Embodying what it means to be Nightlife Cool, this performer has kept us dancing from both the stage and the DJ booth for awhile now. This year, Brooklyn has shown her love right back, with two Brooklyn Nightlife Award nominations for Best DJ on the Rise (um, really? Gurl’s not “rising,” she is very much “Here,” but whatevs) and Best Vocalist. Make way for Jen Urban!
Thotyssey: Hi Jen! How are you doing tonight?
Jen Urban: Hi! Having a great night. I’m just finishing up a DJ set, actually. I do a party once a month called “A Sunday Kind of Love” at Dream Baby. It’s always a happy, chill vibe!
Cute! Do you see any difference between DJing queer spaces versus not-so-queer venues?
That’s a great question! I am honestly surprised they are still as segregated as they are, but really I love a lot of crossover. It’s great when a straight crew from Union Pool walks by karaoke and comes in to sing, or the gay boys take over Lady Stardust. Ultimately, we are all out to have a good experience. There are great people in every scene. I strive to artistically appeal to people who like what I do, not who want to sleep with me.
Let’s get you’re story! First off, where are you from and what were you into growing up? Was it always music?
Always music! I grew up in Northern California. My parents are hippies, and where always taking me to outdoor festivals and concerts in the park. My dad used to teach me to pick out what instruments where playing in songs, and my mom always encouraged me to sing and perform. I wrote my first song when I was 7, and never stopped.
What were the artists and scenes that were influencing you in the beginning?
I was a pop kid when I was little. Madonna was huge. Later, I got really into everything from classic rock to dirty rap. I was always less interested in the genre then what a song made me feel.
A very huge musical moment for me was when I simultaneously fell in love with grunge and techno / trip hop. That was really when I realized it wasn’t about organic vs. electronic, but I wanted to combine them and find a distinct sound. I wanted to be Courtney Love and Portishead at the same time.
That would be an amazing combo! Were you in a lot of bands before The Box?
In high school I was actually really focused on classical music and musical theatre, so my first band wasn’t until college. My guitar teacher John Zay and I started a band after he kept teaching me chords and scales, and I never practiced–I just kept writing songs. There was a great indie music scene in Santa Cruz. I was in a few different bands with the same group of people. My favorites were a four piece, Calle Baby Machine, and an all girl pop punk band called Estrella.
Eventually the scene got too small for me, and I joined John Zay in Brooklyn. At that point he was producing, and I made a solo album called Pass Stars and became Jen Urban, and eventually Jen Urban and the Box. The band started out as an all-girls four piece. It was a bit less dancey and more rock. We had some success in the lesbian scene and played the Warped Tour, but I was missing the drama and synth vibe I originally intended to find.
When the girls all decided to focus on visual art and move to the West Coast, I met Alan D–and I feel like my vision was realized! He is extremely talented, and we clicked from the first notes we played together. Like falling in creative love at first sight. We have been a duo ever since.
Jen Urban & The Box have had quite career. How much music have you recorded at this point, in all the group’s incarnations?
I put out a limited edition EP with the girls–which is not available on iTunes, so those readers who are out there and have them, hold on tight! Lol. Alan and I have released a full length album, Urban Daydream, and an EP, Aeon Walk. We also released the single “Haunted” on SoundCloud.
We have six more tracks recorded that will be released in conjunction with a promo video for each one over the coming months, along with some re-releases and new videos. The plan is to pump up our YouTube channel while releasing new music. So instead of the traditional album release, we will be releasing a video and track each month for a year starting in June! Just in time for the BNAs!
Werk! I love your videos. I just watched the one for “21”… that stars Epiphany as the door queen!
Thank you! Yes! Lol! That was filmed at Sugarland, which will always hold a special place in our hearts! We held a very long and fun monthly residency there.
Music in the queer community, even “edgier” scenes like Brooklyn, is so dominated by commercial pop. And you rarely see musicians with instruments in queer venues these days. Is that frustrating?
I think it’s kind of a bummer, but it challenges me to perform in different ways. I have become a more versatile performer! As a solo artist and a band, I am able to do a set to tracks, or with a whole band depending on the venue. I love that freedom and challenge.
How abot DJing? When did you start doing that in BK?
