Aaron Jentzen

Nicole Rappin

I was strolling through Allegheny Cemetery with a former choir boy who performed at St. Peter’s Basilica, a bagpipe player, a Pittsburgh City Paper music editor, a hipster, and a musician who released his EP Great Inventors in November. Strolling along the paths of the cemetery with Aaron Jentzen is like walking with a crowd of personalities, an intermingling of experiences and life stories that he has woven together to create the artist that he is today.

Life and career Jentzen-style is a journey of trial and error, of learning and evolving. As a junior currently struggling to answer the unavoidable question of “what the hell will I do with my life?” come May 2011 when the bubble of CMU must be popped, I found it refreshing to hear from a guy who has been through the same and come out the other side. Not without an amalgam of triumphs and failures, Jentzen is relatively unscathed and rather comfortable with the direction of his misdirection.

Jentzen didn’t really start singing until the end of his high school career. “I had never really sung much before because when you’re a teenage boy one day you wake up and your voice is this crackly, awful, untamable beast,” Jentzen says. He had to take voice lessons to perform in a boys choir when he was in high school, but after that stint was through, he promptly forgot his training in order to sing Rock and Roll. “But lately I’ve found that I’ve had to re-remember those things,” he says as his voice and styling shift away from Rock traditions.

Like most rock musicians, Jentzen actually graduated from college and began pursuing his PhD in English. “I know exactly what I am doing with my life; I am 21 years old,” he naïvely thought at the time. But with so much academic focus and no musical outlet, he “went basically bonkers,” dropped his post-graduate career and moved to Pittsburgh. Jentzen joined up with some musician friends in Chalk Outline Party, a Rock band he played with starting in 2003. Jentzen stuck with the Rock and Roll scene “with varying success and varying happiness” until 2007 when he hit the inevitable Rock plateau.

“After playing in a Rock band you kind of get into a specific role” Jentzen explains, then, two years ago he joined up with producer Todd Eckert who helped to coach him out of that comfortable rock realm and into a new Jentzen era of genre-bending song writing.

While this musical stagnation and discovery were developing, Jentzen was also building an award winning career as a music critic, and the music editor of Pittsburgh City Paper. “Working at the paper full time was a big eye opener because you just have some more perspective,” Jentzen says as he now promotes himself to the other Aaron Jentzens around the country. “Being a musician is so frustrating. When you’re just starting out, you just don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” But his PCP gig gave him a foot in the door, a peak around the rose colored glasses into the true music industry. My vision of the life of a music journalist was tainted, some may say enhanced, by my obsession with the film Almost Famous. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll at their height, I envision groupies and crazy parties. “Well, it’s even cooler than that,” Jentzen says about his music editing for the paper, “but it is like a regular job, you know, I have a cubicle.”

Jentzen, happy to be broken free from the stylistic constraints he felt in a Rock band is now morphing his style and instrumentation as he wishes. The EP he released in November contains a track that features a bagpipe quartet and another that features Cellofourte. In true CMU fashion, Jentzen actually started playing the bagpipes himself when he was nine years old. “I was a weird little kid,” he says about getting into this unconventional instrument, “I was just totally obsessed with it until I became a teenager and discovered girls and Rock and Roll.” But now this training and unique musical knowledge are helping him to transition in his career and create his own style. “I’m not the first person to use bagpipes in a Pop song, but I think I used them more as any other instrument like a guitar and I think other people use it for a kitsch effect” Jentzen tells me about his somewhat novel approach to the instrument. The bagpipe quartet and Cellofourte definitely distinguish Jentzen from other artists out there, but somehow he glues it all together and makes it work. “I thought Cellofourte had such an amazing, unique sound, that gravelly, low, kind of mournful sound and I thought, ‘I kind of have a voice like that, maybe this would sound cool,’”he says of his collaboration with the innovative quartet who are rock and classical genre-benders in their own right.

Forging his own way through musical styles, Jentzen doesn’t want to nail himself down to any particular type of music anymore. “When I was in a Rock band it was like this is the one thing that we do and now that I’m not doing that it is much more pleasurable and you kind of feel like a better human if you have a few more things that you are interested in,” he says. Stepping into this new and yet familiar setting as the performer and recording with so many different and accomplished artists was a humbling experience for Jentzen. He had the opportunity to work with a bunch of musicians that he had admired from the stands for years and now they are recording together. The finished EP ends up being a sort of patchwork piece of different friends’ talents and ideas. Jentzen was actually concerned about the possibility of the EP turning into a confusing mishmash of styles and thoughts, but Eckert again reassured him, “He told me, ‘You’re the person writing the music, writing the songs, and singing them. That’s the common thread,’” Jentzen recounts. He has a strong voice, both lyrically and sonically, that ties the mixture together.

Great Inventors doesn’t cap off this coming of age expedition; it is simply one more innovative step forward to the final location of Whoknowswhere. Jentzen takes risks on this record, fusing instruments, styles, and production techniques in unconventional ways and topping them all off with a heaping dose of his mellifluous, droning voice. Amidst the hoopla of genre jumping, it is this voice that is probably Jentzen’s most unique asset.

Following in Radiohead’s and Girl Talk’s rocking foot-steps, Jentzen has released his EP as a name-your-price download available online. Jentzen actually had the opportunity to interview Girl Talk at his house the day his pay-what-you-want record came out and Gregg Michael Gillis’ take on the situation was that “people who like my music are internet savvy and to pretend that they can’t get this record for free is kind of insulting.” One need only go to www.aaronjentzen.com to download the EP right now. “Nobody gets into music to be a salesman” Aaron says, admitting that this newfangled approach to releasing and selling has taken some of the pressure off.

Moving forward, Jentzen has the incredible opportunity to pursue his love of writing, both of music and about music, without being held back in either arena. “I’ve tried doing both of them to the complete exclusion of the other,” he says, but each passion on its own wasn’t satisfying enough. We are not born with one skill, one goal, that we must pursue full force forever. It is the balance between interests that keeps life interesting and enjoyable. “Accepting that ebb and flow is probably a healthy thing.”