that are pushing the limits of their instruments.”
So what can we expect from the single launch with new band The Garland Thugs? Jen answers with a big smile, “Apart from the audience thinking ‘That was a fucking killer show!’ they can expect killer songs, a killer band and a really intense set with real audience connection. It’s also going to have a really lush, rich orchestral feel. Chad Blaster, my drummer, brings this real hip-hop element in, so there’s a real hard groove in there.” The band also features Jess Keeffe on electric cello and Adam Rudegeair – Jen’s partner – on bass.
The single in question, ‘Kissing in Tutus’ is an ode to radical love inthe face of revolution. Jen’s poignant lyrics focus on the powerful image of love as a tool of resistance. The words are supported by a beautiful piano composition, a string section and light percussion. An anarchist’s anthem, ‘Kissing in Tutus’ celebrates infinite, universal emotion in a chaotic and uncertain reality. The idea came to Jen when she was recording The Jane Austen Argument’s debut LP in Seattle. “We lived in Seattle for around six weeks and it was just when the Occupy Wall Street movement was kicking off. It was really inspiring to see this totally like, complete grass-roots swelling of resistance. I was really fascinated. The single came to me because I had the idea of this power of people who come together to resist something and want to change something rattling around in my head.” When she was at University, Jen was also a radical cheerleader for the G20 protests, another image of resistance that inspired the theme of the single. One particular image of the G20 protests stands out. “A while ago, I discovered a photo – which I haven’t been able to find since – of me and my partner at the time kissing in the street in our tutus. I just remember one of the cheerleaders saying that that was her favourite moment from the whole thing.” The beauty of ‘Kissing in Tutus’ is further solidified by this deeply personal recollection.
While ‘Kissing in Tutus’ sees its official launch on Friday October 25, Jen’s debut solo EP, The Lotus Eaters, teases us a little more with its release date. Expected in March, maybe even early April, The Lotus Eaters takes its title from a much-loved story which Jen discovered as a child. The Lotus Eaters, a short retelling of Homer’s original story of the same name from his classic, The Odyssey, tells the tale of what happens to Odysseus’ men on a small island dominated by lotus plants. These plants are narcotic and cause the men to become stoned, happily content in their apathy. By using Odysseus’ men as a metaphor, Jen’s EP is fundamentally about overcoming obstacles and temptation, avoiding indifference and lethargy and being enlightened about a specific purpose, “waking up from a dream that is keeping you down.” Funnily enough, most of the tracks off the new EP came to her in a dream, hence the essential themes of the record: Dreaming and awakening.
Before we round up our interview, Jen lets slip of a little teaser that is only mildly exciting: “One of the tracks on the EP is going to be an instrumental improvisation to a spoken word piece that I wrote and which Neil Gaiman will narrate.” Seeing as Mr. Gaiman is married to Jen’s good mate Amanda Palmer, this collaboration really doesn’t come as a surprise. Oh man, March/April is too far away, what a tease.
Jennifer Kingwell will be launching her brand new single ‘Kissing in Tutus’ at the Evelyn Hotel on Friday October 25. Her debut EP The Lotus Eaters will be released next year.