The music of Nancy Kells (aka Spartan Jet-Plex) is that of severe dark wonder. Her latest album, entitled “STFU”, incorporates elements of bedroom pop, the finest of old-school wandering goth, and homespun neo-folk. This is all seamlessly held together by Kells’ sparking vibrato-and-reverb-laden vocals chanting (en)chanting direct simplicity. It’s surely one of the finest pieces of new music *I*’ve heard in a while, and I had the distinct pleasure of talking to Nancy about her new opus, growing up with music, and her brand-new label and collective enterprise, Grimalkin Records.
When did music enter your life? What made you decide to write and record your own material?
Music has always been there as far as I can remember. I can’t remember a time not listening to records. When I think back on the past and my life, there’s an evolving soundtrack to the different phases of my life. Maybe it’s in the family genes. I have an uncle who sang on Broadway and eventually managed opera singers and my grandfather played trombone in a marching band. None of my immediate family plays anything now, although my brother played both the piano and guitar fairly well as a kid, but my mom, dad and brother all love/d music and seeing live shows. I say “loved” since my mom passed away in 2010.
As a kid, my parents had an old style record player cabinet, and my dad listened to music like the Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel, Leon Redbone, Grateful Dead and other classic rock stuff and also some jazz. My mom was a big Beach Boys fan and was into 50s rock’n’roll and liked a lot of singers like Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, and Cher. She loved older country music like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. She enjoyed opera, musicals, and also pop stuff like Hall and Oats and Billy Idol. Her tastes were pretty eclectic. My brother who’s 6 years older than me has always been into music too, mainly classic rock and metal, but when I was about 4 and he was 10 we would sing along to KISS records and record ourselves with one of those 70 style tape recorders. I used to also go around taping sounds around the house and outside for the fun of it.
My brother had a record collection growing up and gave it to me back in 2008. He had replaced pretty much all of his collection with CDs and no longer had a record player and knew I did and still collected vinyl, and so he gave it to me as a house warming gift when I moved to Virginia. Best gift ever. My dad has all his old vinyl too. I have a bunch of his original copies of Beatles albums and Elton John albums that he had given to my brother that were in his collection, and my dad said he has records I can pick up next time I visit him this June. He lives in Pennsylvania. I’m looking forward to inheriting and going through his collection.
My first records were children’s records that my mom passed down to me that had been hers as a kid. I still have them and sampled some of them in earlier albums of mine. When I was a kid, I had one of those 70s portable vinyl suitcases to play my records on. It was sky blue. The first band I got really into on my own was the Go-Go’s. A friend and I would play those records and lip sync and pretend to be playing along like we were in the band.
I loved to sing when I was a kid. I went to a shitty Catholic school and my second grade teacher had us audition for singing parts for church by standing up in front of the class to audition. First time I ever auditioned for anything in my life for something I really wanted to do and she laughed at me. No joke. I felt humiliated and angry at the same time. I remember feeling defiant about it too. It’s one of those things that’s seared into my memory. She was a miserable asshole so it probably just made me more determined. Catholic school was 8 years of mind fuckery on top of already fucked up shit I was dealing with as a child. I look back on bad shit now and don’t have the same wish I used to that these things hadn’t happened. I’m not grateful or anything for them, but I’ve come to accept it for most part and recognize how it’s shaped who I’ve become. I don’t know anything else and there’s no point in what ifs, and above all, I could have had it even worse. Many do. My mom always encouraged me and my fifth grade teacher encouraged me as well, and by 8th grade, I was singing in choir and school musicals.
I always had a need to sing. It is a great release. I also always had songs in my head that I’d sing or hum to myself. I never really thought it would go anywhere back then and never really thought I had the talent to do anything with it. Back then, I thought I was going to pursue painting and spent most of my time drawing and painting and that increased even more while in high school. I also had an art teacher in high school that very much encouraged me to keep creating.
