When Twen’s core duo of Jane Fitzsimmons (vocals) and Ian Jones (guitar) make their Mothlight debut on Wednesday, June 26, the release of their impressive first album Awestruck will still be nearly three months away. While touring without recorded songs to share with fans is the opposite route most groups take, it’s nothing new for the indie rockers, who’ve made a successful career by following their own path.
Recently of Nashville but now living that sweet van life (read on), Fitzsimmons and Jones spoke with Asheville Stages about taking the musical road less traveled, the joys of misunderstood lyrics, and finally getting their tunes in people’s homes.
Edwin Arnaudin: What’s your history with Asheville?
Jane Fitzsimmons: We’ve played a few times before.
Ian Jones: On our first tour, we played Burger Bar.
JF: Oh yeah! It doesn’t even have a stage. [Laughs]
IJ: And actually, a photo taken at that performance is going to be on the inner sleeve of our record.
JF: Yeah! A little Polaroid.
IJ: Whatever. OK. Sorry, I digress.
JF: And then what is that vintage store?
IJ: Oh, Fleetwood’s. We’ve played Fleetwood’s twice. And we’ve played one other place, too. But we like Asheville.
JF: Yeah! Those were all on the DIY tours that we booked — Ian mostly — the past two years. Because Asheville is so close to Nashville, we always made a stop, usually.
IJ: And people were very receptive to us in Asheville. People would usually come out and rock out.
JF: Y’all are very open there, which is good.
EA: That’s what we strive for, but it’s always nice to hear from musicians that they feel it, too. And it’s neat that you’ve climbed through the local venue ranks and landed at The Mothlight. I think it’ll be a good fit for your sound.
JF: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about it.
EA: Well, it seems like low-hanging fruit for an interview, but I’m fascinated by your ability to tour for so long without an album and think there are a lot of moving parts around that concept. How did you decide to take this approach?
IJ: It was never a decision. It’s just kind of how things unfolded.
JF: It helped that we started in Boston and then as soon as we played one show, our friend was accidentally recording it and that’s where the first EP came from. And we just got the band together and then moved immediately to Nashville, and I think that movement from the very beginning kept us wanting to keep going to new places. So, once we moved to Nashville, I think it was only a couple of months until we decided to do a small tour up through Missouri, and we just kept on doing it every month. We didn’t stop.
IJ: So for those first two years as a band, we were touring pretty much every month and all we had was that first show that had been recorded. There was never really time to sit down and think about recording a record, per se, until it happened.
JF: And that was self-induced. [Laughs] The “no time to record” was just us wanting to tour all the time.
JF: And I feel like it made us better. It was more fun. It felt like actively working on something, rather than being precious about a recording or about a song, and rather just going out and doing it.
IJ: I think a band has to play live, you know? Maybe that makes me some form of a rock traditionalist, but I think a band should be playing out all the time, long before they ever make their first record. I think there’s something to that.
EA: That makes sense. And I think it’s neat that you’ve been able to go about it in such an unusual way where, if people want to hear you, they’ve got to…the bees have to come to the hive.
IJ: I think so. I don’t really think about it that way, but I guess that’s true.
JF: It definitely let us do everything that we’ve wanted to do. We’ve gotten opportunities that we wanted. If anyone has the drive to do music full time, you have to make some sacrifices for sure, but if you’re willing to work on it in every aspect, you’ll get traction because it’s that dedication and passion that makes it attractive.
EA: What are some of the other pros and cons of touring without an album?
JF: You’re always winning them over. You never have a crowd that’s like, “Oh, I know this song!” Well, sometimes the cities that we’ve gone to loads of times, but it seems like every show you’re kind of trying to win people over.
IJ: And even the cities that we’ve been to four or five times, they know songs but they only know them so much because they can’t go home and listen to them. So, they might recognize it because they’ve heard it four or five times, but it’s only been those four or five times that they’ve seen us live. And yeah, the amount that we’ve been able to do all the support tours and where we’re at right now, I think we’re super happy about it — that we have been able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished without a record.
JF: And any of the painful things, the hard things — because it’s been 2.5-3 years and lots of change has happened. But it’s all been for good, even if it was painful in the moment. We’ve gone through lots of lineup changes, we’ve moved, we’ve decided to be in a van full-time and convert it. We’ve made a lot of different decisions, but I think all of those, we’re super happy about.
IJ: The cons to it — cons are only relative. A lot of the upheavals that we went through when we were changing bandmates or having an identity crisis about the band over the past couple of years, they turn into pros when you look back at them, because something positive came out of a difficult time. When we kind of got sucked into the actual industry part from it from the DIY world that we were living in, and we started dealing with…
JF: [The DIY world] just has much more pure intentions.
IJ: Yeah, for sure.
JF: Not just reading into, “Oh, this is done well.” It’s just like, “Oh, I like this,” and that’s as simple as it is.
IJ: Once lawyers and managers and all that start coming onto the scene… We were being sought out by three or four different booking agencies and there were a bunch of management teams. And I just think people get hurt to some degree. Relationships get hurt because there’s expectations. I think…I don’t mean to go off script here, but there was some pain and I think that was a product of, as you put it, bringing the bees to the hive. There were a couple of little bidding wars and it was difficult, you know? There were a lot of growing pains through that.
