Artist Spotlight: Tenci – Our Culture
Jess Shoman began Tenci as a bedroom folk project in 2018, naming the band after their grandmother, Hortencia. Featuring contributions from a handful musicians Shoman met through Chicago’s DIY community, their debut album, 2020’s My Heart Is an Open Field, conjured an entrancing atmosphere through sparse instrumentation and unconventional songwriting. After touring in support of the album, Shoman was joined by Curtis Oren on saxophone and guitar, Izzy Reidy on bass, and Joseph Farago on drums to record its follow-up, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing. Released earlier this month, the album is as much a showcase for the band’s playful and revitalized chemistry as it is for Shoman’s strengths as a vocalist whose presence can be both strangely intimate and wholly electric. They manage to take their sound in explosive new directions while staying close to home, and every fiery solo or subtle flourish has a way of affirming and animating Shoman’s poetic imagery. Tenci’s music has felt full even in its barest form, but it seems to have grown fuller with hope than trauma. On the album’s opening track, Shoman sings about “shape-shifting into someone new” – and with the band having just completed a run of shows, they’re reminded these songs’ evolution is just as constant.
We caught up with Tenci’s Jess Shoman for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about their latest tour, songwriting as a cathartic and archival process, what they love about their bandmates, and more.
What has it been like bringing the new songs to a live audience?
It’s been really fun to finally get to play them. You spend so much time writing them and thinking about them in this isolated way, it’s just freeing to be able to finally get to share them with people and see how they interpret and respond to them in real time. What I feel is so great about live music is being able to share that moment with someone in real time.
I wanted to ask you about that relationship between your music and solitude – how it transforms from the moment you start writing a song, to fleshing it out with the band, to then releasing and performing it.
I feel like all of the songs that I write, they live only in my head to begin with, before I even write them out or write down an idea. They’re always kind of simmering in there, in my brain. I think that in itself is the purest form of isolation as far as the containment of the song goes – before I even know what it’s going to be, it’s there in a certain way. From there, being able to put it into some sort of space, whether that be a piece of paper or a voice recording or my phone Notes app, I think that kind of makes it more real, giving it life very slowly. After that, I take it to the band and I’m like, “Here’s this thing that I wrote.” It’s that barest form, and then they start breathing life into it. And from there, we record it and it’s in this different sort of space, so it’s constantly morphing into different things, which I think is really cool to watch.
Then from there, performing it is also completely different because we don’t always play the same, and there’s always things that change. We’re humans, so I think that makes it so that it’s not perfect every time. And I also think that’s really beautiful, to just be able to play around with the songs and see how our moods for the day affects how we play the songs or how the people that we’re playing it to affect how we play them. You can listen to the recording and that’s always going to be the same, but beyond that, it’s always going to be different, which I think is crazy.
Part of this evolution is that you’re taking it from a private space to a communal space. I’m curious if that was one of the big differences between My Heart Is An Open Field and this record, in the way that it opens up your songwriting.
Yeah, I think with My Heart Is An Open Field, even though I invited people to play and see what would come out of it, I still had an idea of what I wanted it to be. And I felt like I needed more control on that album, especially because that album was covering a lot of topics in my life that were very traumatic for me. But with this album, it has been a lot different because it’s more about self-rejuvenation and trying to create a new narrative for myself. I think having a band and friends that I trust and feeling comfortable just being like, “Here you go, put your spin on it and I’m sure it’ll be great,” is so much different than me telling people what to play. That has been really nice, and kind of parallel paths with the celebration of rejuvenation within a more communal space, a more collaborative space. They still have similar qualities in terms of how the songs come to be, but it’s cool to compare and contrast the two.
There are certain desires that you circle around throughout the album, like wanting to be seen and heard by others, and on a more internal level, staying connected in your own self. To what extent does making music fulfill those needs for you?
Making music for me is the most selfish thing that I do. [laughs] Because I don’t really write music in the lens of, like, “Are other people going to like this? Are people going to understand what this means?” That’s never been a concern of mine, and I know it’s different for a lot of people. But I have always made music with the lens of being like, “What can I pull out of myself and fossilize so that I can look back on this and understand who I was and where I was at that point in my life?” And also, on a more cathartic level, it helps me work through things and process things, which is a very common thing with songwriters. But it feels like one of the only things that can really help me understand myself. And I think it’s because I can think through it in a different, more creative way and put a spin on it, whereas if I were to just write down all my thoughts on paper, that’s just what it is. But with music, I can make a story and I can change the outcome, which I think is really powerful.
Would you be able to tell something that you feel like you understood about yourself through making this record?
Yeah. Let me think about that. I think the biggest thing is, change is a very reoccurring thing that happens on this record; it is a fact of life. And before this record, I feel like I did not react well to change. And this record is constant reminders – I think every song has something to do with that concept – constant reminders that it’s okay to change. I feel like I’ve just embraced that a lot more and used it to fuel myself, instead of letting it hold me back. So I think that has helped me a lot, and helped me discover that it’s not as scary as – I mean, it’s still scary, but it’s also really cool to watch everything change around you and relinquish control in that way. I think that’s the biggest piece that I have taken away from it so far.
One of my favourite lines on the album in relation to change, and the way it registers in the body, is, “We can’t get used to the feeling of skin that’s writhing and weaning.” Can you talk about what that means for you?
