"I started as an artist and I just fell into songwriting," the New York native, who moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, tells Billboard. "I had some great opportunities and one thing led to another and I just kind of went with it. I kept telling myself I'll come back to the artist thing at some point, but I never thought about it until very recently."
The impetus for Penn's decision was a conversation with his girlfriend one night, when she asked him "What do you have to say?" "I looked at her, dumbfounded, and I said, 'What do you mean?'" Penn recalls. "She said, 'You write for all these people every day and you try to help them, but what do you have to say?' She was right; Somewhere along the way I think I forgot what I had to say. I wasn't brave enough to share my truth. It was easier for me to help other people articulate what they have to say. Later that night after she had fallen asleep I went to the piano and just let my hands go where they would go with no expectation of where the song was going to end up, which was something I haven't done in a long time. That's how the first song was born, and I could tell it was something different and I said, 'Alright, this is a path I need to explore.'"
The spare, atmospheric "Babylon" was among the first Penn songs that Wexler composed, in collaboration with longtime friend and colleague Arthur Bacon. "To me, 'Babylon' is a song of loss, despair -- and hope," Penn says. "It's about someone who believes he'll get another chance. It came quickly; We wrote the whole thing in an hour, no second-guessing. Arthur played some chords and I said, 'Keep playing those chords! I hear them!' and started writing the melody, and before we knew it we had the song."
Penn estimates he has "about 15 songs or so, and I'm toying around with another probably 20 ideas." He anticipates putting 10 of them on his first album, accompanied by a film that will complement and expand on the music. "The transition from songwriter to artist has been a pretty profound one for me," Penn says, and he promises that even the future work he does with others will reflect that change.
"I hope that Jackson Penn takes over in the sense that I only want to write from that perspective from now on...from a really honest perspective of who I am and bring that to other artists if I work with them," he explains. "This process has been a big reminder that I've always been an artist who calls himself a songwriter, and I have a helluva lot more fun writing for myself. I mean, you sit down, write what's on your mind, what’s in your head, and people might listen to it. What could be better than that?"