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Interview with Jessa of J.Graves

Jessa Graves of J.Graves

Over al fresco bowls of guacamole and white queso in the collegiate downtown area of Athens, Georgia, I sat facing Jessa Graves, the enigmatic front person and enchanting performer of Portland, Oregon’s “queer art punk” band, J. Graves. They talked to me about the importance of being kind, the beauty of heartbreak, and life on the road even while working a 9-5. Crediting their Portland community with the talent and resources that fueled the release of their 2022 album, Fortress of Fun, Jessa spotlights the band’s national reach and friends throughout the country, particularly their queer fellows and allies, as they work (a day job from the van!) and play.

Speaking of heartbreak, J. Graves’ Atlanta tour date never materialized, but I decided to drive out to their Athens date and make an evening of it. After pulling into the sprawling campus of UGA, I headed to the venue, Flicker Theater and Bar. As I stepped into the bar, I could recognize the long note being held loudly from the next room. It was jarring. It was beautiful. It was Jessa, and it was only a first attempt at sound check. Giving them space, I wandered next door to grab a bite before our interview and the show.

Suddenly, as I dipped a tortilla chip, Jessa texted me and was already strolling toward the streetside table I sat at before I could argue or suggest a better time and place. With two girlfriends beside me, diving into their street corn and burritos, Jessa spotted us, and grabbed the only empty seat at our table, joining right in as if she’d known us for years. “I like this, I think it’s great right here,” Jessa responded when I proposed moving to a two-person table for more privacy. We were all going to be included in the exchange of words that followed. And, frankly, that was the theme of the entire evening with J. Graves. We were all included. Everyone was. In all of it.

Jessa Graves was given the gift of music at birth or before. They were born into it and with it already. It was their invisible third parent. Their mother founded Illumin Records to represent women who rocked and/or wanted to. Jessa echoes their mother’s sentiments.

Olivia Inkster/NKM: I saw that your mother founded a label, Illumin Records, and then, you took over. What’s going on there now?
Jessa Graves: My mom was a recording artist. I mean, my mom has been a musician for ages but was a recording artist in the late ‘80s and early’ 90s. Music distribution worked differently back then. She started a record label, and it’s called Illumin (as in Illuminate). So, I resurrected the label in 2020 for Mother’s Day. She got to see her label reborn. She cried. We did one release on Illumin. And then, everything kind of…fell apart in 2020… as it did for a lot of people (Covid). It takes a lot of capital to run a record label. Dialing in frameworks and getting down some methodology for supporting artists before trying to do that for others is what we’re working on. J. Graves is kind of the test. We have only so much bandwidth, so my focus is J. Graves. I also work a 9-5.

What does the world need more of?
I think representation is a big one for me.

Is that as a human or as an artist?
All of the above. You have the music industry, and a lot of industries are male-dominated. The other thing, which might sound a little…at the risk of sounding cheesy (laughs), is kindness. One thing that we as a band, our ethos as a band, is being kind, light, and punctual, and just trying to be good humans.

I just watched and wrote about the Indigo Girls’ career, friendship, and new documentary. They brought up a lot of what you just did.
I hate to bring it back again, but I mean, talk about representation. The Indigo Girls, in terms of representation, were trailblazers.

Although Jessa explored a myriad of instruments growing up, they knew they’d discovered love (and all of its peaks and valleys), when they picked up the guitar. Live, Jessa plays it almost completely horizontally, short-strapped and snug against their chest. They move as one–the guitar is just an extended appendage.

Is this what you always knew you wanted to do?
I have always loved music and being around it. My mom having a piano in the house, going into studios with her as a four-year-old, it’s all a part of me. I think it was a part of me through my mom even before I was born. It’s in my blood.

Quite literally.
My parents were always encouraging. I did piano lessons. I play a lot of music by ear. I have an okay foundation in theory and later in other forms of music.

