Music

How Brooklyn’s Thelma Makes Gigantic, Electric Songs Feel Intimate Like Folk

Thelma is the project of Natasha Jacobs, a Brooklyn guitarist and songwriter who released her debut album earlier this year via the Carolina label Tiny Engines. It may be the strongest debut of the year, and landed at #23 on our best albums of 2017 mid-year list. The self-titled seven-track project is full of forceful electronic melodies and sharp, twisting lyrics that don’t quite say what they mean, but maintain an inherent air of playfulness. Even when the songs get dark or heavy, there’s a sense of mischief in the songwriting on Thelma.

A native of upstate New York, Jacobs has always been interested in creating, but she was originally a visual artist, and even got a degree in that field, before a rather tragic accident caused her to pause and shift gears. Jacobs was sucked into the world of music after a terrible fall off a ladder in her Brooklyn loft. Two doctors told her she’d never walk again, but a third was able to give her the kind of miracle surgery that meant she can now walk, and even run, despite a shattered tibial plateau. Following that experience, Jacobs moved into the world of music, and more importantly, the world of Thelma, and never looked back.

She taught herself guitar in order to write her own songs, eventually joining with fellow Thelma bandmembers Daniel Siles, Maciej Lewandowski, and Juan Pablo Siles to recreate the solo songs she’d been playing alone as tracks that grow to be towering and enormous at times, but never lose their inner core of tiny intimacy. Today we’re premiering the video for one such song, “Peach,” a clip that was directed by Conner Schuurmans, and presents a story told from the perspective of Bob the Dog. Watch below, and read our interview with Jacobs about working with directors to achieve a surreal aesthetic, how the fall impacted her music, and what’s next for the project.

So the “Peach” video isn’t necessarily a happy one; it’s actually a little spooky, but I loved how surreal it is, and I also loved how surreal the earlier video for “White Couches” was as well. When you’re coming up with a video treatment, what is the philosophy behind that? Because these two videos feel like they’re of the same aesthetic.

I’m such a control freak with my music that my whole outlook with music videos is I really wanted to work with artists who I respect. That’s basically how we’ve done all of them — and there’s more coming out too — is finding an artist who I felt understood my aesthetic coming up with an idea and pitching it to me. If I approved the idea then I was very hands off, even if I wasn’t like totally 100% confident in it, just because I felt like for videos it should either be that I’m directing or co-directing the video, or I’m just trusting someone else. So I really wanted to help formulate the original idea with them, and then be hands off.

In fact, for the “Peach” video, I actually wasn’t even there for the shoot. We planned it out scene by scene together, and my friend Conner — who directed it — just told me his ideas. It was kind of wild, because they shot that video, and then poor Bob the dog passed away just a few days afterward. So this is the last documentation of the dog.

Poor Bob! At least we have this record of him. The videos both feel a little bit surreal and ominous. For someone who is coming to your music for the first time, and watching these two videos, what would you hope they come away with?

First and foremost, I wanted the artist who made the videos to be featured. I really like that multimedia collaboration.I really want people to know that I wasn’t the one directing these videos. But as far as a connection between the two of them, aesthetically I feel like throughout this whole record I’ve been trying to establish a Thelma world that has a lot to do with my home environment on an exaggerated scale. The kinds of spaces I’ve taken all my photos in, the kinds of spaces the videos are in, are all very related to the style of home I grew up in and very much relate to. So I think that’s where everything is really connected.

Tell me more about the world of Thelma, the concept of the domestic does feel like a strong theme throughout.

The reason we chose the house in the “Peach” video is because it’s is very similar aesthetically to the house I grew up in, and I’ve done a lot of my photo shoots and stuff there. I grew up in Westchester, New York for the most part, but I spent a good amount of time in Monticello in this little cabin. That’s actually where my album’s cover photo was taken. We have a little pond there and we took that boat picture on the pond. Pretty much all of our press pictures were taken in Monticello, New York, which is just like a couple hours north of the city.

Where you doing music at that point when you were growing up in Westchester? Or was that something that only happened after the accident with the ladder?

Not really, I was really involved in the DIY music scene in Westchester when I was growing up, and I feel like that kind of saved me, because I didn’t really relate to many people at my high school. I came from kind of a football town, there was no real money for the arts for the most part. So I liked music, I really liked to sing, and I tried to learn instruments, but it never really stuck. I was more of a visual artist growing up. But I was still dabbling in music pretty consistently, I just never really thought I was going to do anything with it. But after I had just graduated college for visual art when the ladder fall happened, and I came to the realization that I didn’t want to do visual art at all, but I still felt a strong will to create, so it just kind of moved over into music, and it’s just been that way ever since.

So what exactly happened when you fell off the ladder?

Well, I live in kind of a strange living space, we built out all the rooms and lofted a bunch of spaces. At the time I was living in a totally lofted room, and fell off the top rung of my ladder, I tripped because I was walking down it like a staircase. I fell really, really badly. I guess the worst part of the injury was I shattered my tibial plateau, and that’s where all the ligaments of the knee are attached, so I also had ligament tears and everything. They had to reconstruct the bone… I had several surgeries and couldn’t walk for a really long time. That’s the most weight-bearing point in your body, and that’s why you have to be bedridden for so long. You can’t even start putting a pound of weight on it for a very very long time.

And… now, is it ok? Are you ok now?

I’m definitely doing better. The first doctor I saw told me I was never going to walk normally again, and I was never going to be able to run. I was lucky enough to be able to get three opinions, because it was so swollen that I had to lay there in bed for a week with it broken before they could operate, otherwise the operation would’ve been too dangerous. So in that week I got three opinions, because the first two doctors were like we can’t really fix this.

