Photography by Eleanor Petry
For IAN SWEET’s Jilian Medford, touring is a form of therapy.
“I feel like I have to tour and play these songs constantly and live with them in order to be meditative and be able to process my mental health issues,” Medford tells AdHoc over the phone.
After playing solo shows in Boston’s DIY scene as IAN (a throwback to her high school skateboarding nickname), Medford teamed up with drummer Tim Cheney and bassist Damien Scalise to form IAN SWEET.
The band’s debut album, Shapeshifter, which dropped in September 2016 via Hardly Art, sees Medford processing and pondering those issues—anxiety, depression, panic attacks — on lo-fi, guitar-driven anthems referencing Nickelodeon and Michael Jordan. While Medford’s plaintive, reverb-drenched vocals anchor the record, Shapeshifter is enriched by the trio’s sheer musical chemistry, transforming complex arrangements into undeniably hooky garage-pop.
“It’s IAN when I’m on my own, but they add the SWEET,” Medford says, pausing for a second before cracking herself up.
IAN SWEET plays Murmrr Theater on 10/7 with Frankie Cosmos and Nice Try.
AdHoc: Who were some of your heroes growing up?
Jilian Medford: Some of my heroes were people my parents were listening to, like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. They’ve always been heroes of mine as far as music goes, and they’ve shaped the way that I approach and think about music—a more “freaky” way [laughs]. Also, the way they involve theatrics, but not in an over-the-top way, was really influential.
Also, a big hero of mine that comes up in a lot of our music and art that we make is Michael Jordan. My dad was a basketball referee while I was growing up and was always taking me to games and involving me in that world.
The jump from Peter Gabriel to Michael Jordan is pretty funny.
Honestly, it’s boring when artists only want to talk about heroes who are musicians.
It’s a cliché thing I’m about to say, but my mom is truly a hero of mine. She represented a lot for me and has been the most supportive, encouraging human, no matter what I wanted to get into. I was always interested in playing music and getting lessons and stuff, but I had all these weird hobbies I wanted to do, like badminton lessons. I wanted to be a fashion designer, so she put me in sewing classes—or like weird, freaky art programs, because she’s an artist.
So she was always playing around with any ideas that I had until I sort of figured it out. But it wasn’t until later that I realized how much time and effort she put in for anything that I was ever interested in.
Can you remember when you first started writing songs?
I’d always been singing and running around the house, making stuff up. But I went to this camp for music when I was like 11 or 12. It was like a sleepaway camp for the arts. I picked the songwriting program within it and got paired up with an older mentor. That’s when I wrote my first real song and performed it.
The funniest part about that was when my parents were dropping me off at the camp, my mom saw Bruce Springsteen, and he was dropping his kids off. She had a meltdown, because that’s her hero. She was like, “Be friends with those people!”
So I wrote my first two real songs with the guidance of someone who was like, “What do you think about every day? Let’s start from there.” It was kind of a funny way to do it, but it also pushed me to collaborate at a young age. It got me out of my comfort zone.
Do you have a particular process or routine when it comes to writing?
I do like to put myself in a zone. I wouldn’t say that continuously throughout the day I get ideas and have to immediately write them down. I’m mostly too neurotic and anxious, thinking about other parts of my life [laughs]. I get too distracted.
So that’s why I like to make time for myself and make a zone where I’m available for these emotions. I like to sit down, think through, and process it in a certain way.
It’s always with a guitar. I think I do it this way because a lot of times, my lyrics and melodies come to me while I’m holding or playing the guitar. So it does take a little bit of waiting time to get there with my instrument and formulate the actual riff or chord structure.
Depending on how that makes me feel, I start thinking more through the sounds of the chords and the structure of the song.
IAN SWEET began as a solo project called IAN. How did your approach change once this became a trio?
It evolved so much through Damien and Tim. Everyone has their way of doing things and can be stubborn and stuck in their ways. When you play music alone for a long time, that’s how it is. I was definitely ready to get to a different point and get louder and try to experience new things.
All of us are from insanely different backgrounds and have different ways of approaching anything music or art-related. When I started collaborating with Tim, it was like, “Here are my songs—play drums on them.” And Tim had a way of being like, “No...I want to let you know about…” It automatically became a collaborative effort, whether I wanted it to be or not, but it felt right. So we continued to work together.
Tim is so smart about music and extremely opinionated, too. He’s honest with me. Sometimes I’m afraid to share things with him because I’m so stuck in my ways, but it’s obviously gotten a lot better. It’s just so personal to share anything, especially lyrics, with anyone. So whenever I share my songs with them, they’re super stoked, proud and supportive, but they want to make it sound like IAN SWEET.
My bass player Damien plays his bass like a lead guitar. I feel like he’s just riffing all the time and coming up with lead lines over my part. And Tim’s drumming is really melodic. I love being able to play with them.
It’s still really nice to write on my own and then show them my ideas. That’s always how it happens: I write something on my own, I show them, and then it becomes a full-fledged IAN SWEET song. It’s IAN when I’m on my own, but they add the SWEET.
Shapeshifter is a pretty sad record in terms of what you’re going through, but there’s a lot of humor thrown in there.
That’s just my personality, I think: candy-coating everything with humor without realizing it before I process the actual issue.
I started to realize that Shapeshifter was very stream-of-consciousness for me. When I listen back nowadays, it really feels like I’m just saying whatever came to mind. It made a lot of sense for me at the time, and it still does.
But the way I’m writing now is less stream-of-consciousness and more sitting down with my thoughts and maturing emotionally. But it was hard to put it in serious words, so there is that little twist at every corner that’s mentioning something sad and then mentioning ice cream.
The current DIY scene seems to be a safer space than it’s ever been for talking about mental health. Why do you think that is?
The song’s written and out there in the world, and it feels extremely therapeutic to write it and record it. But the most therapeutic part about it is playing it constantly. IAN SWEET tours so much, it’s stupid.
I feel like I have to tour and play these songs and live with them in order to be meditative and be able to process my mental health issues. The more I play the song, the more intense it honestly gets.
The night where I feel like that pain or that happiness of a song, the performance is always different. It really helps me to cope with my anxieties by playing these songs. I rehash them and feel connected over and over again to that emotion.
You mentioned you’re working on songs in a different way than when you were writing Shapeshifter. What’s the timeline like for IAN SWEET releasing new music?
It’s definitely happening. We’re planning on recording the record in late December or early January. We’ve been talking to a couple producers, which I’m really excited about. One of them is very special to me, and I’ve been a big, huge, stupid fan for a long time. We might work them, but I’m not sure I can mention the name.
I’ve been in LA writing, and I’m going back to the East Coast soon to play this show and write with the boys. From there, we have to turn it into Hardly Art, and then they make their press process and cycle. So we’re shooting for early next summer [for the release].
We were thinking about doing it sooner, but then we got offered another tour that we couldn’t say no to. We thought we were going to be done touring straight after the Frankie Cosmos tour, but then something else came up.
What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever played with IAN SWEET?
I think it was on the Cherry Glazerr tour that we did recently. We did a night away from them in Oklahoma City. We played with this band that was sort of like a My Chemical Romance tribute band? There were two people watching the entire show in Oklahoma City, plus the bands.
Then the guy who was running the show left. He locked the entire space and left with all of our gear in there. He was like, “You guys got everything? Okay, bye.” And he zoomed off in his car. Our gear was left and we were in freaky Oklahoma City with this My Chemical Romance tribute band wanting to hang out. But they ended up being great.
What was so sick about that night was we ended up driving three hours out of the city and went camping in this beautiful spot. So that was a nice little end to the journey.