Interview by Jess Dominguez and Olivia Best
WLUW had a conversation with songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Jess Shoman of Tenci shortly after the release of their second album A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing. Tenci is a staple to the tight-knit Chicago music scene, making waves by blending a country-esque sound with intimate songwriting. Jess let us in on her personal inspirations and how it’s reflected in Tenci’s one of a kind sound. Shoman shared insight on the differences they faced creating the sophomore album compared to their first, More DIY, album My Heart Is An Open Field. Along with Jess Shoman, Tenci is joined by Curtis Oren on saxophone and guitar (and any other instrument really), Izzy Reidy on bass, and Joseph Farago on drums.
Tenci is starting 2023 right by heading on tour starting January 21st. Check out tour dates here!
What’s the meaning behind the name Tenci?
It’s my grandmother’s name. Her full name is Hortencia, but everyone calls her Tenci. I was having a lot of trouble finding a band name when I was first starting. They all were sounding really cheesy, so I just asked the question – what is something very near and dear to you that sounds genuine and I was like oh Tenci, my grandma.
I can really relate to that, being very close to my grandmothers! The women in my family, especially my great grandma, are strong figures in my life.
Yeah, I have a similar experience. My mom and my grandma are the strongest people I know. My grandma moved here from Belize when my mom was a little girl and she had four kids at the time and just picked up and left and ended up here. My mom is also a single mom. I admire them and look up to them a lot for getting through that. Grandmas are very important!
You have a very unique voice so I was wondering when did you hone in on finding your style?
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved singing so it’s definitely been a journey to find my voice and it’s still changing a lot. Going back to the grandma thing, I never grew up in a family that was super musical. I’ve always envied that with other people who had parents who play guitar and sing. But I do remember my grandma singing idly while doing chores and cooking. It was always romantic with a nice vibrato. She didn’t mean anything to come out of it but subconsciously it stuck with me. She always had some sort of novella on and you know, it’s very dramatic and romantic a lot of the time. That’s how I can trace it back to why I’ve kept that feeling with my singing. And all the other music I listen to mixed in with that makes me sing the way that I do. It definitely changes and I just love using my voice as its own instrument. I think there’s a lot of cool things you can do like I imagine mimicking different instruments. It’s very fun. I’m not classically trained in guitar or anything like that so it’s my one place to feel free to explore and it doesn’t have to be any certain type of way.
Your music definitely feels more personal the way you use your voice as an instrument. Speaking of your inspirations, what musician do you admire?
I have so many different musicians that I admire. The people that I always go back to are John Prine or Karen Dalton, or Nina Simone, anyone that can tell a story in an astounding way. I think I’m just automatically drawn to. With the first album especially I was listening to a lot of John Prine and Arthur Russell, things like that. But, I still listen to other very popular artists like Sufjan Stevens. I was just going off about him yesterday. I just feel like he’s a genius. He’s very to himself too which I think is cool. You don’t really know that much about him because it’s hard to find information on him. But it’s always changing. I’ve just started listening to music more. This past year I’ve had a really hard time listening to music if you experience that.
I feel that! I’ve just been going through a podcast phase.
Yeah I feel like the pandemic had sucked the joy out of everything. It was too much and hard to enjoy listening to music.
Definitely. I also feel like folk music tells a story within a song and the lyrics in your music make me feel a similar way. I feel like whenever I listen to Tenci, no matter where I am, it has that effect. Especially when the first album came out at the beginning of the pandemic, it was very soothing and I felt like I was laying in a meadow and was able to transport myself with your music.
Aww well thanks. I feel like that’s the goal. I have a lot of feelings as a person and a musician and I think being able to contextualize them in a way that can transport you is really important and what I’m always drawn to when I’m listening to music. If by the end of those three or four minutes, if I forget where I am, I feel like that’s a good sign that it’s a good song to me.
Yah! We just talked about your first album, My Heart is an Open Field, and we want to know what was the difference between releasing that album before the pandemic, as opposed to this last album you just released
That was my first time ever making an album. When we recorded it, it was a little more DIY. We recorded it in my friends house and I was sitting on a bed singing and playing guitar. It felt more natural to me just because that’s how I’ve always made music – just in my room by myself. That album was actually recorded in 2018/2019 and I had put it out myself and didn’t really expect anything to happen. I was like “I’m just sharing it.” That was when the label helped re-release it, so it was well before the pandemic that the album was made so it definitely feels like a completely different time. It was also recorded really hastily because the person I was recording with, Spencer, was about to move so we only had a couple weeks to get everything done. It just feels like a blur. We just did it really fast and it still felt like everything came out naturally because I was at a phase in my life where I just felt like I needed to purge all these really crazy feelings.
With this new album, I think it was more methodical and I had a lot more time to think about what I wanted it to be. I think that they’re both beautiful in their own distinct ways because of the environment that I was recording them in and with the time I was given, but it was foreign to me. I was like, “Wow I can have endless time, I don’t need to record it by a certain time,” but I just felt this rushed feeling anyway because that’s what I was used to doing. I think with this one it felt a lot more open and like I had freedom to play around a lot more and experiment. With this album, I had a set band, we had already played these songs before, and we had been working on them for a really long time together. Before that I had some people I was playing with, but it was more so just me making more of the decisions of bringing people in to play certain instruments and things like that. This one just held a lot more patience and I was able to really sit down and go through every detail of what it was going to be and what it was going to sound like. I think not one sounds better than the other, they both have different cool qualities about them that I really like. I’m really curious to see how this next one goes, I don’t have anything brewing at the moment but I’m just curious to see what decisions I make in the future as far as recording goes.
