Interview with Jessica Kion (Bent Knee, Justice Cow) about new album, “underglam”

Jessica Kion is a rare type of artist who doesn’t shy away from accessing the full range and depth of the human experience. Some of her songs and videos will make you laugh, some will make you cry, some will teach you, some will fill you with hope, and some will make you dance. Jessica is perhaps best known for her work with Bent Knee, although she has contributed as a session musician on numerous projects. She has also released a handful of albums under the moniker Justice Cow.

Her latest Justice Cow release, underglam, is a powerful set of stories told through songs with thoughtful lyrics, poppy hooks and lush, deep orchestration. Jessica stopped by Proglodytes to talk about her new album, why she chose the themes she did, what it was like working with a producer, what it was like working with her brother, her new Twitch channel, and the possibility of Justice Cow playing live.

The latest Justice Cow album, underglam, was just released a few days ago. When were most of these songs written? How did this album come to be?

Underglam is full of some OLD material. Stuff I wrote while babysitting Courtney and Vince’s lovely cat in 2017 or 2018? Stuff I wrote even before Fam Fiction was out in 2016 and one song that got straight up converted to Bent Knee material (“wasn’t even there” in the collab called “Paper Earth”) . I think there were 2 main seasons of piling up ideas and then about three and a half years of throwing stuff away and polishing what we had left. I had sort of a glamorous situation while writing Fam Fiction. I was awarded a grant to work alone in a beautiful house for 2 weeks on Martha’s Vineyard and it was the first time I felt I was granted real permission to just hunker down and make art all day. This was epic and so important in my artistic confidence but then… I found it SOOOOOO hard to make anything once I got home, Ben (my sweet little hubby and artistic twin cosmic dance partner) is always making stuff in the next room, my neighbors are hammering and yelling, and I was so worried they could hear me and would judge me. All that led to the most intense writer’s block I’ve ever encountered. Like, throwing ideas away 3 seconds after they popped into my brain. So, a lot of these songs ended up coming from a place of giving in to my ideas that I wanted to throw away so badly, but I became so bored of not getting anywhere that I thought I might as well try building on stuff I didn’t like.

You mentioned that some of the songs took on new meanings following the pandemic. How so?

I think particularly Samuel ended up striking chords and evoking stuff that looking back feels a little oracle-y to me (maybe it’s just me). The lyrics in the first verse are “Having flashbacks that smell like teargas, Having flashbacks of the future too” I think after the summer we had in 2020, these words mean something much more real and present in the collective conscience than what I wrote them as- a sort of vague dystopian thought. Then, the whole chorus is about being in a horrific accident. In the song, it’s a bit more serious and sad, but it preceded the traumatic van accident Bent Knee had in 2018 in a blizzard in Wyoming.

“Lady Liberty” was written before Ben and I had done any activism work at the border and learned much more about the civil liberties being rewound. The pandemic and the administration only continued to make things worse down there. While I was animating parts of the song last summer, I felt this strong urge to use pretty intense imagery like Lady Liberty being dragged to the back of the line by border patrol and police that move like a 200 person swarm pepper spray lady liberty with her hands up. I think I will use slightly less “nail on the head” imagery for the last 3rd of the animation. But it felt like the song became more true. Also, I just learned (in the book How the Word is Passed) that the Statue of Liberty was originally supposed to be holding broken shackles in her hand instead of the tablet, the designer was a very intense abolitionist. But it was only a few years after the Civil War and the US decided to not “make people uncomfortable” so they decided to put barely visible chains on her feet to allude to slavery, but most people miss that detail.

This album was produced by Josh Friedman (That One Eyed Kid). What was it like working with a producer on this record? What were you able to achieve musically and vocally with Josh’s help?

Great question! Josh was really fabulous to work with! I’ve known Shosh for like 12 years and we’ve been bandmates and good friends for so long! This album got to live in 3 of Josh’s apartment studios! I thought of working with Josh because he had produced some poppy-leaning stuff and I was really curious to lean in the poppier direction too. The process was, like, MANY hours of me explaining the songs and Josh taking a few notes and asking questions. Then early on, he started improvising with some synth parts and I remember the sounds alone were making me freak out- they were just soooooo much cooler than what I had in the demos. And he would just play something in that felt perfect. On the first take!

My favorite part of working on this album was tracking vocals. Because Josh is a great singer and a great teacher (and we also learned, an EPIC producer) He was able to easily convey new things to try and new ways to sing these songs. And he pushed me wayyyyyy outside of my comfort zone and supported me out there so I could hold onto some of my confidence and intention while I felt like a weirdo making dumb duck sounds. You can hear Shosh say “Let’s give it the old college try” at the beginning of “Samuel”. I imagine it’s a similar feeling to being directed as you act on a movie set. You try something and get feedback and try it again and really great directors get better takes out of you than you knew were possible. That’s exactly what it felt like. I remember even being a little worried to have the album out in the world because I wasn’t sure if I could ever sound that good live. But luckily I feel like a ton of the stuff I learned about my voice stuck with me.

