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The Rumpus Interview with Jesse Sykes

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The first thing you notice about Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter is Sykes’s voice. It’s a stunning blend of contradictions, cutting and vulnerable, breathy and scratchy, enigmatic and bare. It’s so overwhelming that it can shadow Sykes’s strengths as a songwriter. The more subtle qualities of her writing reveal themselves, over time, to be no less rewarding.

Much of Sykes’s writing contrasts abstract metaphoric imagery with direct, concrete observations about lived experience, somehow conjoining or reconciling the two worlds. She also has the ability to invent phrases and images that sound as if they’ve been with us for ages, like “the open halls of the soul,” or “the air is thin.” She’ll frequently fixate on one of these phrases, mantra-like, until the metaphor is alchemically transformed to the real via repetition, conviction, song.

The Sweet Hereafter combines Sykes’s ephemeral, poetic presence (lyrically and vocally), with the grounded, sometimes muscular playing of the band. The union produces a gripping high wire act between Sykes’s raw, exposed persona and co-composer/guitarist (and ex-boyfriend) Phil Wandscher’s tightly controlled instrumental outbursts. Wandscher and Sykes’ close collaboration blossomed on the lush and sprawling Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul (2007). The most recent album, Marble Son (2011), furthered the cohesion of the group’s sound, shifting the spotlight a few degrees away from Sykes’s voice (even including their first instrumental track), and creating a space for Wandscher’s most cathartic and exposed playing yet, more evenly balancing the expressive elements between his playing and Sykes’s singing.

I spoke with Sykes on the phone from her home in Ames, Iowa, where she lives with her fiancé who is finishing a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology. She was extremely open and generous with her time, and seems to enjoy a wide-ranging conversation that moves easily from music to politics to personal life, sometimes necessitating her to stop and clarify what is on and off the record. I have also heard her speak just as openly and personal between songs on stage.

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The Rumpus: How’ve you been lately?

Jesse Sykes: I mean, I’ve been good in many ways, but…are we off the record right now?

Rumpus: We can be.

Sykes: Oh, I don’t mind. I’ve been in Iowa, and it’s been insanely hot. I became sort of obsessed with climate change, just because I’m in the epicenter of it all here, you know, with this drought. The crops are dying, the fish are dying. You start getting the sense that something is wrong, that this isn’t just an anomalous event, because it’s going on with the whole world.

Rumpus: And you’re surrounded by scientists.

Sykes: Absolutely. So I see how the whole language of science gets mutilated and politicized by nonscientists. It gets me so angry.

Rumpus: How do these political and environmental issues manifest in your writing or your creative work, if at all?

Sykes: This is the first time where I’ve been at a loss. I’m thinking, How could anything I do creatively ever help fill the void that needs to be filled right now? I feel a little bit hopeless that art in general doesn’t have the ability to create change and to inspire the way it did back in the day—on a mass level. Music and art, in general, will always have the ability to change an individual, to inspire. But in terms of a real collective social shift and the power to make people step out of their comfort zone, I’m skeptical…I feel indie rock is very conservative with a lot of parameters, and people stay way inside the box. It’s very safe. You’re allowed to express yourself in a certain way, but god forbid you jump out of that box, you might offend someone.

It’s a weird time. People need to get radical, but it’s not necessarily going to happen. And by radical I just really mean telling the truth—their own truth. I feel that is what’s missing in many things now: the truth.

Rumpus: You mentioned “back in the day.” What day are you specifically referring to?

Sykes: I know it’s easy to aggrandize the ’60s and have this romantic concept, when so many of the people that were at Woodstock are probably lawyers and accountants now. But it was the first time where rock and roll was new and exciting, and challenging to the status quo. There was a war and a draft. A draft is going to put a fire under people’s ass. And the music mirrored that energy. It had a frenetic intensity about it. Everything was dire. Most bands were singing to save their lives. Music sounded like it meant business—life or death.

Now when I hear a lot of music, I associate it with an iPod commercial or a Nike ad. I just see sneakers and fucking laptops and gadgets. I don’t think about saving the fucking world.

Rumpus: How do we as musicians address that or deal with that? Are we just in a post-significance era, or what?

Sykes: I think we are in a sort of post-significance era for sure, but I think that no one has a crystal ball. If shit gets crazy—say this drought goes on another five years and the supermarket shelves are empty and water is so scarce that people have to leave the whole Southwest and just completely relocate—if you think about a world like that, it’s not going to be about selling a product anymore. Music will once again become a thing to save your life. You’ll need it the way people use it in certain churches, where it’s mainly about testifying and saving your soul.

When I sing, I’m testifying. I am trying to save my soul and connect with people, and I’d like to believe everyone feels that way. I just think there’s a huge spectrum of how far people are really able to delve into themselves emotionally. How much of a mess they’re willing to reveal. It still happens, it’s just not the Arcade Fire, in my opinion. It’s behind closed doors where there’s no cameras, no videos, no posts on Facebook.

