September 7, 2016

Interview: IAN SWEET

Jilian Medford of IAN SWEET weighs in on Kate Bush, anxiety, and Takis.

When I called up IAN SWEET's Jilian Medford, she was walking through Boston's Harvard Square. At one point, Medford was stopped by a woman who asked for directions. "I don't think there's one time in my whole life that I've ever given the right directions," Medford tells me. "I have this rule with myself that when I feel like I'm going to turn right, I automatically need to be like 'No, I need to do the opposite.'" This upside-down idea is one that encapsulates IAN SWEET's new record, Shapeshifter, perfectly; finding the comforts of routine in the face of self-doubt, like going to karaoke when you're depressed or eating ice cream in bed. Though Shapeshifter was written on the heels of Medford's college graduation and a brutal break-up, the record is more of a meditation on how to reconcile being a person again, as you carve out small sanctuaries to feel sane. 

IAN SWEET began as a solo project in 2014 while Medford was studying at Berklee College of Music. At the time, Medford was playing shows under IAN, a nickname she'd been given as a middle school tomboy. After recruiting bassist Damien Scalise and drummer Tim Cheney and lengthening the band's name (apparently there's a Christian rock music producer who trademarked his own name, Ian), the trio became IAN SWEET. The band's debut LP, Shapeshifter, is due out on September 9th via Hardly Art. I got to speak with Medford about the record, as well as her thoughts on Kate Bush, anxiety, and Takis.

Jilian Medford: Hey, how's it going?

The Le Sigh: It's going well, how are you doing? 

 JM: I'm good! I just ate a fuckton of sushi.

TLS: Awesome. Where are you at right now? 

JM: I'm in Boston right now because we just played at Clark [University] in Worcester. The train ticket from Worcester to New York was like sixty bucks and I was like "Dude, I'm broke," so I just came back to Boston. And I'm eating a lot of sushi that I can't afford.

TLS: I read that you went Berklee. I was wondering how your formal music education influences your music.

JM: Yeah, I went to Berklee and studied contemporary writing and production so I took a lot of classes on songwriting and being in the studio...I had to do vocal lessons for six semesters and that's definitely where the different types of styles came in. At the end of the semester, we had to do a classical piece, an Italian piece, a jazz piece. You had to perform it in front of a jury and people would judge you. It was so intense. At first I was really, really against the, "I don't think I can do this, I have my own way of singing." I was really thrown off when they were like "OK, you're gonna have to sing some opera shit right now." Not that I would sing that way on stage, but it opened up my mind to the way I listen to music and people singing. Sometimes I get a little freaked out when I'm conscious of how I'm singing because knowing too much about way you're doing can sometimes be a little freaky.

TLS: A friend of mine dropped out of film school because he thought he was being sort of manufactured into this particular director or writer they wanted. It's interesting -- mixing artistic and academic environments. 

JM: A lot of people I know dropped out of music school because they didn't want to know what they were doing and wanted to go for it. So, Berklee was a lot of "take what you want from it," so you don't feel pressured to change your style. It was cool though because sometimes I got to choose the pieces I wanted. In my last semester, I worked on a couple Kate Bush pieces and really got to dive in note for note...Not that I have a singing voice like her, but you can work on noticing really specific thing, the musicianship. So I bring some of that into my own music.

TLS: Do you come from a musical family? 

JM: Not at all. The only thing my mom sings is my own music. She knows all the words, it's so sweet. I was on the phone with her earlier and she was like, "Send me all the lyrics to the songs so I know them when I come see you!" My parents are creative, though. My mom owns an art gallery in L.A. She definitely grew up in a supportive family in the creative world, always going to art camp and stuff. My dad sells solar panels. Not too creative, the environment. So L.A.

TLS: What kind of music did you grow up on? 

JM: The first concert I ever saw was Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush with my dad when I was like four or five. My dad is the biggest Peter Gabriel fan. My mom loves Tina Turner and Annie Lennox. Just really powerful female presences were being listened to in my house. My mom loves Bruce Springsteen. I grew up with parents who fuckin' love music. When I was twelve, my dad started taking me to Coachella. We went every year. He'd disappear and go to the beer garden and I'd be watching Coldplay or something. My mom always says she gave birth to me while listening to Tracy Chapman and I'm like, "Okay, that makes sense."

