Even seven weeks in, lockdown still feels like this curiously surreal space. It’s a Lynch-ian pursuit of stasis, with life outside seemingly frozen as the world huddles inside, linking only by various strands of social media.
For Roya signing Jessica Winter, though, coronavirus has become all too real. Returning from a UK tour, her health began to decline, until she became trapped by “seven weeks of exhaustion and dizziness”. Unsure whether it was even COVID-19 – like many, she hasn’t been able to get tested – Jessica Winter is able to face the future once more, with her startlingly inventive EP ‘Sad Music’ out now.
“Before it came out I was quite daunted by the prospect of putting out a load of songs in one go; the judgement. Now they are released I feel relieved!” she exclaims. “I can move on and feel excited of what to do next. What shall I do next?! An album? A musical?”
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Stylistically, ‘Sad Music’ is incredibly tough to pin down. Nuanced, textured production with precocious, provocative elements, the songwriting moves from the left-field to slick alt-pop moves, guides by the whims of the central figure. Having worked with Fat White Family and Death Grips, she’s both an outsider in the guise of a pop auteur, and a pop queen in the guise of an outsider.
“I think maybe we all have one thing in common, which is a slight madness,” she insists. “At school I was a bit weird and never belonged to just one friend group so that translates into the music. It makes sense that skirting the edge of my pop genre can correlate to Fat White Family’s indie avoidance.”
“Taking genres out of the conversation, the people behind the music that I have happened to work with speak the same language as me, believe and want the same things that I want out of life and are all just a little bit mental.”
Working from home, Jessica Winter’s studio set up has gradually moved up in scale – albeit only from the bedroom to the garden. “It started as a bedroom studio, it’s now moved to the shed in the back garden,” she says. “I acquired an upright piano and about seven synths from the 80s and 90s and still just start from there, really. There are some really nice sounds from the Korg Z1 which I just got, sounds from any 90s film starring Tom Cruise. It’s been great having a window and seeing nature just outside… I’ve spent so much time indoors that I now have a Vitamin D deficiency.”
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The title track is almost self-consciously maudlin, written following “a heartbreak, and while I was on a come down”. She recalls: “I remember dragging myself off the couch and being slumped over the piano and the lyrics for the first verse listing exactly how I felt in that moment.”
Working in an instinctual fashion, Jessica Winter’s music can sometimes be sketch-like, these fragments hauled together in haphazard yet addictive arrangements. Take the prescient ‘World On Fire’, and it’s depiction of crisis reinforcing the bonds between people.
“Everything becomes clear in times of crisis,” she says. “The most important thing to me is love and that’s what I was singing about in this song. Music is an unwritten bare necessity of life, so it will always be crucial in a time of crisis.”
At times whimsically accessible, at others austere and difficult, ‘Sad Music’ flits between two poles, this restless work of an outsider. It’s a position Jessica Winter feels natural occupying – speaking to Clash, she recalls an upsetting early show show in Portsmouth. “I set up my keyboard and microphone and about four middle aged men hurled abuse and called me ‘the wicked witch of the west.’ They found comfort in trying to outcast me and I found comfort that I was nothing like them.”
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“I’ve always felt on the fringes that’s for sure,” she says. “I moved schools a bit so was used to being the new kid and I was always taken out of school from having my hip operations. Even when I was in the hospital for a month at a time I’d be taken out of the ward and given my own room as apparently I’d sleep talk and wake all the other kids up. I remember walking around as a teenager in Portsmouth and getting a milkshake thrown at me because of the way I dressed or just getting started on in general; Portsmouth is very much like that.”
Having fought to gain her independence, Jessica Winter is now a world away from teenage bullies. Making the daily commute from her flat to the garden shed in Brixton, she’s been using her time in lockdown to sculpt fresh musical shapes, switching from electronic production to something more organic.
“During this lockdown I’ve been drawn back to classical music, so I have, for no reason, begun working on the same EP but in a core form; piano, vocal and string, I’ll call it the CHAMBERMIX.”
“I’ve got an idea for a musical that I’m really excited about but that’s going to take a long time… until then I have an album to do! I have no idea what direction to go but I feel I should start each song from the piano and go from there this time. I’m excited.”
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‘Sad Music’ EP is out now.
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