You were in the band, I’m guessing, weren’t you?
I was totally in the band in school. I started with the clarinet, and later, they moved me to the oboe. So, I was the solo oboe. When I picked up the bass, which transitioned into the guitar, I fell in love. My parents set me up with a home recording studio with the necessary interface and software. It enabled me to start making and producing music in high school. Age 14-15, you couldn’t pry me from my guitar. I fell into this older group, and one of them was in music production. There were only a couple of schools that offered a program in audio engineering. There are dozens now. So, I released my first solo EP at age 16 or 17. I released two EPs in high school.

That’s incredibly young! Did everyone think you were “super cool?”
I became cool. I won “Battle of the Bands” in my junior and senior years as a solo act.

You absolutely were cool!
That’s how I became more known. Other than that, I was probably not any sort of “cool” until later.

What’s the first thing you do before a show?
Typically, we sound check, and I set up the merch. My drummer just pointed this out the other day. It’s like my pre-show ritual.

But to go back to the other question, but another thing we need more of is normalizing the conversation about mental health. I have been clinically diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is an anxiety disorder. One of the ways in which my anxiety manifests is organization and getting things to look exactly how I want them. I have a whole system and process by which I set this merch display up that you’ll see as we go in. It’s not just merch. We’re dialing it in right now right now. We really, really tried to pare down our equipment for this one. So, I’m developing a new process along the way. Once the process is down, it feels really good. It’s tradition. I feel more present once I get it set up.

I get it. I’ve been diagnosed with OCD. Sometimes, it’s worse than others. I have to make sure that all of my product bottles and beauty items face the exact same way before I leave the house. My closet is a whole situation too.
We’re controlling our environment. I do it with gear in our hotel rooms. Mine manifests at home when I’m in my kitchen.

In addition to being a creative and maintaining a full tour and driving schedule, Jessa works a 9-5 in “people operations” for a tech company. They described their position as “H.R.’s cooler sibling,” which makes perfect sense once you’ve spoken to Jessa.

What do you do to stay inspired?
A lot. What’s really interesting is that my days are filled with these things that aren’t my art. It’s like this small time to actually sit down and write, even work on songs that have a little seed planted around them. It is the thing I want to do most in this world. That is the thing that keeps me going. I am so grateful for my job and the support I have from my job. I’m on the road, and I get to tour and also maintain my job. It is the funding behind this project. It is necessary at this point to commit that time. Sometimes, I don’t want to. But, I remind myself that this is the thing I want to do most in this world.

What is your advice to other women in the music industry or those who want to start and grow their following?
I would say, form a community, because it’s the community that is going to support you and vice versa. I am so grateful to have people in my life who have their hands in J. Graves as well, like photographers, videographers, and artists. We just had an amazing queer artist from Massachusetts do art for us. It’s incredible. And, now, they’re sort of a part of our family.

The other thing is to clearly define your goals and the measures of success for those goals. It can be so hard. I’ve had moments, specifically over the last 6 months where I’m like, Why am I doing this? I could just stop and not deal with rejection, disappointment, and heartache. There is nothing like writing music for me because of how badly the heartache of music hurts.

You remember that you’re doing this because you can’t do anything else.
That’s the truth for me. It’s like incremental progress. Celebrate those wins when you can. Reflect, you know, and be grateful. How awesome is this that I get to be sitting at a table in Athens, Georgia, and meet some new friends?! We’re getting to have this meaningful conversation. I’m getting to see parts of the country I’d never get to see. I’m strengthening my bond with my best friend and drummer, Aaron, and getting to travel with new friends as well. You’ll get to see them; it’s a band called Babers.

The bond between Jessa and their best friend and drummer, Aaron MacDonald, became clear during our conversations but echoed even more beautifully onstage as he nodded, grooving as they sang, screamed, kicked, and played guitar (bass was played by Babers’ Lisa Haagen). This yin and yang of J. Graves’s haunting yet melodic music stands defiantly as a punk showcase of beautifully performed anger, which is also shockingly respectful.

