Early my sophomore year at Indiana University, I went to an orientation session for students who were interested in volunteering at the campus radio station.
In my typically over-serious fashion, I was worried that I hadn’t sufficiently taken advantage of the many social and extracurricular activities at the school during my first year there, and so this was one of my attempts to address that perceived lack.
I’d spent my four years of high school ensconced in the music and drama departments and made most of my friends that way. (Well, I guess it wasn’t so much “making friends” as “spending all my waking hours outside class with a certain cross-section of people who became my closest friends by fortunate default.”) But since I had no intention of pursuing performance at the university or professional level, I suddenly found myself adrift without a scene or (I feared) an identity. The radio station seemed like an ideal place to bridge my interests and concerns—listening to and appreciating music, yes, but also performing that appreciation by talking about music on the air, and hopefully also meeting other music obsessives who might want to be my friend.
I dutifully filled out the form applying for my own show and indicated that I’d also be happy to be part of the committee who would review incoming CDs. (That job mostly entailed listening to music and then noting which songs were interesting and cool and worth listening to, but also, crucially, which contained swear words that couldn’t be broadcast on the air.) I, like the asshole English major I was, corrected a bunch of typos on the intake form. Despite being that girl, when the station manager sent out assignments subsequently, he granted me a two-hour on-air placement—which he took the liberty of dubbing “The Grammar Rodeo.” (It was literally years before I found out that that was actually a Simpsons reference.)
The kicker, though, was that my show was scheduled for 4-6am on Tuesday mornings, pretty much the worst time slot imaginable—too late for most night owls to still be awake, but also too early for early risers to be getting up. But, Monday nights I’d do my best to get a few hours of sleep, then peel myself out of bed around 3:15 so that I could set off on foot across campus around 3:30, so I could get to the station in time to take over at 4 for the guys who were on the air before me.
This was, perhaps needless to say, not the ideal time slot for socializing and making friends—no one else was ever at the station during those hours, for obvious reasons. (This would have been the fall of 1998, and thus the infancy of widespread internet use, though, so the station actually had an online feed that broadcast the shows from their website. This enabled a dear friend of mine who was attending the University of Southern California to be able to listen to my show during his own late-night study sessions, which was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever done for me at that point.) But, thanks to my solitude, it was at least a great time to nerd out and listen to music for two hours straight.
At some point that semester, I had reviewed and put into rotation an album called Adventure by a group I’d never heard of called Furslide.
As I’ve written about before, I’d never had that much interest in electric guitars. (This was right on the cusp of my burgeoning obsession with Jimi Hendrix.) My dad was a piano player and trumpet aficionado, and, good girl that I was, my tastes had followed suit—I liked anything that was “jazzy” or that hearkened to the show tunes that I’d spent my life listening to and performing. I was way too square and sheltered to have had any interest in Riot Grrl in the early ’90s, and I generally sniffed my nose at most of the more mainstream, Lilith Fair-approved artists as well. All of which is to say, if I’d not been assigned, at random, to review the Furslide album, there’s very little chance I ever would have encountered it otherwise.
But, oh, how fortuitous! I fell head over heels in love with Adventure.
Unbeknowst to me at the time, Furslide’s lead singer and guitarist, Jen Turner, was already something of a legend among guitar nerds for her work on Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, especially “Carnival.”
But, similar to how I came to love Jimi Hendrix’s vocals as much as his guitar playing, I was first and foremost bowled over by Turner’s voice.
As a musician myself, I always paid extra attention to any woman vocalists who were doing stuff that I couldn’t replicate while singing along with them in the privacy of my car—whether that was Tracey Thorn’s soulful croon on Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart or Alanis Morissette’s stratospheric yelp on the ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill. With Turner, it was that shred at the top of her range that really killed me. Check out what she does when she really gets cranking at around 2:59 in the song “Shallow” and you’ll hear what I mean:
And even though I willfully harbored an almost complete blind spot for most contemporary electric guitar playing, I couldn’t deny how much I loved the punch and crunch of her sound. It was playful yet edgy, somehow spacious inside its laser-sharp rhythmic dexterity and sonic density.
Much like how my love for Counting Crows confounded friends who didn’t understand how or why I could like that band’s noisier moments, even I had trouble defending and defining for myself what it was about her sound that I loved so much, or why it was that I loved her playing and specifically didn’t like the playing in, oh, Weezer or Nirvana or Pearl Jam or dozens of other beloved guitar rock bands.
Even though I probably wouldn’t have understood it as such at the time, I think I needed that little bit of inscrutability in my life. I’d always attempted to make myself as legible and understandable as possible, assuming that, even if I were “quirky,” as long as people essentially could get where I was coming from, I’d be easier to love. But silently, unconsciously, I think I was already starting to realize how exhausting that attempt to art-direct my own image was. I was allowed to have a little bit of privacy, to maintain a little bit of mystery, to cultivate a degree of unpredictability.
Not unlike my wandering around an all-but-abandoned campus in the middle of the night in an effort to find a place where I belonged, Turner’s music was something of an island unto itself in the mid to late ’90s. Goddesslike to those in the know, but easily overlooked by those who weren’t, as she sang herself in the song “Hawaii,” “everyone is looking for that fine, fine line / between contentment and the troubled mind of genius.” She, I would argue, found that line on an underappreciated album released in 1998, which gave me a nice little nudge in the right direction to keep looking for my own.
To learn more about Jen Turner and her various other musical projects, check out this great short blog post, which seems to be updated periodically.