Music Monday: An Interview with Heliotropes

Frontwoman Jessica Numsuwankijkul shares the lessons that she's learned and premieres the opener from their sophomore LP.

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When I moved to New York from Philadelphia for graduate school, I felt invisible and displaced. I'd spend hours wandering around the neighborhoods near school and my apartment, feeling lost. On one of those aimless days, I went to a coffee shop in Brooklyn and slowly drank coffee, listening to the ambient noise: blips of conversation, the distant hum of traffic, and the melodic swell of Heliotropes's "Everyone Else" (the barista was kind enough to tell me the name of the track). I sat there, and for the first time since moving to New York, I listened, really listened to the sounds of the city, to the song that the filled the café, and actually felt OK with being lost.

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Since then three years have passed and New York has gradually become what Philly used to be: home. I don't get lost (as much) anymore. I go to local shows with new friends, and songs by bands like Heliotropes have become the soundtrack to the latter days of my 20s, easing the discomfort and challenge of coping with transitions. Their songs helped me grow up.

In a way, Heliotropes's forthcoming album Over There That Way is the result of a similar journey of maturation. The Brooklyn-based outfit's latest LP is a departure in genre from their 2013 debut, A Constant Sea. On the new record, front woman Jessica Numsuwankijkul explores the experience of disappointment or struggle in a more subdued way, through easy rock inspired riffs and the recurring metaphor of war. Over There That Way examines what it means to persevere in the face of adversity, most tangibly on tracks like "Normandy" and "Easy." I met up with Jessica on a Saturday at Sunrise/Sunset, a café in Bushwick, and talked with her about which albums shaped Over There That Way, the biggest lesson that she's learned from being a part of a band, and how her fascination with World War II inspired "Normandy," which we are premiering here today on the website.

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Dianca Potts: When did you start writing songs?

Jessica Numsuwankijkul: When I was in college, I lived in this town called Encinitas, 15 minutes north of San Diego, in this really nice beach house, but there was nothing to do because I was underage. Once I was sitting in my room with this shitty Tascam four-track that I had at the time, and I wrote this crummy song. Afterward, my roommate at the time came in and said, "Hey, this sounds really great." I was listening to a lot of Spiritualized back then, and I wrote a song based on the fact that I was listening to a band that made an entire catalog of really simple three chord major songs. Before that, I'd been listening to a lot of really baroque music like the Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine, and that seemed inaccessible for me.

It didn't even occur to me that I could play music in a cohesive manner before that, because as a young person I was always surrounded by these really driven dudes in bands. All throughout high school I was just the friend that came along, and the few times that I did play, I felt really put on the spot. I didn't think that anyone would ever want to hear the kind of music that I would ever make.

DP: Was there a specific album or a band that you were listening to a lot while you were working on Over There That Way?

JN: I was listening to a lot more classic rock. At the time I was getting into the Beatles solo albums like Ram, which is the exemplary Paul McCartney album. He's often viewed as pretty cheesy, but Ram is a masterpiece. I was also listening to All Things Must Pass. My dad passed away in 2013, and that was the only CD that was in his car when I was driving it around when he was in the hospital, and I got super-attached to that record. I still listen to it all the time.

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DP: Heliotropes has been a band since 2009. How did things get started?

JN: When I first moved to New York, I moved here for a job at DC Comics. I was an editor in the special-projects department. I was really young, it was my first job right out of college, and I thought that it was the end all, be all of things. I thought, This is what adults do, they get jobs, and I was lucky to get one that seemed creatively fulfilling. But I got really bored within a year, and I started playing music more often. I had this boyfriend at the time who was hilariously unsupportive. He would ask: "Why are you trying to play music? You're not even that good at the guitar." Which is kind of funny because I was totally fine at playing guitar.

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So I just started putting together songs, and it was one of those aha moments, and I was emboldened by realizing that they sounded like songs and not just a bunch of weird sonic scraps. I posted a listing on Craigslist that just said that I wanted to play music by, like, Spaceman 3, the Stone Roses, Brian Eno, and bands that were way more mellow than what Heliotropes ended up being.

The first person to respond to that was [our former percussionist]  Amber Myers. We met up and we ended up hanging out all of the time and got really serious about music. We met the other people who've been in and out of the band in various ways, either through Craigslist or because they were in other bands that we played with.

DP: Has the fluctuation in your band's lineup been difficult to adapt to?

JN: The fleeting nature of band rosters can be attributed to the fleeting nature of living in Brooklyn. People are moving all of the time because it's too expensive, or people are getting older and they want to get more serious about their life, so they move somewhere else and settle down. Because it's so hard to monetize music these days, there isn't a lot of incentive to really try to hack it out and stay in a band unless you're writing the songs. That's something that I've felt while playing in other people's projects too, and I don't have the sort of personality where I'm like, This needs to be my thing, but it helps a lot if you're more invested in it because you're certainly not making money.

DP: What inspired you to integrate the metaphor of war into Over There That Way?  

JN: I know that this sounds funny, but I've always been super-into World War I and World War II and the interwar period especially. I was watching this really great World War I documentary at the time, and I found a lot of the language seeping into the album, and I decided to go with it. I was also listening to early recordings of singers who were big during the interwar period, which is what inspired the last track on the album, "Goodbye Soldier." War is a really good vehicle for talking about anything in your life that's uncomfortable or a struggle, and that's what life is to me right now — trying to get what you want and probably not succeeding.

DP: What were your intentions when it came to selecting "Normandy" as your first track and another war-themed track as the last song on the album?

JN: It's one of the shortest tracks on the album, and I deliberately wanted to write a short opener and a short closer. They both tie into each other thematically because they're both playing with the imagery of landing on a beach for battle. Obviously these songs aren't explicitly about the Battle of Normandy, but both songs are about facing something that is really big. I generally enjoy having extremely short songs on an album and like the idea of bookending an album almost as if it's a concept album without it [actually] being one. It's a nice way to cleanse the palate.

DP: What is one of the biggest lessons that you've learned from being a part of a band?

JN: The number one thing that I've taken away from being in Heliotropes is the importance of being very sure of what you're doing. It's very important to trust yourself and make your own decisions, to trust yourself to write the kind of music that you want, because when you're a woman there's always going to be someone standing around to tell you that the most important aspect of your music isn't your music. I don't think that is an experience that men have.

For example, a long time ago we worked with somebody who essentially told us that no one would want to write about our band if we weren't an all-girl band. The band was still heavily female at the time, but this person was saying that being an all-female band was integral to our identity as a band and that no one would give a shit about us otherwise. He thought that he was being empowering, but at the same time there was this assumption that when we had an all-female lineup that it was a conscious effort. It wasn't; we were just four people who were playing music together, but for some reason that's unbelievable to people.

It's misogynistic to tell a woman that she needs to make music and focus on surrounding herself with another woman so she can have a more gimmicky or marketable band. You have to fit into this narrative of being this all-girl band who are all friends, or you have to be really angry or menstrual all of the time. It's really frustrating, but at the end of the day, you just need to learn how to do what's best for you.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter. 

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