Jess Shoman of Tenci on releasing her debut record, “My Heart Is An Open Field”

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Artwork for “My Heart Is An Open Field.” Photo by Rachel Lessing.

Tenci, Jess Shoman’s Chicago folk project, released her debut record My Heart Is An Open Field, with instant success. This project is a collaboration between fellow Chicago musicians she met playing some of her earliest shows including Curt Oren, Isabel Reidy, and Joseph Farago. Shoman went from playing basements in early 2019 to being featured on NPR and Pitchfork, as well as gaining lots of local attention.

Shoman’s one-of-a-kind voice hisses, twists, and slurs over soft melodies. Her shiver-inducing vibrato is gorgeously paired with the myriad of instruments (saxophone, flute, cello, xylophone, synths, piano, guitar, drums, bass, and pedal steel) featured on My Heart Is An Open Field. This nine-track release came early June via Keeled Scales alongside three music videos:

Serpent Forgot My Horse’s Name Joy 

Miranda Roberts called Jess to talk about releasing her first full length record and the influences and emotions that inspired it. 

Miranda Roberts: You recently released your debut album, [My Heart Is An Open Field], what was the most rewarding part of the process?

Jess Shoman: I think finally being able to work with other people, which I hadn’t really done before. Everything came together so organically and felt a little magical because a lot of it was unplanned and really spontaneous. I think I was really present with everyone who added to the record and appreciated how naturally it came. Also I would say, just being able to finally let everything out. I was unpacking a lot of stuff at the time and it felt cathartic to finally free myself of a bunch of stuff, and letting it out into the world kind of aided in that process. 

MR: On that same note of working with those other people, I know you met Spencer Radcliffe and Tina Scarpello through the Chicago DIY Scene. Has the Chicago music scene influenced your work in any other way? Perhaps you have a favorite venue or find inspiration through other local acts.

JS: I feel like I’m still pretty new, but I have met so many cool people along the way. Curt Oren, who plays sax and flute and all of the instruments in the band, hosted one of our first shows in his basement and that’s how I met Curt and Izzy and Joey (who plays drums in the band). We met at a New Years show which was our third or fourth show. It feels really nice to connect with other people and everyone here is willing to help one another and work on each other’s stuff. It feels like a really tight-knit community and I remember feeling grateful and surprised for that really early on, not even having my foot in the game yet. I had just been starting and people were still super super supportive. Everyone plays in each other’s bands and it’s really cool to see everything so intermingled and I think that’s really exciting!

MR: Now that the record has been out for about a month, do you feel any different about it? Have emotions changed? Do you find yourself taking a break from things or writing more music? 

JS: It’s been out for about a month, but, I don’t know if you know this but, I had self-released it before in August of 2019. So, It feels like I kinda relived it again which is cool. I think I find myself kind of revisiting the songs thinking about how my perception has changed now as opposed to the place I was in before which is really cool to see the progress of myself as a person and as a musician. I feel like usually when I write songs I get sick of playing them, but I still feel excited to play the songs and they’ve changed so much with the new band members. I feel like they’re comfortable being recreated in some ways. 

I have been writing a ton of new music too. At first it was kinda hard with comparing the new songs to the old songs; do they measure up to each other? But then I let that idea go and it feels a lot better to write new stuff now that I can see how everything I’ve learned along the way has been solidified which is really cool. 

MR: When did you first start writing songs for the record? I know it was your first big project so maybe some were written quite a long time ago.

JS: A couple of them were written, I would say probably, in 2010 to 2018 and they changed quite a bit since then, but a lot of them were actually written very closely to the time that we recorded the record. I had been going to therapy for the first time and I had all these new feelings that were literally shooting out of me [laughs] and so the songs just came out really really fast. I would say about half were written while we were recording or a week before that. I would say “Earthquake”, “Serpent”, and “Hair Sticks” were written late 2018 or in the beginning of 2019.

MR: Do you have a favorite song off your record?

JS: Hmm it changes a lot. I really like “Blue Spring”. I really love playing “Blue Spring” live. It has a lot of moments that feel really exciting and make me feel really connected to myself and my instrument and to the band. Also “Hair Sticks” I really like to play live but overall, I’d say that “Blue Spring” is probably my personal favorite.

MR: I’ve seen online that lots of people have been interpreting the album as an ode to life’s small beauties. Do you agree with that? If you do, do you have anything special like that you’ve noticed this week or maybe during quarantine? 

JS: I definitely agree with that! I feel like a lot of my songwriting concepts is taking really small bits and pieces of a span of time. I like to write little pieces of things that I see walking around in my notes and kind of piece those together and eventually a song will be inspired by those things. I think recently I’ve been noticing birds a lot more, and just spending a lot more time outside and trying to find some peace that way during all this. I’ve really been taking notice of birds and how they interact with the world and I think they’re the coolest animals ever [laughs].

I’d say I’m really fascinated by birds right now and I hope that I can get one. I’m always talking about how fascinating I think birds are and how parrots are the only animal that can talk and sing songs with me and it’s really mind blowing to me.

MR: PTM is all about highlighting female, trans, and non-binary voices in the industry. Do you have any personal favorites or femme-fronted bands you like that our readers should check out?

JS: I would say Mia Joy from Chicago. It is one of my personal favorites from here and I would say I’ve been listening to Christelle Bofale a lot (she’s on father/daughter records). I would definitely check those out!

MR: Before we wrap, I love to end my interviews with a quirky question, so if you could be in the Olympics for any sport, which one would you pick?

JS: Gymnastics – I don’t know what has come over me in the past year, but I have this really intense feeling in my body that I need to do a flip or like invert my body, so I’ve been practicing cartwheels and handstands, and I have been looking up stuff for when quarantine is over like adult gymnastics classes. It’s something that I am really curious about and I think it would be really cool to be able to move my body in that way!

My Heart Is An Open Field is available now and you can follow along with Tenci on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and bandcamp.

Miranda Roberts is a recent graduate from the University of Kansas with a passion for writing, music obsession, and a serious crossword puzzle addiction.

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