Jen Meller: Dancing about photography

Some people say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And some people say “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And then there’s the people in the middle, who say “taking pictures of music is worth a thousand hours of dancing about architecture.” These people are very confused.

Or are they? Because I know of at least one person who’s the embodiment of this latter statement and her name is Jen Meller—photographer, media instructor, music video director, editor, dancer, actor, DIY music capturer, livestream videographer, product pic lighting ninja warrior, and maker of nine-foot-tall mushroom installation pieces perfect for “dancing about architecture.” 

So how'd we get here? It all began when we planned to post some of Jen’s images as part of the recent piece on A Very Special Episode and their debut full-length, Fix Your Hearts of Die. But since the Deli’s MySpace-era blogging platform can’t accommodate more than one photo per post (so DIY!) we came up with the idea of making a video montage (or multiple video montagi) of Jen’s photography (both studio and live shots) set to AVSE’s music, which you can view above and below.

Jen is also friends with and neighbors of AVSE so I thought why stop at using Jen’s photos when she could also be plied for "behind the music" style salacious tidbits about the band and their lifestyle choices. Well, suffice to say, the band aren’t that inclined to salaciousness (rumor has it they spend most of their down time binge watching Law & Order re-runs, the ones with Ice-T) but still in a scintillating phone conversation Jen did have some interesting things to say about AVSE and about her own work—which is cool cuz it’s about time we started featuring some of the many “artists behind the artists,” in particular those who make musicians presentable in visual form. Our conversation has been loosely translated into the writeup below.

Beginning from the beginning, Ms. Meller grew up in South Huntington, which is in Suffolk County, which is on Long Island, a town that Wikipedia notes is “the birthplace of Walt Whitman, and the Walt Whitman Shops mall is nearby.” I kid you not this is exactly what the entry says, which then goes on to observe that “the Walt Whitman Shops were previously known as the Walt Whitman Shopping Center.”

Fending off the siren call of the Walt Whitman Food Court, Jen moved to Washington D.C. to attend American University and got her B.A. and B.F.A. in photography which allowed her to say F.U. to the M.A.N. and get an M.F.A. which led to work in fashion photography and also a gig with the D.C. based record label Blight Records doing press photos, set design, stage design, and lighting all while still in grad school (sorry Jen if I’m getting any chronology wrong here! I'm just a music blogger!) and through this association with a label self-reportedly specializing in “challenging new forms of sonic expression" with artists on their roster like “Philly slime wiz Nyxy Nyx” (sounds cheesesteak related but I’m not sure) it all led to Jen becoming cooler than she though she’d ever be, but still quite modest I would say.

The next stage in Jen Meller's professional development came with a move to New York City, skyscrapers and everything, where she really spread her wings—shooting and later hosting live band segments for BTR Live (R.I.P.) for a couple years while also pursuing many other undertakings (need someone to make you a floral mic stand? Jen’s got you covered) and it was through a meet cute Zoom interview for BTR Live that Jen and AVSE were brought together becoming quick “pandemmy pals” which led to an IRL picnic date with the band and the rest is history. 

Even when AVSE had only demos to go by Jen says she was drawn to their “intense rhythms” and later to how mesmerizing they were live (quite true!) and to how lead singer Kasey Heisler’s voice “stood out in a room the way Stevie Nicks's does” which is high praise indeed, especially seeing as how the white winged dove has been know to set rooms on fire.

When it comes to Fix Your Hearts Or Die, in particular, Jen says the latest song she's been hooked on is “New Coke” because of its “sense of anger and sense of release” (see photo montage #1 above) and because it's a "good song to throw on after a bad day." She also praises the LP for capturing “the chemistry they all have together” seeing as it’s their first record with drummer Chayse Schutter who goes all Phil Collins taking over lead vocal duties on one track, “Evergreene” (see photo montage #2 above). Speaking of a unique band chemistry, Jen captures it in her photography: dark-but-drenched-in-color shots, lit by swaths of glowing neon and moody studio lighting, that serve as the perfect visual counterpart to the band’s auditory presence—images sometimes crisp and vivid, other times blurred/oversaturated into abstraction, much as AVSE’s songs pivot between extremes of clean and pristine indie pop-rock, and grimy pedal-saturated white noise freakouts.

And hey, here’s a scoop: Jen and AVSE are slated to shoot a music video later this month with a projected release date sometime in February 2022 (incidentally, all the videos in this post were conceived/directed/edited by Jen save for the Mixed Chicks doc above, solely edited by Ms. Meller). Regarding her music video-making technique, Jen says she’ll listen to a song hundreds of times until images start organically forming in her head, later pulled together to create some kind of story in consultation with the musicians and their own visions using “tweezers to pluck out the right idea.”

Jen says she views making videos as a form of choreography seeing as she first came to filmmaking as a dancer (those "intense rhythms") and you’ll see what she means if you watch the vid she made for Nihiloceros’ “iamananimal” which was filmed in one single take and which obviously required some serious choreography to pull off with a hand-held camera trailing Shadow Monster's Gillian Visco as she wanders about a labyrinthine two-story house in the midst of a surrealist fever dream and so if you wanna see what “dancing about architecture” looks like, well here ya have it.

And how ‘bout this to bring things full circle, it was groundbreaking Ukrainian-American dancer/choreographer/experimental filmmaker/photographer Maya Deren (1917-61) who first attracted Jen to photography so you do the math because I’ve reached about a thousand words already. (Jason Lee)