ther is the songwriting project helmed by West Philadelphia-based mastering and recording engineer Heather Jones, who has worked on records by Philly bands like They Are Gutting a Body of Water, Sadurn, and Deer Scout. Following a series of EPs, they put out a full-length record, trembling, in 2022, which Jones recorded mostly in her bedroom. Before COVID, the plan was to work on what has now materialized as a horrid whisper echoes in a palace of endless joy; Jones knew she couldn’t make it by herself, so they had to wait. As hinted by its title, the album toes the line between nihilism and hope, but the fullness of the arrangements – even at their most stripped-back – has a way of not just amplifying, but piercing through moments both big and small. “I’m uncertain of this theme that ties this all together,” Jones admits on highlight ‘big papi lassos the moon’, but as they disentangle and reframe thoughts around grief, isolation, and the inevitable end, their overwhelming intensity registers as something other than powerlessness. “Do you love someone?/ Do you show it enough?” Jones asks resolutely on the closer ‘2 holidays’. The whisper still lingers, but now they know where to listen.
We caught up with Heather Jones for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the relationship between mental health and the creative process, spiritual experiences, how collaboration shaped ther’s new album, and more.
What is your relationship to these songs as you’re about to release them?
A lot of the songs – not all of them, maybe half – I wrote after a pretty big break up about five years ago, with a partner I was living with. I don’t really think of a lot of them as heartbreak songs, because I don’t think that’s what I was trying to express. But I think that was a time where a lot wasn’t working, and I kind of had to reassess and sit with myself. I associate a lot of these songs with this very intense time, a time when I got into therapy, I got diagnosed with bipolar, I was coming into my own as a freelance audio engineer. I was just beginning the process of doing a lot of serious self-work and intentionally changing how I relate to myself and other people. There’s a lot of that in there. There’s also a lot of climate anxiety in the record, I think at this point that is a huge part of how I engage with the world. There’s also just a lot of grief; the back half of the record was just feeling the weight of a lot of grief over the last few years. Death weighs a lot, and carrying it is really hard, and holding space for it in a way that doesn’t totally disrupt your life all the time is also really hard.
A lot of the songs changed in that time. It sounds kind of weird to say, but I feel like I’m a simultaneously more sad and more hopeful person than I was when I wrote a lot of the songs. So they’ve changed in the process a lot – even if the structures haven’t changed that much or the words haven’t changed, what they mean to me is changed. I hope that by putting them together with the band, we made them into how I see them now. It’s why I ultimately wanted to end the record to end the way that it did, because it goes to some dark places, but I wanted it to ultimately end not in nihilism or doomerism.
There is this oscillation between dread and hope, and I think a way into talking about that is the title, a horrid whisper echoes in a palace of endless joy, which I found to be kind of sneakily hopeful. Sometimes you see a long title like that and you assume it must be depressing, especially if it starts with a horrid whisper. But palace of endless joy certainly tilts the scale to the other side, even if what ultimately has more weight is up to the listener.
I felt anxious about the long title, but it came to me when I was on a walk. The weather outside was just awful. I was having a shitty day, and I had just been playing around with a couple of different variations. In the period where I was demoing these songs after I’d written them, I was having a not totally serious, but kind of palpable, psychotic episode, in a way I hadn’t had in a really long time. At the time, I was getting like really paranoid and delusional. I always felt like people were following me, watching me. There’s not a large distance, from my personal experience, between just regular, garden-variety anxiety and nervousness and delusional thinking and hallucinations. It’s a small gap between those things for me.
The horrid whisper is where my paranoia manifests, in these – not literally voices, but weird whispers of all sort of evil stuff. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and I’ve learned to live with it. It’s also not as bad as it used to be. Learning how to navigate my own mental health stuff has been learning to deal with delusional thinking and mania and psychotic levels of depression – learning to live with it and sit with it and not let it prevent me from, like, feeding myself, or sleeping, or talking to my friends and letting them know that I care about them, making sure that I don’t like to isolate myself and that I leave my house. And that I do all these things even if I am awash in these terrible feelings.
I think that’s something we’re all learning how to do right now, and I think it’s important to be realistic about it, and naming why; how much of what we have to endure is unnecessary and inflicted upon us by people with power. But we also have to hold a lot of space for all the things that are still really good and important. Just the other day – I feel it’s warmed up in Philly by now, and I saw my first bee of the year. [laughs] And it just made me so happy to see this little bumblebee. I haven’t seen a bubble in like six months.
Because it can feel like there’s a small gap between those different kinds of anxiety and paranoid thinking, when you’re in the studio – maybe a more controlled space, but not necessarily – did you feel any trepidation around which parts to show or rein in?
My recording process now is really different than it was when we tracked this record, but I think this record was really important in getting there. I find that when I’m in a production session, I can get really manic. [laughs] I just start throwing around crazy ideas. I think where I’ve landed is that the myth of the studio as the place where it happens, and where it has to happen, creates a lot of ideas around it being a space where you need to have a lot of control. And the thing that I’ve learned is that the less you try to control it, the more you’re going to end up seeing. Obviously, there’s a certain point at which you need to make ideas intelligible.
I feel like ‘with you’ is a really good example of how this played out. It was where I really started to find this flow and was able to tap into this crazier part of myself and just lean into it. A lot of that arrangement is completely improvised, I didn’t really walk into that song with a plan. We tracked all of my guitar and vocal takes live at my studio, and my friend Mark [Watter] engineered it here at the studio. After I did that with him, I did all the overdubs here with my assistant and band, and my friend Laura Wolf, who’s an amazing producer and songwriter based in New York, came down here for a day last summer to play cello on it. She was like, “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “You’re a good cellist, do what feels cool to you.” We did six passes of the whole song where she would just improvise, and she never heard any of the takes back. The day after she left, I sat there and opened up all the channels at once, split them into six different tracks, and played them back all at the same time. Instead of deciding what I wanted to put, I started to listen for things that I didn’t like.