Rumpus: When you think of your work as a songwriter, can you talk about an intended goal for your songs? How does your work function?

Sykes: I write almost like an “abstract,” the way that term is used for scientific papers. It’s my way of distilling these things that feel so burdensome and impossible to explain, and that’s why the songs are a little bit pastoral and a little bit abstract. I think what I’m trying to do is talk about all of the things in the world I can’t control—politics, what it feels like to actually be a human in this time, and the fact that we don’t all feel things the same way. [I aim] to incorporate the metaphysical reality with more realism. The metaphysical world is really important to me; the way we have one foot in this weird plane that we think is reality, and then there’s this other world we can’t quite get a full picture of, but it seems to guide us just as much.

And while I’m in the process of writing, there’s this little bell that goes off and this little invisible theater of beings that I play for. They’re my subconscious. If I am somehow resonating with them, it seems to turn into a song. It’s not conscious, but I just know, in terms of my take on what a successful song is, which means for me—am I even going to show it to Phil [Wandscher] or not?—if it speaks to that little internal weird group of people who sit on my left shoulder, then yeah, it passes muster and goes to the next level.

Rumpus: When you’re writing, are you tapping into that other, inexpressible world and trying to communicate some element of it?

Sykes: It’s more about if you closed your eyes, took a paintbrush, and tickled someone’s face with it. It’s as much about the tickling feeling as it is about the reality of the paintbrush.

It’s also important to me that our music be received with the feeling of love and empathy in it. It is very much coming from that place, wanting to connect. There’s a sense of what happens after you die, or the idea that everything’s happening all at once, or that you’ve always been here, versus singing about some guy who pissed you off. I’ve never written a song like that. I’ve written about love, but not in the relationship format. Because I don’t love that way either.

Rumpus: On the exterior, you could say that a lot of your songs are about love, but there is the sense that when you’re writing about love or a relationship, you’re also talking about something else.

Sykes: Absolutely. Love is so complicated. There are so many kinds of love. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe that we’re all connected. That’s my religion. And love is that connective centerpiece, but it’s not always about romantic love. That’s such a small part of it.

I guess I’m always trying to understand it myself. That incredible sense of being alive and seeing such beauty. That, for me, is actually a very painful ride. I use the word “pain” because the feeling grabs me by the ankles and just bowls me over. It can be empathy or it can be something very beautiful you see in a human being or a situation, but I feel it so deeply, it can be hard to contain. I’m wired in a way where the life experience is off the charts. It makes it hard to function at times. And music is the way I try to not only handle that pain, but interpret it. I ask myself, “Why does it cause you pain? What does that mean?” If I wasn’t in a rock band, I’d probably be in a mental institution.

Rumpus: Are you conscious of a developmental arc in your own work?

Sykes: Yes, I do see a lot of development. But for me it’s all sort of hyper compressed and condensed. The four records are now just like a little sugar cube in my hand, where if I threw it in some water, it would dissolve, and I could drink it and “be” it. Because I am “it.” Reckless Burning has so many elements that have now blossomed fully on Marble Son. It’s just all very natural. It’s my subconscious and my process of wrangling it.

It can take a really long time, and luckily, with music, it does take a long time, because you can only make so many records. In my world, anyway. You have to tour and you have to do this and that. I’m not uber-prolific. I used to feel really embarrassed by that. Now I understand it, and I’m not apologetic about it anymore. For me, there needs to be a pretty long window to (a) reflect after one record cycle is over, and (b) you need to resonate again with yourself and figure out, Who am I now?

I am waiting for some inspiration. I know it’s going to have to come from within, but my usual cast of characters aren’t really doing it for me right now. And this is also related to being forty-five. You evolve to where some of those tricks aren’t going to work anymore. It requires more and more each time, because the stakes get higher in terms of what you’re trying to say and what you’re willing to put out there to the world.

The world doesn’t need another inconsequential pop song. I do think it will always need really intense music to ride in tandem with some interesting words that hopefully seem relevant to the times we are in…I don’t know. I’m definitely going through a sort of existential crisis right now in terms of all this stuff. I hate the fucking music business. I hate the way it’s become this stupid little fucking conveyor belt for indie rock. If people knew how safe bands need to play it these days, because if they aren’t seemingly well adjusted, no one wants to work with them, they’d be surprised. But what real artist is well adjusted? It’s just a fucked little ass-kissy game, with a bunch of kids who rolled out of diapers yesterday. What do I have to do with it?

But I also think, Where’s the anger? If I was twenty-one, I’d be fucking seriously angry. I’d be like Pussy Riot. Just be radical. What the fuck? Where are all the angry kids?

