Band/Artist Profile

Jenny Mae Lefell’s Life and Legacy

Only a day ago, a friend texted me, “Have you ever listened to Jenny Mae?” 

I hadn’t. He sent me the link to her album “What’s Wrong With Me?” via youtube, and I listened to the whole thing through, once, twice and then a third time.

It was strange, soft, sweet and deeply Ohio-ian, somewhat like a mix between the artists Broadcast and Kimya Dawson and Vashti Bunyan. Each of the songs felt deeply personal, deeply intimate, as if you were sitting on the bedroom floor of a close childhood pal listening to them play for you. 

Jenny Mae’s “What’s Wrong With Me?”

The compilation album of Jenny Mae’s works called “What’s Wrong With Me?”

I needed to know more, and there was not much information to work with. What information I did find, however, painted a portrait of a deeply troubled and deeply fascinating artist that deserves far more recognition than she received during her lifetime.

Jenny Mae, born Jenny Mae Leffel, was raised in a five sibling household in South Vienna, Ohio. She was the life of the party, the ringleader, a popular tomboy who won awards for her trumpet playing at a young age. 

Her high school boyfriend and long-time advocate, Bela Koe-Krompecher, recalls Leffel’s magnetic laugh and that she won the yearbook accolade of Funniest Girl. When it was time for the two to go to college, he followed her to Ohio State. 

The two immediately immersed themselves in the music scene, becoming regulars at local bars and house shows, and Leffel playing in the OSU marching band.

Leffel soon began performing with her band Vibralux, thrifting three or four dollar gowns to wear up on stage, with her early performances being described as “gauzy and delicate.” Her major influences included artists such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles. 

In a time where the Ohio musical landscape was loud and brash, Leffel’s music was dark, understated, and airy. Even though Vibralux broke up in 1993, Leffel continued to work on her own, notably releasing a single with the acclaimed band “Guided by Voices.” 

Leffel’s song with “Guided by Voices,”

From then, Leffel made the decision to suspend her education and work on her solo career. Koe-Krompecher and Leffel had broken up, but he still helped her produce her first album called “There’s a Bar Around the Corner… Assh–s.”

It was a local critical success, marking an important achievement for Lefell. However, it was here that her troubles with addiction truly began. 

She was a burgeoning alcoholic, getting drunk privately and in public. “I have a bad drinking problem,” Lefell said, even recognizing the issue. “I was drunk when we recorded, drunk when I did the credits, and drunk right now.”

Despite this, she continued to record, releasing her sophomore album “Don’t Wait Up For Me,” to recognition from magazines such as Spin. She did a small tour with artists Cat Power and Neko Case.

However, afterwards, Lefell continued to drink and began dabbling with cocaine. Her relationships with men became more erratic and family and friends reported signs of her decreasing mental health. She would hallucinate and experience troubling panic attacks.

By 2005 she was unhoused, living in Ohio and sleeping outside the OSU music building so that she could play the piano at night. 

In a moving article, Koe-Krompecher details trying his best to look after her during this time, visiting her frequently while also caring for his young family. He attempted to place her in temporary housing only for her to continuously get kicked out. In his own career path, he had become a social worker.

“The system just failed her,” Koe-Krompecher said. “I did a lot of stuff from my end…trying to get her in the right place…But she never really realized she was homeless.”

Lefell’s health and addiction only kept getting worse. In 2017, she died of liver failure. According to Koe-Krompecher, she was still cracking jokes up until the moment she died, retaining her vivacious laughter.

Reading through all this, I was shocked that such a captivating life had faded to such obscurity. Koe-Krompecher remains Lefell’s greatest champion, publishing a book about their relationship and Ohio in the 90s called “Love, Death, and Photosynthesis.”

Exploring her discography, the music of Jenny Mae Lefell remains pop perfection to this day. Her songs are indeed gauzy and delicate, but also dark, tinged with sweetness and a brutal honesty.

She does not shy away from reflecting on her mental state. On “Ho B—,” she sings, “Why am I so moody / Oh no / How did I get unhappy.” 

These lyrics are not phrased as questions, but flat statements. She doesn’t know, but she’s not asking. It’s just the truth. 

Her deep sorrow is cushioned with a catchy, classic pop chorus of “La la la la,” which almost works to offset the whole thing with an air of carefree acceptance.

This song, I think, captures how Koe-Krompecher remembers Lefell’s personality, her larger-than-life disposition juxtaposed with the crippling struggle within her own mind.

Reading about Lefell, one story that struck me came from her early childhood. She convinced her younger sister to climb to the very top of a tall pine tree, toting burlap sacks fit with pillows that they would supposedly float down in.

Unlike Winnie the Pooh, however, who accomplished a similar trick with a red balloon, Lefell and her sister crashed into the dirt. Fortunately, neither of them were hurt. 

Lefell’s career is the pine tree: she reached as high as she possibly could, nearing the top, before falling to the cold, hard ground. 

Even so, her music is as euphoric and full of whimsy as arriving at a great height, akin to the rush one gets from the peak of a ferris wheel or scurrying up an oak as a kid, knees skinned from the bark and twigs. Listening to Lefell’s voice is like capturing a bit of that magic for yourself, a magic that will live on forever.

Top Tracks:

  1. “Junk”
  2. “Spit on Your Hand”
  3. “Ho B—”
  4. “Green Jello Eyes”
  5. “Disco Song”

By Wordgirl

Between her time making playlists for future DJ sets, Wordgirl loves to watch movies and read books. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Mouse, and playing music too loud in her headphones.