Artist Spotlight: Sis

    Jenny Gillespie Mason was pregnant with her second child when the idea of Sis started coming together in 2015. The Bay Area-based singer and composer, who is also the founder of Native Cat Recordings, had already been putting out records under her own name for several years, and the new project was born partly out of a desire to incorporate more electronic textures into her folk-oriented songwriting. After weaving her wide range of influences in intricate ways on the first two Sis records, 2018’s Euphorbia and 2019’s Gas Station Roses, she returned with a new EP called Gnani earlier this month. Unlike previous, more collaborative releases, the six-song effort was mostly recorded at Mason’s home studio in Berkeley, CA, though it features tasteful contributions from the likes of Brijean Murphy on percussion and Doug Stuart on bass. Sis’ sound has become more intimate and playful but remains just as enchanting and immersive, each track representing its own ethereal journey brimming with strange, mystical detail. “Came on this trip to find life/ And the way to find life/ Is to know it stops midair,” she sings on ‘Wooie’, yet the song keeps going for just as long before, naturally, it dissolves.

    We caught up with Sis’ Jenny Gillespie Mason for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about healing, the making of her new EP, and more.

    Listening to your new EP at this time of year, the songs feel especially hopeful and gentle. To what extent was that intentional – the tone and the timing of the release?

    I was definitely happy that it was timed to the new year, but that was more just for press reasons. The intention was to heal the listener and to heal myself while I was making it and to connect to God in a devotional way. I think that that comes through, and I’m so pleased that people are responding in the way they are and that it’s helping them transport to a place in themselves that’s connected with the divine.

    Was there a particular reason that you went with the shorter format rather than a full-length?

    Honestly, I got to the six songs and I was just spent. Not in a bad way, I just felt like I put so much into the six songs and I was so happy with where they were, I didn’t have the energy really to make more stuff at that point. And I felt ready to kind of get back into my life as a mother. I was still mothering, but I was definitely pushing it, like staying up really late to make the record. [laughs] I think it was a combination of just running out of inspiration and also feeling like this is a complete thing and I can offer this now.

    It does feel complete to me as it is. I was reading your essay, The Beach and the Bells, which was published back in May 2020 and is just a beautiful meditation on motherhood and family life during the pandemic. Does it feel strange to think that it was almost two years ago that you wrote that?

    Thank you so much, that’s so kind. Yes, very strange. When I wrote it, I thought, this is not gonna last that long, but I want to capture what it feels like right now and what we’ve all been through. We’ve had so many ups and downs, and the nuance of each turn is worthy of several essays. I’m trying to write a creative nonfiction book about the last two years now, that’s my newest hope. We’ll see how that goes.

    That’s something that stood out to me about the essay – how you pay attention to those nuances, the small details in your observations. Is that something you’ve been trying to actively cultivate in your music and writing more generally?

    The intimacy of detail is something I’m always striving for, especially in prose. I think with songwriting, I tend to let myself become a bit more aphoristic, I guess, or lyrical, striving a bit more towards the poetry side of things. But I’m really big on those little details – observing human works and looking out into nature, seeing what you can find, how it’s mirroring us back.

    Has that always been a sort of instinct of yours, or is it something you’ve learned over the years?

    It’s definitely always been that way. I feel like I’ve always felt kind of like an alien. [laughs] Just observing the world around me and trying to understand, trying to order the chaos of experience through art and through writing. And also, just finding those connections between humans – that’s a big part of my work, I think, is really discovering that love and that connection in the human experience.

    To get back to healing, that’s also a theme that runs through this new EP specifically. How has your definition of healing changed over time and during the making of these songs?

    On a personal level, I felt very blocked. I’d had this band that was this big experience with touring and collaborating in the studio, and everybody moved to LA right before the pandemic. I’m in Northern California, they moved to LA, so that was sort of like a mourning process. And then the pandemic hit, and that was really intense and traumatic for everybody. I was also just trying to uncover some shadow stuff in myself that probably needed to come up to heal from my childhood and teens and 20s. So all of these things came together that were difficult for me, and I felt so blocked.

    And then, to be honest, I did this thing called Kambo, which is like a frog medicine from the Amazon. After that, things started to gush out of me, and it started with journaling, just free writing. I feel like this was the first creative project that the healing was taking place in real time, and I was intentionally like, “This is going to heal me.” And it really did. On the other side of it, I felt like a new person. Before, I’d done albums and it was like, “I’m an artist, I want to express myself and I have these things inside that are coming up,” but it wasn’t like, “I’m going to use this to heal myself, get myself through this shadowy period.”

    So does this feel like a new start for you and the Sis project?

    Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think it’s finally me just being totally me in my music. It’s like a combination for me of all the work I’ve done for so long with so many different people, and now I feel like I have the tools to keep going on my own.

    For a lot of artists, there’s sort of necessarily been this trajectory of their process becoming more solitary or less collaborative during the pandemic, but it seems like for you it was already leaning that way.