JF: You just gotta do it to get change.
IJ: Yeah, you just gotta do it. [Pause] We’re sitting on the edge of a koi fish pond right now and it’s really beautiful. It’s distracting the shit out of me.
EA: Well, everything you’ve said makes sense, so no complaints here.
IJ: Oh good.
EA: I’m also curious about your experiences at the merch table, especially interactions with people who just saw you play and want more.
JF: It’s always been a disappointing answer to give people. But with the merch, we shift our focus. I come from a design background and I’ve done a lot of screen printing. Our merch is all thrifted clothes that we do with certain designs that are sort of subconscious imageries of the music, and that’s kind of how we’ve sustained all of our touring is selling that — with the promise of an album to come, which we will have in the Fall, so it’ll finally come to fruition. But that’s a way that people have at least gotten a piece of it without actually having the music. It’s more of a feeling or a memento, because we change the designs all the time, too.
IJ: We recorded the record a long time ago. There was an iteration of it that was around for a year while it was caught up in industry world. And then we rerecorded it — we went back and re-polished it and put new vocals and vocal parts down.
JF: There were a lot of changes because we played those songs so many times, and we kept playing them after we recorded them, so it was nice to have that opportunity to make those changes into the record. A lot of times, bands don’t get to do that.
IJ: And when people would come up to the merch table one year, and then the next year you’re still telling them, “Oh yeah! It’s coming out eventually,” it starts to take its toll on you. Because you’re like, “Jesus Christ, is it ever actually going to come out?”
JF: “Am I lying? I don’t even know. Am I delusional?” [Laughs] Patience pays off, though.
IJ: I think so.
JF: Especially in the music industry. Jesus, you have to be so patient!
IJ: We have friends that thought we were going to put a record out back in, like…
JF: What, 2017?
IJ: …the first couple of months of 2017. And now that we’re just putting our record out — there’s a lot of shit that’s about to come out over the next week or so. I think it’s going to make more sense for people. And they’re going to be like, “Oh, now I see why you didn’t put it out.” Because now it’s a really proper first record.
EA: It really is! And it’s neat for me to have listened to these songs a few times and then learn about all the work that’s gone into making them what they are. You can really tell. Not many first albums are at this level.
IJ: [Pause] You’ve heard the record then?
EA: I have. When we were setting up the interview, I think only a couple of singles were online, so I asked if the whole thing was available and was told it wasn’t. But when we finalized this time to talk, I asked again and got sent the stream.
IJ: Gotcha. Gee, I wasn’t aware that our publicity had sent the whole record out to anybody yet.
JF: That’s exciting!
EA: It’s just the stream. I asked for a download because I want to put it on my iPod and listen in the car and while I’m walking, but I’ll take what I can get.
IJ: OK, cool. Yeah! Fuck yeah! Yeah, so, yeah…what…how…Fuck! What do you think of the record, man?
EA: Well, the first listen, I liked it and was digging the psych sound, but kind of thought it was a little one note. But that’s not been the case on the last few times I’ve spun it. I’m finding that there’s a lot more nuance and that each song stands on its own, but also works really well as a collection.
EA: Right now, “Long Time” is my favorite and the one I come back to the most.
IJ: Fuck yeah! That’s cool. Yeah, we never try to write the same song twice, and I think that will be even more apparent on the next record. But on this first record, I hope it comes across that every song is different and that’s there’s a different twist on every one — a different tempo or a different drum beat or structure or whatever.
EA: For sure! That’s what I’m finding out. Well, once it’s out in the world, what changes do you hope having an album will bring about?
JF: I guess, like…credibility, sort of?
IJ: Without a record, people can only get so into your band and you want to know that…When you put the record out, you want it to be out there living in the world and that people really get something out of it — and you never know if they’re going to get something out of it. You don’t know if the record’s gonna connect, even if you love the record. You just have to wait and see, so we’re looking forward to seeing whether it connects with people and seeing the ways it makes an emotional impact.
JF: Yeah, and connecting with people without us literally being in the room. I’m used to holding people’s hands while singing the songs and leading them through it, and now it’s just existing without us — which is really cool because already on different streaming things, it reaches different countries that, obviously, we haven’t been able to get to, and just to see how it responds there is super, super cool.
IJ: That’s it for me. I hope it connects with people and I would love to see that happen. And whether that manifests in the form of people singing them at the shows or just seeing it happen on the internet — whatever way that it happens, I’m down with it, as long as it happens.
EA: Jane, you’ve spoken about how it’s not important that listeners know your precise lyrics, but that you want them to feel the music and interpret what they hear however they want.
EA: And you’ve said that goes back to you not knowing the words to songs you liked growing up. What are some examples?
JF: I feel like literally anyone that I listened to.
IJ: Put on any record from when you were growing up and you hear three-quarters of the sentence, but then there’s three words and you’re like, “What the fuck did they just say?” But you don’t even think about it. You just sing it, you know?
