Name: Jessica Moss
Occupation: Music maker
Nationality: I live in Canada
Current release: Jessica Moss's Phosphenes is out via Constellation. She also currently touring Europe:
19.11 MOSS — House Of Foundation
20.11 STOCKHOLM — Sofiakyrka
21.11 MALMÖ — Plan B
22.11 COPENHAGEN — Alice
23.11 AARHUS — Radar
If these thoughts by Jessica piqued your interest, visit her official homepage for more information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud. Or read our previous interview with Jessica Moss, in which she talks about a wider range of topics.
We also highly recommend you check out her work with some of the other bands and artists she's worked with, from A Silver Mt. Zion, via Black Ox Orkestar, to The Geraldine Fibbers (founded by her long-time creative partner Carla Bozulich and with a line-up which has included, among others, Nels Cline).
[Read our Carla Bozulich interview]
[Read our Nels Cline interview]
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
My brain is a pretty chaotic place, I usually have at least 25 things swirling around in there at any given time - and at least 5 - 10 of those are inspired ideas for work I wish I could do. Music I’d like to invent, books I wish I could write, documentaries, short stories …
For as long as I can remember being conscious, I have never been without this swirling inner narrative. As a kid I remember being so deeply consumed in my inner world that I was often lost, completely. I was one of those with report cards that said, year after year: So smart if only she could apply herself.
Head in the fucking clouds.
So yeah, finding inspiration is not something I have trouble with or need to look for; input can come from anywhere and everywhere. It feels never-ending.
This is sometimes a joyful way to live, and as often painful. For one thing, I am truly never bored. A period of time with nothing that needs to be done in it is like an absolute gift, I can just go inside my head and join the stream! It’s joyful to dream of ways one might express all of these million ideas. Joyful when I have a clearing to experiment and try things. Joyful to connect with other dreamers.
But it's painful, too, because it's too much. It’s hard to be so excited about all the ideas, to always be wanting to be working on something ... and then realize that means all you do is work. Painful when that means other parts of your life fall apart. And painful when constantly questioning the very notion of what the actual ‘value’ is to the world in what I spend most of my waking energy concerned with, compared to all the ways I feel I could be making a better impact, difference ... I just don’t even know how, how to stop, how to make more time, how to change direction. And that can feel painful.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I love this question because I absolutely don't know how to answer it!
I guess I always have ideas (see above!). And I guess when it comes to the finished product and we’re talking about making records, then yes I’ve been involved in making records for my entire adult life so in that way there is definitely an element of “knowing what I am doing”. But also, at this stage of my adult life, I have to accept the fact that I never seem to, and probably never will, do things the way they are “supposed” to be done. Not from the beginning to end of the process. You can ask anyone who has worked closely with me, I really don’t seem to be able to follow rules, as hard as I sometimes try …
Which obviously has its benefits as it’s gotten me this far, but also makes me feel like I’m always balancing at a precipice about to fall off. Which is not the chilliest way to live one's life.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
At this point all I need is time to myself. “All” I need. Ha.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
The solo records I’ve made were all born out of a similar process;
First blocking time in the jam space with the intention of ’sketching’ out ideas, basically recording improvisations on themes both musical and topical, that have been floating around with me and moving my heart. If I’m in that luckiest of moments where I know I will be making another record, then by the time I get the chance to actually start working on it I’ve already been thinking about it for a really long time and I don’t have to search for a way to start, it comes bursting.
I record those initial improvisations, and over the span of days / weeks I walk around listening to them, making connections in my head. Back to the jam space, explore these connections, record those explorations, and repeat.
Eventually this process leads to a point where I have a clear idea of how I’m telling the story, or saying the thing, or painting the picture, that I have been aiming towards.
The beginnings are so exciting! I feel most confident and sure at the stage of pure creative flow and building. If I could live in those moments forever I think I would be the calmest and happiest person. But the middle to end processes become increasingly painful, when my absolute clear vision of how things should sound meet up with my inability to articulate the visions and my lack of technical ability to see them through myself ...
Those stages have looked slightly different from record to record, but they always involve Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, my best friend / engineer / freak brother. He has the patience to let me try again and again to get things the way I want them, even if it sometimes means taking a pro-tools session home and working on it for days straight until it sounds how I want, but has inevitably meant that I have fucked it up technically for him and he has to undo / redo it while maintaining my choices and direction.
[Read our Radwan Ghazi Moumneh / Jerusalem in my Heart interview]
The way I work is extremely isolating, for the most part. I am so lucky that I have someone in my life who can meet me where I'm at, and never makes me feel stupid for what I don't know or what I get wrong. Also over the years of knowing and working with me, he has been extremely helpful in reminding me about the mistakes I am prone to, and where my strengths lie.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Anything I've ever done, I ever do, is a result of trial and error. It can be an immensely frustrating way to go about anything, but it also has the potential for the highest highs - when something comes together, something you weren’t expecting … it’s like an explosion inside. Only matched by how devastating it can feel when it slips away, or you fuck it up irreversibly, or you run out of time and can’t make it perfect.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Somehow I manage to be controlling and out-of-control at the same time. A ramshackle perfectionist.