Music has always been super important to me. Outside of art, music’s what has helped me cope and grow and figure out who I am over the years and still does, and it does so especially now that I’m creating it rather than just listening to it.
Junior high and high school is when I got into punk, new wave, gothic/dark music, hip-hop, reggae, and jazz. I’ve always been into a variety of kinds of music. There’s music for almost every kind of mood and emotion and for every occasion.
I went to Tyler School of Art and majored in sculpture. When I was there, I started messing around with making recordings with a combination of samples, field recordings, spoken word, and singing. After graduating, a friend gave me a toy bass. I used that and a Casio and began playing around with making and then eventually recording songs. I did it for fun mainly. I really didn’t take it seriously. Most of it was silly and just for fun. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I couldn’t play well. After I started recording songs, I started making mix tapes and passed them out to friends, and to my surprise, some people really seemed to like them and encouraged me. I eventually bought a crappy Squire and taught myself how to play guitar and just continued writing and recording. Over time, I started taking what I was doing more seriously, and it just sort of grew from there.
Backwards and Olden on my Bandcamp are some of the earliest recordings of mine. Most were recorded on a portable Tascam 4-track. You can hear on Backwards where I was still kind of being silly and not quite believing in myself. There is an uncertainty and insecurity, but yet a future vision in those early recordings even if I couldn’t see it at the time. I still don’t take myself too seriously, but back then I didn’t take any of the music I was making seriously at all. You can hear an evolution to my sound if you look at the progression from Backwards to STFU. and I’m pretty proud of that. I think I am still working on some of the things I started out doing, but now there is a more conscious and deliberate honing of that sound.
Regarding the new album, why STFU, anyway ;)? Why the acronym with such inviting music? 😉
I thought it was funny and jarring and very much something of our current times with texting and social media. People speak and write in acronyms today. Sometimes I get lost in it and am so out of it. I find myself googling an acronym every month or so occasionally just to be sure I can understand what someone is saying to me haha Maybe it’s my age haha!
STFU is also in contrast to the music and I like that about it. Our world is so chaotic with how much information we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It is inescapable if you want to be a part of what’s going on. It’s also exhausting. So STFU is about that. The album is about growing older and also about the current state of our world. STFU is something I am saying to myself and maybe the world as well. It’s also the name for track 6 on the album. It’s how I came up with the album title. The song, STFU, is meditative and is about clearing and quieting your mind. Several of my songs have a meditative quality to them. Own and Sweet are also like that. Since most of the songs are about growing older and state of our world, it seemed fitting to call the album that. STFU is a funny and brash way to communicate that. Track 6 features my friend, Tiaira aka Berko Lover. (https://berkolover.bandcamp.com/) Those are her words-
take a moment
to be inspired
by the higher power
at the finest hour
it’s twilight’s time
you’re inside my mind
She created these words/vocals for our collaboration, Merge, and we didn’t end up using them but I loved them so much, and when I was making this song and finished it, I felt like they would fit perfectly in this song and she said I could include them. I love how it turned out. I feel like the song centers the album. It was important to me that it sat in the middle of the album, which it does. When I made the tapes, I specifically recorded the entire album on both sides of the tape so it would be in the center of a person’s listening experience if they were listening to it all the way through.
A lot of your songs focus on the personal. You’re willing to go deep with Spartan Jet-Plex. Do you find this rather open approach cathartic/frightening/calming?
You know I never really think about the listener when I am writing and recording music. I am just doing what feels right and comes from me naturally and that usually happens to be based all in personal experiences and emotions. Creating music is therapeutic for me. I’m just being honest with myself and saying and feeling how I feel, the good and the bad. I’m also digging down deep a lot of the time for all those horrible, ugly, disturbing feelings and emotions that get trapped in all of us from daily life and from our pasts and from experiences and also from past traumas. I channel all that stuff as a way to expel it out of me or as a way to make sense of it and use it as fuel to create something positive into the world. It really is a healthy way for me to process all that dark stuff from my past and all of the dark stuff in our present. It’s therapy.
