Profanity and Profundity: The Sidney Gish Story

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By Gant Player

 

Sidney Gish is alone on stage. Behind her are a piano, music stands, and a few chairs. No other musician ever comes out. She holds an olive green Fender Stratocaster, the instrument’s white pickguard adorned with a few stickers just below the strings and a rainbow just above the ¼ inch cable plug. She’s wearing a plain red t-shirt as she stands in front of a large room of people. The lights are trained on her as she walks out. WGBH, a Boston radio station, is recording the performance, as they will post it on their YouTube channel afterwards.[1] As she tunes the guitar, she engages in a little crowd banter. “Good to see you’re all sitting down, and having a good time. Sometimes standing for a long time can be exhausting, so that’s why I say this.” The crowd laughs, and she begins.

Her voice breaks throughout the performance, and her singing isn’t as clear as it is on her recordings. When she talks, she wavers ever so slightly, and every now and then she breathes into the microphone. The crowd doesn’t seem to notice, though, as they sit without chairs on the floor listening intently. She seems to settle in after her third song; her confidence rises after she belts a song about her insecurities and worries for the future. Without a band, she uses a looping pedal to layer her guitar playing, so no song sounds the same as it does on record. Her guitar playing is messy yet pure, emotional yet measured. Her voice is rife with emotion. She gets louder as the lyrics get angrier; her voice quivers when they’re more self-conscious. Whether or not she feels comfortable with all these people watching, she is good.

Nearly a year after that performance, Gish and I met in a JP Licks near Northeastern University in Boston. She had the afternoon off from class, which she spent recording a new song, and after our meeting, she had to run to Stop and Shop to pick up groceries. When she walked in, it took me a second to realize that she was in fact who I was supposed to be meeting. She looked like any normal college student, and since we were meeting near a few colleges, I thought that she might have been just that.

But Gish isn’t a normal college student. In the year after her WGBH performance, she has accrued upwards of 77,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and her most recent album, No Dogs Allowed, received a 7.7 review from Pitchfork (for context, Ed Sheeran’s latest album garnered a 2.8). She is currently nominated for four Boston Music Awards including Album of the Year and Song of the Year. While her classmates spent their summers working normal college jobs, she split time interning in the Artists and Repertoire Department at Island Records and playing shows around the country. This culminated with a six-show stint opening for Mitski, one of today’s preeminent indie rock artists.

That day, however, she just had a few hours off of class. She’s a fourth year at Northeastern with another year and a half of school left. A music business major, she spends her scholastic life learning about the music industry from the perspective of the industry. Northeastern requires their students to work co-ops, or semester-long internships, during their time at school, and Gish has spent hers at professional music labels. While with Island this past semester, she worked in the Artists and Repertoire, or A&R, department whose main job is to scout for, sign, and groom new talent. It was just before this co-op that No Dogs Allowed was released.

“The first week of my job, [No Dogs Allowed] was on [Spotify’s] New Music Friday,” Gish said in an interview with Billboard. “We do A&R research by reporting on charts like that, and my boss came up to me. She’s like, “What?” We weren’t making those charts in our first week, but if I had written it out I would have essentially been scouting myself. So, it was extremely meta.”[2]

 

Yet while she has started to get attention from music media outlets like Billboard, Pitchfork, and The Fader, it was quite apparent that she isn’t quite comfortable with interviews at this point in her career. As she semi-coherently moved from anecdote to anecdote, she fidgeted in her seat and played with her hair tie. She would go from looking at her phone (her roommate was texting her about who she should be for Halloween) to staring at mine as it recorded our conversation. Within 5 minutes, I had lost track of the number of times she glanced at it. And after about 30 minutes, her hair tie broke.

“I tend to panic when answering questions,” she said, “which makes every interview I do a really wild ride, and I can tell that by reading them all.”