I started DJing at Cattyshack in Park Slope in around 2005. I learned on vinyl, but mostly worked with CDs. I did song-to-song pop sets (still do upon request) for many. In 2012, I got really into mixing and electronic production. I am hoping to start more house and dance music-centered sets. I am producing a solo project under the name Rozeg0ld (exclusive alert!!!). I hope to release the first album for that project next spring.
We’ll definitely look out for that! What’s your favorite bop to spin right now?
Kimbra, “Top of The World.”
Nice! These days, you are the Wednesday night karaoke DJ and hostess at Macri Park. What are the joys and sorrows of hosting karaoke?
Lol! It’s a labor of love. There are a lot of joys, because Macri is a chill spot and my regulars are the best! I love to sing, and it’s been great for my ego to get up there and do a mediocre performance, lol! I have to remember it’s not a show, it’s an opportunity to encourage others to do what I love to do, and just get up there and sing your heart out!
It’s hard when people don’t tip, or get frustrated with a long wait time. I really try to be fair and keep everyone in order of when they put in a request. I don’t take money to move people up, I try to let newbies sing before repeats… but generally I just try to keep things moving and fun. I also get very tired of certain songs, but if you knock it out of the park I gain a new appreciation for a song I’ve heard sung way too many times. I am truly grateful and humbled for the opportunity to work in an industry with so much competition. I love nightlife, even as a sober mom! In fact, maybe even more now.
I didn’t know you were a sober mom! That seems like the most difficult type of person to be in this biz.
Yep! I have been sober for 7 years, and my partner and I have a 3 year-old girl! It has been hard to get back in the game full force, but I actually love it even more. My daughter inspires me to create better work! I do have a bit of a sugar-free Red Bull addiction, but being onstage and behind a DJ booth with all my wits about me gives me a confidence and freedom I didn’t have before. Plus, I don’t have to worry about getting kicked out of the clubs I work at anymore!
Is your daughter musical?
She is definitely a performer! She asks me to watch her “show” and sings and dances around the living room. She really likes to drum, so that’s cool, lol. She also is very drawn to the stage. She will be at our set on June 2nd at McCarren Park for the GO Green Festival at 1pm. So I’m excited for her to see what I do now that she’s not really a baby any more.
She’ll be transfixed! You also DJ Friday nights at Lady Stardust, which we talked about earlier. It’s a new venue in the East Village above the bar 2A, where your gurl and former karaoke co-host Brie YOB tends bar. I was there for her Drag Race viewing party a few weeks ago, SO cute! How are you enjoying that space?
I love it! I’m so excited to work in a mixed venue with great drinks! People dance, make out, and enjoy all the food stuff in a pretty atmosphere.
I also do a monthly party there with Danielle Cardona! It’s called “Torch” and it features local dance and pop artists, not only live but incorporated into my DJ set! It’s the Third Thursday of every month, except this month it’s Danielle’s video release on 5/31!
Another great thing to look out for! And congrats so much on your two Brooklyn Nightlife Award noms, for best vocalist (Jen Urban & The Box) and best DJ on the Rise (even though you’re a veteran!) How delighted and / or surprised were you when you found out?
I actually really wasn’t expecting them, because we are / I am just getting back on track. So I was so so surprised and excited and grateful. I love this community, and how we support each other. And I just want to shout out [BNA showrunners] Merrie Cherry, Ickarus, and Cameron for doing such a a great job!
I look forward to seeing you there! Okay, in closing: What’s your best advice for an aspiring musician today?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that one! Lol. But, I can say to anyone new to the city: don’t give up! Never stop making the music you love. Write from the heart, dig deeper, and work on your art everyday! Get your music out there, and trust that you will find your people. I truly believe now after years of letting my fear and ego hold me back that the music we make is a gift to the world. A power greater then me works through me when I let it.
Thank you, Jen!
Jen Urban hosts / DJs karaoke at Macri Park Wednesday nights (9pm). At Lady Stardust, she spins every Friday night (10pm) as well as every third Thursday for the “Torch” party (10pm), and also spins “A Sunday Kind of Love” monthly at Dream baby (4-10pm). Check Thotyssey’s calendar for all scheduled gigs, and follow Jen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.
Vote for Jen (and Jim Silvestri / Thotyssey!) in the Brooklyn Nightlife Awards here.