Hot Licks: Jen Foster
The “I Didn’t Just Kiss Her” singer spills on the secret to her rock 'n' roll success.
Photo credit: Karan Simpson
Even rock stars can swoon in the presence of rock stars. Jen Foster learned this backstage at a U2 concert when she met Bono, one of her biggest musical influences, and couldn‘t resist getting up close and personal with the Irish rock icon. “I got a little out of control,” Foster says, “and, well, I just grabbed him and kissed him.” A Texan, a lesbian (Bono incident notwithstanding) and a recording artist of no small accomplishment herself, having just toured with Antigone Rising and recorded a new EP with multi-platinum producer and songwriter Jeffrey Steele, Foster is pretty savvy about the music industry, but that wasn’t enough to stifle her spontaneous outburst of fangirl frenzy. That’s the power of rock stardom. “He was really cool about it,” Foster adds. “I’ve been thinking of writing a song about it. ‘I Kissed a Rock Star.’ ”
Foster learned all about that entrancing power of music and performance at an early age when she, siren-like, attracted a circle of admirers with her guitar. “What kid doesn’t dream about being a rock star?” she asks. “I started out playing music at my Catholic all-girls high school. The girls would gather around and sing with me. It was the way I felt special. And that’s also the time I started to realize I was gay.” But if it was clear from the get-go that Jen Foster was destined for the limelight, what was equally clear was that she would get there her own way. If any future fan ever gets so carried away with admiration for Foster that she can’t resist planting one on the independent-minded singer-songwriter, it’ll happen because Foster always did things her way throughout her career, come hell or high water.
After all, it takes a certain independent streak to be a young lesbian growing up in suburban Texas. To leave Texas for a music career in Los Angeles and a string of coffee house gigs only to once again push the reset button by eschewing Los Angeles for Nashville, far from the hub of the pop scene and most major industry contacts, speaks of a risk-taking independent streak as well—particularly since, as Foster admits, “It’s easier to be out in L.A.” But Nashville was a better fit for Foster, just as music was a better fit than any other potential career and being out was a better fit than keeping in the closet, no matter what the risks.
Foster has always refused to be corralled into any particular musical genre as well; she’s rock ’n’ roll, she’s country, she’s folk, she’s guitar and lyrics any which way she pleases. She sometimes refers to her musical disassociation and duel city-mouse/country-mouse background as a “double life” and reflects that she’s closed certain doors by maintaining her own identity. “I’m a rock star in Atlanta and a nobody in New York City,” she says. “But early on I decided it’s simply too hard to try to control what people think and to also live a happy life.” So she just does things her way.
For example, while it’s now common for independent artists to start their own labels, Foster founded Fosterchild Records nearly 10 years ago, a time when the Internet music wave was just a ripple and people still shopped at Tower Records. She might have enjoyed more material success by chasing a deal with a big label, but the tradeoffs didn’t seem worth it. “Nothing that presented itself ever felt right to me,” she says. “I heard a lot of horror stories about artists who had deals and it turned into a nightmare as they lost creative control.”
Photo credit: Karan Simpson
Though Foster is low-key and unassuming, it’s hard not to interpret some of her work as mission statements. After all, her third album was called Underdogs and her fan-favorite 2010 single was called “This is Me” and contained such brazen lyrics as: “Talk to God / […] ’Cause I am all his fault.” Even something as comparably lightweight as her tongue-in-cheek 2009 single “I Didn’t Just Kiss Her,” a musical response to Katy Perry’s lesbosploitation anthem “I Kissed a Girl” (“We went all the way and I liked it / What’s the point in trying to hide it? / You never know ’til you’ve tried it,” Foster’s lyrics run) showcases Foster’s habit of going her own way, as some longtime fans pushed back against what they perceived as a change in direction for her.
“It was just supposed to be this funny little song parody,” she says. “There were some people who got really up in arms that I was changing direction and getting negative with my writing, but it was just about showing another side of myself. I was in a different kind of mood that day.”
Photo credit: Howard T. Ezell
Even Foster’s openness as a lesbian has sometimes caused friction in her career—though not in the way you may anticipate. “Being gay was never a marketing tool for me,” she says, “but there were times when those around me warned me that I shouldn’t be so open, that I was ‘pigeon-holing’ myself as an artist.” Pigeon-holed on one front, discriminated against on the other, it seems that Foster was in a no-win situation with her orientation. Rather than let it become an albatross, she just did what came naturally. “I feel it’s my responsibility to be as honest as I can be in my life and in my work,” she says. “So it was never a question for me as to whether I would be open about who I am.”
Foster new EP is You Stayed, named after her song paying tribute to longtime fans. She wrote the track with Rascal Flats and Faith Hill collaborator Jeffrey Steele. Despite her stubborn insistence on being herself, Foster is rubbing shoulders with the big time. Can the path from the early days of those singing Texas Catholic schoolgirls to a future where she might enjoy the kind of star-studded rock ’n’ roll acclaim that swept her off her feet backstage at U2 pass through both L.A. and Nashville, through rock and country, through the thoughtful and the playful, in short, through all things Jen Foster, past and present? If it can, Foster knows the way. (jenfoster.com)