“No One Ever Calls Anyone an All-Guy Band”: Heliotropic Feminism With Jessica Numsuwankijkul

For her second full-length as Heliotropes, Numsuwankijkul assembled a new crew of musicians who all happen to be male. The uproar was instantaneous -- and deafening.
Over There That Way
The End

There’s a special place in hell, apparently, for female musicians who play with men.

After releasing Heliotrope’s debut album, A Constant Sea, in 2013, Jessica Numsuwankijkul found her four-person band disintegrating for the usual NYC-centric reasons: people getting serious jobs, people moving out of the city, changing interests, etc.

She went through the usual channels to find new people to play with, asking people she knew from work and musical gigs and settling on a few with the right chemistry and skills. And yet, because her old band had been all-female and her new one three-quarters male, the shift became politically charged. Nearly every review of her new album Over There That Way, mentions the gender switch; a few (like The Onion’s AV Club) made it out to be a calculated Lady Macbeth-like move, and one fan tweeted that “something was rotten in Brooklyn” after the change-over.

Numsuwankijkul still seems stunned by the reaction. “What I find interesting about it is that the original line-up of Heliotropes wasn’t an all-girl line-up — there was a man playing bass,” she says. “But nobody paid any attention to the band before that.” She adds ruefully, “It’s funny, no one ever calls anyone an all-guy band. Or just a band. I’d really like it if people would just call bands bands.”

“If you’re a female musician, there’s no way to win,” Numsuwankijkul goes on. “When we were the all-girl line-up people wrote about us like ‘Oh, this is a carefully constructed thing. They’re of all different races and they’re all women so this is a manufactured thing.’ Even though we were all just friends who liked playing together.” Then, after the switch, the outrage continued, though in a 180-degree different direction. “It was like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe they’re not a girl band anymore.

“I have to assume after all of this is that had I replaced all my bandmates with other women, no one would have said anything about it,” she continues. “Which is really weird to think about. What are they saying? Are women interchangeable? Are they a novelty?”

Her Best Band Ever

What makes it especially frustrating is that Numsuwankijkul considers her current line-up the strongest she’s ever had from a musical perspective. She met Richard Thomas, the bass player, while working at a Bushwick bar called Bodega, then reconnected after returning to the city from a stint in Chicago. Greg Guiffre played drums in Hunters, another NYC-based band that Heliotropes shared bills with. When Hunters broke up, Numsuwankijkul asked him to join her. Ricci Swift plays additional guitar for Heliotropes an element that Numsuwankijkul has always wanted but had never been able to find the right person.

“I think that the band is the best it’s ever been, technically speaking,” she asserts. “We just did this secret acoustic show, and it sort of dawned me that the band wouldn’t be able to do something like that before. We wouldn’t have had diverse enough songs and we wouldn’t have had the chops to fill in something without having all that distortion behind us.”

She particularly likes having two guitars in the band. “That really frees it up for me before, especially live, the onus was on me to carry a lot of it, and that’s not the case anymore, especially since Ricci is such an animated person on stage,” she says. “That takes the pressure off me. That’s a really good feeling and I feel like our live show is getting a lot better.”

Numsuwankijkul is also excited about writing and recording with the new line-up. “We just wrote our first batch of songs together, and we’re pretty excited to put that stuff out,” she says. “It’s a lot different from the other stuff. It’s heavier, but it’s not slow and sludgy like the way it was.”

A Solitary Process

With the band in flux, Numsuwankijkul says her writing process was different this time. It took longer, for one thing, and occurred largely in her own apartment, alone. She worked on songs one at a time in her spare time. “I was just sort of writing songs and recording them and stashing them away and hoping I would release them at some point,” she recalls. “A lot of these songs were recorded months apart from each other. As opposed to the first album where we pretty much banged them all out in two weeks.”

That was partly because Numsuwankijkul had just gotten a full-time, career-oriented job; she now works as staffer for her district’s state senator. “Amber [Myers], who used to be in the band, and I got serious jobs at the same time and music took a back seat for a second,” she says. “But what’s kind of funny is that the longer I’m in a serious job, the more it affirms that I don’t actually want to give up playing music and that I’m not going to. I always assumed that if I got a serious job, I would become less serious about music and more serious about my career, but if anything it’s taught me that I don’t want to give up this one thing that makes me excited.”

Working alone, the long-time history buff found herself watching World War II documentaries on Netflix between sessions. As a result, images and stray phrases throughout the album reflect this theme — the opening cut is named after battle site “Normandy” and two cuts reference the Eastern theater’s contested Straits of Dardanelles. The closing acoustic cut is called “Goodnight Soldier”, and one of the disc’s best songs declares that “War Isn’t Over”. There’s even a WWII-vintage soldier in dress uniform, smiling faintly on the album cover.

The album is not, however, a concept album, and its themes are largely personal rather than historical. Says Numsuwankijkul, “I just sort of used the history for tropes. I think it’s really easy to harness that language of struggle and apply it to your personal life.”

Numsuwankijkul says she is proud of the new album, the first, she asserts, that has songs she’d listen to for pleasure; before she says recording was mostly about replicating Heliotrope’s live sound. The cut she likes best is “My Only Friend”. “I was listening to All Things Must Pass by George Harrison so I’m playing a lot of the same chords,” she says. “I really love the drumming on it, too. That’s Julian Fader who plays with Ava Luna.”

Harrison is one of her musical touchstones. She also lists Mark Hollis from Talk Talk, PreFab Sprout, Alice Coltrane, Billy Corgan and Paul McCartney as songwriting favorites. “I’m an especially big fan of people who make a lot out of nothing, like Tom Petty,” she adds. “You know, he’s used the same four chords for everything. They’re always straightforward chords. They’re usually major chords and he’s been able to just write better songs than most people, and it’s really kind of incredible.”

“But really,” she says, “I find non-musical sources of inspiration much more effective than musical ones. If I watch a really great film, I feel much more inclined to write music than if I listen to a great album. I’m not sure why. I think because film is much more multi-media,” she adds.

“One movie that I drew tons from,” she continues, “including the font we always use, is The Tin Drum by Volker Schl√∂ndorff. I’m constantly look at that film as a super tight and supreme example of making unrealistic work in an artistic sense, like that opening scene where there’s a person in utero about to give birth, but it’s really a 12-year-old that’s covered in wet, red tissue. It’s totally awesome. I think people also get that feeling from David Lynch films … making the unrealistic really work for you. He’ll have campy unrealistic acting that’s not quite right and all these sets that don’t quite make sense, where everything’s off but it’s not a fantasy.”

Refusing to Be a Novelty

Numsuwankijkul says that the past year hasn’t been the only time she’s run up against gender assumptions. Her band once hired a manager who said that she should only play with other women, and at one of her first post-college jobs, she was, quite happily, one of the few women at Marvel Comics. “If you thought music was male-dominated, comics make music seem like the fucking Lilith Fair,” she cracked.

Music is different because it’s public, emotionally revealing and requires continual communication between artist and artist, artist and audience. “I feel like there’s this really weird pressure sometimes if you are a female musician to either be a solo artist or only play with other women, because there’s this perception that having an all-female band is a novelty. Women playing music seem to be regarded as a novelty, even though women have been playing music since the dawn of time,” she says.