Diane Jean Offers an Inside Look at Clever Girls’ Self-Probing, Celestial Indie Rock Album ‘Constellations’

The songs on Vermont indie rock outfit Clever Girls’ sophomore album, Constellations—out March 26 via Egghunt Records—will make you feel big and brave even when bandleader Diane Jean sings about feeling small and scared, which is often.

“I think the funny thing about songwriting for me is that it’s the sphere of my life where—I don’t think of myself as a dishonest person, but it’s just where honesty comes most naturally to me,” Jean recently told American Songwriter over the phone. “So I carry guilt or shame or fear or love around—all of those big, big emotions—and they come to light first in songwriting for me, which is always fun and always surprising.”

In Constellations, Jean navigates those big emotions through vivid songwriting and layered, swirling instrumentation. The New Jersey-born singer-songwriter and guitarist wrote the record between 2018 and 2020, with most of the songs taking shape around the time they came out as queer and nonbinary. The final product is self-probing and celestial, tender and intense. “There is so much experimenting going on [in this record],” says Jean. “What I want to say is that it really came from a place of self-discovery.”

Jean spoke to American Songwriter about their biggest musical influences from Willie Nelson to Lucy Dacus and why Constellations is a “complete departure” from their previous releases—2018’s Luck LP and 2017’s Loose Tooth EP. Check out the full interview and listen to Clever Girls’ latest singles below.

American Songwriter: Where’s home originally? And where’s home right now?

Diane Jean: I was born in New Jersey and I moved up to Vermont in 2016, and that’s where I live now. We’re in Winooski, pretty much the whole band.

AS: How did y’all get connected?

Diane: I met [drummer] Rob [Slater] on Craigslist in 2016. Then the other two guys in the band [bassist Tobias Sullivan and guitarist Winfield Holt] have actually known Rob for years, so I met the other two folks through him.

AS: When did you start using the moniker Clever Girls?

Diane: That must have been in early 2017. We didn’t really have a band name [before then] because we weren’t really sure what it was going to look like or what it was going to turn into, so we just didn’t think of one until maybe six months in or so.

AS: Do you remember how you landed on that?

Diane: My guitar player, Winfield, he’s the one who I believe thought of it originally, and the running story is basically that people always ask if it’s a “Jurassic Park” reference, and it is, but I didn’t know that, so when he pitched me the band name I was like, “Okay, that sounds cool.” So literally for the first nine months to a year we were a band people would be like, “Is that a ‘Jurassic Park’ reference?” and I would be like, “No, I’ve never seen that movie,” then finally I went up to Winfield and I was like, “Why do people keep asking me this?” and he was like, “‘Cause it’s a fucking ‘Jurassic Park’ reference!”

AS: I love an origin story that involves both Craigslist and “Jurassic Park.” Onto the album, I wanted to ask about the opening number “Come Clean”—you sing, Don’t have a god but a voice on the radio / I’m spilling my guts like a little baby. Do you remember what prompted you to write this song?

Diane: [I was thinking about] the secrets that everybody keeps and the things that you want to say that you might never have the courage to say to people that you care about and people that you love. That’s sort of the general idea behind that song, but behind that lyric specifically is this idea of, you know, I’m an atheist, and it sounds so cheesy when I say it out loud, but this idea that the most spiritual connection I have to anything in life is music and the songs that I love and the bands that I love.

AS: Do you see songwriting as a way to come clean?

Diane: Oh absolutely. I think the funny thing about songwriting for me is that it’s the sphere of my life where—I don’t think of myself as a dishonest person, but it’s just where honesty comes most naturally to me. So I carry guilt or shame or fear or love around—all of those big, big emotions—and they come to light first in songwriting for me, which is always fun and always surprising.

AS: Have those always been the themes and emotions that drive you, or are they more active in this record?

Diane: On this record those things are definitely more active. In previous records, I think there was a lot of after-the-fact processing going on, and with this record [I’m] digging deep into things that are more challenging for me to talk about. [The writing period] was late 2018 through 2020. It was sort of all written as I was coming out as queer and non-binary, so I think you get a lot of references to those ideas.

Photo by Kay Dargin

AS: Has making music from that place of openness looked or felt any different than making music from a more closed or closeted space?

Diane: It’s definitely felt different for me, and I think it’s definitely yielded different results. Like, I think being in a place where I’m more open in my life has allowed me to experiment more with sounds and ideas and writing in general. There is so much experimenting going on [in this record]… what I want to say is that it really came from a place of self-discovery. 

