No matter what you expect her to be, Sidney Gish will exceed your expectations. The indie pop musician is both modest and confident, nervous and eager, timid and bubbly. When we meet up at Trident on Newbury Street early on a Tuesday morning, she speaks with a quick cadence that never grates, even as we both pepper the conversation with seasonal coughs. She mentions this meeting point is perfect because she’s going to her co-op internship right after and, conveniently, it’s right around the corner.
Of course, I think.
From afar, it seems Gish juggles a myriad of talents: She’s a music business major at Northeastern, her doodles have been featured on Buzzfeed, she writes her own songs, she collaborates with other musicians, she and her mother sell original artwork at Boston Hassle’s Black Market, and, to top it off, she sings like a bird you actually want to hear in the morning. Up close, Gish boasts all of those skills and more, though she’s reluctant to reveal them. She turned 20 years old last month. Already, the Boston-via-New Jersey musician has a resume that would impress anyone. Yet underneath a pink knitted beanie and a sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks, she comes off unassuming, like someone quietly observing the world but eager to take notes, every peculiarity waiting for the right moment to delight anyone who takes the time to engage. Sidney Gish is, no exaggeration, a genuinely one-of-a-kind delight.
Like most lo-fi bedroom pop musicians, Gish started learning how to play music at a young age. Though she learned piano, ukulele, and guitar in time, things really began in fifth grade. “I was obsessed with American Idol, and they had a final contest where you could write a song and the winner would sing it,” she says, speed-talking. “I was like, ‘I could just make one up and hope Jordin Sparks would sing it anyway.’” She did draft an idea for a song, but she never fully recorded it. After all, she was only 11 years old at the time.
Gish continued to create songs over the years, but everything was a secret. She fell in love with the flowery indie pop of Lenka, plugged her name into Pandora, and began an influential descent into similar artists like Ingrid Michaelson and Regina Spektor. Gish downloaded .zip files of free MP3s off blogs and loaded them onto her iPod Shuffle, listening to the songs on repeat during long family road trips. Save for a long song about zombies that she showed her sister and two best friends in eighth grade, she didn’t show her work until enrolling in a pre-college summer program at Berklee.
All of those influences gave Gish her first run-in with fame. During her freshman year of high school, she, like “every other vaguely indie girl,” used Tumblr religiously. She dumped a couple pieces of fandom-based work—an EDM remix of a song from The Legend of Korra and a semi-original song using “The Hanging Tree” poem Katniss sings in The Hunger Games novels—on her blog, and they were quickly reblogged. “That was my first experience with getting random people to appreciate art, and I don’t even really want to call it art,” she says. “The fact that it was something I made in GarageBand that got popular as opposed to a shitpost meant a lot to me as a wannabe musician. It was one of the first times people paid attention to something I made.”
You can look it up if you want. She isn’t trying to hide that era. Every cringe-inducing moment remains on the Internet, untouched. “Of course it’s painful in a way, and it will be even more so when I’m 30, but I think it’s funny to keep up. Not in a way where I think I’m cool; I don’t have 10 pairs of sunglasses on while smoking 10 cigarettes,” she says, reeling her face in a bit. “People who delete all the awful stuff from when they were younger can do that if they want, but I think it’s best to leave up.”
Because Gish embraces the awkwardness and goofiness of her younger years, she’s able to create as a fully rounded person, flaws and all. That’s what makes her music so refreshing. Though almost every song takes the tone of an acoustic track, it stirs up feelings of happiness, energy, reflection, and despondency. Some influences are hidden, like the preppy tropicalia of Vampire Weekend on “Vaudeville” or the vocal strains of Hop Along on “Friday Night Placebo.” Other influences are obvious, like the whispered details of Frankie Cosmos on “Homecoming Serf.” None is more glaring than that of Regina Spektor. Gish carries similar idiosyncrasies, all of which harken back to Spektor’s earliest days. She may not go as far as impersonating dolphins, but the vocal leaps, endearing background conversations, and contagious smiles hidden in vowels are present throughout.
