In 2017, Natasha Jacobs—a Brooklynite who performs as Thelma—released her self-titled debut. In the months that followed, she found herself in and out of doctors’ offices while her future as a musician hung in the balance—twice. Her first scare came with mysteriously painful & dislocating joints and the conclusion of surgery, where she lost most of her ability to play guitar. The second, the discovery of thyroid cancer threatened her voice. In time, it was finally discovered she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting joint form and function. With her primary instruments in jeopardy and ableist attitudes in the music industry thinning her patience while in recovery, Jacobs retooled the process for her second album while trying to reclaim her life and learning to live with chronic pain and physical limitations.
The Only Thing is more liberated, upbeat, and adventurous than its predecessor. Nine tracks are primarily constructed around burbling synthesizers, and Jacobs’ expressive vocals which find themselves vaulting for new territory. While still retaining her haunting vocal quality, there is a newfound playfulness even as she sings about trying times: a last ditch effort to find humor & lightness in a painful situation. The Only Thing is her first claim at marking her identity in the wake of critical change, and it’s fully on display: it’s fearless, mobile, and active. And that might be the bravest thing she can be.
Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums—today’s is Thelma’s The Only Thing—we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, Thelma, aka Natasha Jacobs, writes about her diagnosis with a chronic illness and its impact on her new album, which you can listen to right here.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse
The first song I wrote for the album was “Warm Guts.” It’s the last song I’ll write with physically demanding guitar parts as, due to a genetic soft tissue disease, my fretting arm finally called it quits after years of pain. The song is about having a partner who doesn’t really know me. Although they’re aware I experience chronic pain, they don’t make an effort to really understand or make sure they know how to avoid hurting me. Next, “Solitaire” was written about about an older woman who can’t afford to retire. She’s so tired and achy that she can barely walk home. Her husband won’t pick her up from the train after a long commute and still relies on her to cook dinner. Her only escape is finally getting to sit down and play solitaire on the computer.
We are all scared. Our past and present experiences feed various fearful visions of our futures. I can only speak from my experience as a white musician with a somewhat mild strain of chronic illness, but I have a feeling we can all relate to facets of the fears I’ll mention, illness or not, musician or not. For the sake of creating a window of understanding, considering about 15% of the world’s population lives with some sort of disability, I think it’s fitting to mention some particularly relevant fears.
I find myself fearing what will happen if I can’t support myself with something that my body can tolerate, let alone something that I’m passionate about doing (the two may conflict). I fear that my relationships (work, family, but especially romantic ones) are bound to be over-complicated by my physical reality. This manifests as feeling like I need to hide the truth of how my body feels from those around me, or consequentially if I don’t, feeling like I’m a burden and a bummer. I’m talking about it because I know these are not only my fears.
The third song written was “Never Complain”:
If I knew how to untangle my body like the silver chain
that floats the the bottom of my messy bag each time I’m x-rayed
I’d do it and I’d never complain of this invisible pain.
But I still try to make it better, I don’t like to burden you
and if I could I would go out tonight, but I can’t do that
won’t let myself feel bad
I gave up the guitar for a while and wrote the rest of the album uncharacteristically quickly on a tiny, tender synth while in recovery from getting surgery on my arm. It was the first time I was able to enjoy making music in a few years. I was reunited with the feeling that making music is The Only Thing that makes me feel a very particular and necessary sense of being alive.
As this album comes out, I’ve been thinking about that feeling and that urgency from a bit of a temporary distance. I know I may not be able to make music my job, but you don’t need to be a “successful” artist to be an artist. I hope every artist feels that and never forgets it. I also hope that those dealing with chronic illness can ultimately feel firm in some conviction that they don’t have to hide their pain to be able to receive love. One can’t be loved fully in hiding, and there is room to be fully understood and cared for.
There’s a small organization called Sophia’s Voice which helps people with chronic illness and disabilities get various medical needs met by providing them directly with medical equipment not covered by insurance, helping with financial difficulties, medical debt, and various other hardships. I’ll be donating all proceeds for sales of my album in the next three weeks to this organization.
The Only Thing is available for pre-order via Bandcamp.
(Photo Credit: Grace Pendleton)