TLS: Are you self-taught on guitar? 

JM: Yeah, I'm self-taught on guitar...I asked my mom to get me a guitar when I was twelve, like a blue electric guitar because I wanted to be Avril Lavigne. I only learned Avril Lavigne songs for the first six months.

TLS: As you do... 

JM: Who doesn't want to be Avril?

TLS: You’re originally from Los Angeles, but you’ve also been apart of the Boston music scene and now reside in Brooklyn. How have these cities influenced your sound or mindset while working on the record? 

JM: Yeah, I grew up in L.A. but I wasn't active in any music scene there. I grew up in the Valley area so it was far away from a lot of the DIY spaces out there. When I went to school in Boston, in my second year I was dating someone who was playing in a noise rock band and they were heavily involved in the DIY scene. I started going to a lot of underground shows and bands who were loud and crazy and getting naked and I was like "WHAT IS THIS?!" It was so inspiring, honestly. The more shows I went to in Boston, the more I wanted to get a full band together and play my solo songs loud and just be present. There weren't a lot of female-fronted bands in Boston for a long time. Like, Cassie, who fronted Guerilla Toss, was so special and such a strong female presence. But besides Speedy Ortiz, who left for a while, when we came on the scene there weren't too many female-fronted bands at the time so people wanted to help out in any way. I've gone through a lot here and it was just time for me to move on, so I moved to New York. I live with a couple people who are heavily involved in the scene. I live with Cleo Tucker who plays in Girlpool, and I lived with Harmony when I first moved out there. My living space is very healthy. Everybody's really driven and focused and supportive of each other.

TLS: I want to talk about Shapeshifter. I really loved its lighthearted moments and how they're rooted in nostalgia, like "Slime Time Live" or how VHS tapes keep you company in “#23.” Why do you think '90s nostalgia is so prevalent now?

JM: I think going back to nostalgic moments and easy things like sitting in front of your TV and watching Slime Time Live while you're eating an after-school snack. What did you ever have to worry about then? What were you ever conflicted with? You'd just go outside and ride your Razor Scooter with your neighbor. Just the ease and the beauty and the colors - how everything is so ingrained in your mind from that time. Sometimes now if I sit down and try to focus, there's still a million other things on my mind so I never fully digest something. It was just a simpler time.

TLS: I just watched the music video for "#23." I was at Coney Island recently so I appreciated the video showing isolation in such a public space. 

JM: Yeah, it was so interesting. Just being there in that outfit with the wig. All these kids on the beach were like "Are you Lady Gaga?" No one was even really paying attention at the same time. It was cool to do the video there because I'm sure they've all seen crazier shit at Coney Island.

TLS: How'd the idea for the video come about? 

JM: My good friend Eleanor is the one who directed it. I met her at SXSW last year at the Hardly Art showcase and we just hit it off...I wanted to go with the idea of a being a figure that is alien-like, a little bit non-human with the whole white outfit. I wanted to be around families or people doing a team activity, while I'm wandering around alone connecting with this inanimate object like the basketball. That's how I feel on a daily basis. The video represents loneliness but also pure joy.

TLS: Have you seen Beyonce's music video for "XO?" 

JM: Is that on Lemonade?

TLS: No, it was on the previous album. In the video she's at Coney Island playing games, basically an unrelatable version of your video. She was just so happy to be at Coney Island so every time I watch it I'm like "I do not relate to this, Beyonce, like at all." Then I watched "#23" and I'm like "Oh my god, that's me." 

JM: Like Beyonce, c'mon, make something more relatable. What if we all just related to Beyonce so hard, like "Ugh I get it, I get it."

TLS: Did you watch the VMAs? 

JM: I didn't, but I just stalked Twitter's live feed of everyone talking about it. My mom was also giving me the low-down. She was like, "The best part was the end when Drake spoke from his heart about Rihanna." I was like "I know, I love him."

TLS: I'm curious to know why you love Michael Jordan so much.

