IT'S NOT uncommon for audience members to cry at S shows.
"I always hear that someone had to leave the show because they were crying," says Jenn Ghetto of S. It makes sense. Ghetto (who in a past musical life founded beloved Seattle sadcore band Carissa's Wierd) is a master of crafting perfectly devastating pop songs. Her fourth S full-length, Cool Choices (out on Hardly Art), is the breakup album of the year. Ghetto's expressive whisper-sing outlines the aftermath of a failed relationship with radical vulnerability in lyrics that use personal details to create universally cathartic songs. At the core of its broken heart, Cool Choices is a pop album. Produced and engineered by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, these are sad songs that inspire sing-alongs. From the super-catchy hooks and intricate, melodic electric guitar of "Vampires" to the electronic soaring melodies of "Tell Me" to the heartbreaking piano ballad "Remember Love," Ghetto tenderly walks us through a tried-and-true topic—lost love—in a way that feels genuinely fresh and revelatory. Cool Choices is an instant classic that belongs in the breakup canon.
MERCURY: What was the first song that you wrote for Cool Choices?
JENN GHETTO: I wrote "Vampires" first, but it was before I really realized the record I was writing. After writing that song, I was involved in this crazy breakup. I started writing "Losers" right after that and was like, "This is gonna be a breakup record."
What's your favorite breakup record?
I tend to pick the more angry breakup records than the sad ones. I don't know if this is a breakup record, but Icky Mettle by Archers of Loaf really speaks to me. I can't seem to get enough Nine Inch Nails. Miley Cyrus, that's a more recent one. My Pandora radio stations look like Katy Perry and Kesha and Tegan and Sara. I think there's something about pop music that's crafted so well—I find it really enjoyable. Maybe there's not the most depth in it, but sometimes when I'm going through a really emotional time, I don't want a lot of depth. I just want to listen to Jessie J sing about whatever she wants to sing about. I think listening to so much pop when I was writing this record really influenced me, and Chris Walla just has a pop touch. But still, when the record was done, I was really surprised by how poppy it was. Because it still feels really sad to me.
Do you feel more creatively inspired when you're sad? Have you ever written a song about having a good time?
I haven't. Those words just don't seem to come out, unfortunately. Sometimes I wish they did, because I would love to be able to write for pop musicians—maybe a dark pop star. I just don't think it's in me. You know, write what you know.
Did you feel better about your breakup after you wrote the album?
Yeah. I mean definitely—if I am able to express something in a song that is totally what I am talking about, and the guitar part is working, I feel better. And then, because I spent so long on the record, I had some sense of closure when I got done. It had been so long. As much as it's a breakup record, it's a record about being able to love someone, lose them, and get through that situation. And all the stuff you go through to get through. It ends at some point, the pain and struggle. It might take a couple of years.
How do you decide if something's too personal to sing about?
Oh, I don't know. I struggled with that on this record. There were definitely a few songs that I was like, "Do I want to put this on the record? I'm glad that I wrote it; it felt good, but now do I make it public?" Not to sound pretentious or anything, but I guess sometimes when you're making art that's sad, you have to be really personal. I wanted to make this record vulnerable, even though it was going to be poppy and loud. Sometimes it feels like an extended version of my journal the year of a breakup. Here's what happens when someone leaves you, and you see them around town, and then you feel like such a terrible person. And then who's that other person they're dating? Is anyone ever gonna date you again? The whole shebang. I don't feel like it's just about one person and one breakup.
You also front an awesome Blink-182 cover band called Silly Goose. Did playing those songs affect the way you wrote this album?
I do. When I was learning all the Blink-182, I was actually realizing that I already had a similar songwriting style—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, ending. It was being aware of that, and then writing again having played all these super-catchy punk-rock songs that were really short and poppy—somewhere in my brain was this idea of how long a song should be. I think they're brilliant because they write so well from the perspective of a teenager—all the angstiness and the sadness. There's no shame in whining about something, you know? They do it in this really great, anthem-y way.
Stacy Peck from the bands Pony Time and Childbirth told me I should ask you about your favorite lesbian romcom.
Ooh. I don't think it's been made yet, let me just state that. I'm working on a sci-fi lesbian time-travel romcom. But as far as the ones that are out there go, I would say probably the movie D.E.B.S. If you're unfamiliar, it's about some secret-agent lesbian stuff. It's great. It flies under the radar.
Cool Choices doesn't really have a romcom happy ending. Do you believe in those?
I don't know. [While] writing that record I see that my view of romcoms might have changed [laughs]. Especially when you think you might have a happy ending and then you don't—how destroyed that can make you feel. I think the fact that I'm able to talk about the record and perform it, that's the ending.
I was also told you're a fan of the TV show Friends. Is S influenced at all by Friends?
I wish [laughs]. I tried to cover the Friends theme song once when I was first learning piano. I made it really sad.