You see these entitled young bands that are starting to come up now that were weaned on the tit of these rock-and-roll kiddie camps and they think it’s all a fucking fun and easy process. There’s no darkness, or awareness that a darkness even exists. When we were kids you were emancipating yourself by being in bands and not integrating with the status quo. It was a big deal. When I was fourteen, no other girls were in a band. Parents would look at you and think, Oh, she’s trouble. You were instantly thought of as a slut and druggie. Music on that level, it’s just lost its balls, its poignancy.

It’s like a set of waxed balls nowlike guys who wax their balls. Don’t you think?! Come on…

Rumpus: You’ve talked about this internal audience sitting on your shoulder while you’re writing. Can you describe to me who’s in that audience?

Sykes: It’s probably changed and evolved, and it’s kind of funny, because just the other night I was telling my fiancé that I think they’re all dead. And he was saying, “Well, that’s a good thing. You are literally at your full power. You’re not even needing to be witnessed by external forces.” That being said, when I’ve written a song in a split second, where I go, “Wow,” and I feel like I’m being witnessed by something, and I can’t explain it but everything converges, it does feel kind of divine.

But [that internal audience], they’re not people who exist in the world. It’s not like David Frick from Rolling Stone. There is an essence, maybe…sort of like my childlike interpretation of this court that is there to guide you and help you interpret if you’re on the right track and if you are indeed evolving. They’re faceless, and it’s this strange, gray, almost spectral being. What I, along my journey, perceive to be the highest echelon of greatness, which I aspire to.

I think we all aspire to do something of greatness, but we all probably, most of the time, feel like what we do is child’s play in comparison to the great works of art out there.

There is no one anymore that can give me a cerebral woody in terms of validating me. The people who write the New Yorker are probably twenty-five years old now. They’re all into Bon Iver—the obvious shit. I’ve been let down by some of the external validation.

Rumpus: You reach a certain thing you’re striving for, and you recognize that it’s not giving you what you hoped it would give you.

Sykes: Yeah. The first time you get a mention in Rolling Stone or the New York Times, it’s fucking epic. But after that there’s a point where it’s great, but it’s not the thing to shoot for and it’s like, Okay, I’ve hit that milestone, now what? It’s a good kind of freedom if you’re fortunate enough to hit those milestones. I don’t want to ever take them for granted or make light of them, but it does free you once you’re in the circle, so to speak. All that it becomes about is the work for yourself, and that’s where you get to find out if you’re pure or not. You get to really know, Was part of this propelled by external needs or validation? If the ratio was off, and too much was for that, you’ll never continue.

When it’s just a void that you’re looking into, and all that illusion is gone, it’s the biggest freedom in the world, but that doesn’t come without a cost. There is no man behind the curtain, there’s no great reward. You just do what you do.

It’s a big I Dont Know.

Rumpus: Artists have to peel back a layer of vulnerability, but it also takes a tremendous amount of confidence to get up there and sing, especially in such an unadorned context. Your music can be very spare with a lot of space around the vocals, so it’s really exposed.

Sykes: When I’m actually onstage, there are times I am thinking, Why am I doing this? It’s like a date with the firing squad. You feel so vulnerable. Every insecurity you could ever imagine comes out. For me, at times, I just feel ugly. I don’t want to be seen. But then something happens where—when I’m actually singing—I wrangle that horrible feeling and all that self-hatred turns into something really beautiful. It’s a powerful thing to experience. It absolutely feels, in those moments, like you’re right where you’re supposed to be. But then as soon as it’s done, you’re just raw again.

Rumpus: How do you work? Do you write every day? Do you run off to a cabin for a week?

Sykes: Normally, with each record you’d tour, tour, tour, then you’d have that time where it’s looking like the skillet’s not so hot now, time to just write. In those windows, which were usually six to eight months, sometimes a year, I would just stay home. I always say you just need to make yourself available. That can mean you’re writing but you might be ironing clothes or folding laundry or doing something else. You have to be home, you have to be available.

Now I have nothing but fucking time…and I can’t write! So, pfft, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve written some, but it feels painful. Like sitting down, playing my guitar, and singing almost feels like something’s pressing down on me. So I’m just waiting, doing other things while whatever it is that’s not at peace within me, goes through its process. I’m at its mercy.

I’m trying to be different now, where I’m saying, “Well, maybe I need to do everything wrong and see if the songs come.” I think the band’s temporarily breaking up—of this last incarnation—just devastated me. So I think there is a lot of that sadness going on and I’m just not talking about it enough. It’s going to take some time to let go. The beauty of all this suffering is that when I do “let go,” it will have all been worth it.


Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications. He writes Surviving the Arts, a regular blog column for PANK. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and on Twitter @spinkmountain. More from this author →