Thanks to the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, my priorities have dramatically shifted. Before the pandemic, I defined myself by my productivity at the office. I collected new favorite songs through my Spotify algorithm without questioning how those songs came to my feed. In general, I felt unfocused: I just kept moving along with what the world had in store for me, trying my hardest to keep up while broadcasting an air of nonchalance. Once everything came to a grinding halt and I was left alone with myself and my work, I had to choose but to become an active participant in my life and recalibrate my priorities. It’s still a work in progress, but so far, I like to think it’s working in my favor.
Chicago-based singer-songwriter Jessica Mindrum faced that same extraordinary question as the pandemic took over her life. As life grew more challenging, particularly when beloved family members passed away amidst massive destabilization, changes in her approach to living life forced her to reevaluate her own musical project. The resulting overhaul is a hypnotic and devastating collection of songs that make up her new EP, Restart, Begin. As I listen to Jessica ask “Will you protect my heart?” on “Do You Think That God Is Laughing” with such urgency, I feel myself crumble. We got the chance to catch up with Jessica before Restart, Begin’s release, where we got the chance to elaborate on embracing sincerity and beauty in the creative process, love of family and pets, and her work at Audiotree, all of which manifest on her process of producing Restart, Begin:
Slumber: What three words would you use to describe Restart, Begin to someone who’s never heard your music before?
Jessica Mindrum: Contemplative, cinematic, immersive. The immersiveness is really what I wanted in making this record. I wanted people to be able to sit on their bed, put on headphones, and just float away.
Slumber: One thing I found striking as I learned more about Restart, Begin is that it came about as you revisited a different set of songs that no longer held the same value to you. What convinced you to leave that project behind for this one, and how did it feel at the time to realize your vision had changed?
Jessica: My producers and I – Joe George and Rick Fritz – started recording the original set of songs on March 8th, 2020. Five days later, the world shut down. Then, we had a period of 6-7 months where we didn’t go into the studio. In that period of time, a lot of life was lived on my part. I experienced two deaths in the family and the pandemic itself. I revisited those songs and felt, “I feel nothing about these.” There’s one that I like that I might revisit at some point, but I was just like, “I don’t see myself in these songs anymore.”
It felt like a chore working with those songs. Thankfully, I had been writing over that 6-7 months, so I had more songs that I was more proud of and even some more that didn’t make it. It just felt so much better. We also had a different approach with the earlier set of songs. The approach with the earlier songs was so heavier, like I wanted to be Chelsea Wolfe. And then with these songs, I kinda realized that they’re just not Chelsea Wolfe songs. I love pretty music, I do. I love when it makes me feel immersed in something. These songs felt like that and they felt representative of the last year of my life. It felt relieving to let go of the past project. I didn’t even want to look at those anymore!
“Immersiveness is really what I wanted in making this record. I wanted people to be able to sit on their bed, put on headphones, and just float away.”
Slumber: It’s wild to think of how this year’s experience with lockdown has revolutionized our emotional landscapes and artistic visions – how has the pandemic made your writing or production processes change?
Jessica: I have a hard time writing songs to begin with. Then, the pandemic hit. I’ve talked to people about this too, and some people have been like, “I was really creative and then it fell off completely.” That’s kind of what happened to me. I was really into the idea of journaling and playing guitar every day. I was going to try to write songs as a discipline instead of just when it comes to me. And then the pandemic stretched longer than I thought it would. Not everyone does this, but I write from experiences in my life. When you’re having no experiences, you run out of things to write about. So, I was really creative for the first month, then writing sort of dropped off, then the summer happened and the grief of losing my grandma and uncle within two months was something to process. That’s where some of the songs came from. Life was happening, so I could write from that.
Slumber: Restart, Begin puts grief front and center throughout, addressing several deaths within your family. As you’ve sought to share that grief with your music, what have you learned about yourself or about creation in the process?
Jessica: I’ve learned that I have no ability to be mysterious. I’ve learned that, for me personally in my writing and songwriting, I have no desire to beat around the bush. I’m funny and friendly and not a downer, but people will listen to my music and they’re surprised. It’s because my music is where I can express, without any fear of judgment. I can say what I’m really feeling. I learned in terms of songwriting that I can only really be honest in it. I don’t have any other option. I don’t see any other way of writing. I also learned to trust myself a little bit more. Like, “Cardinal” was written in real time. I wrote that song in however long that song is. I was in Cape Cod, sitting on the deck, looking out and singing, and wrote that song. I learned to trust myself.
Slumber: This is also one of the first records I’ve come across that references grief from the loss of a well-loved pet. How have your pets been an influence to you?
Jessica: The album was completely written by the time my dog Chatham died. I just thought that well, that makes the record even more poignant. I sometimes wonder if I loved Chatham too much – because I also have another dog named Wrigley who I love but Chatham was special, I got him when I was 11 years old. It felt like I could real his brain. He felt like a person to me. I felt like I knew him! I remember talking to a therapist in college – “why can’t I love people the way I love Chatham?” The real reason is because dogs can’t talk, it’s not transactional. My dogs have just taught me that I have the capacity to love deeply. I do wonder if I’m broken, but my dogs are proof that it’s in there! It’s just gonna take some work.
