Maybe it's because anyone with a soured relationship, an acoustic guitar and a coffee shop nearby thinks they can do it, but few musicians are as reviled as the singer-songwriter. And perhaps deservedly so. "People definitely roll their eyes at the label 'singer-songwriter,'" says Jennifer O'Connor, via phone from New York. "And I guess if you can be labeled 'indie singer-songwriter' that can make you [seem] a little bit better."
No one should understand that distinction better than O'Connor. She had put out a few "very under-the-radar" releases either herself or on small labels, and was in her early 30s before a chance showcase at the South By Southwest festival brought her to the attention of heavyweight indie Matador Records. She soon swapped the singer-songwriter stereotype for indie cred -- and the music-biz muscle that's been putting her on the road with the likes of Portastatic and The Mountain Goats.
Released on Matador late last year, the critically acclaimed Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars is O'Connor's third full-length album -- though for most of the world, it might as well be her first. It's also the first she's produced herself.
"Because the songs are all really personal, I didn't want it to be super production-heavy, you know. I just wanted it to be clear and recorded well ... so that's kinda why I decided to do it on my own." She recruited a cast of musicians that included her regular drummer Jon Langmead, plus Britt Daniel of Spoon, Yo La Tengo's James McNew, and Kendall Meade, of Sparklehorse and Helium. "It isn't lo-fi, or anything like that, but it's just simple," she says. "Just kinda drums, bass, guitar and some keyboards."
The album kicks off with "Century Estates," which bops along with a country-rock groove as O'Connor sings in the flat unaffected tone that's earned her constant comparisons to Liz Phair. "Please report me missing to the sheriff of Century Estates / I'm not gonna listen, and I won't feign escape / God keeps us guessing, and I've been guessing hard / Over the mountain, across the valley, and back to the stars."
The last song written, "Century Estates" is also the album's overture, introducing themes that resurface in other songs. "That song I wrote really, really fast, and it's meant to be sort of vague, but it means a bunch of different things, actually, like each line," she says. "It's about an argument I was having at the time with someone, and it's about a death, and it's about just trying to survive a bunch of mental anguish, I guess."
Mental anguish, indeed. Apart from the inevitable doomed-relationship material, "Sister" memorializes O'Connor's sibling who died in a car accident in 1998; "I'll Bring You Home" was written for her older sister, who eventually lost a battle with brain cancer in late 2005.
But don't look to O'Connor for undiluted grief or ultra-personal tragedy. Many of her songs are cast in bright indie pop, and her songwriting process seems to transform the raw material of experience into something more evocative and ambivalent. "I wouldn't mind if someone else wanted to sing them," she says. "I don't think that would bother me. Once a song is a song, it kinda belongs to whomever. I don't feel really territorial about it."
While she's not aware of any "professional musicians" covering her songs, she jokes about ghost-writing pop hits for Top 40 groups. But is she really joking? "A good song is a good song, no matter who sings it. Like there's a Kelly Clarkson song that all the people have covered -- Ted Leo covered it," she says. "Or that Gnarls Barkley song, "Crazy." Cat Power's covered it now, and people from all different genres."
But even if her songs haven't secretly landed on TRL yet, the boost from signing with Matador has prompted O'Connor to re-launch her own record label, Kiam. "I'm putting out some side project-y type stuff of mine and some other people," she says, "and I'm doing this 7-inch vinyl subscription-series thing, which I'm pretty excited about, with some other bands. Like split singles. ... Each one will have one song by me, a song by another band, and then one [that's] something that we collaborate on together."
Jennifer O'Connor with Kevin Devine and Pablo. 7 p.m. Fri., Jan. 26 (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 South 12th St., South Side. $10 ($12 day of show). 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com