AS: What are some moments that allude to that or capture that?

Diane: There’s a song on the record called “Womxn.” I wrote that song before I came out as nonbinary and really before I had the vocabulary for what I wanted to say or how I wanted to describe myself or how I wanted to people to know I identified. And with that particular song, you hear so much anger, and I didn’t realize that until after I came out. Listening back to that song now, I can hear the anger in the lyrics and the confusion. I understand my own thoughts better now, which has been a trip for sure.

AS: I’m so glad you brought up “Womxn.” There’s a line in that song I was going to ask about: I’ve been fighting sleep, don’t have much energy / for writing poetry. Do you have a separate poetry practice, or is songwriting your main vehicle for writing?

Diane: I think they kind of feed off one another. I definitely have poems that I write, but they don’t ever end up anywhere, and what often happens is that I write poems and I find that this makes more sense as a song, this is something that I want to share with people. But I have loads and loads and loads of poems just sitting in my phone in my Notes app, you know, collecting dust. 

AS: Of course. Musically that song is so powerful—there’s this arc from a more subdued start to a more heavy, distorted part. When you’re writing, do you envision those arcs or is that something that comes together when you’re with the band?

Diane: It really depends song-to-song. With that song, I did envision that arc. We performed it differently when we were playing it live for the first few times. It had this sort of bar-room feel to it originally—that’s the best way I could describe it. When we brought it into the studio, it wasn’t working for me. Even though we did have this crescendo feel to it, I wanted to play with that idea a little bit more, also because it’s one of the more rock-oriented songs on the album, I really wanted to overdo it. So that’s how that song came about, but honestly every song is very different in the way that we decide where things are going. There’s a song on this album that we recorded once one way, then we were gonna get it mastered and I was like, “no!” and we went back and recorded a completely different version of it.

AS: Which one was that?

Diane: That song is “Fried.” It’s the last song on the album. We recorded it as a piano ballad originally, just piano and voice, and it was really powerful and I loved the way it came out, but I wanted something different, so we completely scrapped it and went in a different direction.

AS: Are there any other ways you see Constellations as a departure from your previous releases?

Diane: It’s a complete departure, and that was very intentional. On our first record, a lot of the songwriting was inspired by some of my country songwriting heroes, who are still my heroes now, and you definitely get that on Luck. But with this record, I wanted to raise my own bar and see what I was capable of, in terms of both writing style and instrumentation. What we learned was that we can go in any direction we want and we can genre-blend. We all come from such different pockets of what music we like to listen to, so being able to bring all of those things to the table is really fun.

AS: You mentioned that some country songwriters have influenced you—who are those people?

Diane: I would say when we formed the band I was listening to Willie Nelson constantly. And then of course Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard—those are my people, I love them. So those were the big influences behind Luck, in terms of people who I was listening to the most.

AS: What about for Constellations?

Diane: For Constellations, it was all over the map. I remember the Lucy Dacus album Historian had a pretty profound impact on me. I just couldn’t stop listening to it on repeat. But on tour we were listening to Caribou and LCD Soundsystem a lot.

AS: Are there certain artists whose music you turned to as you made the decision to come out?

Diane: For sure. I’m trying to think back to 2019… It feels like a different life at this point. We’ve been off the road for a year, so I’m like, “What was I doing?” Lucy Dacus was a big one. I remember I was obsessed with the Phoebe Bridgers’ album Stranger in the Alps. All of the boygenius people. Julien Baker.

I had a really big phase with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which I listened to a lot in college but then revisited while we were in the studio last year just because I think her use of melody is pretty unparalleled. There was also the album All Mirrors by Angel Olsen. I was absolutely enamored by the production on that album. I would say those are the big ones.

AS: Did the album title come after the interlude “Constellations” or had you already thought of using it as a title?

Diane: The album title actually came first. I found myself using that word a lot in conversations. I kept parroting this word, and it kept coming up in different ways, in different metaphors, and then I was like, “I think I need to name the record that.” I was going through the songs and there were all these references to celestial things! So it happened that way, and the song “Constellations” was actually arranged by Chaimes Parker who produced the album, and it’s little snippets of every song on the album, so if you listen to it closely you’ll hear different bits and pieces from every song on the record. It just fit like a nice little puzzle piece—it was like a whole constellation of the album.

Constellations is out March 26 via Egghunt Records. You can pre-order it here.

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