That has really taken an impact in the way that I work in the studio now. I’ve gotten to a point where I think it’s really important for me, to be able to do my best work, that I can work with a client and feel like I don’t have to mask my neurodivergence or my weird, erratic behavior. Learning a bunch of lessons with this record about letting mania and borderline psychotic stuff guide me a little bit more in my work has been really liberating. It taught me a lot about letting go of that control that I thought I needed to rein in. It’s kind of vein to try to control music anywhere, even in the studio. It feels kind of pointless. There’s a place for it, but I don’t think it should really be the default lens we use to approach making music.
It feels like this record exists in these moments between an ending and a beginning. Was that in-between space something you were trying to grasp at, to understand what it looks or feels like?
I think it’s this weird space in my head that I can be in touch with sometimes – I mean, I feel like it’s really common to just be a person and be perpetually worried about the future and the past, and feeling like we need to lean on both of them in order to feel oriented in where we are. I feel like we treat existence itself as a historical process, and this is where I start to get into my weird, personal spiritual and religious stuff, which I also get really anxious talking about. I didn’t grow up religious, but I had experiences after my first psychotic episode that changed me, in a way. Maybe that’s brain damage, maybe that’s religion, I don’t know. [laughs] But I think it is spiritual, because it’s something that, when I was dealing with a lot of extreme mental health stuff that was disabling, I was desperate for ways to manage it. When I got out of the worst of it, I tried to pick up meditation, because being able to, not control my thoughts, but be at peace with my thoughts, was something I really needed.
This is just my own spiritual experience, but at moments – whether it’s out in the world or in my head, where I feel close to God, or when I was like getting deeper into meditation and started to enter deeper states of mindfulness that I’d never felt before – I feel a presentness that goes beyond just the present moment. It’s almost not about the moment itself, but the ongoing state and continuously fluid process of what is present. This metaphor is going to so stupid, but it’s like if you tried to put a point in a river, and then be like, “Is that point in a river one place, or does it move? Where is it?” That idea of placing a point in something and being able to move through it, and not being pulled out of it into regret for the past or fear of the future, and just be in a place of: I’m in my body. I am in this room. I am with my friend. I am having a conversation. I’m drinking an iced tea. Those are the moments where I feel the happiest. And from what little I know about different spiritual practices, it seems to be a common thread that all kinds of spirituality lead to, one way or another.
One thing I got from the album is that the things that make us feel endless and alive are often the same experiences that we perceive as small and ephemeral. I can hear that in ‘a brief moment’, a spare song that you might have wanted to stretch out or embellish, but keeping it that way feels like a way of honouring that.
I wrote that song when I was on tour, and we were in upstate New York. It was about a couple of moments, but the second verse, and what I think about when I think about the song, is just being in a new, exciting place and exploring it with someone that you love and care about. It’s cool to be able to see something for the first time, and be able to honor it as it happens. We do so many things for the first time every day, but to be able to be like, “Oh, this is new! I’ve never seen this before. My world just expanded.” When you notice it happening, it feels incredible. In retrospect, because I wrote these songs before I got diagnosed, a lot of them are just about bipolar disorder. With that song, I was just trying to understand, for myself at least, the whiplash between moments like that of feeling so present and so grateful, and then just feeling really alone and rejected – delusionally feeling neglected and isolated from the same people that you care about. It was all I really knew how to talk about, because at that point I was just cycling so rapidly all the time.
I think it was another exercise in: if this is how I move through the world at this point, then I really have to take my time with the moments that feel sacred and special, because it’s not always going to feel this way. Even just beyond global history, my own personal brain chemistry won’t allow for it to maintain for very long. I feel like that song is about really trying to name and remember through writing them down, moments that felt new and special and novel, so that they wouldn’t get lost in the in, like, the inevitable crash. I wanted to not dress it up; I wanted it to just be what it was.
In hindsight, can you also see how the sense of community around the making of the album ended up reshaping it?
Everyone in the band thinks about music so differently. It’s kind of wild, honestly. Max [Rafter], our sax and guitar player – I feel like every germ of every lesson about having fun while making music starts with working with that person. My practice of making music was joyless for a really long time. Actually, they’re the last thing you can hear on the album – ‘2 holidays’ ends with the sax and the last thing you hear is them breathing. That person is someone who’s taught me a lot about having fun, and it felt really important to me to end the record with the sound of just them being a person. Amelia [Swain], our bass player, she’s a really emotional performer, and she’s also everyone’s biggest cheerleader. [laughs] Having her add so much reminds me of the other important parts of making music – not just joy, but passion and presence of mind and connection to the music and the physical act of making the sound.
Jon [Cox], who plays guitar on some of it, is one of the coolest lead players I’ve ever met. He’s going to be playing drums on the next record, because he plays everything. He’s another conservatory musician, like me, but he’s not afraid to make something really ugly and lean into it. He does a lot of really weird stuff that still somehow has such a distinct fingerprint, and it’s so colorful and expressive and potent, but it always sits with everything else. And [Veronica Magner] doing the other vocals – she’s been on ther records since 2017. Compared with everyone else, I feel like she and I can get similarly obsessive about individual notes lining up right, and that’s where the harmonies really get dialed in. I feel like for a long time my natural instinct has been to be really controlling and neurotic – honestly, for a while, I think I was really hard to work with for those reasons. But because all those folks are so different, and they’re all some of my best friends, they’re able to bring all this other stuff that I think, if I were to make it myself and worked on it for too long, would eventually get lost.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
ther’s a horrid whisper echoes in a palace of endless joy is out now.