“I still remember when I Googled her name, downloaded all of her albums, and put it on my iPod Shuffle,” says Gish. “The first song that came up was ‘Pavlov’s Daughter’ off 11:11, which is like eight minutes long or some shit. There’s three distinct parts, she’s screaming, everything was weird. All I could think was, ‘What is this and how is she allowed to do it?’ The fact that she was just herself, a person, and not in a band while being a weird-ass was really cool to hear.”
Gish is her own renaissance woman. Her music employs everything from beatboxing to near-perfect harmonies. It all begins when a melody sprouts in her head and she reaches for her phone to record a voice memo, which often turns into brief spurts of whisper-singing on the T. The remaining space is filled in with lyrics, MIDI keyboard, and guitar, all of which she records through a USB microphone or her iPhone earbud microphone. “For a while, I tried to do that Regina Spektor thing where you completely make up a story and then write lyrics about it, but I don’t do that as much recently. I just like to complain. That’s more fun at the current moment,” she laughs.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Sidney Gish’s songwriting is that her 2016 full-length, Ed Buys Houses, was written around the cover art. One night in March of last year, she couldn’t sleep, so she decided to do what she does best: get artsy. She began making a collage out of photos she had taken. “Looking at it would inspire me to make the whole thing,” she says. “I don’t know how I lived with an iPod Shuffle for so long because I love album art so much. That cover is a bunch of pictures I took over spring break and it was so fun to cut things out, play around with it, and hide things on the shelves.”
She’s referring to the cover’s general setup: a photo she took of yarn shelves inside a Michaels. Her pet dog, Mochi her pet rabbit, duplicated versions of Schrodinger her pet cat, plastic dinosaurs from her school, a tiny selfie, and cartoons she drew from years past all appear in the collage’s layers. And there, just slightly off-center, is a delightfully random sign she drove by in New Jersey displaying what would become the name of the album: Ed Buys Houses.
“I started taking more and more photos of things and realizing, ‘This looks cool. I should put it on the shelf.’ I started having a bunch of things to Photoshop in,” she says. “I loved Mika’s album art or Of Montreal‘s because their covers are so busy. There’s a lot to take in. I wanted to have album art that was busy and has a lot to process.”
It’s been four months since Gish released that album, and she’s been playing a steady stream of shows since. As a single artist, she often leans on tools like a loop pedal to create the layers she has on her album, but her performances would work without it. The real appeal of her music is the lo-fi wit present at its core. It’s a type of brilliance that’s larger than its sound suggests. In time, she hopes to play shows with other local acts she looks up to: Crumb, Cosmic Johnny, Mint Green, and so forth.
It’s logical to feel unsure. Gish carries a non-traditional confidence in person, and live, it’s tough to uphold that as a single person creating a full-band sound. Yet no matter where she plays her music, on record or in a venue, she exceed expectations. It’s like by breathing her own brand of music out, she’s able to charm everyone around her, reminding them that originality has its place in the world. Not only that, but it’s needed. Hearing Sidney Gish’s music is a reminder of how inspiring peppy indie rock can be.
So when she’s booked on a bill like the one happening at Magnolia Loft this Monday or Break the Chains this Friday, it’s in your best interest to sprint there for a front row seat. Imagine getting the chance to see Regina Spektor in 2002 in a venue the size of your living room. Exactly. Don’t miss your chance to see Sidney Gish, an artist already primed for a similar trajectory as Spektor—and just think: She’s not even a legal adult yet.
CAL FOLGER DAY, AUDREY HARRER, SIDNEY GISH, STEFAN BANDERSON. MON 5.1. MAGNOLIA LOFT, 128 BROOKSIDE AVE., FL. 3RD, JAMAICA PLAIN. 7PM/ALL AGES/$7.