[Cover photo credit to Dana Halferty]
Jessica Boudreaux has been the longtime songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist for the Indie Rock band Summer Cannibals (Tiny Engines, Kill Rock Stars), and when the pandemic hit, the band had to cancel a full slate of tours. Shortly afterwards, Boudreaux received a cancer diagnosis and spend much of the pandemic period in treatment and recovery. During this time, she also explored her first solo work and began to reconsider the harshness of touring life in the current music industry. She has recently released her first solo EP, I Think My Heart Loves To Break, and it presents a powerful emerging sound and also poses a lot of interesting questions about self, identity, and relationships.
Boudreaux is also a Producer and engineer operating her own studio, Pet Club, in Portland, Oregon, and was able to use those skills to craft the EP based on her own new sound explorations. In addition, she’s also been able to take up one of her other artistic interesting again, painting, and you’ll find her latest work in Sadie Dupuis’ Wax Nine Journal zine. I spoke to Jessica Boudreaux about her own production work, how a songwriting challenge pushed her far into new territory, the development of her new multi-layered sound direction, and more.
HMS: It’s so great that you’ve been painting again. Was the Wax Nine Journal a project based on poetry?
Jessica Boudreaux: Yes, I think I had about a week to turn around paintings to come out with the poems. It was a really fun project, but I was really scared to do it. But it came together really nicely and it was challenging, creatively.
I do a lot of portraits, which are my favorite thing, and I have a collection that I’m working on right now. I based these off of that style. I had that in mind, but the subjects in the painting or the colors weren’t planned until I saw the poems. Deadlines are also really helpful for me, even if it’s a self-imposed deadline, because sometimes art never feels done. It’s a good motivator for me.
HMS: Did you have experiences like that working on the EP, or did you go at a more leisurely pace?
JB: I definitely took my time with the EP because it was actually going to be an album. I have an album’s worth of songs, but I started to feel as if I was never going to put it out if I did it as an album because it would never feel done. Once I started breaking it down into four-song groups, that was a great motivator for me. I put a release date on the books and just accepted that I’d be putting them out, because I’d been working on these for a while.
I’m a recording engineer, so there’s always a new toy or plug-in that I want to try. My specialty isn’t mixing, which I do more from necessity, so I could keep doing revisions for a long time.
HMS: I find the sound world of this EP so fascinating, and I do see why these songs fit together well as a collection. I’ve been really happy to talk with people lately who have production skills that have been a big help to them to move their music forward.
JB: For sure, it’s also a good way to do things without having to spend a lot of money. I’ve been recording for a long time, but I’ve always had a hard time putting into words what I want, whether in songs or visual projects. For me, learning to record was how I could show my band and the people who I was writing with and working with how I wanted things to sound or the direction that I wanted things to go in.
I would create demos as I was writing songs and they would get increasingly more elaborate and finished sounding over the years, to the point where when we were in the studio for the fourth Summer Cannibals record, recording with Chris Woodhouse, he said, “I don’t really know where this song is going. Can you pull up the demo so we can listen to it?” We pulled it up and started listening and he said, “Why the hell are you paying me to record this? This sounds done!” In my head, it never sounds done, but at a certain point, it makes sense to throw yourself into that world. I did that even more during the pandemic than I had done previously.
HMS: The result sounds awesome. I don’t what it might sound like recorded in other ways, but it sounds very full. Did you find that you had all the equipment you needed already?
JB: Yes, I’ve actually had a recording studio with my partner for a while. We initially built and opened it in 2018 and we’ve recorded bands there. We recorded the last Summer Cannibals record in our studio ourselves, and we mixed it. I’m sure I bought some more virtual instruments, but generally we were good.
HMS: With some of the sound textures on the songs, I’m not sure whether some of the sounds have been created by practical effects or whether they are purely electronic. Can you tell us about that?
JB: There’s a pretty healthy combination of the two, and that is what I like to do. I’m not going to have a studio full of $2,000 synthesizers ever, but I do like to use sounds from the computer, like digital synthesizers, and run them through guitar pedals that I have in the studio.
HMS: When you decided to do some solo recording, did you feel that you had to create a sound direction for yourself? Or do all the songs you write have a similar starting point?
JB: I felt really empowered during the beginning of the pandemic in stepping away from my band, which does Rock music. I felt excited not to have to write within the confines of that genre. I’ve written Pop music for a long time, but we toured so much, that any time I was home, I felt that I needed to start writing for the next Summer Cannibals album. It was this cycle that never ended.
