Jenny Toomey is known as the Queen of Indie Rock. As the driving force behind the groups Tsunami, Grenadine, Liquorice, Geek, Slack, and the independent record label Simple Machines, Toomey led the early 1990s do-it-yourself movement in rock, winning both critical praise and legions of diehard fans without suffering the pains of commercial success. After her early days in Washington, D.C., as an activist for local causes, Toomey became head of the Future of Music Coalition in 2000, which lobbies the U.S. Congress for musicians’ rights.
Toomey has long been an activist. She set up benefit concerts to raise money for any number of grassroots community causes during the early 1990s in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Georgetown University, but just barely. Shortly before commencement, the school newspaper published a suggestive photo of a woman on its cover, and printed a sexist caption under it. In protest, Toomey mobilized a group that seized every available copy of the paper, and then was tried for theft. The university threatened to bar her from graduating, but her father, a trial lawyer, stepped in and negotiated a sentence of community service, which she did anyway. While not entirely enthusiastic about their daughter’s life as a grassroots activist and indie-rock goddess, Toomey’s parents have always been supportive of her.
Toomey founded the group Tsunami in 1990. Washington Post critic Mark Jenkins described the group’s sound as “minor-key garage-folk rock.” His sole complaint with the quartet was that its melodies could scarcely compete with its overpowering guitars. The band’s saving grace, he wrote, was Toomey’s “remarkable” voice—“when it soars, the band’s sound comes into focus.” Behind Toomey’s sophisticated lyrics, Tsunami “used rock’s guitar-heavy swirl as a base for graceful phrase-turning,” wrote critic Ann Powers in the New York Times. The group released four albums on the Simple Machines label: Deep End (1993), Heart’s Tremolo (1994), World Tour and Other Destinations (1995), and Brilliant Mistake (1997). Music critics adored the group, which toured the indie-rock club circuit relentlessly. Tsunami was Toomey’s biggest project, and her legions of fans followed her every move, buying up everything they could find with her name on it. She also found success with the groups Grenadine and Liquorice. With Grenadine, she released Goya (1992), Nopalitos (1994), and Christiansen (1994). Liquorice released Listening Cap and Stalls/Artifacts/Squawk of the Town, both in 1995.
The Simple Machines label had been established in 1990 by Toomey and her Tsunami bandmate Kristin Thomson, who were looking for a way around the headaches of the major-label music industry. They began the project with “eight commandments,” the first
For the Record…
Born in the late 1960s. Education: Graduated from Georgetown University, 1990s.
Formed the group Tsunami, 1990; founded and ran Simple Machines record label, 1990-98; formed Grenadine, 1991; formed Liquorice, 1994; formed Future of Music Coalition, 2000; released solo album, Antidote, 2001; released Tempting, a collaboration with Franklin Bruno, 2002.
of which was “to put out music we love and sell it for a fair price,” they recalled on the Simple Machines website. Rather than conquer the competition like the major labels, Toomey and Thomson set out to build a community of intelligent, driven, like-minded artists and labels, and to do what they could to help that community flourish. Within a year, they had released a collection of seven-inch singles. Over the next eight years, they released a total of 44 seven-inch singles, eight cassettes, 21 full-length CDs, three compilation CDs, one seven-inch box set, and published the Mechanic’s Guide, an instruction manual on how to make, record, produce, and market independent records. Toomey and Thomson donate proceeds from a number of their releases to charity.
By 1998 major media conglomerates had made the record industry virtually impossible for independents to navigate. As the majors grew and merged, the cost for independent competition and survival became prohibitive. “Putting records out and keeping them in print became more expensive and money became a large burden,” noted Toomey and Thomson on the Simple Machines website. The women were forced to spend much of their time running the business, which took them away from their first love—music. They also took part-time jobs to make ends meet and, as those evolved into full-time jobs, their time was fragmented even further. The two continued their recollection on the Simple Machines website: “if we continued this way for much longer, it wouldn’t be fun anymore, and having fun is perhaps the most sacred of the Simple Machines commandments.” So, in March of 1998, Simple Machines closed its doors.
Toomey returned her attention to her music after closing the record label, but hardly took a break. In 2000 she was instrumental in founding the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit research and performance organization that educates the media and public about music industry issues. “For too long,” Toomey wrote in Nation, “musicians have had too little voice in the manufacture, distribution, and promotion of their music and too little means to extract fair support and compensation for their work. The Future of Music Coalition was formed … to tackle this problem, advocating new business models, technologies, and policies that would advance the cause of both musicians and citizens.”
