Whether they know it or not, dedicated listeners of KCRW are likely already familiar with the songs of Monica Birkenes. Better known in the music world under her moniker, Mr Little Jeans, Birkenes creates catchy, breathy lyrical hooks over largely electronically driven pop songs that have a habit of getting stuck in your head in the most pleasant of ways.
We’ve been fans of Mr Little Jeans since last year, when we discovered her excellent single, “Oh Sailor”—one of our favorite songs of 2013 and a musical inspiration of sorts as we made our first trip from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
Now, after much anticipation, Birkenes is releasing her debut full-length, with a show to celebrate the release tomorrow at LA’s Bootleg Theater. We got a chance to talk with her about the work that went into the album, get her tips for anyone visiting her native Norway, and find out what she likes about her new home, Los Angeles.
Listen to Yacht‘s remix of the first single from the album, “Good Mistake”, below, and read on.
raven + crow: Okay, so, first—the name. I read that it comes from Rushmore, Kumar Pallana’s character, right?
Monica Birkenes/Mr Little Jeans: That’s correct!
Were you a particularly big fan of his or is it more of a general Wes Anderson thing?
Who doesn’t love Wes Anderson? I’m a big fan but maybe not to the degree that most people would expect me to be. I’ve seen all of his movies and know about 3 quotes if that helps determine the level of my Wes Anderson fandom?
I think that’s a healthy level of fandom. So sad he died recently! …Pallana, not Anderson.
Very sad. But he sure made great use of his time here which is something to celebrate.
Well-put. And now that I’ve effectively started this interview off talking about death, let’s quickly change the subject—your debut full-length is coming out at long last—congratulations!
What was it like putting together a body of work so extensive like that?
I just saw it on I-tunes available for pre- order and had no idea how anxious it would make me feel. As it’s my first album, it took years just trying to get to the point where I could make the album I wanted to make, then some more years trying to figure out how to make it the best it could be, working with different producers/musicians and finding something that felt natural and felt like me. As far as songwriting goes, I’d only written a few songs before Mr Little Jeans, so it was something that had to be developed over time and trial and error. It’s been mine for such a long time, the thought of letting it go at this point is a strange thing.
But rewarding, I hope. It’s funny, we were talking recently with another artist who’s largely built her career to date on electronically released singles and free tracks and EPs as to whether full-length albums are still viable + necessary in this musical, commercial environment. What do you think? …I mean, I guess you’re pro- given the album coming out, but still…..
For me, it’s more of a romantic idea I’ve had since I was a kid and I think a lot of artists and record buyers still feel that way too. Whether it’s needed or not I don’t know. In a way it might have been better to release the songs as they got made, rather than store them up and then put them together in the end. It just feels very satisfying making an album.
Yeah, we totally prefer buying full albums still and listening to start-to-finish. The narrative that’s presented, both musically and in terms of lyrical content, is just so much more rich and it’s nice to watch that evolve for an artists from album-to-album. We were glad to see “Oh Sailor” made the cut on the album. That was kind of our anthem as we drove cross-country this past August. Such a great song. Was it cool working with the kids form The Silverlake Conservatory of Music Youth Chorale? I feel like adding a youth chorus to an already good pop song just makes it all that much better—like all of Michael Angelakos’ work with Brooklyn’s PS 22 chorus on their first full-length.
“Oh Sailor” drove cross country with you? Amazing! I’m a big fan of throwing kids choirs in the mix. My favorite band doing that was probably Dead Mans Bones. It’s a little hidden gem of an album I think. And I totally ripped them off, going as far as using the same kids; which was a lot of fun—we had kids in the studio doing everything from spitting rhymes to puking in between takes.
Ew? Between that and the Arcade Fire song you do—which, again, we love—I feel like the album covers a lot of ground for you chronologically. Would you say it does so too creatively? Like, do you view the album more as a progressive look at you as you evolve as a musician or is it more of a snapshot of more singular time? …or is that an unnecessarily convoluted question destined to end in disaster?
It’s both. Creatively it’s been a huge learning curve which I feel is still ongoing and massive parts of that have definitely been documented on the album. At the same time each individual song takes me right back to the time of writing it. In lieu of a diary y’know—cringy but true!
Where does the album name come from—Pocketknife?
Thank you! It’s taken from a line in “Good Mistake”. It’s meant to be a good luck charm in a self-made luck kinda way. It might not make sense to anyone but me.
Oh, I like that a lot. So, I know you’re originally from Norway, correct?
Any tips on things to see or do for anyone visiting Norway?
The fjords and mountains on the west coast are no less than spectacular. You should also try some salty licorice while you’re there, it’s very scandinavian and a little shocking to anyone who isn’t.
Ooh, that sounds awesome. How long have you called LA home now?
Three to four years.
What’s your favorite thing about it here?
The mountains, the beach, the food, the amount of space, the music. It’s just wonderful.
Agreed! So, I very reluctantly bring this up, because we were there, so we know how painful it must have been for you, but I feel like the KCRW show you played on the Santa Monica Pier last year was cursed…like Macbeth-level cursed. For someone like me who has a lot less experience in the spotlight than you, I feel like I would have just crumbled under the pressure when everything started falling apart on the technical front and mics and PAs and instruments stopped working, but you handled it so well. How do you keep your cool in that kind of situation?
Thank you. I’m not sure how it came across on the outside, but I just wanted to cry. I knew what was about to happen when I went on stage. We never got the music working during the three hour long soundcheck and I knew it wasn’t all of a sudden gonna start working just because there were people there. Going off stage, Anne Litt (KCRW) was the first person to give me hug. I’d never met her before, but I started sobbing into her arms. Onwards and upwards?
Aw! That’s really heartbreaking, but yes—onwards and upwards! And good to hear Anne Litt was there for you—I’ve never met her, but she seems really nice. And you have what will doubtless be a far more smooth-sailing show Saturday at the Bootleg to celebrate the release of Pocketknife. Are you excited?
I’m excited! And a little scared. But I think whoever is gonna be there will be there because they like the music or at least have some kinda interest in it, so I have a feeling it might be a good night after all.
Totally. I feel like, working in the visual field, I’m always curious how much musical artists think about their visual aesthetic, if at all. Do you feel like you have a visual aesthetic that you bring to photo shoots or album artwork or even just live appearances?
I feel like I don’t, but it’s something I’m in the process of figuring out. I’ve been concentrating on the music part of things, but I think it’s time to step up the visual aspect. I very much know what I like and have a direction I’d like it to take it, but it’s been hard to execute so far. It’s a work in progress.
Something to look forward to for us then. Who have you been listening to a lot lately?
Nice. And, finally, favorite tattoo?
My favorite tattoo belongs to Tim Anderson and is a drawing of a marshmellow captain on a ghostship. He designed it himself from a dream he had.
Dream tattoos are always the best. Thanks so much for talking with us—we’re huge fans and really excited for the new album and Bootleg show!
See you there!
Advance tickets to Mr Little Jeans’ album release at The Bootleg tomorrow night are sold out, but they may have a limited number of tickets available at the door, as space permits. You can buy her debut album, Pocketknife, via iTunes. You can watch her video for “Good Mistake”, directed by Ian + Cooper, below.
Inset photo by Drew McFadden.