More than anything, 2016 is a year of artists smashing genre walls and the limitations that come with them. There’s no point creating music we’ve all heard before. Instead, offer something new, even if wandering into a musical realm no band has gone before may indeed be as terrifying as it sounds. It’s a chance to create a confection for acquired tastes, and in time, everyone begins to crave more.
That’s where Jilian Medford finds herself. The frontwoman of Brooklyn-via-Boston trio Ian Sweet creates indie rock that’s startling and soothing, the type of material that yelps and squawks but cradles you all the same, comforting you while making you jump in your skin. Though the band’s instruments—Medford on guitar and vocals, Tim Cheney on drums, Damien Scalise on bass—are run of the mill, the sweetened pop and jagged twists they churn out with them offer up a sound that’s exciting to even the most in-the-know listener. So it comes as a surprise to learn that Medford, the songwriter behind it all, went to Berklee College of Music, a school known for its commitment to the industry.
“My first semester there, I wanted to give up since everyone’s voices were flawless. It was scary since I had such a weird voice,” Medford says. It’s reasonable to fret about. Medford was side by side with Norah Jones wannabes and operatic-like vocalists. Her own tone, one that rockets into squeals akin to the way a bored child in a backseat let’s notes slink out of their mouth, is original in every way. “Have you ever seen Shallow Hal?” she asks. “Gwyneth Paltro is incredibly beautiful and heavyset in the film, but [Jack Black] sees her as this phenomenally beautiful, skinny, perfect mate. Sometimes I wonder if my mind is so caught up in the fun of singing that I think I sound better than I do, where friends are holding back [from telling me] what I actually sound like.”
It wasn’t until two pivotal moments in her life that Medford found the confidence she needed to let her voice shine. The first came during college. In a Joni Mitchell ensemble, the teacher asked Medford to perform an original song concluding their otherwise straightforward tribute to the icon, thus showing she could pave her own similar path. The second came during a DIY show in Allston where she first caught local art-rock act Guerilla Toss. “I remember seeing Kassie [Carlson] sing and thinking, ‘Damn, she knows how to sing,’” she recalls. “She’s got a beautiful voice, but she fucks it up — and that was so cool to learn in real time.”
Now the trio is gearing up to release their proper debut album, Shapeshifter, on September 9th via Hardly Art, an album that’s much a departure from the norm as it is a record of catchy melodies and open hooks. With their record release show set for this upcoming Tuesday at the Middle East, Medford reflects on the comforts she’s found, both inside herself and in the band.
“I’ve struggled with depression forever, but it was the first time I started connecting parts of my life and realizing how and why taking care of myself was necessary. I was nurturing others instead. The record shows that. I was focusing on everything—inanimate objects, skateboarding, shoes—to push away from myself by obsessing over things that weren’t me,” Medford explains. “Being alone is important to actually recognize what you like, what you want to accomplish, and how you can love people in a positive way.”
Moving from Boston to Los Angeles and then to Brooklyn saw Ian Sweet going through some struggles. It’s hard to take care of yourself on the road, but even moreso when home base keeps changing.
“Boston is still the most special place for all of us, though. It’s where we were pushed, where we worked hard on our record, and the entire album, for me, is about things I went through in Boston,” says Medford. “[Illegally Blind founder and organizer] Jason Trefts has been one of the most special people for our musical career. He saw us place once at a park two years ago. Nobody was watching. Kids were screaming. Jason pulled me aside after and said, ‘Yo, I’d like you to headline this show for me.’ From then on out, he gave us these opportunities for us to appear to be bigger than we were. He definitely played the game for us and jumpstarted our career.”
The confidence Trefts built into Ian Sweet aided in Medford’s decision-making. In the studio, she spent extra hours tweaking vocal takes. “Even when live, nothing that I sing is the same each time,” she explains. “The feeling of the moment changes my inflections or that screaming thing I do. If I’m not in the right mood for it, I won’t do it at all. I need this crazy, adrenaline push to reach those highs.”
Most bands find that high from an energetic crowd. While that holds true for Ian Sweet, the band is able to turn inwards even more, looking to one another for energy and inspiration. Though they’ve been playing together for just over two years, their constant tour route keeps them in tune to each other.
“We’re watching the show, too. We all don’t know what we’re going to do, like Damien will do something out of the ordinary and I’ll turn and grin, about to cry, like, ‘I’m so happy you did that!’” she says, laughing. “It winds up being emotional, in both a happy and sad way, and when we pack something new in there it draws those emotions out even more.”
Medford does have a trick to happiness, or at least a temporary one that acts as a simple solution: Crocs. Not only is she obsessed with them, but she vouches for them with enough transparency to encourage you to grab your own pair, if only to experience the joy she radiates when talking about them.
“People think it’s cool to hate them but they’re so comfy!” she says. “I own like seven pairs of Crocs: red ones, orange ones, camo ones, a sleek black pair with no holes for your fancy night out. They’re all still in perfect condition because they’re rad and never wear down. The most stable shoe of all time is also the most unnecessarily bullied one, and I’m willing to take a stand.”
Shapeshifter sees Ian Sweet boasting a voice that’s as comfortable with its timbre as it is with the words it’s singing. It’s a welcome return to self for a woman who’s transformed before her own eyes. Now, Ian Sweet can come back to Boston and see each crevice as a point of change, a city that’s embraced her since day one, even if fans raise an eyebrow at her shoe choice.
IAN SWEET + HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE + IJI + KAL MARKS + LINA TULLGREN. TUE 9.6. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/ALL AGES/$12. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM.