Bnny is the Chicago-based outfit led by singer Jess Viscius alongside her sister Alexa Viscius and friends Tim Makowski and Matt Pelkey. Jess started the project while working as an art director after someone’s guitar had been left at her apartment, which prompted her to take up songwriting. Over the course of several years, she wrote songs inspired by a tumultuous relationship, then the void left by the death of her partner. Bnny’s debut album, produced by Jason Balla of Dehd, is boldly titled Everything: half of it was written after her partner’s passing, half in its wake. From the haunting opener ‘Ambulance’ to the garage-inflected ‘Take That Back’, its songs are honest in their simplicity, leaving Viscius to drift through the fog of melancholy. Citing The Velvet Underground as an influence while also evoking Mazzy Star and Soko, Viscius’ whispery, fragile voice finds ways of moving through the omnipresent cloud and into the realm of promises and dreams. Every now and then, she floats back down, realizing they’re no substitute for the real thing. Closer ‘Voice Memo’ is as raw as it gets: just 54 seconds of Viscius and a man harmonizing over delicately strummed guitar.
We caught up with Jess Viscius for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the process of making Everything, and more.
Do you mind sharing some of your earliest musical memories?
I have a vivid memory of being a little girl, and I had gotten this ABBA CD. I was laying in my bed listening to my pink Walkman, trying to memorise all the words to this song, ‘Take a Chance on Me’. And I was like, “If I can get all these words memorised, I’ll just be so cool.” And when you’re a kid, you’re already like insane, so I was just bouncing off the walls in my bedroom being like, “Ah, this music is crazy!” That’s my first real memory of really loving music and feeling its power.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to, besides ABBA?
ABBA was when I was really young, but then when I got into high school is when I would say I got more seriously into music, and I grew up on like, The Strokes and Modest Mouse and Blonde Redhead and Bob Dylan. I have a twin sister, and she always had much better taste in music than me, and then I eventually just got into cool music myself because she was always showing me good stuff. We started going to shows from Chicago – we lived in a suburb of Chicago, so we would drive out when we were 16 and go to shows. And those were just formative years of my life where I was experiencing live music and just seeing what music could offer you – you know, a sense of community.
How do you reflect on that time in general?
That was just an incredible time. I feel like when you’re young and you listen to music it’s just so formative and it really shapes your identity. And I think the music I listened to in high school, it still holds up and it still resonates me with me. Music is so comforting, especially when you feel like you’re this lonely kid in the suburbs; it just feels really isolating, and it was just validating to hear songs about certain things and relate it to myself as a teenager who was dealing with depression and whatever else.
How do you feel like you’ve changed since then?
It’s funny, because I feel like I’m an entirely new person but also exactly the same. I still have the same problems – you know, they’ve shifted, like either they’re bigger or smaller. You think about yourself when you’re young and everything seems really challenging. When I was younger, I always was really depressed and I didn’t know why. And then as an adult, you sort of learn to take things day by day and learn how to focus on yourself and learn more about self-awareness and self-care. It all comes in waves, you know, it’s just a wild journey.
When you first started writing songs, was it also a way to express those emotions?
Yeah. I feel like I’m a really guarded person and I have a hard time being vulnerable in my day-to-day, but music allows me to get in touch with that side of myself that I can’t easily access. That’s why it is therapeutic, because I can sit down and start writing a song – I think I’m in that camp of songwriters who are like, I don’t really write the songs, they just come to me. So sometimes, I’m just surprised by what I’m feeling and I’m like, “Wow, where did that even come from?”
Was that the case with Everything as well?
Yeah, I feel like this album is incredibly vulnerable, and that in and of itself is frightening to me. It feels like I’m letting the world read my diary or something. But I think that part of being an artist is being vulnerable and being honest, and that’s just what felt right for me with this album. But it’s funny because as we’re practising again, I’m like, for our next album, it would be cool to write songs that are a little more lighthearted, just so we could have more fun in the performances. Because it’s just sort of exhausting to play these songs, emotionally, for me.
Before we get more into the album, could you take me back to the origins of the project?
I feel like it did sort of happen accidentally, where it was just casually like, “Oh, let’s start a band.” And then I became more invested in it and just getting really excited and making so many friends in the music community, and then it just became my whole world. And now I feel like that’s the world exist in, the Chicago music scene is just a community. I think I really like challenging myself, so as somebody who didn’t play guitar it was exciting to teach myself and just watch these people play and be like, “Oh, I can do this. I want to get up on stage and sing and write songs.”
Was it harder than you thought to actually do that?