    Yeah, I think I had already started before feeling like I just want to do my own thing for a while. I got really into Four Tet because he does everything by himself, and he was kind of my model. I still would love to collaborate with people – it’s just the core of the project, I think I can keep going with my own thing. 

    What has Sis come to mean for you as a creative outlet?

    It’s just like my play space. It’s where I can go into the wild and play and worship God and understand myself. It’s like my wild garden, I guess, and I feel like I finally found the key to my secret wild garden and I can keep going back.

    I was intrigued by this this concept of “woo” that you’ve talked about in relation to the song ‘Wooie’, which  is more centered on place and a sense of magic and escape. Did making that song and the EP as whole bring you closer to that imagined city that you refer to there?

    Yes, definitely. Another impetus to this project was building a world the sound and the landscape and the and the ambience, and I think each song is like its own little city in a way, its own locale. And I think I found the escape I needed – I was listening to a Kate Bush interview while making it, and she said that the studio was her escape. It was almost reassuring for me to hear her say that, like, it can be my escape too. I want this to be something real and pure – it can just be so much fun to escape into it and to play. We all need that right now, to play more.

    I read that wanting to incorporate more synths was part of the reason that you wanted to start Sis, and you also use a wide array of vintage keyboards specifically on this EP. Can you talk about what appeals to you about using these instruments?

    When I first started the band, I had been doing a folky thing for a long time. So that was just a way to to say this is a new thing for me, but I also was drawn to the sounds and I liked the emotional depth of the synths. Like the OP-1 synth, I was playing a lot in the early days. And then I knew that this project, it was going to be an electronic project. I discovered this synth called Omnisphere, which is based on the computer and has like 5 million sounds on it, so I knew I was going to be using that a lot. But I grew up playing piano and acoustic guitar, that’s just a part of my makeup as an artist, and I think I need something tangible and earthy and I need my hands playing something real in order for what I’m creating to feel whole. So I’d just never really explored the vintage synths and keyboard world, and I found this great guy here who sells them and just I filled up my home with all these great instruments. I kind of had my electronic studio in one room and then I had the earthy, organic studio in another room and was going back and forth.

    I wanted to ask you about the vocal recording on ‘Flower in Space’. What’s the origin of that?

    That was my therapist at the time, talking to me about an Ayahuasca journey. She herself was very well versed in psychedelics, and so she was talking to me about the Vendanta ways, the Indian spiritual approach to having no head, which is like a non-dual approach to seeing the world. And I’d had this experience during my ceremony of seeing myself without a head in the mirror. So she was talking to me about that, and the song, I’m trying to sort of get at non-duality and to get at, like: we’re all here in these bodies and incarnated but we’re so much more, we come from our higher selves and our soul and we’re just on this flower in space, I was seeing Earth as a little flower. I had these empty spaces in the song and I just needed something, I needed something real and earthy and her voice is so beautiful. She doesn’t know I used it yet. [laughs] Maybe she’ll find out. I think she’d be okay with it.

    When thinking about this idea of a higher self beyond our physical form, how have you found a way of reaching a deeper connection with others in your day-to-day life, despite there being this disconnect?

    I feel really lucky that I’ve made some really wonderful female friends in the last few years. I have some incredible longtime friends. It’s not many people, but I have some really good friends. I hope everybody can take heart in their friendships right now. And just being a mother, you’re so connected with your children as it is that even if I didn’t have those friends, I would be feeling blessed with my connection to them.

    When you think about your different roles as an artist, a musician, a mother, a friend – where do you feel like those paths sort of meet? Do you try to set boundaries in the way you approach them?

    I had a therapist in my 20s, and I remember she said that you want to just make sure you’re consistent in all of your roles – consistent in terms of being authentic, doing the best you can and being humble, being willing to learn, being truthful. That, I think, is always with me, but it’s still very difficult to be consistent across roles. And I think becoming a mother is really intense and the first few years, you do lose yourself. Not every woman, but I definitely did. And it took me a while to return to Jenny, not just Mom. It was really difficult for me to integrate my music life into the home life and have it be balanced. It was very imbalanced for a while, especially when I was touring and trying to be like 25 when I wasn’t 25 anymore and I had two kids. [laughs] So this project, because I was doing so much of it at home, it started to feel really integrated. I was able to really balance motherhood with the music in a way that felt much healthier.

    Can you give me an example of what it looks like to be authentic to yourself now that the project is done?

    When I started Gnani, I had unblocked myself and I felt ready to go, but I was pushing myself really hard. And so the first few drafts, they weren’t working really. I had a friend who’s also a healer, who told me, “Part of the artistic process is rest.” And so I did, I let myself rest for like a good month before I really started the project. I didn’t do anything, I just read. I was reading Middlemarch. I was just trying to just take care of myself and take walks and be a good friend, hang out with my husband and my friends. And then eventually I felt rested enough to go for it. I think that’s kind of where I am at right now. I’m in the resting period and I’m doing little things creatively, but I’m not pushing myself too hard.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Sis’ Gnani EP is out now via Native Cat Recordings.

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