ISSUE #75 / September 5, 2019

Tenci / 📷 : Rachel Lessing

Jess Shoman and company have produced magic with new record My Heart Is An Open Field, and we were able to catch up with the artist before her record release show at The Hideout on Tuesday for a brief chat about adopting her Grandmother’s name as a moniker, how quickly she was able to flush the wonderfully indie folk tunes out of her brain and into the world, and working with the prolific Spencer Radcliffe. Artists don’t get any more gracious and humble as Shoman, and it was a joy to dig into Tenci and all the tender joys she brings to these thoughtfully beautiful tunes.   


Jess Shoman
CCS: Kyle Land

CCS: Your debut full length My Heart is an Open Field released last week, only a year or so after forming the project. Can you fill us in on the evolution of Tenci and how you were able to get these songs out into the world so quickly?

JS: Tenci started with me writing songs and self-recording in my bedroom. For a long time it felt like the right way to go about my music - I was writing songs that were so personal to me that I never thought I'd want them to see the light of day. When I started putting songs online I found it was both exciting and scary that a handful of people started listening, and it made me want to push things further. I had always been so fearful of performing and never thought I'd have the guts to do it - until finally I booked our first show at Hungry Brain. Tina was a new friend of mine and I asked if she wanted to play bass. She had also shown Spencer the songs, and he became interested as well. They both really breathed a new life into my music. After our first show, the momentum and support we received was outstanding to me and things just kept snowballing from there. 

As far as the quickness of the songs - I am always writing songs in my head and have hundreds of voice memos with song ideas that I'm always going back to. I have also been going through really big changes this year, and these songs poured out. I needed to get them out or else I didn't feel good. There was a sense of urgency and purging that needed to happen. We recorded these songs in May in just a few weeks, and some of the songs I wrote the last week we were recording. It felt like a much-needed shedding of skin. 

Spencer Radcliffe has been a fixture in the Chicago music scene for years. How was it to work with such a prolific and multifaceted artist as your producer?   

JS: Working with Spencer was really cool. He's really mellow and it just felt like we were hanging out and both trying to figure something out together. He really listens to every single element of a song and knows how to bring out the best in them. I took his suggestions really seriously and the guidance he gave me was never pushy and always in the interest of bringing the music to the next level. He would often point out his favorite part of a song and suggest adding certain things to make those parts stand out even more. He also played on a lot of the songs and came up with parts that I would never think of. So thankful for him!

The album has such a loose, folky vibe, with elements of experimentation, such as the swirling coda in "Serpent" or the repetitive note transition from "Joy" to "Joy 2." Where do you draw your imaginative nature from, and how does it channel into the work? 

JS: I would say a lot of it comes from the feeling of being stuck in a memory - it's almost intoxicating. If it's painful, you want to get it out of your head but stay at the same time to further investigate where that's coming from. I get really fixated when I catch myself in a moment like that, and I love to visualize what it would be like to pull a feeling or memory out of myself and into a different form. How does that translate into notes and how can I make this sound as true to the feeling as possible? In Serpent, I imagine what it means to be a snake and then what it feels like to get bitten by one and when the poison starts settling in, it's probably really fucked up and might feel like you've been drugged. I've never been bitten by a snake, but the way I've played it feels dizzy and painful - as I imagine it would be.

I'm really happy you caught the repeated note in Joy to Joy 2. The transition was a way for me to emphasize a cycle that when you think something’s over it never is. There are funny ways that life shows you how things repeat themselves so you can have a second chance.

The moniker Tenci comes from your Grandmother's name. What was the inspiration to title your act after a matriarch? 

JS: I was having so much trouble coming up with a name; they all sounded so lame and like I was trying to hard. Then I asked myself what was one of the most important things to me, and without a question, her name popped into my head.  I feel a very special bond with my Grandma, and I feel like we have parallel spirits. It felt right.

If you were booking a Chicago-centric festival, what would the lineup look like?

JS: Oh god, there are so many great Chicago musicians... Mia Joy, Joey Nebulous, Henry Hank, Devin Flower, Izzy True, Curt Oren, Liam Kazar, Fran, Picnic, Sen Morimoto, Glyders, Ohmme, Dehd, Akenya, Bunny, Girl K, Ruins, Kara Jackson, Lala Lala, Divino Nino, Sports Boyfriend, Dearly Somber, Varsity, Whitney, Jeff Tweedy.