JM: Well the song "#23" is about a couple different things but the lyric about singing "I Believe I Can Fly" at karaoke stems from this boy I was dating. We'd often do karaoke and text each other the songs we were singing that night. So it was a night I was feeling extremely depressed and lonely. I went to karaoke by myself and I was just wailing on "I Believe I Can Fly." It was during the performance I was just like "Fuck yeah, I feel like Jordan." I felt on top of the world just singing that song. And my dad's a basketball referee in his free time. So growing up, we went to a lot of basketball games and he was a huge Bulls fan. So I just had this love of Michael Jordan at a young age. One of the greatest...and he's just really inspiring and humble. I'm talking about Michael Jordan like I know him.

TLS: Apart from Jordan, what are your influences? 

JM: I'm so influenced by really strong female performers, like Bjork and Kate Bush. I'm really inspired by just how I spend my time when I'm alone...These last two years that I was writing the record I spent a lot of time alone. It brought me to this place of feeling pure bliss when I'm alone, like eating ice cream by myself all the time. A lot of the record is about the little things I latch onto that most people might not understand.

TLS: Anxiety and identity are major themes on the record. What did you learn about yourself or your process while writing Shapeshifter

JM: Writing the record was really difficult for me because I was finally coming to terms with the depression I've had for years and wanted to get help. Forcing myself to get outside of my head and write the record about something difficult but also therapeutic. So through that process, I started to seek help and be healthier with how I dealt with my anxiety and depression. A lot of the songs that were written in the moment, I don't even remember writing them. My anxiety was so severe, that time of my life was like a blur...I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about their anxiety because they don't understand it. It feels like you're dying and everyone's different too, how you take care of it. There's nothing wrong with you if you're depressed. There's nothing wrong with you if you're anxious. You're one of the more aware, creative people on the planet.

TLS: Silver lining! That's nice. 

JM: You're just aware of how shitty life truly is!

TLS: The band's Facebook page genre is "snack food." So, what would you say are some very influential snack foods? 

JM: You know what I've been eating a lot of lately? I've been eating a lot of Takis. I'm addicted to them but my tongue will get so raw and it'll hurt for days after if I eat too many. But I can't stop. The Fuego flavor is definitely what I'm into. So yeah, that's the influential snack food of the moment. I also eat a lot of candy. Sometimes I'll call my mom and I'm like "Ugh, I don't feel well" and she's like "OK, did you eat candy last night?" It's like I'm hungover. A band candy we always eat is Mentos, like the fruit flavors. Damien got us all into those. Now and Laters, for sure. Twizzlers. I'm just always eating. I always have something in my mouth (laughs). There's this place called H Mart in Boston that has Asian snacks. I always get these candies that are chocolate balls with strawberry gummies in the inside. Every time I come here I always load up and get like 30 tubes of them. I could go on...

TLS: This is a hard-hitting question, I totally understand. What's your astrological sign? 

JM: I'm a Taurus.

TLS: Same! 

JM: Really? When's your birthday?

TLS: April 25th. 

JM: Oh my god! I'm the 20th. We're so close. We should have a joint birthday party. 

TLS: Oh my god, you're 4/20. 

JM: I know, it's wild.

TLS: And Hitler's birthday. 

JM: And Hitler's birthday. These people just walked by me the second I said "And Hitler..."

TLS: That explains why your Twitter handle has 420 in it. I thought it was just a joke! 

JM: And I don't even smoke weed because I get too weird. My mom thinks I'm a stoner and I'm just like, "You birthed me on that day."

TLS: You're about to go on tour. What are you most excited about? 

JM: Well, I've never been to Canada. We're going to Toronto and Montreal. We're playing at a place called the Drake Hotel. I hope my man shows up. We're touring with Horsejumper of Love and they're just angels on earth. They're one of my favorite bands right now. I only want to tour with people who I want to see play every night. I'm also excited for our record release show in New York, we're playing with Florist. Emily is, ugh, just one of the sweetest people ever. I just feel like tour is a party and we get to see all our buds we've played with multiple times..I'm just really excited to see our friends and celebrate this really huge accomplishment for us. It's our first record so I want to celebrate by hanging out with a bunch of buds in different states.

Listen to IAN SWEET on bandcamp.

Written by Taylor Silver