Words by Shelly Hulce
If you’ve ever listened to an album so well written and produced that you feel as if you’ve just seen a movie, “SOURCEHEIRESS.” is a beautiful and refreshing further exploration. At a little over 48 minutes long, this luscious visual album is thoughtfully stitched together like a sonic crazy quilt. The photography puts a breathtaking point on the performance art, costumes, spoken word and ethereal mixes of voice and instrumentation. This is not an album split into videos for each recording, this is a full-length concept album on film. At times you may feel disoriented, forgetting you are not actually inside of it.
Off Shelf: On “SOURCEHEIRESS.” the listener / viewer finds you in a place of liberation from shame and seeking permission, just to live in your own body. It goes without saying that the “purity culture” has a unique trauma and the recovery is lifelong. Is it safe to say that “SOURCEHEIRESS” is a freedom opus of sorts?
jess joy: It is definitely a freedom opus to me and I love that. I also consider the visual album documentation of my process of moving from having no sense of self – looking to others for worth and direction, to a place of self-love – recognizing my inherent worth and trusting myself to make decisions. Not that I knew it at the time—the visual album was not pre-conceptualized as a whole. It happened one music video at a time over years. I was moving from dependency to independence to interdependence in my own life, and it was reflected in the album. I was processing that trauma lended by purity culture, stepping into my power, becoming accountable to and mending harm, and healing the parts of me that felt separate/not belonging with the rest of the world.
OS: In today’s environment of “all caps” aggression, you have an interesting approach on how letters and words make their space known. You are keenly aware of how physical and spiritual space is occupied and the energy that is consumed. Could you take a moment and lay out for the listener / viewer the juxtaposition of your lower case, 2 syllable name, (jess joy), and the all caps titles of your first project “PATREEARCHY” and the recent “SOURCEHEIRESS.”
jj: I chose my own name, jess joy, out of a love for alliteration and as an intentional choice for joy to be my daily mantra/my guiding star. E.E. Cummings was the first poet I read who utilized lower case letters, and I thought there was something very beautiful about being so small, and something so rebellious about breaking capitalization rules. It complemented his flowery, surprising, and wonder-filled observations and expressed a sort of looking out at the world instead of a drawing in of attention to himself.
I like my name not being the center of attention. My album titles, on the other hand, are what I want to draw attention to. They are my ideas and work in their most realized forms. I spend a lot of time thinking up the album titles, and I try to find words that communicate the overarching themes of the collections of songs. They are the “ah ha!” moments when I find the bigger picture. ”PATREEARCHY” was a reflection on the systemic roots and fruits of patriarchy in my family and in society at large. “SOURCEHEIRESS” was a realization of my birthright/that we are all divine beings worthy of life and channels of magical source energy, regardless of gender.
OS: The lyrics and stories have threads of permission, grief, and healing, not just for yourself but for others and the planet as well. So many dots are being connected in your artistic expression. If jess joy, the artist, has a mission, what would that be?
jj: Survival was my mission when I first started collaborating with Mike Byrne, he wrote the album instrumentals. While writing vocals for “the other cheek” and “my body” in 2019, I had hit rock bottom. I was working a dishwashing job, had just quit the band Moon Honey I had been investing in for a decade, and felt despair about the future. The songs were my way of processing what I was going through. I tried to form a character with traits that were stronger than mine, someone I could become. Fake it ’til you make it. And it worked! When I sat down to write the last song, “SOURCEHEIRESS” four years later, I had a new mission. I wanted to write a song that someone else feeling unsure about their value could sing along with and feel confident, lovable, enough, alive, worthy, and wonderful. Since I was leaning into a more interdependent future, I invited my friend Rosemary Minasian to help me finish writing the vocals. They contributed the last line of the song and the beautiful background vocals. It was medicine, and singing it live together nourished me. The music video for that song could also be considered medicine, but for the earth. In it, my body and toxins decompose and nourish the earth/future life forms, as would the metaphoric death of my ego/individual self. I hope to make more medicine in the future.