I definitely notice a difference between the albums. When we were listening to the latest album, we were talking about how it feels more instrumental in a way.
Yeah I think I felt like I could actually have the space to do that this time because I wasn’t rushing. I was like, “Oh I can make something that sounds more profound instrumentally” because I had people I really trusted playing with me for years before that. So that was fun for me to finally feel like I could just let it be what it was going to be and have my bandmates add their own twist to it. That was really fun to watch.
So the Two Cups music video was released not very long ago and it looked really fun to make. We were interested in what it was like to film it and how you found people that looked like you guys.
Yeah! That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a video. I worked with John Terrik who’s directed a lot of Tenci music videos in the past so he’s a trusted friend. I just needed someone that would understand my vision with this. The whole premise is that we have these evil doppelgängers who are getting the better outcome of different situations, but in the end we all come together in a certain way. It’s like these mini competitions between each other.
I was really worried it wasn’t going to work because I thought, “there is no way we’re going to find four people that look like us and are all going to be available and all interested in doing this.” We almost gave up multiple times and thought we had to change the idea. After digging and asking around, ya know, being patient I finally found the right people. Some of them weren’t extremely close, like last minute our drummer Joey had to ask John, our director, to be his doppelgänger, because they looked just close enough to where it would work. I think what really sold it was us having the same hair and outfits because we thought it would be funny for people to not look exactly the same. But my sister, I think, was the closest. She’s a few years younger than me and obviously looks a lot like me because we’re related. It was a blast. I believe it was a two day shoot and it was really hot outside, but we were just having fun playing games. I felt like a kid again – playing outside with your friends for days.
I love the part when everyone was outside in a field playing with a parachute. Anyways, are you all on break right now till 2023?
Yeah we’re on break and then we have a tour coming up in January. We just had our first headline tour last month. It’s been super fun. In January, we’re going south and playing in Florida and New Orleans and all these cool places we’ve never been before. I’m so curious to see who’s out there. We played the east coast the last run we did in November two other times, so we know there are some people out there coming to the show. With January, we’re really just shooting in the dark but I’m excited. In April we’re going to the west coast so that will be fun. Basically we’re trying to escape the Chicago winter.
The idea of touring is super cool – you’re able to go to all these places you’ve never been before, it sounds like a cool experience. We were also wondering as a musician and artist, what are challenges the community faces while having to tour? Does it affect your mental health at all?
It’s definitely one of the most challenging things you can do as a musician. Especially if you’re at a level where you’re not making that much money yet and getting your feet wet. There’s a lot of work that goes into it beforehand and during. Then there’s a mountain of expenses that go into it, so at the end of the tour you’re really not making the full amount of work that you put into it. What makes it worth it is being able to share the music and getting to meet people that feel moved by your music – that’s the most important part for me. It’s super challenging though. When I get back home I feel like my brain is dead from constant movement, it takes awhile to recalibrate.
I think there’s lots of things that can make touring more comfy for musicians and a lot of education gaps that could go into educating younger musicians and musicians that have not toured before. There are a lot of little terms that you don’t really understand until you do it. I feel like I wish I had that before. Luckily, my bandmates have toured a bunch so I was leaning on them to help me make sure everything was going smoothly. Now, I feel like I have a good grip on how to do it in a way that makes sense for all of us. It’s a lot of work especially if you don’t have another job. You put in all this work trying to book these shows, make sure everybody is being paid, and have places to stay if you can’t afford to stay in hotels. So it feels like I’m doing so much work and it’s like I’m not actually getting paid for this. It’s fine because I love doing this. It’s a lot but it’s great at the same time.
I can see how constantly traveling can be exhausting. Does everyone travel together in a van?
Definitely. Before our last tour we had only been traveling in my bandmate Curt’s Prius. We weren’t taking our drums with us because we were doing a supporting tour before then so we were borrowing drums. It was such a tight squeeze getting all of our instruments and the four of us in our tiny little car. During one tour, we got in a big accident in Colorado and that was really scary. I was like, man if we were in a van I would have felt a little safer, ya know, because we got hit by a semi truck. This last tour, since we are headlining, we’re taking out all our instruments, so we decided to rent a minivan and it was worlds better. It was a brand new minivan that has a heated steering wheel and we had so much room. But the downfall was that it was almost two thousand dollars for us to rent it, so that took a big chunk out of what we would have made. Ya know, you have to weigh the pros and cons and at that point our comfort took a priority more so than making like an extra five hundred each.
Lastly, now that you’ve been touring so much and headlining, what is your current favorite song to perform live and what do you think is the crowd’s favorite?
It’s always changing. Right now, I really like playing “Sharp Wheel” off the new album. “Sour Cherries” is really fun because it has a lot of movement and I get to scream a little which is always a really nice release of energy for me especially after having a long day in the car. Judging off people’s reactions, I feel like people really like “Be” and Curt has a crazy sax solo and every time they finish there’s a moment of quiet before I sing the last line. As soon as they stop, everyones like cheering and stuff so I’m always singing that last part with everyone clapping because they were going crazy with what Curt just did. It’s always really fun. It changes and we change the songs a lot to fit the energy of the night. It’s fun, especially in different places, to see what people are into.