JF: The first one that I think of, because it was so vastly wrong and I’m almost ashamed that I thought it, was the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.” When she says “parking lot,” I thought she was saying, “fucking lie.” And I was like, “Whoa! Why am I allowed to listen to this?” [Laughs] But I was misunderstanding absolutely everything I was hearing. I took what I wanted, and I feel like that happens most of the time with people. Obviously, lyrics are super important and can change the world, but I think it’s all different kind of levels. My friend, he explained it in a way of, like, the melodies can be the cracker that you eat. You get the…and just…
IJ: Where are you going with this?
JF: Well, I don’t know where I’m going! I’m just hungry. [Laughs] It’s like the melody or the lyrics, which one can kind of take precedence to deliver the whole package.
IJ: Are you talking about cheese and crackers?
JF: Yes! I’m thinking of Cheez Whiz and a Ritz cracker right now. [Laughs] But I think melody is really important to me and that’s how I’ve responded to music the most is if a melody…if I feel something from a melody that almost is an intangible, indescribable feeling of something that’s familiar and yet new, that is what I’m always searching for and that’s what I like to make — or try to, anyway. [Pause] Crackers. [Laughs]
EA: I react similarly. I’m often slow to get lyrics, unless it’s in hip-hop. But with other music, I respond to the overall sound first and if I like what I hear, I’ll come back to it and eventually the lyrics will stick.
EA: Well, lastly, I’m curious about your van home and what kind of work you’ve done on it.
IJ: So, Jane and I, during the two years we were in Nashville, we accumulated a lot of crap, you know?
JF: It was a big house. We had cars.
IJ: And it wasn’t like “crap” in the conventional sense, but from the perspective shift that we’ve had, it all turned to crap. It was like, “Wait a minute! I don’t need any of this stuff in my life to make me happy.” We’re traveling all the time. We’re living out of a duffle bag. And you can be clean, you can be happy, and you can be sustainable that way. And it’s a really sad waste….
JF: It’s mental waste to keep track of all of it.
IJ: Yeah! Right. It’s such a drain, and we didn’t realize how much of a drain on our emotional and mental energy it was until we got rid of it all.
JF: And that was a very lengthy process as well over these two years. We put it all in a storage unit after we…
IJ: We got kicked out of our house for Airbnbing…We kind of got kicked out.
JF: Well, we could have renewed, but we didn’t want to because we couldn’t Airbnb it.
IJ: They weren’t going to let us renew. We Airbnb’d a property that wasn’t ours and that’s how we were paying rent when we were touring for those two years because, obviously, we weren’t making enough money to pay the rent. So, anyway, out of all of this, we decided to get rid of all our shit. And we’re like, “We’re just going to move out on the road and we’re going to travel and spend our money on experiences and people — not things.” And so, in the van and on tour, we try to use as little plastic as possible. Sometimes we do a good job and sometimes we don’t.
JF: It’s a work in progress.
IJ: Right now we have reusable mugs and cups and bowls and utensils in the van, so it’s all about reducing and reusing.
JF: And I think if you just have one of something, it’s your special thing and you take care of it and have this joy and ownership over it and responsibility, rather than, like, “I have a million of these. Whatever!” It makes you pay attention and take more care with your things.
IJ: It is that awareness. If you line up in your driveway all the coffee cups you’ve ever used or all the fucking plastic wraps that you ever used and you saw it in front of you, you’d be horrified, you know? Because it’s going to end up in some sea turtle’s mouth in the Pacific Ocean. So, it’s kind of all extensions of that ethos — be aware of your surroundings, connect to your environment…I don’t mean in a “save the planet” kind of way, I just mean…
JF: I mean it in a “save the planet” kind of way. [Laughs]
IJ: Well, I mean it in just being awake. Rather than being asleep, you can be awake.
JF: And I think for any advice for other people, because I think a lot of time when things are thrown around like this, people can feel judged because they use certain things, and then that can prevent people from changing anything. And I’m like that sometimes, too. But just as our whole society has taken so long to get to this disposable structure that it is where it almost feels like you can’t escape from it, it takes an individual person a lot of time to disengage from that. It’s taken us years to get to the point we’re at now, and it’s gonna take us more years to get to a better place just on a personal note of sustainability — and I think that’s how everyone is, but as long as you’re making steps.
IJ: And it’s a double-edged sword, too, because when you’re in a band, you’re pressing up physical products, you know? You’re printing up tapes and vinyls and all that shit that they shrink wrap in plastic, and you’re like…
JF: “You don’t need to do that!” [Laughs] And they’re like, “We have to!” And I’m like, “Why?” [Laughs] But hopefully with the next one, we don’t have to do that. But it’s all about how to operate with what people think they need to do.
IJ: We’ll get there eventually. We’re working on it. The whole DIY band conversion — we just want to be free and we want to be good.
JF: [Laughs] Good and free.
IJ: Yeah, we want to be good and free, you know?
IF YOU GO
Who: White Reaper with Twen and The Styrofoam Turtles
When: Wednesday, June 26, 9 p.m.
Where: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
Tickets: $12 advance/$15 day of show
(Photos by Alexa Viscius)