Slumber: I’ve seen Wrigley on the Audiotree socials!
Jessica: Oh yeah, I do exploit him for likes.
“The album was completely written by the time my dog Chatham died. I just thought that well, that makes the record even more poignant. I sometimes wonder if I loved Chatham too much... he felt like a person to me.”
Slumber: The portrait on the EP’s cover is striking – how did you come up with the idea to do that?
Jessica: I knew that I wanted the cover to be a picture of me in my apartment. I had this idea of taking a film photograph, but I live alone and it was a pandemic, so I couldn’t get anyone into my place. But, I have a friend who’s an incredibly talented artist. In the past, unprompted, she’s sent me watercolor versions of my previous 2 EP covers. They’re beautiful, just insanely gorgeous. So I thought, why can’t I utilize this talent of my friend? I sent her a picture and she painted it. I love the painting route because of Joni Mitchell. I’m not Joni Mitchell, but who can be? The first few albums are portrait-based. I like the ambiguity of a portrait – it looks like me, but it doesn’t look like me. I like that distance, which maybe I need to talk about in therapy, but I like the fact that there’s a little bit of mystery in that kinda portraiture.
Slumber: Where should someone choose to listen to Restart, Begin for their first listen?
Jessica: Two options, both with headphones: one, in the dark on your bed, eyes closed laying down. Or, walking along a body of water/in the woods. I think those are two good spaces. They’re solitary, cinematic spaces. Ever since I was a very little kid, I loved the drama of walking in the snow and listening to music or looking out the window and listening to music. That kinda vibe.
“Not everyone does this, but I write from experiences in my life. When you’re having no experiences, you run out of things to write about.”
Slumber: Perfect, I’ll have to take mine to the river next listen. I particularly love “I-88,” and have been into motifs of travel lately. I think I’m just a little stir-crazy because I haven’t had an opportunity to get out of my city in quite a while. What does your ideal road trip look like, and what’s on the driving playlist?
Jessica: I love driving. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve never been out west, so I probably *should* say out there like the Grand Canyon, but in actuality, I would love to drive to Maine. You drive through the midwest, which I love because I’m from here, but then you get into upstate New York and get some mountains, then you get to Maine (where I’ve never been) and it’s forest-y. You travel through a lot of different spaces to get to Maine. It’s fairly secluded, too.
On the playlist, that would have to be Gregory Alan Isakov, Angelo de Augustine, Judee Sill. Acoustic guitar-based songwriting. I’d get tired of that and go to KAYTRANADA.
Slumber: It’s super cool that your day job is with Audiotree – what do you do in your role with them?
Jessica: I’m a booker and a host, and I do photography and I do social media.
Slumber: Lotta hats!
Jessica: Lotta hats. It’s a small company, so everyone’s gotta do a lot of things.
“...my music is where I can express, without any fear of judgment. I can say what I’m really feeling. I learned in terms of songwriting that I can only really be honest in it. I don’t have any other option. I don’t see any other way of writing.”
Slumber: Has your work or any particular experiences at Audiotree informed how you want to be as a musician?
Jessica: Oh, certainly. Oh man, it’s revamped how I look at the music industry. I went to College of William and Mary and I majored in religious studies. The entire time I knew I wanted to get into the music industry but I had no basis of what it was. I wasn’t even listening to much DIY music at that time. My favorite band was, and is, The National. Being a fly on the wall for so long at Audiotree to booking and hosting and meeting more people personally brought me down to Earth. I, to this day, deify musicians. Like, Sinai Vessel was just in the studio. I listened to his album and was just like, “I can’t believe that you’re in this place now after writing this beautiful stuff?” I still have this sense of wonder about it.
It let me in on the secret that music is an industry and it’s a job; songwriting isn’t this mystical thing. There’s all these arguments to be made about muses or whatever. But it is attainable if you work at it. I spent my entire high school and college career wondering if I had the specific gene for songwriting. There just isn’t a specific gene, it’s just working at it.
Slumber: Yeah, that’s gotta be pretty cool, just having this revolving door of talent and people and stories.
Jessica: I feel really lucky that – because Audiotree caters to a specific indie world of music – everyone knows everyone, so this is like a hub. People will come by the studio and we’ll talk about who we all just spent time with or just met. It really is a revolving door of passionate people and similar interest.
Slumber: A revolving door of good vibes.
Jessica: Exactly! That’s the slogan at Audiotree.
Slumber: Where do you want to go next, musically?
Jessica: I’d like to make an album. I really just want to make music that I’m proud of and feel authentic to me and what I’m going through – not just trauma stuff, but anything at a given moment that I’m experiencing in my life. I used to think, I wanna be HERE in 2022, then HERE in 2027. Now, I’m just kind of taking it as it comes now, and if things happen, I’m going to try and I’m going to actively participate in my life. But in general, I’m riding a wave. I’d like to just make stuff that I’m proud of and I want to write well. I’m a singer and I write songs, but overall writing is really important to me, so I really want to write good songs. That’s all I ever want to do.
Get a taste of “Restart, Begin” below, before its official release tomorrow (5/21):