Equipped with her guitar and loop pedal, singer-songwriter Sidney Gish writes personal songs that anyone could relate to. Between her semesters at Northeastern University, she has released two excellent albums, Ed Buys Houses and No Dogs Allowed, each bursting with personality. Her second album No Dogs Allowed was released on New Year’s Eve. In her home away from home (Pret A Manger), we talk about songwriting, album art, going to Hawaii, meme culture, and definitely not jazz guitar.
By Tim Vallancourt
Rare Candy: Your lyrics are very funny and clever! What is your lyric writing process?
Sidney Gish: I write melodies first mainly. Usually with the melody, I'll have some syllable ideas for whatever matches the melody, so I write those into whatever words are forming. Then, I'll go through my notes app to see if I’ve written anything interesting — I like to write when I'm bored in the notes app or in a journal or something — and I'll see if there's anything in there that I like and want to keep or expand on. If something sticks around for a while that I think is interesting, then I'll keep it. If it's boring, then I'll forget it. Thinking about ideas for a long time usually filters out whatever I liked a lot and I'll put those to the melody. Sometimes I'll figure out something else while I'm recording.
RC: So you have the samples on the new album in "Bird Tutorial," "Sin Triangle," and "Impostor Syndrome." What inspired you to use the 50s sample in “Bird Tutorial”? What made you say "this should be in a song"?
SG: When I was recording "Sin Triangle," it had an instrumental break after the first chorus. I was like, "This is weird. I'm going to put this guy over it to mask that." And my guitar solo, I was like, "This is weird. I'm going to put him there, too, and distract everyone." Not even the month prior, like early December, I had made a Michael Bublé Christmas cover and I took a sample of Bublé and put this delay effect on it where he was spinning. It was like multiple Bublés coming at you in the room. And I was like, "I could put that Bublé effect on this guy in 'Sin Triangle'” and I liked it a lot so I kept it.
RC: You make all of your own album art; you do a lot of your own videos. How do you see the role of visuals in your music?
SG: I love album art so much! When I was younger, if I didn't like the album art for a song when I got the MP3 online, I would make my own in Microsoft Paint. I'd be like, "this sucks! I'm making a better one that I like!" It was whatever I associated with the song as opposed to what the art was originally. If I downloaded a Beatles song that wasn't part of the album 1, which is the compilation of their greatest hits, I would make some other album art that looked like 1 to put it under because I was pissed off that it wasn't on 1. That kind of thing. I just have been making collages on my computer. I was already playing around with stock photos and stuff this year and I ended up with the guy walking the dog of himself. I was like, "Cool, this is going to be it."
RC: And the video for "I'm Filled With Steak, and Cannot Dance"? How was that made? How did that come about?
SG: I've made three videos using this app called VHS Cam. I made one every year until this year, because it's so fun! With "I'm Filled With Steak, and Cannot Dance," the name of the song, isn't in the song. It's just a note that I was using as the project file name and I was like, "Fuck it! I'm not going to change the project file name! I'm going to keep this!" When I downloaded Logic, I got it through the student bundle, so I also got Final Cut Pro. I was teaching myself Final Cut, while making videos the same way I always had in iMovie.
RC: Would you ever not make the album art or videos yourself? Would you give that to someone else?
SG: I don't think I would ever make the album art not my own. I don't have that much experience in videos and especially if I wanted to be in the video, it would be harder to film it. One of my friends - Ethan Judelson - did the "Midnight Jingle" video. He approached me and was like, “Hey! I have this cool idea for a video.” I had been making stuff off of my computer, so working with him was really cool. I'm open to working with directors for videos, but I'm super attached to album art. I think album art that looks like a renaissance painting is cool, but I can't do that. A lot of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra covers are a Renaissance painting of a penguin in a field, so if I wanted something like that, I might try to work with somebody. I'm really into trying to collage whatever I can and do everything myself, so I can make it specifically how I want it
RC: How do you feel about streaming services and the format music is released?
SG: It's pretty interesting. I'm lucky that I've been able to release fully on my own through DistroKid. I've used them for a year now. It's like 20 dollars for the basic account and then for 10 dollars more you can make your label name not a serial number, so I upgraded for this album. I mean, I don't have anything to compare it to. It's not like, "Back in the day when I was selling albums, this is how much money I made." It's great that I can get an account on this website and put all my stuff where all the professional music is.