J.Graves rocking it onstage at the Flicker Theatre

What fears or worries keep you up at night?
I’m going to give you an answer with recency bias. Last night, we were in our hotel room, and our tour mate saw a centipede on the wall! The last thing we saw before bed was this centipede romping around the room.

Are you a morning bird or a night owl?
I’m a morning person. I love solitude. I love lifting weights, so I go work out when I’m at home. On tour, I try to maintain a time zone-appropriate schedule. It gets a little rough because sometimes, we’re at the club until 1 or 2. And, you can’t go to bed right after a show. You’re wide awake. So, I work. When we get back to the hotel, I have some work to do tonight, for example.

I know that this is a loaded question, and you could probably go on. But, just right now, what woman or women, past or present, do you admire? Off the top…go!
I cannot express my admiration and gratitude–there are no words that I can say to describe my partner or how grateful I am for her–Dorothy, who you emailed. Dorothy is my sun and my moon. I would not be able to do what I’m doing without her. I have never had the kind of support, love, or acceptance. It’s unwavering. I’ve never had this in my entire life. It’s so meaningful; it’s life-changing. She knows parts of me that nobody else knows. She’s also an artist, and to have that kind of understanding and connection…she’s a brilliant artist; she’s an illustrator, and she does design work and a ton of stuff for J. Graves. She’s such an incredible human, and she takes care of everyone. It’s that kindness. I don’t have the right words.

What’s next for you, for J. Graves?
We have some songs that we’re wrapping up. So, we will be releasing some more music this year. We’ve got some exciting shows that are coming up that have yet to be announced. More travel is on the horizon, for sure. I’m hoping to continue to build our community, meet new amazing people, foster more meaningful connections, and play more music.

Famous last words?
My music is an offering, and it comes from the depths, where I don’t even understand it sometimes. If people can experience my music, and it elicits or facilitates any kind of self-reflection or understanding… or even if it’s a way to just get your body moving…I’m grateful for all of it. I want to do it for the rest of my life.”

After our interview, I found Jessa inside the dimly lit and aptly named Flicker Theater a few doors down from our fiesta. They introduced me to their crew du jour–again, the community that they seek out, which naturally forms, it seems, wherever they are. I was introduced as “their new friend” to each member of the opening acts (Babers was another all-female band I fell in love with), old friends, and venue associates.

The adamant inclusion rather than exclusion was a chorus to be lived by rather than just sung and strummed to. “Friend” was a familiar word in the J.Graves world. Onstage and on the record, or offstage and with the tape stopped, everyone was and is welcomed equally into their world of punk and art. Punk, throughout history, has been a genre that fights the corporatization of music, mainstream anything, and authoritative rule with “hard-edged melodies and short, fast lyrics.” J. Graves invites you to join their fight with them, their interactive stage show, and their album Fortress of Fun.

At our parting, I asked Jessa one last question. “What does success look like for you?” They thought for a minute and paused. “It’s always going to look differently than I think it’s going to look. Right now, I’m getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do. It just looks a little bit different than before. For me, the way that I want to define success is to just keep going. I stopped playing music for a four-year chunk of my life. I was a shell, a hollowed-in person. I almost didn’t pull through it. So, music has almost both killed me and saved me at the same time. Music is my lifeblood. It’s how I live.”

I turned to my +2, my friends, and asked, “If you didn’t get a t-shirt, did you even go to the show?” I was given one; they purchased one. We exited the bar and walked down the dark, empty college streets with our shirts in hand, but even more weightily, we carried a few more kindred souls and friends back home with us.

We see you and hear you, J. Graves. Thanks for seeing us right back.

Site: Leap Year II | J. Graves (bandcamp.com)

IG: J. Graves (@jgraves.xyz)

Venue: flickertheatreandbar.com

–Olivia Inkster


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