I think it just means that it’s never going to be feel comfortable, things changing, and often in a drastic or painful way. You don’t have control over that, so the best way, at least for me, is to use it to help myself understand life and myself and those around me. And I think acceptance is a key word. You know, life is ugly sometimes, and I think it’s good to remember that. It’s sad to think of it like that, but for me, it’s more so like, “Hm that’s interesting,” instead of like, “Oh, it’s really sad that that thing has happened to me.” It’s kind of looking at it in a different way, and seeing how I can change the perspective for myself.
On the last track, ‘Memories’, you include voice recordings from parents and grandparents, and the album references family memories throughout. Obviously, the name of the project is significant in that regard as well. Do you feel like this idea of family and legacy is still at the heart of Tenci as the band has grown?
Yeah, definitely. The archival process of having these bits and pieces of myself and my family and friends left behind is very sacred to me. I want to be writing music until I’m in my old age, that’s my dream. And hopefully, I am capable and can do it forever. But I think the reason why is because I’m really obsessed with encapsulating these parts of myself. I don’t know if it’s more so for me or for other people to be able to find these things later on, like, well after I’m dead. I don’t know which one it is, but I think it’s important for me to have myself live in these various forms. And my family is a huge part of that, because they are a big part of why I’m here. I want to do that for them, too.
I think that’s why include a lot of voice recordings, because otherwise, these things wouldn’t see the light of day, and I enjoy interpreting them and taking them from their original meaning, which is usually pretty straightforward. It’s like opening up a history book for me, and looking back and seeing what has happened is really beautiful. I also struggle with remembering certain things. I feel like my memory is kind of blurry for some reason, and I’m not sure why. But I think helping myself by writing those things down, especially in such a powerful way as through a song, is the best way for me to look back and be like, “Oh, yeah, that happened a really long time ago.”
With ‘Memories’ specifically, I had begged my mom to digitize these home videos for me. I had never seen a home video before that. So, a couple of years ago, for my birthday, she digitized them for me. That’s why I got so obsessed with looking through them and piecing things together. I was like, “Wow, I did not remember that that had happened.” It’s very emotional for me to look through all that stuff and see myself as a child in video form. I had never seen that before. There were videos of me singing and standing on the couch and performing for my family, which, you know, I’d heard stories of, but I’d never seen. It really helps me connect the dots a little more.
The way I relate to my childhood self is often through photos rather than home videos, so I think I would have a similar reaction to seeing myself as a child, you know, as a moving body.
Yeah, it’s really intense. There’s a different type of cadence with the conversation that’s happening around that, too. A lot of these are set at family parties and stuff, so it’s funny because I can hear – not in the specific recordings that I chose, but in the videos themselves, I can hear people’s side conversations, which is crazy. And it sparks new memories for me that I had never even realized were in my brain.
I think a testament to how emotional it makes me and how important it is to me, is on our first show, in Milwaukee, my mom and my sister, they were at the show because they live not too far from there. I played that song last, and it was the first night of the tour. And I was just sobbing. I got through the song, but I was just sobbing through it the whole time. And I think it’s because my mom was right there, and I was getting to play this song for her. And it was a very emotional moment because I had never played it for her before. It was just very powerful to be able to share that moment with her and show her why it’s so important to me.
How did she react? Did you have a conversation about it?
She just hugged me at the end. We didn’t get to talk much because we were hustling to get everything out and sell merch and stuff, but she is very good at remaining lighthearted in situations like that too. She just started singing the song back to me and hugging me. I had sent it to her a while ago, but that was my first time playing it live for her and she was really touched by it. She never really has a crazy philosophical sort of input, aside from, she feels moved by it too. She understands why I do what I do.
Can you share one thing that you love about each of your bandmates?
It’s funny that you asked this because in the car, this past tour, I don’t know if you’ve heard of those, it’s like a “40 questions to fall in love with someone” or something. We thought it would be funny to do it as a band, so we went around and asked each other all these questions. And this was one of them. But I think Curt is really adventurous, and I feel like we’re both down to have an adventure, do something out of the ordinary even if it means sacrificing energy or time. They have a million stories that would surprise anyone, and still, they’ll tell me something that has happened to them or that they’ve done or experienced and I’m completely surprised every time, and I have known them for a while now. They just are full of life and experience, and I’m in awe of that.
With Joseph, the drummer, we’re super close in and out of the band, and we just have a really loving and supportive relationship with each other. He’s a very good friend, and I admire that about him. He’s really loyal and good at maintaining his relationships and reaching out to people even when they’re not always reaching back. I think that is a really nice quality to have, because I know that can be taken personally sometimes. But he’s really good at maintaining all his relationships, and I kind of watch it from the sidelines and take note. [laughs]
And then Izzy, they are just a very strange and unique person and have a really nice sense of humour. They do a lot of the talking on stage, and that’s really helpful for me because I hate doing it most of the time. [laughs] But they’re always talking about something so strange and funny. They just have a very creative brain. This whole tour, their whole thing that they’ve been asking people is, “Does anyone have any bulk grains in their pantry?” [laughs] And they’ll do a poll of who has what start going off about how to best preserve your bulk grains so that you don’t get weevils. They’re a very funny person, but also really caring and kind. They really care to make sure that everyone is feeling good and happy and are always willing to lend a helping hand.
So yeah, they’re all amazing. I think the more tours we do together, the more we love and understand each other. It’s not always easy, because tour is really stressful, but we’ve definitely been able to persevere and help each other. It’s been really good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Tenci’s A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is out now via Keeled Scales.