Watch the video for “Stranger Love,” and learn more about The Only Thing, her most personal record to date.
Natasha Jacobs, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter behind Thelma, has the biggest small voice in indie folk. Or maybe she has the biggest small voice in bedroom pop. Thelma’s music hovers somewhere in between these poles, anchored by Jacobs’ unorthodox instrumental arrangements.
Thelma’s self-titled LP was one of the best debuts of 2017. On Thelma, Jacobs whimpers, screeches, yelps, and trembles. Her voice plunges and climbs and ricochets through sparse fields of percussion, strings, and synth. And she does these things with breathless focus and poise.
Thelma is gearing up to self-release its sophomore LP, The Only Thing, on February 22. It features Daniel Siles on drums, Maciej Lewandowski on bass, Roan Ma on violin, and Laura Wolf Schatz on cello. The video for album single “Stranger Love,” which debuted on February 7, is directed by Hunter Zimny and features Jacobs as an itinerant aqua aerobics instructor. It’s just as weird and charming as the song, where Jacobs’ vocals skate around synth scales that rise and fall. Her lyrics are cutting and self-aware: “And how I wish there was something I could find / to hate about you / to disqualify what I’m feeling / but I don’t know you well enough to know an ugly side / and it’s looking like I probably never will.”
Jacobs–who has spent the last few years dealing with health complications related to a serious injury, thyroid cancer, and a joint disease–wrote most of The Only Thing while recovering from surgery. She opens up about this process in our interview below.
Make sure to catch Thelma at their record release party on February 23 at Secret Project Robot, with support from Mutual Benefit, Dig Nitty, and .Michael., followed by DJ sets from Beta Librae, Kfeelz, and No Intimate.
AdHoc: You’ve described Thelma as “Alt Cherub.” Can you tell us a little bit about your recent artistic or musical influences?
Natasha Jacobs: That’s funny. I haven’t heard that in so long. I wrote that in, like, 2014. This record feels like the most personal one to me. I was going through a bunch of health issues while I was writing this record, and I wasn’t really able to play guitar, which is usually my main instrument, so there’s very little guitar on the record. In the process of writing this record. I learned synthesizer and was listening to a lot less guitar music and a lot of electronic music.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t write for a while and then goes through a really intense writing phase. And usually when I’m in that phase I don’t listen to a ton of music because I feel I’m too affected by it. But funnily, the person I was listening to most while listening to this record was Lana Del Rey. I don’t listen to that kind of stuff, but I had this brief obsession with her. I’d say this record is really inspired by the physical experiences I was going through, which forced me to make it in a way that I was totally unfamiliar with.
How else did your health or medical experiences figure into the record?
Most of the record I wrote with one hand on a very, very tiny synthesizer. I sold some of my guitars right before I needed surgery, and I bought this tiny synthesizer and OP1.
While I was recovering I was able to write in bed one-handed, and so all the songs started very, very simple and while we were recording got much more complex, and that was a new experience for me. Really focusing on the core of the songs. Really simple or basic chord progressions with not a lot of rhythmic attributes. Really focusing on the lyrics and the song structures first.
The way I used to write was like, all the details were there from the beginning, and it was kind of an excruciating way to write, whereas this was like, I made sure that the skeletons of the songs stood really strong on their own, which I guess is like a metaphor for what I was going through physically.
In “Take Me to Orlando,” the first single from your upcoming record, you address an imagined lover. What’s so appealing about writing to somebody, or creating a character to address?
In general I’ve been exploring the idea of writing songs that aren’t about real stories that have happened to me. It’s not so much “appealing,” but I was feeling super, super alone, and in those times you idealize a kind of person that you could be with.
I had also been reading the book Orlando and was super drawn to the character Orlando. I guess Orlando represents someone [Virginia Woolf] was in love with, and [the character] was a dramatized version of this person. Some people describe Orlando as being like a long love letter to this person she was in love with, so I wanted to run with that idea.
You also appear in the music video for “Take Me to Orlando,” in which your character fantasizes about visiting Disney World, then visits an amusement park in Westchester instead, then falls in love with an alien. What’s the story behind the video?
I made it with my friend Stephanie [Gould]. I didn’t have any budget for music videos for this record, so whichever of my friends offered to make a video, I was very down. We just sat down for a cup of coffee one day and we were talking, like, “How can we use the concept of what the song is about and the concept of Orlando, like Disney World?” So we came up with this funny idea of meeting the character Orlando at Disney World. And we decided to do an alien because of how ridiculous the song is. [We wanted to depict] this very unrealistic character. I don’t know if this came through in the video, but the idea of me wanting to go to Orlando and settling for Disney World [parallels] an alien wanting to go to Disney World from outer space.
How has Thelma’s sound changed or evolved since your first record?
I think it’s changed a lot. I had made one solo record before, but that was my first experience in production. With the last record I felt like whatever came out, came out. With this record I feel like I had a lot more intention and control. I made a whole demo record before the record even happened, and we really worked through the songs in a different way.
As far as the music goes, the first record was kind of spooky and dark. This one is too, but I think I was going through such a dark time that I wanted nothing more than to have fun with this record. Playing guitar had been so painful for me for a while, I just wanted to have as much fun as possible. I wanted to make sure they were physically and mentally fun to perform. Even though a lot of the songs are about really sad topics, vocally, I let myself play.
Why did you choose to call the new record The Only Thing?
I think that when you’re really in a place of feeling motivated to write, you feel a sense of, “This is the only thing I want to do.” Especially with the weight of everything that was going on with this record—and at the age I’m at—I’m trying to figure out if I need to get a full-time job with benefits and feeling very strongly, more than ever, that this was the only thing I knew I wanted to do.
Is there anything else you want to add about your experience either working on this record or evolving as an artist?
I self-released this record, and I learned so much from that experience. It’s been interesting figuring out that process, how to do it in the best way possible. The music world is funny. People really do pay attention to clout, and it’s been funny noticing the differences in interest when you’re on a label or not on a label.
People shouldn’t be afraid to self-release. I feel like there’s pressure to find a label and find approval and wait for the gates to open for you, but there’s a lot of power in trying to figure things out by yourself.
Check out Thelma’s record release party on February 23 at Secret Project Robot, with support from Mutual Benefit, Dig Nitty, and .Michael., followed by DJ sets from Beta Librae, Kfeelz, and No Intimate.