Jilian Medford’s spent her whole life shape-shifting.
Her first transformation happened in 2014, after she left her native Los Angeles to attend Berklee College of Music. Immersed in the Boston DIY scene, she began cutting tracks and playing shows as IAN, her high school skater nickname; plans for a bicoastal solo tour emerged shortly thereafter. Then, her touring drummer (who had the car) dropped out. Frantic and desperate, she sent a text — “really a novel,” she says — to Tim Cheney, a multi-instrumentalist who’d offered to lend his talents after catching one of her shows. His response was a bit shorter: “Yes.”
IAN was no longer a singular entity, and once they added Medford’s friend Damien Scalise, they rechristened themselves Ian Sweet. A raucous self-titled tape followed, catching the attention of music blogs and the ear of Sub Pop offshoot Hardly Art. “I thought it was pretty outstanding,” recalls Jason Baxter, the label’s publicist, who also recruited Ian Sweet. “I was impressed by Jilian’s voice, her lyrics, and, of course, Damien and Cheney’s musicianship.” He signed the band to release their debut, Shapeshifter, out September 9; in advance of the record, they’ll play Aviv on July 30.
Shapeshifter‘s arrival marks another metamorphosis for Medford, her most significant yet: The album is the surprisingly ebullient conclusion to a six-month saga of panic attacks, crippling depression, and creative purgatory. A combination of untreated depression, abusive relationships, and high expectations haunted her throughout the LP’s gestation, often manifesting physically. “I [needed] to come through for a record label and my bandmates and for myself, and I just did not function,” she recalls. “I’d wake up from panic attacks in the middle of writing a song or in the studio.” She kept her crises to herself, hiding her lyrics from her bandmates out of fear they wouldn’t be able to relate. But, says Scalise, they did. “It took some time for us to trust and know that we were all feeling similarly,” he says. “Seeing Jil go through her problems obviously wasn’t fun, but it was helpful in that we all were understanding and supporting each other.”
The band halted the Shapeshifter sessions in early 2015 so Medford could seek treatment at home in L.A. When she returned to Boston that summer to finish recording, she barely recognized the songs, which she’d written in the depths of depression. Still, the band chose to resume rather than restart, this time without keeping secrets. “It [was] about being able to trust people again,” Medford says. “[The band] has definitely grown into a safer feeling for me.”
Having weathered months of pain, drama, and indecision, Ian Sweet have emerged from their cocoon as emissaries of empathy, energy, and, most of all, positivity. Cheney and Scalise set up hook after twitchy hook, lending a chaotic energy to Medford’s honeyed soprano. Raggedy, rudimentary arrangements on songs like “Slime Time Live” and “All Skaters Go to Heaven” keep the boisterous feel going.
That casual air belies the band’s musical pedigree: Medford’s a classically trained vocalist, Scalise forged his wiry style studying jazz guitar at the New England Conservatory, and Cheney cut his teeth in hardcore bands — a different but no less rigorous kind of education. But they still opted for simple structures. “The [conservatory] experience left me feeling very jaded about academic music, so I made a conscious effort to [start] playing music that I wanted to hear,” says Scalise. “But I always cared about melodies, so I like to think my basslines add melodic content to our songs that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”
Ian Sweet’s emphasis on both immediacy and musicianship has earned them the admiration of playmates like Girlpool (Medford, now based in Brooklyn, shares a Bed-Stuy apartment with Cleo Tucker) and Horse Jumper of Love, among others. “They all have a lot of fun together,” says Chastity Belt’s Lydia Lund, who’s also shared a stage with the trio. “The more I tour and see other bands, [the more] I realize how special that is.”
That sense of fun mingles oddly but compellingly with the emotional weight of the album. “A lot of the songs are [about] the depression I try and deal with every day through nostalgia,” says Medford. “Remember when you were sitting in front of the TV watching a fucking cartoon? What were you thinking about? Nothing.” She distilled that experience into “#23,” an ode to couch-potato escapism: “Lately I’ve been feelin’ kinda lonely/Turn on that History Channel/VHS about the mummies/It keeps me company.” By tethering her personal experiences to cultural reference points, Medford calls attention to the commonness of those feelings, encouraging us to share, too. If we can talk about Nineties nostalgia (or chase a Jigglypuff on our phones) with complete strangers, why can’t we admit that we feel depressed from time to time?