The lyrical content on this album is highly varied. What are some of the different ways you wrote lyrics on this album? How did you decide to tell the stories that you did on this record?

Very true!! Well, I wanted to very much not write about my family stuff anymore since I felt like Fam Fiction covered so much of that territory. And like I said, I got REAL blocked while writing this music so some of the stories were strongly influenced by podcasts I was listening to, books I was reading, and movies and shows I was watching at the time. I was really trying to step into other people’s shoes to see the world as them and report on how it felt. I think “Molasses”, “Future”, “Incinerate Me”, and “Same Same” are all examples of exploring thoughts I don’t particularly think and feelings I don’t really share. I’m not really a “why’s it gotta pour when it rains, why’s it gotta rain all the time” kinda gal. I’m more of a “Lets go and have a nice day and try our best” kinda gal.

I also made up a bunch of songwriting exercises to get me out of my funks. A lot of those ended up being the prompts in my Song Writing Club. Like, take a song you love the lyrics of and line for line vaguely describe what’s going on in that line. For example I can’t make you love me, “turn down the lights, turn down the bed, turn down these voices inside my head” Then I would vaguely describe them “a way someone close to you rejects you and what that does to you internally” Once you vaguely describe the whole song, then you don’t look at the other person’s lyrics anymore, and you only look at the descriptions to write something new. So, with that description, I might write “Stare at me blank, while I’m walking the plank”. That definitely creates some different results if you’re in a funk!

Several songs on the album feature your brother, Tyler Brasch on saxophone. What was it like working with Tyler on this album?

Oh my gosh, isn’t he brilliant?! I wanna just also add that he wrote all his horn parts. I only had vague notes for what he should do and he made these special puzzle pieces that immediately became pillars for the song structure! It was so exciting to hear everything he sent and I’m actually a little mad at myself for not having him on every song. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to work with him because, like with business or money, it’s really awkward if you get a relative to do some work (especially creative work) and you don’t like what they do, or they don’t finish (Speaking of which, sorry for not finishing the websites Debbie and Robert!!) But I was actually blown away with what he sent. He really put his heart into his parts and cared about the music just as much as me (which is insane!). We used to play jazz and funk stuff in high school. We would play at coffee shops and little Jazz clubs in Seattle and around where we grew up. But the last time we actually played music together seriously was in College, we were in a klezmer ensemble together and thought it would be really funny if we didn’t tell anyone in the ensemble that we were siblings. It actually worked and it was really fun to play that music together!

Do you have any plans to perform these songs in a live concert setting?

Right now I have 4 or 5 of the songs playable as part of my acoustic solo set. I’ve been lucky enough to play 2 Yorehouse concerts on Twitch which has been really fun! I plan to get looping to be much more integral to the arrangements. But it’s a little hard to imagine playing this stuff as a full band. I would love to, I just don’t think there’s quite enough interest and time between Bent Knee activities in the near future. I am not ruling it out though!

Justice Cow will be starting a Twitch channel soon, with a focus on songwriting. Tell us about it!

Yeah! My Song Writing Club that has been composed of friends, students, and sometimes family over the pandemic is coming to Twitch. Over the course of the Pandemic, we wrote about a song a week based on some restriction(s). We got out of our comfort zones and made lots of special stuff. Cailtlyn O’Brien (Kit Orion) even released a whole EP with songs she wrote in the club.

I will reveal the prompt and the OG members of the club as well as anyone who wants to try it out can write a song based on that prompt. In the club, we usually do a bit of stream-of-consciousness writing and share the songs that we wrote. It’s a safe-space, support and encouragement kinda vibe and I’m really looking forward to seeing what people I don’t know make!

BONUS QUESTIONS

Our childhood promised us lots of cool technological advances- what future tech were /are you most excited about (flying cars, teleportation, etc)?

I definitely thought moon boots would be more of a thing! I think the reality of technology is pretty insane right now. Like how much phones and computers can do and how you can wear a watch that measures things going on in your body that you used to only be able to know if you were in a study or at your doctor’s office. I think it’s easy to overlook how rapidly everything has changed!

What is your favorite bird species?

My new favorite is the Loon. While hanging out with Randy Roos (who mastered the album) we saw a few on the lake where he lives and while we jumped in a quiet spot we heard their iconic and ancient call and it was really beautiful and magical. I also learned they are one of the oldest birds and therefore one of the only birds that fly that don’t have hollow bones (it also helps with diving).

Top 3 book recommendations?

Ok, so I invented a thing (I’m pretty sure) it is taking a bath completely in the dark. Over the Pandemic, I listened to Podcasts and books this way and it’s powerfully immersive! These were the books I listened to mostly in my “Dark Bathtisms”

1) Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

2)The Signature of all things by Elizabeth Gilbert

3) Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I was on and continue to be on a nature-mixed-with-female-ability-and-strength kick and couldn’t recommend these stories more!!!

THANKS SO MUCH, JESSICA! Please go and check out Jessica Kion’s latest album with Justice Cow, underglam. She’s also prepping to head out on tour with her band Bent Knee, so make sure to catch them live.

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