On Jenny Owen Youngs’ staggering new album Avalanche, the songwriter dives into stories of trauma and heartbreak, recovery and new love. The record was produced by Josh Kaufman and features writing collaborations with Christian Lee Hutson, Madi Diaz, S. Carey, Mikky Ekko, and The Antlers’ Peter Silberman, as well as drumming from Kaufman’s Muzz bandmate Matt Barrick—a fun indie inversion from her recent work as a songwriter for stars like Pitbull and Panic! At the Disco. The songs on Avalanche are deliriously catchy, with singles like “Knife Went In” almost betraying the seriousness of their subject matter thanks to Youngs’ ability to spin an earworm hook.
The songs deal with death, tragedy, and abuse, but the verses are also filled with details of driving on backroads while listening to the radio, cigarette ash falling to the ground, and looking in the mirror and not quite recognizing the person who looks back. It’s an album of intense intimacy that still works on a macro level because of Youngs’ ability to aptly describe moments of individuality in relatable language. Beneath her voice lies ramshackle instrumentation, loosely tied together like the best homespun records are.
To celebrate the new record, we asked Jenny to break down each song on Avalanche. Plus, you can check out a stream of the album below.
An avalanche is an extreme force—it can cause great harm, and when it’s over, you can be certain things will be different than they were before. When it came time to name the album, this song leapt forward as the title track because the unifying theme of this body of songs, to me, is the idea of moving from destruction to restoration, traveling through pain to possibility.
I wrote it with Madi Diaz, an incredible artist and songwriter. The first time we met, we sat down to write and instantly found ourselves on the same wavelength. The writing is mostly a blur, but I remember it feeling easy, natural, like the song wanted us to find it. At the time I was standing in the light at the end of a very long tunnel, having undergone some massive life changes (divorce, falling in love again, relocating from Los Angeles to a small town in coastal Maine, getting married again) and basking in the relief of coming out on the other side, somehow still in one piece. It is a prayer of thanks for my wife, and for the ability to start over.
2. “Knife Went In”
Common ground is the backbone of human relationships; the easiest things to understand about another person are the things that you share in some way. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of meeting someone and discovering that their scars match your own, so to speak; this can create the opportunity for accelerated intimacy. This song is concerned with reveling in that closeness.
When we started recording this one, Josh Kaufman created a drum loop that became part of the first layer of the song, and I played nylon-string guitar; those became two of the recurring elements that helped form the sonic palette of the album. I also tracked my guitars and vocals at the same time on almost the entire album, which was something Josh suggested and something I’d never really done. I was pretty nervous about it at the beginning. But it got easier as we went along, and I think the album breathes in a really lovely way because of that.
This is one of the oldest songs on the album; I wrote it around 2014, but held off recording it, waiting for the situation to feel just right. Sometimes a song needs a very particular environment and set of circumstances to bloom correctly. When I sent Josh a batch of worktapes and demos to check out in advance of our recording dates, this was the first song he singled out as one that sparked for him. That was thrilling to me, because Josh “getting” this song made me feel even more sure that he was the right person to produce the album. We kept the arrangement simple; my acoustic guitar is the backbone, with Josh weaving in and out on a couple different guitars, bass, and piano.
It’s also one of the rawest songs on the record, one of two that deals directly with death. I wrote it about a friend who was killed suddenly in a terrible accident. He was someone I’d been close with, then estranged from, then reconnected with shortly before he died. He’d turned me on to Cat Power, Pavement—a lot of music that was formative for me. I don’t like funerals; I mean, who does? They’ve never felt like the way I want to say goodbye. This song is my attempt at finding another way.
People say there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. I’ve discovered through trial and error that further subdivisions can emerge when you’re not entirely honest with yourself. “Everglades” is concerned with the truth, and lies, and whatever gray area might exist in the cracks between the two.
I wrote this song with Christian Lee Hutson when I was living in Altadena, the most Narnia-esque neighborhood in LA County. I had a home studio in my basement with a hobbit-sized door that led out to the driveway. I liked to work with the door open and just the screen closed, for the breeze, and it wasn’t uncommon for the neighborhood troupe of peacocks to swing by and stand just outside, honking and clucking.