Then, finally, by just some miracle I found this incredible doctor who specialized in this injury, and he did an incredible job. I mean, I still have pain in a lot of areas, once you really break one thing that bad your whole body is kind of thrown off, because there’s compensation and whatnot. So I’m still in physical therapy and stuff, but I can walk normally, I can even like run for a minute. It definitely came out much better than I thought it was going to be.

So that’s sort of the place you were in when you started creating these Thelma songs?

I had a little solo EP that was just under my name that I did first, that was kind of my first musical attempt. Really, in a way, it was the first music I ever played. I kind of taught myself to play guitar by writing songs, I never really played anyone else’s songs. So that EP is kind of my first musical attempt at all, but then Thelma came right after writing those.

And why did you choose to create as Thelma instead of your own name?

I just felt like I really wanted to — and I guess this is going back into creating a world — I just wanted to create somewhat of an exaggerated world. Thelma was actually my grandma, someone I really loved, and she represented a lot of things that I value. So I loved that name. And I feel like art is such a playful escape for me that I wanted to have that escape through using another name.

As far as guitar, did you teach yourself to play?

Yeah, for the most part. Initially I did, until I had started really writing. Then I decided to go take guitar lessons, then I actually went back to school for music, which I’m still doing. But I was initially self-taught for the first two years. I’m going to Suny Purchase. I feel like I owe a lot to that scene.

One of the things I like the most about your music is it has this intersection folk, psych and rock. It builds to super high peaks, but there’s this underlying quietness. How do you see those two elements as connected?

Especially for this record, I wrote all the songs solo and was performing them solo for a while before I ever took them to my band. So I think that there was always this core of a smaller song that still works on its own, and I think I definitely, in this record, make use of dynamics I really like to have the intimacy and then some really gigantic moments. I think a lot of that juxtaposition comes from the fact that I had already been performing these songs solo for so long. And in this specific case, my parts didn’t even really change that much when I took it to the band. It was kind of more them figuring out how to work around me rather than rearranging the song completely for the band.

The song I kept listening to over and over was “White Couches,” it feels sort of like it stands separate from the other ones in some ways. Can you talk a little bit about writing that one?

I’ll say one thing — and this is for “White Couches” as well as all my favorite moments in songs that I’ve written. I feel like the best lyrics always come to me when I’m just being totally playful and really enjoying writing. Like, I can’t sit on your white couches tonight — I couldn’t come up with that if I was heavily thinking about what I was trying to say. It was heavily playful, and it’s definitely an accurate metaphor for what I’m singing about, but I just really love when lyrics happen that way.

It feels like… such a succinct metaphor for being angry or not fitting into something, or not wanting to kowtow to someone else’s system. And again, it’s very domestic and in the Thelma world.

I think this song really represents — as far as what it’s about — I’m the kind of person who is constantly having friend crushes and inappropriate crushes and all kinds of crushes. So it’s the funny dialogue in my head of making excuses of why someone likes you, why someone doesn’t like you, why you should hang out with them, why you should not. It was a funny thought process about someone that I shouldn’t have a crush on.

The other one I loved was kind of on the other end of the spectrum, “Haha,” and that one I love because of how freeform it is, and how it kind of just spools off. And I was wondering what it was like to write a song that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional song structure?

I think that goes back into really allowing yourself to play. Sometimes I go into a song thinking okay, I want this song to have a form. But with a song like “Haha” I try not to think about it, and I’m making a part, and I let another melody come into my head and follow it. That song actually took me like three or four months to write, because when you are doing that, when you’re not putting yourself or working within a form and letting things come so purely and naturally, you can’t force that. So I’ll just be playing a part for a few weeks until a next part comes. I’ll hear it in my head and I’ll play it. It’s just waiting and listening to it and playing it over and over again until the next part kind of happens. And then the lyrics kind of follow suit with a similar process. And some of the lyrics in that one are also very playful in a similar way.

So the difference is avoiding any notion of structure while writing it, and letting out whatever comes. And I think that also goes into the way I was writing that was at the very beginning of my music education. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was as far as key or anything like that. I didn’t really know what I was playing when I wrote that. Both perspectives are so invaluable, but I’m really glad I started writing before I knew that stuff, because now I can force myself to go back to that place, of not thinking about the technical aspects, but I can also flip back and forth when needed.

Seven songs is pretty short for a debut. I wanted to ask about the shortness of the record. I was short of struck by the brevity of it.

The songs are so long — some of the songs are five to seven minutes long — so I feel like actually in length it’s the same if not longer than some longer track listing records, or some records that have more songs. I think that I have a really arduous writing process, and those songs took me a long time to write. And when I wrote the last one, I just felt like okay, I’m ready to move onto the next thing. It felt like a natural ending point to this record. I think the record is pretty cohesive for the most part. And I’m really excited to explore what kind of sound world the next record is going to be.

What are your plans for the future and future releases?

We’re working on new demos and stuff right now. The shift is, this time, I know how to work with a band. I hadn’t really done that before this record. So we’re really arranging the record more together, and I don’t think we’re losing any moments of intimacy. I think I’m becoming a better musician through this process; I feel like every part is really going to have its place in a different way. It’s hard to say, I have all these ideas, but I’m really interested in exploring how to keep things epic without such a dense sound. Because I really like the idea of every part having its place and purpose.

Thelma is out now via Tiny Engines. Get it here.

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