You probably know Jessica Kion as the bass player and backup vocalist for Bent Knee, one of my favorite bands, and arguably one of the most important bands in the modern progressive music movement. But Jessica is also the beautiful mind behind Justice Cow, which can best be described as an artistic project that creates, as it was described to me, “videos that will make you laugh and music that will make you cry.” Justice Cow has been around since Jessica’s days at Berklee, and features Bent Knee band members Ben Levin and Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth on guitar and drums (respectively). If you’re a fan of absurdist/dadaist humor a la Tim & Eric, or a fan of emotional, sometimes gritty stories told through music that might make you cry (especially the latest album, Fam Fiction), then I invite you to go down the Justice Cow rabbit hole. In the meantime, to commemorate the creation of her new Patreon, Jessica answered a few questions for us about her musical past, present, and future.
1.) What made you gravitate towards bass guitar? Did you have any particular musicians that inspired you to play?
I started playing bass guitar after playing cello for a couple years. My friends in orchestra wanted to start a band and they read treble clef and already had guitars so it was a natural assumption that I would play bass. I was just excited to be in a band I didn’t really know much about bass and I couldn’t even pick it out of a recording when I first started playing.
2.) What are some of your favorite Bent Knee or Justice Cow bass moments to play?
“Time Deer” and “The Well” from Bent Knee’s collection are insanely fun to play. Really juicy and unusual parts (for me) in those songs. For Justice Cow, my favorite bass parts are for the songs “Elephant Man” and “Miss Dickinson” Elephant Man for its pointillism-type interaction between Ben, Gavin, and me. “Miss Dickinson” because I just thought it’s a pretty part and it was one of the first songs where playing and singing together was more difficult, so overcoming the hurdle brought me closer to the song.
3.) Tell us about Justice Cow. Where did the name come from? How did it start?
Justice Cow started a little bit after I started writing songs. The name came from Ben- it’s a pet name just a few evolution cycles away from “Jessica” you see “Jessica, Jussica, Just becuase, Just a cow, JUSTICE COW!!”
It started as a 5 piece playing my songs and about a year in, it settled on 3: Gavin, Ben and Me. We started playing at more intimate shows and with all our experience with Bent Knee, the more we were playing music outside of bars, the happier I was. Living Room shows started being our main way of performing and we never performed that much. We have been on 2 tours- the first being the documentary “Flying on the Angels’ Wings”.
As soon as we played in living rooms, the comedy element of the band was explored more and that was really fun! We started having gags on stage, a few being:
-Brushing our teeth on stage
-Using the demo song “Twinkle Twinkle” from the Casio keyboard as our stage music for 5-10 minutes before and after the set
-Gavin being possessed by a sex demon
-Turning off all the lights and chanting
-Making audience members improvise rap verses
From really early on, I wanted Justice Cow to be a show that made the audience laugh and cry. So to pair with this ultra silly-ness, I had heart-breaking serious songs. At most shows, I think we managed to make people laugh and cry and some just cried from laughing to hard, which is a fine toss up.
4.) Do you have any plans to continue to do living room shows/live performances with Justice Cow?
I would love to continue having living room shows with Justice Cow! Right now, it’s a little more difficult with Gavin spending a lot of his time in California so I’ve seriously considered cutting it down to a solo act or duo act with Ben in the meantime but it just wouldn’t be the same. Gavin is unquestionably the funniest and most straight-faced member of Jcow.
5.) Your Justice Cow videos are amazing and hilarious. What inspired you to make your videos?
Thank you, Thomas! I was attending Improv comedy classes for about 2 years after trying out stand up and I desperately wanted to find a way to combine my humor, my visual art, and my songwriting together. Justice Cow became that outlet for me. I was super inspired by Andy Kaufman, Tim and Eric, Sarah Silverman, and had just read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants and Improv classes seemed like a fun thing to try and I LOVED it. When we started making Justice Cow videos, they were seen by a lot of confused people right away. So I kept making more. I’m only now getting back to making fun videos and it feels amazing!
6.) Some Justice Cow material has resurfaced on Bent Knee albums- “Black Tar Water” is an example. Is it tough to turn over a song that you wrote and that might have personal meanings to your band, or is it awesome and exciting?
Bent Knee picking up “Black Tar Water” was a fun song to Bent-Knee-ify. It felt precious to me and I certainly didn’t want anything bad to happen to it but I trusted that Bent Knee would make it better and that’s what happened.
I have now turned over so much personal material and working with Bent Knee gives the songs a life I couldn’t give them on my own. It’s a little tricky sometimes but there’s a lot of respect, empathy, and understanding that makes the process easier and that gives us great results in the end. I have wonderful bandmates.
7.) Who are your favorite songwriters, and why?
Sufjan Stevens for all of the reasons. His music has been through so many changes and he can write about anything and make it beautiful. I could talk about Sufjan Stevens for about 4 hours straight and I have done it before to very bored and polite friends. His song “Casimir Pulaski Day” was the first to ever make me cry. I was in my second year of Berklee and music had never made me cry- what was I thinking? Also, a lot of time I spent with Ben in our early dating years listening to Sufjan and so I have a lot of memories with that music and falling in love with Ben.
These artists have all had a profound effect of my writing and appreciation for music.: Kendrick Lamar, Mitski, St. Vincent, Radiohead, Beach House, Joni Mitchell, Big Theif, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Regina Spektor, Lorde, Dirty Projectors, Punch Brothers, Run the Jewels, Lauryn Hill, Andy Shauf, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Sia, Esperanza Spalding, and The Dillinger Escape Plan.
8.) What are your top 5 “desert island” albums?
To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
Ok Computer by Radiohead
Capacity by Big Theif
Run the Jewels 3 by Run the Jewels
9.) What kind of content should your Patreon subscribers expect to see and hear?
My patrons should expect to see a lot of content in the vane of the Justice Cow YouTube channel and live shows. A lot of goofs and gags. A lot of visual art: comics, doodles, coloring books, sketches, animation.
One of the features I’ll be unveiling soon is a new segment called “public sucking” where I focus on things I suck at and document 2 weeks of working on them everyday and getting to see the progress. I am really noticing how so much art is presented in its final form, and most people don’t get to see really amazing artists suck at anything. I want to bear my vulnerabilities and show my weaknesses.
10.) If you could borrow one evolutionary accessory from an animal (ex. moose antlers, fish gills), what would you ask for?
I would borrow a kangaroo’s legs. I would be so down to jump high and powerfully. That would be dope.