5. “Bury Me Slowly”
This one is an exhumation song in which I dig up the decaying past and put it under the emotional microscope before laying it to rest permanently. I grew up with an alcoholic stepdad, who grew increasingly violent over the course of his time in my life. It’s not something I ever wrote about until I was very much an adult. I’m not sure why; maybe distance made it easier, maybe my footing became more solid as I grew up, maybe I had to figure some things out before I could commit this part of my life to song. Whatever allowed me to finally write it, I’m thankful for the musical exorcism. This house is clean.
Matt Barrick plays drums on this song, as well as the rest of the album. When Josh and I were having a pre-production talk in advance of getting together to make the album, he suggested Matt could be a great person to bring, describing him “the saddest drummer [he’d] ever heard.” That pitch sold the hell out of me, and Matt absolutely lived up to the mournful hype.
6. “Next Time Around”
When I started writing this song, I was partially inspired by an episode of The X-Files in which Mulder and Scully discover through hypnotic regression therapy that they’ve known each other—and been important to each other—across many different lifetimes. It made me think about the people in my life, and what it could mean to know them later, or to have known them before. It feels like the tree falling in the forest; if you knew someone in a previous life, but you don’t know that you did, does it have an impact? Can it mean anything? If there are infinite parallel universes stretching out to the right and left of us, how are my relationships configured therein? Who are the people that remain close and vital to me across various realities? The mind reels!
About halfway into writing the song, my tires got stuck in the mud, and I turned to my friend and frequent collaborator Bess Rogers to help get me unstuck. Bess is incredible at seeing songs from angles I’ve missed entirely, and together we found our way to the end of the story.
7. “It’s Later Than You Think”
I wrote this song with Peter Silberman of The Antlers. When we got together to write, I was feeling particularly preoccupied with my relationship to my phone, social media, and the internet in general. It was the summer of 2021 and the world still felt a ways off from returning to any semblance of social normalcy. I had also moved away from the city where most of my friends lived to a quiet coastal town on the opposite side of the country. My phone felt like my tether to life as I had known it. But scrolling is a slippery slope and it’s easy to overdo it; it’s engineered that way. This song is a reminder to myself that my time on this planet is finite and precious, and that I want to spend it wisely on what matters. (Most of the time.)
This is a deep, dark break-up song, a song for terrible rendings and harrowing disentanglements. It’s the third song I’ve written with Christian for one of my releases, alongside “Everglades” on this album and a song called “Living Room” on my EP Night Shift. It’s always an adventure with Christian; there’s a certain geographical or locational element that seems to work its way into songs that we write together. This song spans the eastern half of the United States.
When Josh listened to the demo I’d made of this song, he recognized Christian’s voice right away. It turned out Christian had played some guitar on the first Bonny Light Horseman record. We asked him to record some harmonies remotely after we’d wrapped principle tracking, and they came out eerie and beautiful. In what had begun to emerge as Kaufman’s grand tradition of getting me to try (and inevitably embrace) things outside of my comfort zone, we ended this song on an extended instrumental section which ultimately fades out nice and slow.
9. “Set It on Fire”
I wrote this song with Mikky Ekko on the day we met. In a way, it’s the dark sister to the title track “Avalanche.” The latter song is about coming out the other end of a trial and stepping back into the light; “Set it On Fire,” on the other hand, is the jumping-off point, the beginning of the quest. It’s my soundtrack for leaping into the abyss. It was Mikky’s idea to subvert the melody in the second verse, which I love so much, and which feels right in line with the foundational idea of the song, that sometimes you have to change course in order to stay true.
10. “Now Comes the Mystery”
When I got together over Zoom with S. Carey to see if we might be able to write a song together, I had recently lost a family member. It wasn’t a surprise, as she’d been dealing with a number of health struggles for years, but it was still a shock. Sean and I sifted through these feelings of loss and grief together. It felt futile to write about death (which offers zero answers, just endless questions) but also impossible not to. Writing a song together is always an intense way to get to know someone, but this one in particular was a wild, vulnerable ride.
I wasn’t sure this song would make the record. Josh and I didn’t decide exactly which songs we’d record before we started; we took it a song at a time. When we had around seven or eight songs cooking, we started looking for any that felt very different from what we had up to that point. This one fit the bill. We kept it spare, and given the finality of the subject matter, it felt like the right way to close out the album.