She hasn’t always been this big, though, and not all of her performances have been like the WGBH show. There was a time, quite recently, in which she was playing DIY indie house shows with other local bands. Rather than a silent audience, these shows are filled to the brim with college students dressed in denim and Doc Martens. The rooms are dim save for a few flashing colored lights, the walls are dirty, the carpet torn up or nonexistent. Students are packed in right up to the band; the members tend to be jumping and singing along with the crowd. They are filled with energy, everyone knows everyone, and Gish was a staple of that scene. It was clear, though, that she was different from the other local artists.

“She’s very special,” said Joe Kerwin, lead singer of The Water Cycle, a local band. “She’s the best out here.”

The Music

Gish grew up around music, but not in the same way many her contemporaries did. Her father is an avid guitar collector, so he had a ton around Gish’s New Jersey childhood home. This would seemingly provide an opportunity for early practice with the instrument, and the way she plays on her records make it feel like she’s been playing her whole life. But her father wouldn’t let her touch most of the guitars. So she played ukulele instead, and other than the few chords she learned in 7th grade music class, she didn’t have music experience on the guitar. Rather, she decided to improve her guitar playing in college in order “to do something on stage.”

Music has always been a big part of her life, though. Outside of guitar, she was a member of her high school choir which she loved. She did a little bit of musical theater in middle school, and played clarinet for a little bit in elementary school, but didn’t really have much other formal music experience. Interestingly, though, she learned music production pretty early on, too. She was already messing with the digital audio workstation “Garageband” before she took a music technology class her freshman year of high school. Through this, she learned how to sample and layer instruments more easily then she was doing before. After she took the class, she began multitracking and covering songs she liked while she was watching TV. Her songwriting began early as well. According to an interview with The Fader, Gish began writing songs when she was in middle school, coming up with melodies and then writing down the notes over top of the words she was singing.[3]

Her songwriting has progressed substantially since then. Each song she writes is made differently. They always start with a melody (to her the most important part) and the lyrics come afterwards. The music itself, though, is produced in different ways. Melodies she thinks of when she’s bored, instrumentation comes from songs, and lyrics are thrown together from her life. Production-wise, she primarily takes a song she already likes and deconstructs it: the style of production, instruments used, vocal tracking, chord progression. For instance, she mentioned a technique the indie singer-songwriter Elliott Smith used. In order to make his voice sound “spidery,” he recorded himself singing the song twice and then panning one track hard right and one hard left. If listening with headphones, this means the right ear hears one of the vocal tracks while the left hears the other. This sounds wispy in stereo speakers, and Gish uses that on her album.

“Producing…is really fun because I get to, like, choose what all the instruments are doing, so that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot this past year: instrumentation and how parts can be panned and rolled in together in a recording,” Gish said. “I think that’s really cool to pay attention to. So mainly, that’s at the center of everything right now, and I was working on something like that today where I had a bunch of instruments playing different parts and then I was breathing into my headphone microphone [the melody]. Basically, just like fooling around and seeing whatever is worth remembering the next day.”

And it is from a collection of disparate influences that she creates the music behind her tracks. Recently, she’s been listening to “Cowboy Music,” but her teen years were shaped by bands like Dexys Midnight Runners and Vampire Weekend. Her iTunes account is filled with playlists from high school named using different emojis to convey the mood of the playlist, and they’re filled with indie rock classics. Not one for basic chord progression, she notes “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra as major influences growing up as they are filled with chord changes, lush instrumentation, and interesting hooks.

Her pieces are created with “whatever [she] feel[s] like copying at the time.” For instance, “Not but for You, Bunny,” the album’s most popular song and the piece nominated for Song of the Year, was based off “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club.  She took the instrumentation and the feel of the song and created her own piece. The similarities are clear immediately. Like “Genius of Love,” it has a disco beat, high pitched choir-like vocals, a jangly guitar, and a bass line. To her, a “fake version” of the song requires the same effort as making a cover, but it’s her own.

As for lyrics, she has a bunch written down in the notes app on her phone that she pieces together. She writes a lot and has for a while. When she was younger, she kept journals constantly. Be it about what she ate that day or just little things that happened to her, she would write it down, and she would challenge herself to make them interesting enough to read later. “Each line counts,” she said. The lyrics in her songs reflect that. The melodies are exceptional and stick in your head for days after the first listen, a testament to her choir background and innate musical talent, but the lyrics are unique to each song. So while the music itself is cohesive, the themes of the songs don’t necessarily mesh. Each song is within its own bubble of 21-year-old angst and anger, confusion and consolation, profanity and profundity.