Toomey has become a successful lobbyist for musicians’ rights. She has spoken before the U.S. Congress about intellectual property rights concerning music and the Internet, going from “Queen of Indie Rock” to the “Indie Queen of Digital Music” in the process. “What became clear to me was that there is no voice for independent musicians that is connecting with my music community,” she said in an interview with Wired. “One of the most important things we can do is connect with the independent community. We can try to find out what’s working with them and try to make sure that when there is legislation to be able to represent the position of what’s actually happening in the independent community.”
After four years without releasing an album of new material, Toomey to released Antidote, a two-disc set, in 2001. Each disc was named for the city in which it was recorded: Nashville and Chicago. (Members of the Nashville group Lambchop contributed heavily during the Nashville sessions.) Her solo debut showed a clear shift from her previous work: for the first time, Toomey was writing about personal, rather than political, issues. “It is interesting to play music that’s very personal as opposed to very political—not that I think there’s a huge distinction,” she told Jill Pesselnick in Billboard. “Relationships are as good a place as any to look at feminism.” The song “Fall on Me” describes the danger of falling in love; “Patsy Cline” offers “satirical advice to the lovelorn,” according to Ann Powers of the New York Times. Critics cited the moody “Unclaimed” and a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Fool for You” as album highlights. “Toomey’s Iyrics are incredibly smart, tough yet sensitive, honest without being cloying, telling in accumulation of recognizable details,” a Washington Post critic wrote. The New York Times named Antidote its Album of the Week in October of 2001.
Toomey teamed with musician, journalist, and philosophy teacher Franklin Bruno (singer and guitarist for the Los Angeles indie rock group Nothing Painted Blue) to record Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs ofFranklin Bruno in 2002. Bruno’s lyrics were backed by an ensemble of piano, strings, guitar, and vibes, Toomey took on a “new role—pop chanteuse,” wrote Washington Post critic Richard Harrington, noting that Toomey’s voice was not always on par with the full instrumentation, but “she’s always front and center with Bruno’s lyrics, which seem to be the point of the album.”
Many of the songs on the album address infidelity, including “Cheat,” “Unionbusting,” “Pointless Triangle,” “Just Because It’s Dying,” and “Only a Monster” each addressing the painful subject. Toomey poses as a jealous girl slyly taking shots at “Your Inarticulate Boyfriend.” On “Decoy,” she ponders the differences between real and “counterfeit” love: “I know the difference, but I don’t know what to make of it.” Harrington predicted the album would get “closer to mainstream ears” than any of her previous work.
Antidote, Misra, 2001.
(With Franklin Bruno) Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno, Misra, 2002.
Goya, Teen Beat, 1992.
Christiansen (EP), Simple Machines, 1994.
Nopalitos, Teen Beat, 1994.
Listening Cap, 4AD, 1995.
Stalls/Artifacts/Squawk of the Town, Simple Machines, 1995.
Deep End, Simple Machines, 1993.
Heart’s Tremolo, Simple Machines, 1994.
World Tour and Other Destinations, Simple Machines, 1995.
Brilliant Mistake, Simple Machines, 1997.
Billboard, September 22, 2001, p. 11.
Nation, January 13-20, 2003, p. 28.
New York Times, October 19, 2001, p. E27.
Washington Post, December 9, 1990, p. W24; January 14, 1993, p. C7; November 9, 2001, p. WW6; October 11, 2002, p. WW6;October11,
“Jenny Toomey,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 20, 2003).
“Jenny Toomey,” Pulse!, http://pulse.towerrecords.com/contentStory.asp?contentld=5868 (February 20, 2003).
“Jenny Toomey: Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings… ,” Yale Herald, http://www.yaleherald.com/article-p.php?Article=1115 (February 20, 2003).
“Jenny Toomey—Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno,” Stylus, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/musicreviews/jenny_toomey-temptingjenny_toomey_sings_the_songs_of_franklin_bruno.shtml (February 20,2003). Simple Machines, http://www.simplemachines.net (February 20, 2003).
“Welcome to the Future of Music Coalition,” Future of Music Coalition, http://www.futureofmusic.org (February 20, 2003).
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