Jennifer Finch: Inspiring the revolution

It’s 1992 and it’s the Reading Festival. The now legendary Reading festival, I should say.

Nirvana, Public Enemy, The Wonderstuff, Nick Cave, Rollins Band, Teenage Fanclub, L7, PJ Harvey, PIL, Beastie Boys, The Charlatans, Manic Street Preachers, Ride, Pavement, Melvins, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, The Farm…

Anything stand out…? 

L7 seemed to be bulletproof in the early ‘90’s. After their self-titled debut in 1988, the follow up album, Smell The Magic, hit the shelves in 1990. Nobody will ever convince me that this is not one of the great punk rock records both stylistically and in attitude. It’s a killer. The legendary line in Fast and Frightening “got so much clit, she don’t need no balls”, seemed to be written for every misogynist that was sleazing around the industry and for all the women who came along later to find the same shit, just a different day. They released Bricks Are Heavy in 1992 and with MTV VJ’s going into a tailspin over Pretend We’re Dead, the Lollapolooza festival was beckoning. 

With our love of genre-fying anything that breathes, L7 got chucked in with grunge. Too easy, too lazy, too divisive – especially now. Sure, grunge helped in some positive ways, but equally, the “end” probably didn’t help. I don’t know whether the Reading festival was the band’s plateau moment. It didn’t feel like it to me personally but that’s just my own experience. To me, they were never anything else apart from L fucking 7. Four women with a punk attitude who just rocked the fuck out, infiltrated the system from the underground and broke down barriers. I loved everything they stood for. Still do.

Ahead of their time, misunderstood and severely overlooked.

Since the age of 13, Jennifer Finch had been taking her Pentax camera and documenting her experience of the culturally significant and volatile Los Angeles punk rock scene – the musicians, the fans, the scenesters. Jennifer joined L7 in 1986 when she was 20 years old. She continued to document her life on the road with L7 and her archive reached around 9,000 images – a vast body of work that she recently saved from the creep of time and digitised the lot. It’s a culturally priceless collection of a significant period in rock music history.

The seminal experience of hanging out in that punk rock scene has helped guide Jennifer through life. She has always created her own rules built on her values and the ethos of DIY. She’s a musical performer. She’s a photographer. A computer science grad. A web designer. A gamer. A brand strategist. 

But more than anything, she’s a deeply thoughtful and empathetic community builder.

When she immerses her whole self on stage, she’s visceral, invincible and unifying. You would not think that intense stage fright was an unwelcome companion in her younger years. 

Giles Sibbald: In the past decade, more people have started designing their own working lives, shifting priorities when needed, doing side hustles, using different skillsets, and you’ve been pioneering this life for years. What influenced you as a kid that ultimately led you to get into so many different things?

Jennifer Finch: One of my earliest memories is that question that children are asked – ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’d say like ‘I want to be a veterinarian’ because I loved animals and they would say things like, ‘Well, that’s a lot of schooling’, and I remember being young and just thinking ‘Why are you ruining this? Like, what part of your power trip are you on that’s ruining it?’ I mean, I didn’t have that wording, of course, like just that feeling. And I can remember very distinctly at about age nine or 10, maybe 11, when the brain is like questioning, thinking ‘Why am I picking one thing to be? Why can’t I be a sailor and a ballerina? Like, what’s so conflicting that I couldn’t be both? I grew up in the 60s and 70s when you were really just one thing. 

But one of the super lucky things that happened to me when I was little was being adopted. And my parents always told me I was adopted and they wanted me to to interface with other kids that were adopted, so that it would just be ‘some kids are adopted and some kids aren’t’. So what happened with that was I played with other kids who might have two moms or I played with kids that had different complexions and cultural backgrounds. So I was exposed to a type of diversity where I identified with love and family and not sexual identity and not racial identity. So I think that was one very formative thing where I was like, ‘we can be diverse’. 

When I was into the school system, I was faced with kind of this single direction, very traditional school system. I kind of have this like ‘why is it homogenised in my class? Why are all the 5 year olds together and the 12 year olds are together?’ And then through my experiences, I eventually couldn’t go to school anymore. I had no interest in school from the ninth grade. And my father put me into home schooling, so I was very self directed. And all of a sudden, I had choices on direction. So when they said ‘you have to take a science class – which was always traumatic to me – I was the kid that was like at 13 going, ‘I’m not dissecting a frog’. I didn’t have an entry into the sciences or into maths because it was not, you know, acceptable, so I did have home schooling until what we call the 12th grade in the US, which is like 16, 17, right before you’re going to move forward into like a bigger, institutionalised education. And it was great for me. I flourished under it. So my lives were very separate. I understood different groups. I understood that a person can wear many hats in their life, you know, like you have family life, you can have work life, you can have school life.