“If I see something interesting I’ll write it down,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll be lyrics about my life that I wrote down, and sometimes they’ll just be things I saw or things that happened to other people. It’s not totally autobiographical, I’m just like ‘oh cool, I’m just gonna put this in the melody that I think is cool.’”

As a result, No Dogs Allowed is an interesting mix of her life experiences. “Not but for You, Bunny” opens with Gish playing a Latin-influenced guitar line. The verse starts, and a falsetto-singing Gish meditates on a one-sided relationship. At least, that might be what it’s about. “We met inside the gelateria/you worked the motherfucking register/reminded me it was a pizzeria,” she sings in the second verse before deciding to “bleach [her] whole damn mind that night” from embarrassment. In the chorus, through cascading oohs, Gish sings of “glitter candy and perfume” and a “bubble bath of entropy.” It seems like an inward confession on the difficulties of being self-conscious and dating as a 20-something. Gish says it was written for her pet rabbit.

The album begins with the track “Bird Tutorial,” a minute-and-fourteen-second long remix of a parakeet training recording. Another song, “Good Magicians,” uses magicians as a vehicle for manipulation by some guy from some point in someone’s life. On “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” title comes from the Shel Silverstein book of the same name, and “I Eat Salads Now” appears to be a euphemism for smoking weed.

She is at once both self-deprecating and self-assured in her songs. Her lyrics are sung with a certain confidence that is at odds with their millennial sadness. They’re clever and they’re real. “Every other day I’m wondering/What’s a human being gotta be like/What’s a way to just be competent,” she sings on “Imposter Syndrome.” Listening to No Dogs Allowed is like scrolling through a Generation Z Twitter feed. There are jokes about depression, messing up relationships, and being an awkward college kid. “The friendly girls are trying to comfort me/As if I’m a depressed chick at a frat party,” she sings on the album’s stand out track, “Sin Triangle.” She compares her inability to see a guy to Japan’s 19th century isolationism before deciding, well, “it would at least, like, not suck.” The whole album is a group chat between college kids, connected by the loose threads of self-consciousness and acute self-awareness and really nothing else.

“It’s as if Gish is standing atop a pile of books, so overcome with nerves that she repurposes their facts into self-effacing darts,” writes Nina Corcoran in her Pitchfork review. “Yet the more she does this, the more she stands out as a smart, plainspoken, entirely relatable young person in the post-Tumblr era.”[4]

Through all of this, she remains remarkably humble. She believes that the notoriety she’s received for her most recent album “isn’t even that big of a deal” as it happens to a lot of bands. She isn’t quite ready to become a full-time musician even with the reception to her album.

“I’m going to keep trying to put out albums that I enjoy making,” she said. “But I don’t think that I can just say that that’s a career path now because it’s so unpredictable.”

Gish still goes to the same venues she used to play, but now as an observer. The carpets look the same, the lights are still dim, the same graffiti covers the walls. College students still crowd the venues, drinking and smoking, and many of the same bands are playing the shows. This particular night, the 21-year-old feels like an elder statesman amongst the newer college crowd. She brought her own bottle of Trader Joe’s wine (“not in a sad way” she reassures me) which she drinks while the 19-year-olds are in the kitchen selling Jello shots. She doesn’t stay in the house for long, though. She and a few friends sneak out through the window to get some fresh air. While her friends play, she and the others watch the show from outside through the window. Most of the kids there probably don’t realize who she is, but it would be surprising if they didn’t one day soon.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eWkJ2ILYNs

[2] https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/8464433/sidney-gish-interview

[3] https://www.thefader.com/2018/03/09/sidney-gish-no-dogs-allowed-interview-boston

[4] https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/sidney-gish-no-dogs-allowed/

 

Gant Player ([email protected]) looks ahead to yet another coffee shop meeting, excited for the future that lies ahead of Gish.