Now, Now's Jess Abbott breaks out on her own with solo project Tancred.
“This is how we learn to be happy / This is how we learn the hard way,” Jess Abbott sings on “Control Me,” a track that sounds like a rare Letters to Cleo B-side. But despite her saccharine karaoke-able pop rock sound throughout her third LP, Out of the Garden, Abbott’s playful delivery is juxtaposed against its darker themes – eschewing antiquated beliefs on gender and sexuality and not giving one iota of a fuck. Abbott, who also plays guitar in ambient indie rock trio Now, Now, began her solo project Tancred in 2011. Five years later, Tancred has just finished their first string of headlining shows. Jess was kind enough to talk to me about '90s movies, touring, and religion.
The Le Sigh: First of all, congratulations on your first set of headlining shows! That’s exciting.
Jess Abbott: Thank you! We just had the last one last night. It was great, my mom and a bunch of friends were there. It was at a DIY art space which was cool.
TLS: How does being a headliner compare to being an opening act?
JA: Even with Now, Now, we didn't headline as much. We were usually just supporting for years. And Tancred has done supporting up until the last week. But headlining is bizarre. I'm just not speech-savvy enough to say cool things in between songs, and that's where most of the stress comes from for me – to try to not bore everyone. My banter is awful.
TLS: You just finished touring with Speedy Ortiz. How was that?
JA: It was incredible, they're awesome people. We spent a night at a hotel with them and The Good Life. It was like a haunted hotel in El Paso and it was probably one of my favorite nights ever on tour.
TLS: Something I like about Out of the Garden is not only its biblical allusion but you also talk about patriarchal norms in the Garden of Eden. Why do you think gender as a theme plays a more crucial role on this record than on your previous ones?
JA: I think the idea of gender and sexuality and minorities came together in this album because I wrote these songs at a time when I was just awakening. I grew up in a very white-washed area, like a classic American area. I grew up in Maine and it's more liberal than a lot of places in America for sure, but there was still so much I wasn't exposed to. When this election started being in the media everyday, I just realized that I wasn't caring about a lot of things that I should care about. So I started reading the news and caring about things and made it play into my music. And gender is a big thing right now. As Sadie [from Speedy Ortiz] can tell you, gender is dead. Gender is over. There are no boxes anymore. It's just a fascinating time to be creating things because there's so much to feed on, so much to think about. And the idea that anything you create can maybe help someone else figure it out is nice.
TLS: Definitely. Are you into poetry at all?
JA: I do like it, but I don't read poetry very much.
TLS: Oh, well there’s this Anne Sexton poem with the line "I was tired of the gender of things" and it has an Adam and Eve reference which reminded me of your album.
JA: Nice! Yeah, I feel that I could gain a lot from reading poetry. But, I mostly read a lot of instructional books and I re-read Harry Potter and Buffy comics over and over again.
TLS: Yes. Amazing! Sort of going back to the Bible a bit, in "Bed Case" and "Control Me," you talk about feeling like God and being God-fearing. Were you raised religious?
JA: No. I wouldn't say I was raised atheist but I wouldn't say agnostic either. It was just never talked about. Like, the only thing my mom said to me about religion when I was growing up was "If kids at school talk to you about Jesus, ignore them." That was the only thing she said because she didn't want me to get brainwashed...I feel like it's such an opposite experience to have in America. And when I got older, she told me I should be more spiritual so I would be less stressed out. But that's the most religious she ever gets with me. But, basically there are a lot of religious themes because as a woman especially you find that religion dictates what you can or can't do. And as someone who isn't religious at all, I hate that. It's just a total lack of control there where, "You think this thing of me because of a religion that I don't even give a shit about."
TLS: Yeah, I get that. I like how you mix big topics like religion and gender politics within catchy pop songs.
JA: Thank you. Yeah, I'm obsessed with pop music. I think people discredit it even though it's a great way to communicate with a lot of people at once.
TLS: Your first album, Capes, is a lot more gloomy and acoustic. What led you to more of a rock 'n' roll influence?
JA: When I wrote Capes I was nineteen and really emotional. The first Tancred song I wrote was "Old-fashioned" and I wrote it on tour with Now, Now...I sat in the back of our van and we had an acoustic guitar lying around back there and I picked it up and just wrote that song. And for some reason I let that dictate the direction of the project and I made an acoustic album just because I wrote one acoustic song. I didn't really have the vision for it, I was just really bummed out. Then, I wanted to make something more full-bodied and then that's when the second album happened. I still felt it was a little too emotional for my taste. Now I'm older, I'm just jaded and pissed off about a lot of things in the world so that's where this new album comes from.
TLS: How has your songwriting, from your themes to your tone, evolved since the first album?
JA: I think I'm singing less from my personal experiences and more about general experiences for lots of people – just for anyone who has any lack of control in their life, whether it's a personal way or a bigger way. My first album is just me whining about relationship stuff that happened to me.
TLS: I really like your music video for "Bed Case.” It's very 90's, and I know you really like 10 Things I Hate About You.
JA: On the Speedy Ortiz tour, we took a day off and I toured all the 10 Things I Hate About You stuff in Tacoma and it made my life. It was so much fun.
TLS: What other pop culture influences do you have?
JA: A big inspiration on the record is just how violent and abrasive human beings are. Whether it's an abuse situation or how people can be consensually violent. I wanted to project that idea through '90s pop horror vibe, like Scream; just bright, happy colors with blood on them. That's just the mindset I'd get in before I wrote any of these songs.
TLS: I read you worked at a liquor store and that it affected how other people saw you as young or maybe demure. So that frustration of being seen a certain way, I can definitely understand it.
JA: Yeah. That's like what I was saying earlier about being exposed to things that opened my eyes a little bit, about gender and all those things. And that happened when I was working there because you see some shit working at a liquor store. I was being treated like shit – not by my coworkers but by customers. When you get a drunk man talking to you, they let you know how they really feel. They didn't know me, but because I was a woman they were dumping all their shit on me. I was just like "This isn't cool..." So, I feel like I became a completely different person after working at that liquor store. I was very meek and mild and very wrapped up in my own world. Now, I'm just like, "Get off my back" all the time.
TLS: What are your summer plans?
JA: We're doing a show with Motion City Soundtrack in August and we're playing Riot Fest in September. And in the meantime, we're working on booking some fall touring. So in the fall we'll hit it hard but for the summer we'll probably start discussing a new video. Mostly just preparation for what we're going to do soon.
TLS: What do you do for fun when you're on tour?
JA: Usually the first part of the day is spent just waking up, showering, and driving for forever. But if we ever have free time, the first thing [Tancred drummer] Kevin does is grab his skateboard and skate off into the distance and we don't see him for an hour. [Tancred bassist] Terrence is usually playing video games or watching videos about gaming. And then I'm usually on my phone on Twitter, refreshing and tweeting things for hours. Yesterday, Kevin went to a skate park and we went and watched from the parents' lounge.
TLS: So supportive!
JA: Yeah, he was standing on top of the half-pipe and he had never dropped into one that big before so he was hesitating and sweating. Terrence and I were at the bottom just encouraging him like "You got this, man!" 20 minutes later, he finally did it. We totally felt like his parents and kept saying things like "Honey, let's go watch Kevin smack into the half-pipe!"
Listen to Tancred on bandcamp.
Photo by Chloe Aftel
Written by Taylor Silver