Vintage Keyboards and Finding Yourself During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Sis

Article and interview by: Clara Copps

Gnani is a 6-song EP that was put out earlier this year by Berkeley-based artist Sis. Sis is Jenny Gillespie Mason, a former writer, founder of Native Cat Recordings and a mother of two.  Gnani is an electronic album, but still retains a very soft and tranquil quality. It also includes a wide range of instruments, including vintage keyboards, congas, bass, and various electronic soundbites to create a unique sound that varies on every track. ‘Wooie’, in particular, showcases the talent Mason has for combining a multitude of different sounds to create a cohesive and visual song. Mason worked with a few other instrumentalists that have been involved in Sis albums in the past, including Brijean Murphy and Doug Stuart, who recorded their audio from their own homes and then sent it over to Mason to be combined with her vocals and production.

Mason was kind enough to sit down with me one afternoon to discuss the release of her latest project and other topics such as the pandemic, music production and her writing process.

I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about Sis? 

Yeah, so I met an engineer, his name is Rob Shelton, and he and I pretty much started the band. Over the course of two years the band included roughly 6 people, and he and I were producing things together, so we recorded two albums together and it was very much like a full band project. Then in 2020 right before the pandemic everybody moved to LA (I’m in the San Francisco area) and I was not quite sure how I would continue since it had it had been this full band thing. Once the pandemic hit, everybody started making, like, bedroom records anyway so it just seemed like a good time to teach myself how to do that at home. I learned Ableton and pretty much built out my own studio so I could start doing things from home, and that turned into Gnani. I recorded everything here, mostly, and some of the players are from the original band, so they recorded their parts from LA and then I put that onto the songs later. So, yeah, right now it’s pretty much just a solo project and I think it’ll probably stay that way, at least for the next record, because I have a really nice thing going on just with my home setup. 

I know many artists have talked about how the pandemic has thrown such a curveball at the music industry and, yeah, like you said, there’s a lot of people writing and producing albums from their own home or on a smaller scale than normal, so do you think that the process of writing Gnani and releasing it from home has given you any insights that will affect your music going forward?

I think, yeah, because I was [originally] working with the band and with another producer and if I hadn’t had this situation thrust upon me I would probably still be working with a producer in the studio and, you know, that has its place and it was wonderful, but I don’t think I would have gone as deep into the record because I was alone, I was able to make all of my own choices and I didn’t really have to bounce it off of anyone, which, that can be wonderful, but it’s just what I needed for this record, I needed to be with myself and trusting myself. I think that built the trust that I needed to go forward to the next record, where I really trust my own artistic choices, my own artistic voice, and, you know, whether or not that’s by myself or with the band [that trust has] been strengthened. 

I was also reading about how you used different vintage keyboards in the production of your album, so could you explain for our readers that aren’t as familiar with music production the difference that it makes in the album?

Yeah! I’m really drawn to vintage gear because I feel like the soul of the player is still in the instrument, and I think the instrument itself has a soul from just being around for so long, so I think they make more interesting sounds then a newer keyboard. I mean, I just bought a 1967 Rhodes and it’s so creaky and if you were to play it to someone who’s not a sound designer they might like, ‘what?’ but because I’m approaching compositions from a sound design perspective, I’m looking for, like, more texture and more personality in the instruments. That was really what drove me to bring those [keyboards] into this record because I was making an electronic record with a lot of electronic sounds, but I didn’t want it to lack that organic feeling.

Wooie by Sis

Yeah, so I know in addition to being a musician and a record label founder you also do some creative writing and some poetry, and I was wondering how that type of writing interacts with the process of writing lyrics.

I used to do poetry a lot more and I was writing poems and keeping the two pretty separate, but now I find that I basically just keep something I call a “bin” and I just throw in images all the time. Sometimes I’ll write a little poem or even a piece of prose and they’ll go into the bin, and I just basically refer to that, like when I’m making a record I’ll draw from images in the bin. I think that poetry and songwriting are very separate endeavors and even though I’m bringing in images from poems, I would never want to, like, sing a poem. I think poems are very visual and they need the space, and the eyes tracking the words on the page, so even though they’re sort of conflating ’cause I’m using some things from poems, I still like to keep them somewhat separate.  

Gnani, Sis’ new EP

Could you talk a little bit about starting Native Cat Recordings and what role you play in that now?

 I started that around 2017, and it was basically just a way to put out records by bands in the Bay Area that I really liked. We had a good run, I think we had seven bands on the label at one point, and I have to say right before the pandemic I did, like, a soft shutdown of the label because it just got too big (even though it was only 7 bands). It was very stressful, and I was running it all myself, I had an assistant, but it was still a lot of stress, and I needed to take some time just to calibrate myself as a mom and a human being. I sort of announced ‘we’re not putting out records anymore’ but then I reopened it to put out my own, and, you know, I think moving forward if I were to do formal records, I think I’d probably want to do reissues, so I’m actually looking into that right now. There’s a record by someone I really love that is very obscure and is not on Spotify or anything, so I’m looking into maybe reissuing that for him on the label, but we’ll see.  

Yeah, that’s fair. I can imagine that having that background, like you were saying before, gives you the freedom to make decisions and put out music on your own terms and not have to work through the chain of command.

No, I’m glad it’s there, and I don’t really want to fully shut it down ’cause I at least want to be able to put my own stuff out through it.

 I know 2022 is a big year for releases, and there’s already been a ton of stuff that has been put out (including Gnani), so is there any anything in particular that you’ve looking forward to or already listening to?

Gosh, I’m so bad, I mean I think I’m still listening to stuff from 1971! I mean I really like the Blind Date Party that came out (did that come out 2022?) by Bill Callahan and the Bonnie Prince Billy, that was really good, it’s like this like double album with all these interesting artists producing them and they’re doing all these covers. The last album I really liked is by this woman who is local, Mikayla McVey, that came out 2022. She’s wonderful, she’s like very pure alt country. 

You can listen to Gnani on Apple Music and Spotify, and check out the ‘Wooie’ music video

 for a beautiful 3-and-a-half-minute dive into Ghibli-inspired animated visuals.

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