I don’t play it out though. It is so personal. The idea of playing these songs live is frightening. I also just don’t feel any desire to recreate the songs in public. That would be too much for me. I do enjoy playing versions alone at home as a way to relax, and I do love playing out though, just not my SJP stuff. I think SJP works best as recordings. I suppose it could be transformed into live solo performances or as a band, but I’m really not interested in pursuing that at this time.
What inspires your choices of instrumentation? Any songs stick out as being particularly instrumentally inspiring to you?
As far as how I write and arrange music, I use a variety of approaches to songwriting. Some are guitar based. I start writing on the guitar and then the other parts come in later. Some songs start with keys first and the song is written from there. Sometimes I start with a beat. Almost all of them start with an idea, feeling or concept, and then it goes from there. Sometimes the words happen first and sometimes they come after. Sometimes the lyrics come at once while writing on the guitar or keyboard. Some are just instrumental. Occasionally I start a song by improvising, and other times it’s planned out. Some songs come quickly and others take a lot of time and work. Many start out as planned, and then after the bare bones is down, I add improvisation and trial and error on top of a basic structure. I like to use a variety of approaches, and I think that’s probably apparent when you hear the completed album. I have always done this naturally, but only really recognized in the last 4 years or so that this is how I write naturally, and so since I have become conscious of it, I think it has become more deliberate and intentional, and I think that’s especially apparent with STFU and on the album before it, Uncomfortable Quarters.
I have a pretty simple setup at home. I mic almost everything except my Korg and drum machine. I love using Casios and have a small collection of those that I use a lot. When I write on guitar it is almost always on my Cordoba classical, but sometimes I use my Tele.
Kismet pasrt 1- guitar & vocal based
Time’s Up- keys & vocal based
Alright- guitar & vocal based
Own- beat, percussion & sample based
STFU- improv based starting with bass loop w/keys written on top of that, then layered vocals
Oh Me, Oh My- guitar & vocal based
40 Something- guitar & keys based
Sweet- beat & keys- improv based
Kismet outro- took out vocals from part 1 and added in keys/improv
As far as music that is inspiring to me, I almost listen exclusively to women musicians now. I’m not dissing musicians who are men. It’s just that my entire life, like most of us, has mainly been comprised of being exposed to art made by men. I feel like I have so much catching up to do with past music, not to mention present music, when it comes to discovering art made by women as well as people who are nb, queer, and trans. Life is short. I’d rather spend most of it listening to women.
I used to be heavily into Bonnie Prince Billy and Nick Cave…also Wire. I think Nick Cave is terrific at channeling that dark stuff so I’m positive he’s influenced me greatly. Same is true of Will Oldham. Matt Johnson’s old stuff- his first album and The The’s Soul Mining are two of my absolute favorite albums of all time. Cocteau Twins were huge for me too and Clan of Xymox’s first one. I was heavily into the Cure and Siouxsie. I have an embarrassing watercolor portrait I did back in high school of Robert Smith and two of Siouxsie. They were in my portfolio that got me into art school! I did several portraits of favorite musicians and then would try to create the background of the paintings to capture the essence of their music with abstract shapes and paint splatter. hahaha. Funny stuff! My dad is moving out of my childhood home, and so several months ago when I was visiting him, I picked up a few things I left behind and my high school art portfolio was one of them.
In the last 2 years or so, I’ve been invested in listening to mainly women though. My top current favorites on rotation right now are Meshell Ndegeocello, Malvina Reynolds, Elizabeth Cotten, Alice Coltrane, Kate Bush, SZA, Roes (Angel Haze), CupcakKe, and Janelle Monáe.
You’ve started a brand-new label, Grimalkin, in recent months. What do you hope to achieve with this new venture; what do you wish to bring to the labelsphere?