I don’t have the technical nor theoretical ability to work ‘properly’ in the way I do; for example I spend hundreds of hours of my life working in Pro Tools, but I’m self-taught and make mistakes constantly. I don’t write the music down (don’t know how) and I don’t follow any rules whatsoever when it comes to making music. I don’t know what note I’m playing or what key I am in at any given time ... I don’t write ‘songs’ that have a structure built in or follow any known rules or previous examples about how music can be made. And therein lies the joy for me! It feels like genuine freedom. But it also means that when I get stuck, I’m really on my own.
I was diagnosed very late in life with ADHD, as well as having a bunch of different learning disabilities. Knowing this has certainly clarified some of the ways I approach things, and allowed me to lower my level of frustration with some of my life-long struggles. It's hard on self-esteem to never understand why things that seem easy to others have been such a struggle ... It's also helped me understand the ways in which compensating for these things over a lifetime has made me a really good problem solver, and able to take things in stride that happen by chance and incorporate them into the task at hand.
I love chance, I invite it. I feel more comfortable there than when I am trying to follow any kind of set path.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
As I began by saying, my brain is a pretty chaotic place, and there aren’t that many things that can calm it. Music is one of them. I don’t often feel very able to communicate my insides to the outside - language feels tenuous and I don’t trust my words very often. But when I am inventing new music, working on that music, performing it live ... when those things are flowing and I feel my meaning coming through what I’m doing.. Those are some of the moments I feel happiest in my life and it absolutely can feel spiritual in a way.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
In terms of addressing the infinite possibilities available in a digital work environment, I don’t really have the problem of too many options. In the technical parts of music making I apply the same process as in the organic - I don’t go looking for a new tool or pedal or plug-in or whatever, until I reach a point where I want to do something that I’m unable to do with what I already have in front of me. Only then will I start researching and trying things specifically to achieve that one thing. I don’t collect things otherwise.
And with regards to finishing; on the occasions that I have the luxury of enough time to work on something until I decide it’s finished (as opposed to having time / budget / life constraints decide it for me), the way I decide something is finished is when I can sit back and listen to it and it takes me out of myself. Like there is nothing in there that calls me back, nothing that interrupts the flow. That is the most glorious feeling, brain-flight!
It’s also glorious when someone working with you tells you to holy shit stop worrying over tiny details already. It's good as it is, and you realize they are right.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
In a perfect world, there would be tons of time between me deciding a work is finished and sending that work off to master, but that doesn’t happen. I think I’ll always have the feeling of wanting to adjust, change, “fix” things right up until the last possible second …
But as someone who has been involved in some level of recording and releasing music for as long as I have, luckily I have at least learned that when you are very close to finishing, little things probably don't matter as much as I think they do in the moment. So at some point I know I just have to accept things the way they are when I reach the end of the process, which is usually dictated by time and budget.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
So involved. Too involved! And not because I have an aesthetic opinion about the way things “should” be done on a technical level, not at all. I have no hard set belief in purity or anything.
But I stay involved from the beginning to the very end because I often don’t know how to say what I want in a technical way, or even in any kind of sensical way at all sometimes. I feel a kind of synesthesia-ish way about music and it doesn't help to tell a mastering engineer that I want it 'to feel more like autumn than winter' or something like that. So I have to be there while they change things technically and A/B the part until I feel 'autumn' has been achieved to my satisfaction.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
It’s really the making part that matters to me. Once the record is done and off to the plant, I actually feel almost no relationship to it anymore. Like it no longer belongs to me. To the point that I am still amazed when someone I don’t know owns one of my records, or mentions listening to music I make ... It’s weird but those things don’t occur to me very often, and it’s like an exciting and confusing surprise every time!
But I think that’s at least partly because playing live is where my heart lies, where my intentions are. It’s what keeps me here. So in a way the albums part is still secondary, even though I love and obsess and kill myself working on them to make sure they are the best possible version of themselves I am capable of making before I let them go into the world ... but once they’re out of my hands, they’re also out of my mind.
Also, it feels odd that I've come to the end of these questions and this is the first time I'm mentioning that I'm a mom. And even though I try so hard, always always trying, it never feels like I am striking the right balance between all that I'm trying to do, and being the best mom to my kid that I can possibly be. Having a kid is a full-time job of mind and heart, and everything else has to push through to make room ... So there's limited space to begin with, and time is precious. It never feels like there is even close to enough of it to be good in all the ways I want to.
Anyway to answer the actual question - how do I return to a state of creativity? For me it's the opposite. I never manage to get myself out of being in a state of creativity. It's actually a much bigger challenge to remember to stop once something is done, to appreciate all the effort that went in instead of just launching straight into the next obsessive project. And to remember that if I am in a state of having finished something, then I can be sure that I have not been the most present parent nor friend nor daughter, and that should take precedence for a while.