“There is no one absolute,” states the official online biography of Brooklyn-turned-Los Angeles band Ian Sweet, “Just the ease that comes with knowing everything will be OK as long as you hold tight to the pocket-sized things in life that bring happiness while you watch the rest of your world fall apart in slow-motion.” While this may have adequately encapsulated the band’s former laissez-faire approach towards the complexities of life, front woman and beating heart of the project Jilian Medford is ready to take back what is, and what always has been, rightfully hers.
Released in 2016 on Sub Pop’s sister label Hardly Art, Ian Sweet’s Shapeshifterpoignantly touched on a variety of hard-hitting subjects: abusive and manipulative relationships, low self-esteem, and mental health. In the course of 40 minutes, Medford’s painstaking honesty and willingness to put her story on display made Shapeshifter something magnificent. It’s as if she breaks the listener’s heart, only to gently reassemble the remnants in her hands—all while her own heart has been broken for some time. The record never stepped in the same pond twice. It offers a cohesive collection of songs varying widely in tempo, content matter, and range of vocals. True to its name, Shapeshifter is and continues to be an in-flux testimony to the reality of life. As it turns out, it would only be a mere sample of the disarray that was to come.
After a few years spent touring in support of the record, strained relationships within the band became an increasingly toxic influence on Medford. “I lost a lot of creative control and a lot of the feeling of being grounded in my music and feeling secure in it. I questioned everything. I think it came across a lot when we played live,” she said. Last fall, a mere two days before she departed to support Los Angeles band Girlpool’s European tour, Jilian parted ways with former bandmates Tim Cheney and Damien Scalise. “It was very necessary to not go to Europe with them,” said Medford, “That was really scary. I had never been to Europe and it was like going through a breakup in a foreign country. It took a long time for me to do that. It was a long time coming. So when it did finally happen it was a big weight off my shoulders. Hardly Art has been extremely supportive. They do put out my records but they’re my friends and I call them for advice. It’s just been good to have them by my side. I don’t do anything alone. The constant support I get is the reason I feel like I can keep doing it. It’s hard to keep your head up and feel special and feel individual. I enjoy getting to know people and knowing that anybody cares.”
Moving forward, Jilian is Ian Sweet. “I’ve been able to express myself creatively in a whole new way and feel really comfortable and proud of myself for kind of the first time,” she said. Now on a 12-city tour of the U.S. supporting Frankie Cosmos, who signed to Sub Pop last spring, Medford has found her niche. “We’re just buds. I think everybody wants to tour with people that make them comfortable because it’s such an intense process. I feel lucky. I feel really lucky that Frankie feels comfortable touring with us,” she said.
Just thirty minutes before our conversation, Medford is on stage with her new touring band, proving over and over again her rightful place on the bill. Opening with “Don’t Call Me,” a song off of her 2016 self-titled EP, Medford immediately and very naturally centered the energy of the room around the stories she had to tell. Her stage presence is a force to be reckoned with—one minute, she’s playfully telling the crowd about her dreams of owning a Great Dane, and the next, she puts her past traumas on display through her anguished shrieks and erratic guitar performance. She embodies the idea of what it means to be a shape shifter. Her appearance and soft-spoken demeanor don’t immediately reflect the heavy nature of her music. She is many things all at once: powerful, hurt, angry, longing to be gentle. All who are witness to her have no choice but to fall under her spell.
As Jilian sits alongside me in the greenroom of Neumos while the joyful stomps of hundreds of enthusiastic Frankie Cosmos fans cause the ceiling to vibrate, her disposition is incredibly lighthearted. “I definitely feel proud and can finally pat myself on the back and feel comfortable with the work I’ve made instead of doubting myself. It’s the first time in a while I’ve been able to do that,” said Medford, referring to band member changes and her conquest to write her next record entirely on her own.
Her sophomore record, which has yet to be mixed, mastered, or even named, is a right Medford has worked tirelessly for over the last several years. Despite the uncertainty of some of the more technical aspects of the record, her intent behind it remains transparent. “It’s a lot of finding more peace within myself and feeling comfortable with myself. A lot of lyrics are based around that. I wrote it at so many different moments. I wrote some songs when I was still with my different bandmates. I wrote a lot of songs about my departure with them, as if they’re breakup songs. It’s a lot of self-discovery musically, and a lot of trying to trust myself musically too. I think it’s pretty cohesive in sound and that kind of signifies finding myself more,” said Medford. “Right after this tour ends on April 25th, I fly back to New York to mix the record. A week later it will get mastered. I don’t know the release date yet, or what it’s going to be called. There are lots of decisions to be made, but I’m happy with it.”
Produced by New York musician Gabe Wax, this new project signifies a shift in the direction of Ian Sweet. Not only is this the first record in which Medford maintains all creative control, it’s also the first one with proper production. Recorded in Rare Book Room in Brooklyn, Medford and Wax had a small window of opportunity to make a tangible product that stemmed from Medford’s ideas. “I’m a big fan of the studio he works at. It’s like a really social studio. Bands like Animal Collective and Deerhunter recorded there. We had 7 days. We were in the studio for like 15 hours for a week. We only tracked stuff with the rest of the players for like two days. The rest of the time, Gabe and I were going psycho and doing the weirdest stuff. It sounds like a mix of all of that. Gabe and I really mesh well. We would just play together on shit and mess around. It really came together. It just really ended up being like hanging out with your friend and making music,” said Medford.
In early April, she released a music video for title track Shapeshifter, almost a full two years following the release of the record. Los Angeles-based Cinematographer and director Alix Spence reached out to Medford earlier this year to create a music video for it. “It was a super collaborative effort,” said Medford, “I want to work with her again. She just makes me feel really comfortable. It was a fun and easy project to do. Every single person on the set that day was female. It was rad. I want to keep it that way.” While the timing of the release may to some seem delayed, Medford recognized the necessity for it, now more than ever. In the video, she sits completely alone against a black background. Her eyelids are painted yellow and blue, with sweeps of bright pink across her cheek. She stays still throughout the duration of the video, crooning the mantra of the record: “I have a way of / Crushing / Killing / Loving / Too many things / To take on just one shape.” Featuring animation from Columbus-based artist Sarah Schmidt, neon flowers, snakes, birds, and rainbows appear alongside her while she sings. The concept of the video, Medford believes, is a fitting way to signal recent band member changes and the future that is to come.
There’s an unmistakable aura of hope and peace that surrounds Medford. More sure of herself than ever, she has worked tirelessly towards achieving what she wants. It shows in her live performance. It shows in her online presence. It showed the entirety of my time spent in her company. The future of Ian Sweet is incredibly bright. With complete creative control and a strong support system, Jilian is ready to prove that the bottom is only the beginning. “It’s better to be overwhelmed than have something be out of your hands. Being overwhelmed pushes me to work harder instead of breaking down.”
Shapeshifter is out now on Hardly Art records.