No, I think it’s pretty easy. And that’s what’s inspiring about music – I think it was Lou Reed who said like, you need to know three chords or something to be a musician, and it’s so true. I think that my favourite types of songs are simple songs and I think you can maybe see that from our album, it’s really simple and stripped-back. But I don’t think you need to be an excellent musician to play music; I think anybody who has the will and the excitement easily start a band with their friends. I feel like everybody should do it – I’m always so curious, you know, like seeing people on the street and thinking about, “Oh, what kind of song would that guy write if you gave him a guitar? What would he have to say?”
If you saw yourself as a stranger on the street, what kind of music would you see yourself making?
Probably like, “This girl writes indie music.” [laughs] Just based on how I dress, it’s like, “Oh, okay, I get it.” It’s funny, actually, my sister and I were DJing the other night, and the person we were DJing with was looking at somebody’s Spotify profile and then before he played the song like he had made like a conclusion about what the music would sound like based on like the profile photo, and then he heard it and he’s like, “Oh, this is not at all what I was expecting.” It’s funny how the image is really tied up to the sound, or sometimes it’s not, and that’s an interesting dynamic. So maybe for our next album I’ll completely change my look and it’ll be really weird, it won’t match up with the music at all.
As a visual artist as well, I assume that dynamic is something you always have in mind.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like visuals are always right there with the music for me.
Can you walk me through the timeline of making the album?
Some of the songs are from like 2016, when I first started writing the songs. The story of the album is the story of my relationship with my partner Trey, who passed away. There are songs that I wrote before he passed away, and then I took a break, and then there are some songs that are afterwards. I wasn’t sure this album was ever gonna get made, honestly. Like, I had given up on music at a certain point and I was just like, “I don’t know why I’m doing this anymore, I don’t find any joy in it.” But I think that was also just like a symptom of, you know, what I was experiencing, and when some time had passed I realised I want to keep working on this, like this is really important. And then the newer songs on the album are more from like 2019 and 2020. So I took a took a good amount of time in between.
You named the album Everything, partly, from what I read, because you didn’t want it to be solely defined by the grief and the melancholy that that comes up in the second half of the album, or the first songs that you wrote. When you got back into writing the other half of the album, did it feel like a chance to capture the full spectrum of emotions that come with grief?
Yeah, and that’s partly why I named the album Everything. I didn’t realise at the time, but when I look back at, it is sort of like going through the stages of grief, and just accepting myself, the good parts and the bad parts, and just finding value in the journey that led me to finishing the album. I’m such a nostalgic person, and even though some of the earlier songs in the album were these resentful sort of songs, I cherish those memories that I had with Trey. So every song is really important to me, and so specifically tied up to a part of my life, that I still cherish the memory even though it might have not been positive one at the time or when I was writing the song. The naming behind the album – I like that the word itself is sort of like finite, you know. This is essentially everything I have, everything I’ll have with this person. It’s sort of all-encompassing.
When you listen or play these songs now, do you see any of them in a different light?
Yeah, I see the early ones in a new light, where I see the fault in myself. I think at that point in my life I was younger and angry and really negative, and I just didn’t really see what was in front of me. And so I look back now and I sort of kick myself and like, that was such like a beautiful time in my life. I also feel like when somebody dies, you sort of obsessively think of what you could have done differently. And a lot of that insight about these songs is from that especially, is just thinking about how things could have changed.
I think that one of the best ways to honour somebody’s memory is to just take the best parts of them and try to see that in yourself or try to be that. And so I think that I often think of Trey and the best parts of him and the parts that I really loved and I’m like, “How can I live like that, be like that?” I think I definitely grew up a lot from the time I wrote those first songs to now and learned a lot from my relationship with Trey.
Do you think making the songs themselves taught you something that maybe you wouldn’t have realized otherwise?
I feel like from the latter half of the album, I was dealing with a lot of guilt that I think in my day-to-day life I wasn’t necessarily facing. So, writing those songs helped me acknowledge that was something that I was really struggling with and just helped me get help, basically, and continue to work through these emotions.
Is there a moment on the album that you would isolate as being particularly special to you on a personal level?
I think the song ‘Dreaming’, I see this song as me pleading with whoever to let me see Trey again. I was just like, “I wanna see you in a dream,” you know, and then it was also me acknowledging my guilt. That was written during the heaviest moments of grief, when I was wishing that things were different and not fully accepting anything yet.
I appreciate you talking about this and being so open. Is there anything that we didn’t have the chance to talk about that you’d like to share?
I want to say that my partner was also a musician, and he was truly an incredible musician. His name is Trey Gruber. I feel like I need to credit him, and he was super influential in my life and the way I see the world and see music. Just listen to his music, too, if you can. It’s really good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Bnny’s Everything is out now via Fire Talk.