Yes! I am very excited about this project. I want it eventually to be more of a collective. It’s on it’s way. My friend Elizabeth who makes beautiful music as Elizabeth Owens & the Live Bats has teamed up with me. I am doing a release of theirs this year. They are covering all the graphic design stuff for releases and other stuff, and I’m going to help them by taking on a manager type role for their band. I’m pretty excited about that. They are super talented and make gorgeous folk and psych rock type music. I have a bunch of awesome friends and musicians lined up for cassette releases this year, and they are all people I love and admire so I am super pumped. Others lined up include Petridisch, Madison Turner (her release will be a collab between GR and her label, Close by Air), Berko Lover, Merge (my collab with Berko Lover – we have a few others up on my Soundcloud but that one is a private link), Aesthetic Barrier, and Womajich Dialyseiz (improv noise collective I’m in).
I started Friends For Equality with a friend of mine in the UK after the November 2016 election and passing of Brexit as a way to fundraise and bring people together who were outraged by what happened. Really, all these things have been constantly happening but the election really brought all the horrible things about our country and world to the forefront. I think I foolishly thought we were progressing when really we were not progressing nearly enough, and I certainly, although I have always tried to be active, realized I wasn’t doing nearly enough either. The label is a way to bring music, artists, musicians, and labels together through activism.
It started out as just one music compilation with artists from all over the world who contributed to it of various genres. Then we did another one and a zine, and last year organized 2 benefit shows – one for Forward Together and Sistersong and another for Nationz Foundation. Several local friends helped me pull the shows together. My friend who was helping me with compilations cannot continue moving it the direction I’ve envisioned because he already runs a label in the UK called Fox Food Records.
The project evolved, and this year, I’ve transformed it into a record label that does physical releases of individual musicians and bands with focus on musicians who are queer, trans, nb/gender non-forming, poc, and women. They will be mainly cassette releases but hopefully occasionally lathe-cut 7” as well. The idea behind label is that the band or musician chooses the organization/non-profit the proceeds go to, and hopefully it’s one they are passionate about, and it is even better if it happens to be one local to them wherever they may live in the world. I will also be giving the option for bands to buy some at exact cost to do as they please and sell for themselves at shows or on their Bandcamp or website, but I will also donate some to musicians who cannot afford that. I also plan to pay out digital proceeds to the artist unless they wish to also donate that to the non-profit.
We have two upcoming benefit shows lined up. One is this June for the Virginia Anti-Violence Project and another is in August for Nationz Foundation. Both are local to Richmond, Virginia. The point of the label is to support musicians and non-profits, and hopefully help musicians gain more fans and exposure so they can go on to bigger and better things if that’s their goal or just put out their music independently if that’s all they want too while using their craft to make a small but needed difference in this world.
I didn’t choose the Friends For Equality name. It was something voted on collectively by several people contributing to the first compilation, and at that time, we wanted something to fit the theme of the compilations. Proceeds for those go to Planned Parenthood and Southern Poverty Law Center. I have changed the name to Grimalkin Records since I am taking this project in a new direction. I felt I needed a fresh start and name to go with this change. Friends For Equality is still the heart of the project but Grimalkin Records is the driving force of the physical releases coming soon. It’s a name I love and I sort of see myself as an old rugged alley cat haha! Elizabeth just made us a really cool logo too!
When people ask me what GR’s about the short answer is that we’re a queer, trans, nb/gender nonconforming, poc, and women focused record label supporting civil rights and social justice related non-profits and community organizations., and that we strive to collaborate with artists, musicians, organizations, community groups, and other record labels. I probably could have just said that and been done with it, but I’m kind of long winded.
Any thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
I really just want to thank you all for this opportunity, and I hope people enjoy my new music and what GR plans to bring to the world. I am excited to see where this can go, and I hope people who identify with what I am doing and are into these ideas and goals reach out to me and submit their music and artwork. We have issue 2 of the zine in the works as well. Email [email protected] Thanks once again for your time and interest and to all of those who have ever supported my music and label.
More from I Heart Noise
mainly electronic music composer on the darkwave side :: founder of Fish Prints Inc