GS: I mean staying in that traditional school system back then – which is what I did – encouraged you to then follow the 3 stage “education, work, retire” model, which is basically redundant now. But education-wise you just flourished under a more self-directed, individualistic approach, right?

JF: Yeah, I mean I’ve been an avid gamer since I’ve been little. I’ve been in the digital space since the early ‘80’s, I went to San Francisco State for computer science and things like message boards and the idea of what later became, I’m going to say HTML, was always fascinating to me, almost maybe a hobbyist kind of way. 

And then L7 needed a bass player. So I kind of left and then revisited it in the 90s after I’d left L7. The first thing was understanding that I wasn’t necessarily a musician, but I was a content provider, that it was about lifestyle and personality. I mean, the first thing I did was build my writing skills – which I think was completely lost at some point – and communication skills, like I said, always have been important, but back then, the only books I can remember dipping into would have been Franklin Covey’s ‘What Matters Most’ which was really, really influential – the idea of being able to establish my values and start to make to do lists based on my values and what matters. The thing that came up through punk rock with me was this very personal, hang on, integrity, drive – all these really great attributes – but sometimes it made it really difficult to just wake up and say, you know, I need to make 40 bucks today, or I can’t pay my electric, you know? 

GS: But until the system changes, there’s still an economic imperative to make some money unless you’re gonna sit totally outside the system.

JF: Right. And as an artist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was all ideas and not the production side. And as a musician growing up then, you’re reliant on other people to be your creator. You co-create with people that have the tech side and that division was very apparent, which is something completely different now. You have the idea that you’re your own producer and editor or you’re on your own podcast as the engineer and the personality. 

GS: So, you went from collaborating with your co-creators to then saying, OK, there’s some things that I’m going to have to do myself?

JF: I wanted to be a co-creator with other writers and other musicians. That’s why you join a band as a songwriter/singer instead of doing a solo project. It’s the messiness of creation, the compromises, the successes and the things that we build together. I’ve always been a huge community builder and I’ve seen that in punk rock, what it means to be a community builder before I ever looked at art history and looked at what Dadaists or Surrealists or people who really came out of unity were doing.

GS: The online gaming community is obviously very community focussed, but it’s also experimental and innovative. Online communities are where you get some real kind of human connection and that feeds the power to innovate.

JF: Yeah, while we were having the DIY movement of punk rock in the 70s, we were having software, DIY, open source software communities. Why would you take a top funnel down from Microsoft or Apple – these big businesses? Why don’t we all create software together? I still work with open source today. I still support the communities as best I can. And I still, when I’m working with clients today, recommend open source software solutions for their companies.

GS: I’m getting out of my depth now, haha! Quickly moving on! There seems to be a massive competition in some communities on social media to create a unique persona, you know, a kind of USP, which is feeding anxiety around what our own vision of success looks like, we spend half our time looking at what the next person is doing instead of thinking about what we want to do…

JF: I don’t worry too much about differentiating myself. I’ve always been a person that is going to really look deep into what I believe is the authentic self. I’ve excused myself from that mindset. I grew up with legacy media, right? 

GS: You’re gonna love our printing press!

JF: Haha. Yeah, I mean legacy media was a little bit more controlled and didn’t have open doors that, say, social media has. But, I think that there was always the intention that social media would not take the place of legacy media, but they would co- exist. And I think that’s sort of one of the unfortunate things, at least that has happened in the United States, is we don’t have state funded media, and so – I don’t know, we could totally get into it – but there’s always been that from classical Greek sculptures idealising the athletic male body to what the male or female body needs to look like now. It just changed. So if we don’t change the core issue, it doesn’t matter if there’s social media or legacy media idealisation and we’re still feeding desire to people to make money from them and by exposing their desire to be different. And it’s whether you’re doing it with mindset training or you’re doing it with the cover of Men’s Health magazine featuring an airbrushed man who owns the body of a twenty two year old. 

GS: These weird dynamics are being created now: on the one hand, so many kids wanted to just not be different for fear of this pack-like humiliation, yet social media is fuelling this perceived need to stand out from the crowd. I’m not surprised anxiety is rocketing. 

JF: Anxiety is just energy. I had a really huge piece on it, like I am a performer and I was getting incredible stage fright and I was dealing with it with cigarettes, food, talking about it over and endlessly, going to therapists and medicated. And one of my mentors just said – ‘maybe you just need to feel like you need energy to get on stage. maybe your body’s just prepping you for the experience’. And I’m just like, well, ‘there’s a different way to look at it’ to  ‘no, you’re wrong’ to ‘OK, maybe you’re right!’ 

