SM PIER — When Monica Birkenes was 12, she visited Santa Monica for the first time and has very vivid memories of the Santa Monica Pier and its eclectic mix of performers and artisans.
“I remember thinking I’d help busker out who was not making any money by singing with him. It didn’t work,” Birkenes, a native of Norway, said. “I was also secretly hoping I would run into Hobie from ‘Baywatch.’”
Birkenes will get a second chance when she takes the Twilight Concert Series stage Thursday, Sept. 5 as Mr. Little Jeans, performing her unique brand of alternative-pop that is more Björk (and not just because she’s foreign) than the bubble gum variety, a la Katy Perry.
Birkenes, who relocated to Hollywood to record her full-length debut with producers Tim Anderson (Ima Robot, Dead Man’s Bones) and John Hill (Santigold, Mayer Hawthorne, Shakira), will co-headline the free concert along with alt-rock group Gardens & Villa, which should definitely consider a collaboration with Mr. Little Jeans as their dreamy, atmospheric sound meshes well with Birkenes’ hypnotic delivery that can come across as dreamy, like in her moody cover of Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs,” or beautifully bouncy as in her latest pop single “Rescue Song.”
When looking at the artists who have inspired her, it is easy to see how Birkenes’ music embodies so much duality.
“My influences have changed a lot over the years, from Mariah Carey to PJ Harvey,” Birkenes said. “But I remember being about 14 and hearing ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack and it made a big impression. I guess that’s sort of the direction I took in the end.”
The beginning can be traced back to Birkenes’ childhood when she would run through the woods of her seaside hometown of Grimstad. Her dad built catamarans and her mom was a secretary whose love for music was infectious. They didn’t have much money, but put their daughter through years of piano and voice lessons which she’d attend wearing her mother’s oversized outfits from another era.
Her first instrument has always been her voice. Birkenes sang in the church choir at 5, then around town wherever and whenever her mom saw fit: malls, old folks’ homes, theaters, even on local television once or twice. At 10, she recorded a cassette of children’s classics and shopped it around to gas stations mainly. By 15, she was singing in bars, clearly underage but backed by a band of boys in their 20s. She focused on music in high school, then relocated to London to study drama.
A year later, Birkenes was on her own in England, having left college to chase singing leads. Mostly she spent an endless string of years as a terrible waitress and, after an exploratory trip to Los Angeles, a couple more years sofa-surfing, country-hopping, and racking up credit card debt as she wrote with different producers and shaped her sound into that of the inimitable Mr. Little Jeans we now know.
Like Mr. Little Jeans, a name Birkenes pulled from a character in a Wes Anderson film, Gardens & Villa are also generating buzz on the indie-pop scene. They are fresh off recording their second studio album. The Twilight Concert Series show will be their second live performance after taking a long break to record in a small town in rural Michigan. The boys in the band like their solitude, which partly explains their love of gardening as well. (They formed their name by incorporating the street they lived on, Villa, with their passion for gardening.)
“We like to be where there is no distraction,” said Adam Rasmussen, who mans they keys for the group. “Gardening is really a great way to start your day. It really makes you slow down, and the process is quite pure. Just sunlight and water.”
Having formed in the quaint surf town of Santa Barbara, the band didn’t feel pressure to assimilate or mimic the sounds of others. They let their style form organically. They met in school and gravitated toward one another because of similar interests in film, literature and philosophy.
“It just kind of made sense from the get-go,” said Rasmussen, who began playing piano at a young age before trying his hand at the bass during his punk phase. “Santa Barbara is this really free place, not like a big city where there are shows every night and you might feel that pressure to take what is popular at the moment. There is a freedom to being removed.”
Fans can expect to hear plenty of tracks from their self-entitled debut when they play the Pier, but they will also pull out a few new tracks to see how the audience reacts.
“We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but there is definitely a different feel to this album,” he said. “We had more time with this one … . The first one feels a little more retro maybe, whereas this record is very cinematic at points. It was nice to have a full month to record as opposed to a week in the studio. We’re still mixing [the record] and are kind of living with it, so I think until we have some time away from it and distance to reinterpret it, it will be hard to say what the sound is.”
It will certainly have plenty of the synth-driven vibe of the first record but with more layering.
“We’re really looking forward to playing at the Pier,” said Rasmussen, who remembers as a kid seeing a Cirque de Soleil show there. “It will be interesting to see how people respond. I know from looking at photos my sister takes at the concerts that it looks awesome, the crowd looks really animated and we are fortunate to have this opportunity.”