I did a 60-day songwriting challenge, where you had to write a song every day except Sundays. At the end of the day, it had to be uploaded to SoundCloud. It started with 30 people and ended with 6 people, because if you missed three days, you were out. I was writing a song every day and it was really cool because I ended up with 60 songs. Some of them went straight to the trash, but there ended up being a lot of them that were going on what was then an album.
“Disaster” off this EP was written during this challenge. That kind of set me off in this whole other direction of letting the songs and my mood dictate the style where I could just fall into the sounds that I liked. That happened with this, realizing that I was forming a style without even thinking about it too much. I have so many songs now that it’s almost overwhelming to know what to do with them. But those four songs on the EP sounded natural to be their own body of work. I’ve actually never put out an EP before.
HMS: I think EPs are really having a moment, probably due to the influence of digital and streaming, but a lot more people have been doing it, and even more so in the past couple years.
JB: People don’t listen to whole albums online that often. It’s usually the first three or four songs. I love LPs and records, and I love to buy them, but when people ask me if this EP will be on vinyl, I say, “No! I’m not going to pay for that.”
HMS: There may come a day where you have a larger group of solo songs and go down that dark road. It could happen. [Laughs]
JB: [Laughs] We’ll see!
HMS: Did relationships between these songs influence the track order you chose for the EP?
JB: I think I thought less about the track order on this than I ever have before! I’m usually very involved in track order options, but when I listened to these songs in this order, it just felt right. I liked it and that was it.
HMS: One of the things I notice is that sound-wise, I think I can see why the order works, especially ending on “After All This” which has a strangely up and dreamy feeling, even though, lyrically, it’s ambiguous how to feel about things. Leading with “Actor” also makes sense because it throws you right in.
JB: I thought that would be a nice introduction.
HMS: I understand you’ve been getting more into making videos, like with “Actor”.
JB: Actually, I went to college, thinking that was what I was going to do. I was initially studying cinematography and then moved over to editing. I think that has informed a lot of becoming an engineer and recording. It’s been a long time, though, since I did anything with video, and it’s been nice to get back these older pieces of myself in painting and in video. I had a lot of fun with the “Actor” video. I did it all on my own, though my partner came down for one or two of the shoots because I had a little spotlight, and I was moving around too much. I needed them to hold it and follow me around.
HMS: That’s funny because if a person didn’t have an editing mindset, it would have been a minefield to try to make that video.
JB: There were a lot of cuts!
HMS: Does the video relate to the song in terms of different selves and different voices?
JB: Yes, and I went through a lot of options, but was really stubborn about wanting to do it on my own. As I mentioned, I can sometimes struggle to articulate what I want, so I needed to fumble my way through making this to get what I wanted. It started when I found this little spotlight and started playing with it, using pictures, and taking things that I liked until I built all the different characters.
The characters were created for the video, and I watch a lot of Real Housewives, so that one came naturally. Then, my partner is studying to be an aerospace engineer, and I had a space suit from their surprise birthday party. I tried to find characters who were pretty different from me and different from each other.
HMS: Something I saw with this song and also others is that there’s a prevailing idea about relationships on the EP, but it’s not about romantic relationships exactly. It’s more about self-critique. With “Actor”, I was surprised that the song takes a little bit of a turn where the speaker instead comments on the other person. Was it a surprise to you?
JB: I think so, a little bit. My partner now and I had broken up for a few months. My partner plays in Summer Cannibals with me, and we were on tour together even though we were broken up. We said, “It’s fine! We’re best friends.” I was thinking, “How can they do this?”A couple months in, we had a conversation about this, and they said, “This sucks!” We were saying the same thing but also thinking the same thing. It’s not that we were lying, we were just trying to put on an act to get through things.
HMS: The phenomenon of being an actor is really relatable, particularly in relationships. I’m sure this has happened to many people. With “Disaster” coming first in terms of songwriting, it seems like it might have set up the sound for these other songs. It’s very dreamy, and upbeat, almost island-sounding in its texture. It’s also very grand, almost symphonic, in a couple places. Were you surprised by that direction?
JB: I really was surprised that happened, but I immediately loved it, musically, when the chorus comes in. When I got to lead line that leads you into the chorus, I could hear an orchestra or something like that. I could hear violins, but then I did it with synthesizers. There are four synth sounds layered on top of each other.
I was very excited by it. My friend Eric Slick played the drums on it, and once I got the drums back from him, it all opened up. Musically, I found that sound to be really endearing to me, which may sound funny to say about your own music. But I write so much that I felt like, “Oh, I wrote that? I didn’t know that was in there.”