GS: So, the anxiety was the emotion that you needed to give you the strength to get on stage?

JF: Yeah. And I mean, really, like, some of the work that I’ve done is really about separating the story from the feeling. Right. And separating emotion from feeling what is physical and what is the story your brain is telling you about the emotion because we define it, right? ‘I’m scared to present stuff in class and I don’t want to be wrong and I’m going to look bad. And if I look bad, I’m a dude and I’m told I’m never, ever supposed to look bad.’ So therefore, when you can start to just say ‘I have fear’ and remove the story, you can start looking at it from a different perspective. Can you just feel embarrassed? Do you just simply feel guilty that you weren’t perfect in that moment and someone else scolded you? And now you feel guilty and now you’re turning it into embarrassment and then you’re turning it into how all the rules at work are wrong, you know, and just backing it right down to a core feeling.

GS: Is this something that people need to continually practice if they’re really going to learn?

JF: I’m in a women’s group on Monday nights and somebody was talking about the same sort of thing – they were with a client and the client hung up on them. And everyone in the group just perked up. And they were like: ‘You have to set boundaries. You can’t let clients do that.’ And I was the one in the group that was like: ‘Who cares? Let them have their experience. It has nothing to do with you that they hung up. Literally has nothing to do with you. It’s 100 percent their experience.’ You know, I’m the one that’s like, you stop here, they start there. And I’m just like, why do I feel different? And then again, why am I not in the group of, you know, boss-ass women that are like: ‘BOUNDARIES! BAAAAH! STANDARDS! MAKE IT HAPPEN!’ And people perceive of me as this badass, right, that like sets standards. And I’m…I’m not. I’m just not. I’m just, like, whatever, right, who cares and how did I become like that? 

GS: I think this type of interference is intimidating for those who are feeling mentally frail or find it difficult to manage. I’m sure they’re trying to help, but there are better ways, right?

JF: I mean, because a lot of times we look at unmanageability as the indication of what’s happening. Either we’re not making enough money or we’re too heavy or ultimately unhappy. And there’s always going to be somebody that’s going to sell you some kind of recipe that’s going to at least maybe temporarily fix that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But really, I feel that there’s work that can be done. And the only way that I know that works to structure it is to work on your core values, work on your response system, work on how you think and build a community around you of people that aren’t just going to be sycophants, people that you really feel safe with them saying, ‘look, I see something going on with you. Are you OK? How can I support you?’ Or vice versa that you are able to do that with them? I think that for me that was a big piece. 

GS: I’m so glad you mention core values – I totally agree that they are the starting point for getting to that serenity we’ve talked about somewhere else.

JF: I know everyone doesn’t have that system, but I think it’s something to move towards. I think morning writing and learning to write helps being able to do that. I think that one of the core adjustments that can be made is in understanding that your brain is just a computer that was programmed, that how you identify and look at your life really is in your thinking. 

I think things like meditation help. Do go to your church if that’s what you have or if you are a meditation person, go see meditation. I think body-mind stuff helps because it subverts the thinking. Listening to music subverts the thinking, but it’ll come back if you don’t try to bring in other concepts. Personally, I have a very clear path. But try different stuff. 

GS: Finding your own clear path sounds totally appealing but when you start to pick into what you need to do to even just get on that path, there’s a whole heap of work to be done so that you can handle anything that’s thrown at you, right? I mean, what was your experience?

JF: I have found in my long life is that things can happen which mean we’re going to have times where we’re not able to have access to music and we’re not going to have access to nature and we’re not going to have access to a yoga studio or access to a gym. It could be lying in a hospital bed. It could be financial circumstances have put you in a place where you don’t have those things. So one of the important things that I have developed is the ability to be anywhere, with any experience, in any circumstance and be able to not have the cognitive experience but have the spiritual experience: of sitting on a crowded bus, of being in a holding tank at Heathrow because the work papers weren’t right and I’m being deported and I have to spend three days in jail. You really have to be able to meet all circumstances in your life. I think it’s great that people say ‘I go to the gym’ and ‘I run on a treadmill’ and ‘I get to God’. And, you know, everything is relieved and I make better decisions. And I’m just like…gaaah. You know, I had a cancer diagnosis and that spirituality has to be right there when you’re sitting with the doctor in that doctor’s office. And there’s good news and bad news, you know, right? When you wake up from treatment and the anaesthesia is wearing off, you know, that’s when all of this work – in an ultimate spiritual experience for a woman – that’s where all of this work comes into play.

By Giles Sibbald

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