RC: Are you going to put out a physical release?
SG: I'm making a few copies. Just CDs. I'm burning them on my own. I'm also making these little zines! They’re lyric booklets but also zines. I made the template a few weeks ago and just have to drill myself on stapling them, so they’re ready to go.
RC: This is so cool! I love the Vaporwave Guy!
SG: Oh, I had to put him in there! I don’t know what the actual name of the statue is. I was like, “Greek statue! Wait a minute. I'm going to use that one Greek statue so everyone can know what it is.” I sold a bunch of these last week at the first show I played this semester. At the ones coming up, I want to have more to sell. I also bought shipping materials so I can eventually put them on Bandcamp and sell them there. I really want to do that and make enough copies to sell online.
RC: You recently played another show! Do you have a lot of experience playing live?
SG: I played a lot in Boston at smaller venues, maybe one or two bigger venues once in a while. It's been fun! Since I do everything by myself still, learn as I go in terms of performing live. I'm always a bit stressed out when I perform and I’m always like, "Oh man, is this okay?" I had a lot of fun last week. It was my first show that I had played since I put out the album, so I was feeling good about the whole thing, instead of like, "What the fuck am I doing?" I'm looking forward to playing in the future and figuring out more and also not being as nervous on stage.
RC: How does the energy you bring to recording and performance differ?
SG: A lot of the time I'll be writing as I record because it's just easier that way. I'll have songs that I've written that I only have in voice memos, and recording them would be so boring, so I'll make up a song and record it instead. That's what ends up being the only thing that I have, so I'm like, "This is a song? Okay." It's really different from performing live because I have to dissect them: what the layers are that I can loop over each other, how I can arrange them for two tracks on a looper, what I need to bring in from Logic on an aux cord, and what I can do on my guitar through muted strings or whatever. So I'm planning out this dance of what to push and when. Once I get that figured out and I'm confident in what I'm doing and I can do it a few times, then I can have fun.
RC: How did you get started performing in Boston?
SG: I was in an a cappella group for my first year and a half of college. I did gigs mainly through that. Then, since I was a music industry major, I had met a few people who were booking shows just at like venue-y bar-y venues and I opened at one or two of those. I started playing basement shows through a few of my friends who I met through songwriting club who are in this band Ozlo. At my first basement show, I played with Ozlo, who rock, and then through that I played more shows. Ozlo is still playing shows in Boston and they're really good. Then, I put out my first album and started playing more shows around Boston. I was trying to go to all the shows that I could. I was really into the space where if you made art it wouldn't be like, "Oh, my friend made art. Isn't that cool?" and instead it’s, “We're all also making art and we can actually look at this and ask, 'So what is the deal with what you made here?'" I don't know if that makes sense. We’re all trying to do art and we can all appreciate what we’re doing, as we try to get better at our different skills.
RC: Do you think after college you're going to go back to Boston?
SG: I don't know. I don't know what my plans are. It kind of depends on whatever works out, but I've always wanted to live in Seattle at some point.
RC: On Seattle: Are you ever going to do a full version of the Bee Gees/Nirvana mashup?
SG: Oh my God! Ah!!I started that out as I was trying to do a loop of "Stayin' Alive." Then I stopped it and played "Smells Like Teen Spirit." They're both in F minor! They're made for each other! Perfect! I didn't even have to transpose it; I just had to squash the tempos. They go together! Hopefully, in the future. If I'm in Seattle, I'll have to do it. Where are the Bee Gees from?
RC: The Bee Gees are from Australia.
SG: Is that the Pacific Ocean? Do I have to play this in Hawaii? I'm trying to think of the midpoint between Bee Gees and Nirvana. That's like the standard Pacific island. There's probably something more exact. I'll have to make a spreadsheet. I'll have to do more research.
RC: You were just featured on NPR's Slingshot artists for 2018. How did that feel?