OS: Is there a specific moment in time where you connected with a certain artist or performance that lit a fire in you?
jj: So many moments! When I was about 23, watching Joanna Newsom performing Ys live was extremely formative—she took up space and time like no one else. Her songs on that album span up to 15 minutes long, and the movements and winding, storybook lyrics pull me through every emotion. So cathartic. Around the same time period I saw Fiona Apple live—she was slamming the keys on her piano and threw herself on the floor in a tantrum fit, rolling around kicking and flailing. I’d never seen an adult make a show of anger like that. Then when I was 27 I saw Björk perform Vulnicura live with a symphony in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I was immediately in tears on the first song, hearing “Stonemilker” with live strings. These three women, plus the records of Kate Bush and Nina Simone, light me up inside with their depth, vulnerability, and emotional embodiment.
OS: How do you personally discover or stay in touch with what is happening in the music and performance art world?
jj: I’ve recently joined the board for a nonprofit called Church of Noise that awards grants to artists who are making adventurous music that might not otherwise exist in a purely capitalist society, and that has afforded me a new practice of intentional listening. This week I got to discover an amazing Palestinian artist named Makimakkuk that I recommend.
I also have so many musicians who I became friends with out of a love for their art. The albums I’ve enjoyed most lately have either come from them or were sent to me by them. I highly recommend TwoLips, Annabelle Freedman, Def Sound, Zhao, Deerhoof, Laura Fisher, Julie Odell, and Bruisey Peets, who have all put out quality work this past year.
Sometimes I discover amazing musicians and performance artists on social media, but I struggle with the pace of Instagram and TikTok, our modern lives in general. Lately, little snippets of singles reach me momentarily in the middle of scrolling, squished in between ads for sweatshop clothing, friends’ life updates, and horrific videos from Gaza. It is fragmenting. Social media keeps me in touch, but it’s changing the way my brain experiences and connects to music and art.
OS: Do you have any thoughts to share with others who may be struggling with finding their voice and escaping repression through art?
jj: I’d like to share something about my experiences interfacing with the shame that comes up when I’m making art touching on trauma and repression. When I started to find my voice – not just my singing voice, my actual self – and began speaking truth to my internal experience, it triggered immense shame. So intense that I would often spiral into pits of despair I thought I would never get out of. With the gentle help of my art practice, therapist, friends, support groups, and meditation and stretching practices, I slowly gained solid ground within myself. In that safe place, I learned how to feel the shame and not crumple inside/how to hold myself with compassion and understanding until it passed. Over time, shame grew less and less powerful. Sometimes – like the whole month before this record came out – it visits me again. But I recognize it for what it is—a triggered emotion that is real but not true. I let it pass like the storm that it is. It is not as hard, and it doesn’t last as long. I have yet to regret saying and releasing the things I feared saying and releasing, because I am always met on the other side by at least one person who is thankful to hear that someone else went through what they went through. That is the healing and connective power of making art and sharing it.
OS: Building Earthships in the desert sounds like an idyllic and productive use of time, energy and passion. How do you pass the time on the road between shows or between tours?
jj: I still want to build my own Earthship! For anyone reading wondering what an Earthship is, they are self-sufficient homes made with recycled materials, built to be as gentle and non-impactful on the environment as possible. They generate solar electricity, passively regulate temperature, feature greenhouses to grow food, and collect and filter rainwater. I shot the second music video “the other cheek” in an Earthship while I interned at their academy. Building one is a big dream of mine, and I think that as the climate changes and we continue to endure polycrisises, humanity will be more and more in need of affordable and sustainable housing solutions like Earthships. I have been pouring all the extra energy and money I can spare into recording music for 15 years now. It’s important to me, and I am of course already in the process of recording my next record. But I do think often about how if I shifted and directed that energy and money into building a house, I could have a house! Oy vey! One day.
I’ve only had one tour in the past four years, and in between every show of that tour I was in the back seat of the van editing the visual album. My tour bandmates Mike Byrne and Kenny Zhao can attest to that. Thankfully, I finished the video in time to be able to walk through the Redwoods with them, and that was very meaningful—to play shows together, and then to share the quiet together. Friends make it all worth it.