In the summer of 2018 Jessica Risker released I See You Amongst The Stars, an album on unusual intimacy and strength. Along with the album came a sequence of self-made videos that captured the artist’s delicate psychedelic perspective. Folk infused, but modern. Modern, but with a timelessness, the album conveyed a quiet confidence in the endurance of the self.
Jessica Risker spent the summer touring the album, launching a business, and oh – giving birth to a human being. To put it lightly; she was more than a little busy. We never got the chance to talk, until now. So finally, as the year stumbles to a close we look back at one of the most beautiful, delicate, and strong albums of the year and ask Jessica about process, perspective, and the intensity of getting it all done.
popbollocks: We’re speaking long after the release of the album. Can you speak a little on how your relationship with the material on I See You Among The Stars has evolved since the material was first conceived, and now it’s being shared with the public?
Jessica Risker: I think, due to all the performances we’ve done since the release, Josh and I have become really in-tune with each other while playing the songs. Josh has a lot of talent and ability to play around with the psychedelia he creates during performances, and the music has really settled into itself. I also do original video projections during performances to enhance the dreamy and spacey-ness of the songs.
popbollocks: The album sequence is bookended by two tracks that offer contrast. ‘I See You Among The Stars’ is clearly large-scale and outer looking. ‘Help Me Help Me’ sharpens the focus to a more personal scale. Both tracks start with an audible count-in, as if you’re preparing to address a serious concern. Did you envisage the album as a journey between two perspectives, or are more random forces at work?
That’s an interesting observation! I was very intentional about the flow of the album musically, but the bookend contrast in perspectives wasn’t so consciously intentional.
popbollocks: Your vocal register on the album preserves a level of intimacy that is hard to manufacture. Can you speak a little on the process and of any technical difficulties in capturing the quiet?
Jessica Risker: I knew I wanted to record most of the album to tape for that particular warm, fuzzy background tape-sound, but when I tried doing it myself it proved difficult to both perform and run the 4-track without constant annoyances like accidentally knocking the microphone out of place. Also, at the time I lived underneath a Chicago el track, and so every 4 minutes or so a train would go by and that was difficult to work around. There’s an engineer in Chicago named Dave Vettraino whom I’d worked with before, and I knew we both shared a love for a particular brand of quiet folk music. He was very enthusiastic about working together and he helped a lot in achieving the sound we envisioned using the 4-track. Part of the quiet sound is just the way I perform, and the rest is all Dave’s recording techniques and engineering.
popbollocks: Lyrically you also deal with a spectrum of emotions which are incredibly strong, but which often arise as quiet reflections. Oftentimes you make yourself vulnerable. Can you speak a little on the process which preserves emotional honesty whilst preventing a kind of emotional over-exposure?
Jessica Risker: Well, I’m glad the lyrics come across that way! In a way I’m not sure exactly how a certain balance is achieved. I definitely draw inspiration from an emotionally honest place; my music serves partly as pure self-expression, but I also feel the only way it will resonate with others is through sincerity, and so I stay devoted to that expression of vulnerability. When choosing words, there’s almost a quiet sense of internal “resonance” when I’ve arrived at a certain way to express something that tells me it feels right. And that’s basically my measure of whether to go with it or not.
I would also say much of the lyrical content isn’t consciously created, it’s something that has more of a feeling of “occurring” to me rather than something I sit and think up. Kind of like how thoughts or images come to you when you’re almost asleep, they seem like they’re happening to you rather than you sitting there and thinking up your grocery list, there’s a different quality of mental processing going on, and in fact a lot of the lyrics come to me during that time which means I often wake myself up to write them down or else they’d be lost forever.
popbollocks: If we can talk about ‘I Cut My Hair’ for a moment. It’s a song in which the narrator addresses a tendency to pursue attention; seeking confirmation of worth from a disinterested lover. It feels like a deeply personal song with roots social pathology. Can you speak a little on the intention of that song?
Jessica Risker: I think of that song as a pastiche of love memories, a reflection on the culmination of my own past romantic experiences, both good and bad. A lot of the lyrics just sort of “came out” (per the answer to your previous question) including the line about cutting my hair, but the image felt strong and certainly something I’ve experienced before.
popbollocks: Instrumentally, there are moments where you place contrasting tones beside one another. ‘Anyway When I Look In Your Eyes’ is a moment that brings very pleasing distortions, dissolving into ambient noise. For all the cerebral content of the album, it’s these moments – between thoughts – that bring magic. Can you talk a little on the discovery of those sounds, and your approach to mixing noise-art with more traditional structures?
Jessica Risker: Joshua Wentz performed the keys and electronics on the album, and he’s amazing at what he does – he really knows how to manipulate the machines, we’ve worked together for a long time now so we sort of together understand the end goal. We worked hard on finding a certain sort of timeless electronic psychedelia for the songs. I wanted to make a folk album, but I wanted to do my own modern twist on the folk singer-songwriter sound, to incorporate these types of noises and electric dissonance without being obnoxious or making the listener feel like it’s anything but a folk album. We would play the songs together and he would experiment with sounds and I would direct and help fine-tune; in that vein we stripped away quite a bit as we worked, leaving just enough to support the songs and create this dreamy type of modern psychedelic bed I feel very pleased with.
popbollocks: There’s a strong dreamlike quality to the progress of the album. Dreams, reflections, and tiny details are explored against personal mythologies. Did the writing this material reveal anything about the subjects that you didn’t know at the start of the process? (What did you learn through the writing of these songs?)
Jessica Risker: I wouldn’t say I learned anything about the subjects of the songs themselves, but, as with every album I’ve made, I certainly learned more about the recording process itself.
popbollocks: The videos you shared for ‘I Cut My Hair’ and ‘I See You Among The Stars’ are very particular to your vision. How big is your time investment in making these visuals?
Jessica Risker: I made the entire video to ‘Cut My Hair’ in about 48 very intense hours right before we released the single. We had planned two other videos for the album (for ‘I See You Among The Stars’ and ‘Zero Summer Mind’) by other video artists, but neither were ready yet, and I didn’t want to release ‘Cut My Hair’ without a video. Since I have some experience making video flyers and collages I was excited for the challenge, and very happy with how it came out, but it was literally all I focused on for those two days. Jenna Caravello made the video for ‘I See You Among The Stars’ and it’s incredible. She had the full concept and vision from the beginning and I completely trusted where she wanted to take it, as I’m familiar with her other video work and love everything she does.
popbollocks: So,would you consider creating visuals for other artists, and if so – which songs would you like to interpret?
In theory I’m open to it, but it’s hard and time-consuming and since I have limited time anyway I tend to want to reserve it for working on music. I do make the occasional video flyer for friends’ events and things.
HURRY – BUY – JESSICA RISKER MUSIC