SG: I'm super excited. I didn't know what Slingshot was until this year. It was cool that it ended up coinciding with the release of my album, too. In September, I was nominated for new artist of the year at the Boston Music Awards, so I met some people from WGBH, which is Boston's public radio station. I think every city nominated an artist or two for Slingshot, and then they told me in November, "Hey you're going to be a Slingshot artist in 2018!" And I was like, "Oh, that's so cool! Thanks so much! I don't know what that means!" It's relatively new. I think it's the second year that they're doing it, so I didn't realize what it was. I was just freaking out about the Boston Music Awards. Slingshot came out just as I put out my album and I'm super excited about it. It's been good timing.
RC: Yeah, you're getting a ton of press right now!
SG: Thanks! I'm stoked and confused! I didn't do any press for this at all and I'm really happy that it did end up getting press this month. I didn't expect that much press at all. I thought it would get some coverage in New England and Boston things, but I didn't think it would expand outwards which it did. So I'm super, super happy that it did!
RC: Is it weird reading stuff about yourself?
SG: Yeah, it's kind of weird. It's really flattering. I've gotten messages on Facebook that are like, "I didn't realize that you made this when it came up on my Spotify. Then I was like shit, I know her!" Sometimes I'll get emails from people who are in high school and are like, "I love your music!" So that's really sweet. One of the first interviews I did this past year was for the Boston Globe. My friend Isaac did that and I knew him before doing the interview, I was messing around with him. I was like "I want to learn jazz guitar before I die! That's my goal. I don't know it yet, but someday I will, before I'm dead." And then he wrote that in the article. Then Stereogum was like, "Sidney Gish is a jazz guitar major at Northeastern." Then a bunch of other places were like, "She's studying jazz guitar. She's a jazz musician." I don't know any scales! I have this nightmare vision of a bunch of jazz boys being like, "This bitch doesn't know how to play the jazz guitar." Because I literally don't! I changed all my bios to say "I'm not a jazz guitarist." Pitchfork quoted that bio in the review. This is a whole convoluted story at this point.
RC: I saw the brain meme about it!
SG: Yeah! Oh my god, one of my good friends from Boston, Julia made that. I'm also going to plug their band Prior Panic. Very good band. They made that meme and I was like, "Wow, incredible content." It's about this non-existent conflict that I've created in my brain. Now, I'm nervously learning more jazz guitar. I have to learn some scales now because if anybody out there thinks that I claimed to be a jazz guitarist at any point, I want them to not be very disappointed, just a little bit disappointed. In a way it's come full circle to be something that's beneficial somehow. It was honest mistakes and weird phrasing all around so I'm just very happy that everything has happened.
RC: After work each night, is it mostly looking at memes? What else do you do?
SG: Yeah, I spend a lot of time in this exact Pret A Manger. One of the employees bought me coffee the other day. I felt like a special person. I feel like I have a bond with this Pret now. I'm staying in a sublet on the Upper West Side, which I lucked out on. I didn't think I'd be in that neighborhood. It's been good. I've been watching The Office. I've been going to a few shows. I saw Adult Mom recently. They're really good. I played the show last weekend and wandered around the friggin' streets with my roommate. I haven't done many exciting activities. I went to the Met with my friend, which was fun. Standard stuff like that. Usually just lots of working.
RC: So what's next for you? What are you working on?
SG: Well, I'm super excited that this album has done well. My rationale behind putting it out directly before starting the job that takes up most of my time was that I would hang out, sit on it, have it be on Bandcamp and Spotify, come back in June, and be like "How did this do?" I was going to play a few shows, it'd be the same process as Boston, just in New York. It ended up doing way better than I thought so now it's like, "What are your plans?" I don't know what my plans are! I have a few months this summer where I'm not sure what I'm doing. I'm going to try really hard to see if I can play more shows and go on a smallish tour. I go back to school in the fall and I don't really know what my plans are after that. I'm in school for another year or two. I don't even know how long I'm in school for because at Northeastern the timing is weird. "We don't even know when you graduate! Who cares? You get work experience! Experiential learning!” It's cool to get that but I don't even know what I'm going to do. I might, for my next experiential learning experience, see if they'll let me just write songs. If they're cool with it, then I might try to do that, but I don't have any plans yet. I just have really vague plans which is what I've always done and then whatever one ends up working out is okay. I don't actually know what I'm doing. But it's cool.
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On Bandcamp: https://sidneygish.bandcamp.com/