Jenny Woo, a Canadian singer, has developed her own acoustic form of Oi!, a sub-genre of skinhead punk called Oi! that developed in Britain in the late 70s, that counted the hardly household names UK Subs, Toy Dolls, and Cockney Rejects among its standard bearers. This week Jenny is bringing her 10-year long, 55 country tour to Cambodia. Before she jumped on a plane to kick off her Tear Down Walls Asian tour, she was good enough to answer some questions for us.
Your performance comes across as powered by a great joy of music as a unifier and a means of shattering boundaries, illustrated by the idea of acoustic Oi!, where you take the basic DIY punk approach back to an acoustic guitar. Was this an idea you stumbled across suddenly or did it develop slowly?
Jenny: I started playing music as a teenager in a mid-sized town in the Canadian prairies, where there was not a big punk scene. I started playing in bands when I was 14, but as I became more influenced by the skinhead scene I wanted to play Oi! music. I had written songs on my acoustic guitar simply because it was easier to play acoustically in my apartment, but the bands that I had auditioned for weren’t open to having a woman on rhythm guitar. I decided that it was better to play on stage alone than not at all, so I started going to open mic nights and opening up for other local punk bands, and the project started.
I like acoustic Oi! because when you strip down the songs to acoustic elements it’s impossible to hide behind distortion or drums, so the lyrics come through more clearly. Folk music is music written by the people for the people, and so is Oi!, so it’s not a huge leap in terms of content. The project was born out of necessity as opposed to choice, but I am happy it happened!
In the 20th century folk music was very much a rallying point for progressive politics – do you feel you are following in that strain?
Jenny: When I started, the songwriting was geared more towards my own personal experiences, daily life, and the human condition. As the years went on and I experienced racism and sexism myself, I understood that the political and the personal are inevitably entwined. The project became increasingly social; I started to speak out more about sexism in the music industry and the punk scene, and my objective of recent years has been to collaborate with other women and to build up the presence of female musicians. I am currently working on a side project called ATHENA which is connecting women in the skinhead scene around the world on an album to raise a voice on women’s issues and to increase visibility of female talent.
Playing alone makes touring simpler, obviously, but I see you also jam along the way, and set up bands from time to time. What is the difference in connecting with an audience when it’s just you and when you have the full railroad train behind you?
Jenny: When you’re alone you have much more flexibility in terms of travel and budget, and creative control. However, you miss the camaraderie and creative catalyst of having other people around you. It can be very difficult to engage people in a punk rock community if they already have it in their minds that they don’t like acoustic music. When I play with a band I have people to share the experience with, and it is much safer for me because I have backup.
How many new countries are you adding in this sprint through Southeast Asia?
Jenny: I am adding Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and although I have played in China before it will be my first time in Taiwan. I am also hoping to hit up Lichtenstein, Australia and New Zealand later on this year.
What should Siem Reap and Phnom Penh be expecting from a Jenny Woo show?
Jenny: I cannot guarantee that there will be excellent sound or a massive audience or pyrotechnics, but I will bring my passion, curiosity, and love of playing to the stage. I can’t wait to meet people there and to also get some exposure to local Cambodian bands, and of course to learn more about the country, the history, and the future.
Jenny Woo will play at Metal Your Day, Siem Reap on Friday 26 (with Reign in Slumber supporting) and Cloud, Phnom Penh, on Saturday 27.