Trans Pop is Future Pop: Jenny Scoones on her new EP ‘Woman’

Image description: A picture of Jenny on a blue background.

CN: Transition and transphobia.

I first met Jenny Scoones on a cold Tuesday night in November. She borrowed a cigarette so that she could sing me a more accurate rendition of Lana del Ray’s Video Games as we stood in a crowd of Skittles attendees, sobering up after a few too many £1 Jaegerbombs. Anyone who knows Jenny probably has a similar story to tell: she can readily be found at a Tuesgay drinks – or a Monday night Liberation and Liquor – and she will quite spontaneously burst into song. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then that while most have been spending lockdown trying to enjoy Zoom socials and thinking wistfully of better terms to come, she’s been hard at work on an EP.

Jenny released her first song, Real Girl, on May 15th. The track was met with a hugely positive reaction from students in Oxford: now it has over a thousand streams on Spotify, and Jenny has a number of monthly listeners. I asked her how she felt about this.

“Oh, it was lovely! I love my gays and they really came through for me! It’s so nice to feel like a part of a community, and like that community has your back. I’ve never had that before, I’ve always been the outsider, so having that support definitely felt really special. In terms of my audience growing, I can only work hard and believe it will come. I want my music to reach as many people as possible, and I will keep trying until I make it.”

Real Girl is as catchy as its lyrics are moving. It’s a love song to femininity, she says: ‘all I ever wanted, and all I ever dreamed / satin drapes and Fay Wray, strawberries and cream’. It’s extremely vulnerable and succeeds in touching the listener. I asked if Woman, her EP, will have a similar vibe.

“Of course! I don’t think I’d know how to write in a way that wasn’t vulnerable. All my favourite artists really give themselves to the listener, and that’s how I’ve been able to connect with them, why they’ve been so important. I talk very openly about sex and loneliness, my mental health and the pills I take, genital reassignment surgery. I think it’s important, to be frank about these things, because for so long to be trans has meant keeping quiet, under the radar. I used to want that. Now I want to feel free.”

It takes talent and skill to write music – more to record and produce it on your own too. I asked Jenny how she got into making music, and how she learned to write and produce her own songs.

“I’ve been writing music since I was fifteen. This is actually the third EP I’ve written, only the other two weren’t as good. But this is the first one I am producing properly, by myself. I learnt that from YouTube in the first months of lockdown; I think it was the only thing that kept me vaguely sane.

“How I learned to write is a much bigger question. I’ve always been writing, and I’ve wanted to sing since I was very very small. Kylie Minogue was my first love in that sense. And I learned to write just through listening – to her and others. And then playing my favourite songs on the keyboard, working out what made them tick, how a melody I loved fell across a chord sequence. How chords worked with and against one another, pulling melodies in all these different directions. I also studied music theory and learnt classical guitar and french horn, and that helped – just with developing a musical ear – I definitely won’t be pulling my french horn out on tour like Lizzo with her flute!

“But really melody is something I think we all have deep within us. It’s such a natural thing, like birdsong. I think every artist has their own melodic voice, or melodic accent. You can tell a Gaga melody as soon as you hear it; Madonna too. And I don’t think that’s necessarily learned. Cultivated, yes, but not learned. I think it’s spiritual.”

In terms of where her style comes from, Jenny says:

“My biggest influences are Lana Del Rey, Beyonce and Madonna. Lana gave me my femininity, Beyonce my sexuality, and Madonna my courage. It’s really through pop music that I’ve found myself, and it’s always been that way. Without these women, these powerful women working consistently at the top of their game in an industry that is so fickle and merciless, I don’t think I would ever have realised my own strength. I think I would have given up on my dreams a long time ago.

“In terms of trans artists, I adore Kim Petras. And I love Anohni. Her album I am a Bird Now is the benchmark transition album. I don’t know if I’ll ever make one of those – maybe we’ve moved past that now – but Anohni does it so well. SOPHIE completely exploded my idea of what is possible in pop music, and she was the major inspiration for my favourite song on the EP, ‘Supersonic Female’. But also there aren’t enough trans artists getting heard, there are so many voices which go under the radar. Mine included. I want to work my way to the top and then do all I can to change that. Trans people make the best music because we exist in boundless space.”

2020 has been an uneasy year for the trans community. In June, Boris Johnson’s government announced that it would scrap plans to make it easier for trans people to self-identify in the eyes of the law. This is a move that further endangers and degrades trans people, in a political and social climate that is becoming increasingly hostile to their existence. As Jenny wrote for The Oxford Blue,

“When lockdown began I was fearful for my mental health in an uncertain future. What I didn’t count on was the tirade of transphobia that would follow, be it coming from public figures such as J. K. Rowling, or indeed from the government itself. These instances have had an adverse effect on my mental health, and as a privileged, white, middle-class woman, I write in solidarity with my trans peers of colour, with working-class trans people, upon whom the burden has been much greater.”

Jenny has always been vocal about transphobia and the barriers faced by people in the community she belongs to. I wanted to ask if she sees her music – and her new platform – as in any way political.

“It is one hundred per cent political. Everything is. And that’s not a sense of duty or obligation. My music is the only way I have of saying something back to all the violence and evil done by our government to trans people, and all the misinformation and hatred propagated by transphobic women who claim to be acting in the name of feminism.

“Trans people’s voices are nowhere to be seen in the media, it’s all just ignorant cisgender men and women with platforms far larger than they deserve attacking a vulnerable community that hasn’t the platform to properly defend itself. It’s pathetic and it’s cowardly and it’s we, the trans community, who are being silenced. Things like that Harper’s letter, signed by J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, are so dangerous because they make out like they – the cisgender elite – are the ones under attack.

But they’re the ones whose letter went viral. They’re the ones who got their views published on a major platform. They’re the ones who trend. I want to see my name trending. Not J.K.’s. But until then, I’ll come for her in my work.

“I have to say something or it’s like I’m being suffocated. I have to push back, fight for my air to breathe. So my art, my music, is how I survive. If I make a song and a video that I know are the best work I could have put out, that I’ve put all of myself into it and I’m proud of it, then I have won. And I know how strong I am. Some of the stuff I’ll be putting out with this EP is deliberately provocative. But I’m not scared of transphobes. I want a reaction. I want to make J.K. Rowling seethe. I want her to get so offended by my work she tweets about it and I go viral. Then I’ll know I’m being heard.”

Jenny’s EP Woman will be released on the 7th August on all major streaming platforms. A music video will coincide with the release, and then another will follow a week later.