Interview: Tenci

by Paddy Kinsella

Following the release of her mesmeric debut, Jess Shoman opens up about the women who made her, and the music she holds deep within

‘I feel just really connected to her in an unexplainable way. I can see myself looking exactly like her and being exactly like her [when I’m her age]. It’s interesting to think how our experiences are so different, yet they still have some parallels to them. She’s a huge influence in my life’.

That’s the high regard in which Chicagoan, Jess Shoman, speaks of her Grandma – her kindred spirit. The inspiration for her moniker, Hortencia – Tenci for short – raised Shoman alongside her mother after her father fled the family home when the now singer songwriter was just ten. ‘I was such a daddy’s girl, I was attached to the hip and wanted to do everything he did, so it was a really big blow’. It’s these painful memories, ones that eventually saw Shoman seek out trauma therapy, that make up Tenci’s inimitable debut, My Heart is an Open Field. Collage-like, her memories meet like rivers flowing into an endless sea, gently meeting and lapping over one another until they become amorphous; one.

Her debut’s acute singularity is indebted to the single mothers who raised her; Shoman’s grandmother divorced young, pledging to never start another relationship for fear it may negatively impact her children.  Shoman’s determination to strike out her own path, to not ‘shake my tail’ as she puts it, comes from these formidable women. ‘I feel like I always have the mentality of needing to do everything on my own which played a lot into my early music days, when I was like no-one else can help you, you have to do everything yourself’, Shoman explains. ‘My Mum and Grandma are the strongest people I know and that plays a lot into the messages of my songs’.

Shoman’s guitar playing, lyric writing and singing are entirely distinctive. With no history of music theory, the guitar is formless – snaking around her wounded, guttural vocal. The lyrics are pieced together – jigsaw pieces laid down over time to complete a coherent vista. Her voice, however, is the central feature; the miraculous star that guides the wise men to the divine son. She lengthens her words until they lose all meaning, locating the tension in her body and resounding it through – the skin eventually shed to expire in the grass. ‘I don’t know how I came to it exactly. I love how it feels within my body when I’m doing it. It feels like I’m shaking all my organs around, it feels very visceral to me. For me, it’s more important to get the emotion across of how the vocals come out of my body than understanding my lyrics. I rely on my voice to guide me through’.

That desire to find tension and resolve it, to stretch and release, is mirrored throughout My Heart is an Open Field. Blue Spring finds Shoman unsure of her place in the world, a feeling she sits with until the wave passes, concluding ‘I’m good, I’m here, I’m good’. She also uses mantra meditation, an ancient practice where you repeat the same word over and over to slow the mind – see ‘hair sticks, hair sticks, hair sticks, hair sticks’ on Hair Sticks and ‘stay, stay, stay’ on Earthquake. ‘A couple of people called this out to me and in the beginning; I didn’t realise I was doing it. I like the idea of driving the message at its simplest form, one or two words into myself. Chanting. You can feel it moving through your body and I don’t think I realised how much I relied on repetition in terms of how it feels in my body. I really liked this idea of cyclical movement in the song’.

Though an age-old tradition, it was a Margaret Glaspy concert that inspired Shoman to braid the technique into her songs. ‘When I perform the songs, you don’t know how long they’re going to last. I got really fixated on it after I saw Margaret Glaspy. I saw her perform and she did something with one of her songs, I think the last lyric was ‘times I took forever to forget’ but instead of just saying the full thing, she was repeating ‘times I, times I, times I’ and then finished the sentence. I loved the tension and then the resolve. I got really fixated on creating tension and then resolving it. I got that feeling from that moment’.

The body is at the root of all resolve for Shoman. In how she prioritises the sound of the vocals coming out of her body over the intelligibility of her lyrics, and in how she repeats, repeats and repeats to understand how an emotion feels within. A hardy vessel, she wants its nourishment to continue far beyond this life, to eschew the ultimate resolve. ‘I was telling my mum the other day – “you can bury yourself as a tree and regrow when you die. They make you into a bulb and you get planted and grow into a tree.” I just think that’s such an insanely beautiful idea of renewal, and almost like a reincarnation that can give back to the world in a really cool way. I could easily be a tree and I could easily be a human, there’s no in-between to me’.

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