It’s a wonder why Monica Birkenes performs under the pseudonym Mr Little Jeans because she is nothing other than her unique self. The rising singing/songwriting electronic musician — who plays at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club tonight, Thursday, December 8 — takes her clever alias from Kumar Pallana’s character in Wes Anderson’s indie cult classic Rushmore. In a way, it’s a testament to her courageous creativity — to take on a role and persona she didn’t even see herself capable of. The Norwegian-born Los Angeleno never saw herself as anything other than a singer, but she is fairly new to songwriting. “I’ve been singing since I was a kid,” she said. “It’s not even that I wanted to be a singer; it was just what I was going to do. There wasn’t really an option. I think writing was the sort of new thing where I was like, ‘I think I can also write.’”
While Birkenes may have worked toward being a singer her entire life, she is in awe of what it feels like to live the life she’s always imagined for herself. “Before anything happened, I was just waitressing and had no idea if I was crazy or if this was actually something worth pursuing. It’s just given me some sort of peace — like I wasn’t crazy.” Her mature music style could be described as new-wave synth pop; pastel-like vocals and occasionally incomprehensible lyrics create a mysterious sound that leaves the listener endlessly curious. Rather than vying for approval or conforming to what others think her music should sound like, she’s really just doing what she wants. “I’m just gonna do what I feel like doing musically,” she said.
She jump-started her career with the release of a cover of Arcade Fire’s iconic song “The Suburbs,” something she put out because it was fairly easy to record while writing her first album, Pocketknife. “I was sort of having a rough time writing. That’s why we did it.”
As far as pressure to meet expectations, she said she probably would have felt that anyways, but it allowed her to take a slightly different direction from where her label wanted her to go. “My record company wanted me to record lighter, poppier stuff, which I was at that point veering away from, and they didn’t like it. When I released ‘The Suburbs’ and people had a great reaction to it, it allowed me to go a little more left — just a little more what I was comfortable with, [to keep it] realer [and] a little darker for me.”
Birkenes said that the most rewarding thing that has come from playing live is the reactions people get from her music. While she hopes everyone gets whatever they need to get out of it, she’s surprised at the ways in which her music has touched her listeners. From going through a divorce to losing a best friend, her fans have been able to resonate with the feelings she conveys in her songs. “It’s always nice meeting people after [shows],” she said. “They tell me personal stories, which is something I never could have imagined.”
Although this year may not have gone as smoothly as expected, the singer has finished her Fevers EP, played shows across the country, and dealt with personal challenges. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs, but I think that it’s ending better than I could have ever imagined.”
She said she just wants to keep writing and play music live — but hopefully finish the second album faster than the first, which took four years.
Birkenes is feeling excited about what’s to come; her second album, under several working titles set to be released next year, will be slightly different yet still convey her inner self. “I think the second album is gonna be slightly different from the rest but still be me,” she said. Birkenes is looking forward to playing her second gig at the intimate SOhO. “I love playing Santa Barbara.”
Mr Little Jeans and Trace play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Thursday, December 8, at 9 p.m. For more information, call (805) 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.