On the Absurdity of Navigating a Posthumous Record Release

Linwood Regensburg (Those Darlins) talks revisiting the album he made with Jessi Zazu, and putting it out nearly seven years later.

When Jessi and I were working on Mama Zu originally, it was kind of a secret. Not in any purposeful way — there just wasn’t anything to announce while it was happening. We hadn’t even settled on a name. (We actually never did, but she was pushing for Mama Zu, and you can’t argue with the deceased…) There isn’t some grand story behind the record, necessarily. It’s as basic as: we were gonna do this other band, and then it was cut short. That’s really it. 

During lockdown in 2020, usually at some point during the day I would go upstairs to my studio and try to write music — mostly sleazy instrumentals with stupid names such as “Klimt Eastwood” or “Born Toulouse.”  But in the back of my head, I was always like, You should be working on one of the Mama Zu songs. But it just felt a little too daunting. I didn’t want to confront all of the baggage that went along with it.

But it kept hanging around in my head. Honestly, there was a level of guilt there. The record never got finished, and that’s solely on me. If I was doing a project with somebody else, it would just keep popping in: I need to finish that. I did a couple projects where I was working with bands that I wasn’t that into, you could say, and was kind of miserable. But I couldn’t help but think then, God, I want this to feel as inspiring as working with Jessi. (And then I’m also remembering this framed quote at Jessi’s house that said, “Comparison is violence.”)  Nevertheless, every now and then a rough or a demo of one of those songs would pop up on my phone, and I would listen to it and it would make me feel, This is cool. I need to get back into it.

So, I finally decided to get my shit together in late 2020. There’s a delicate balance between wanting to keep everything intact as it was when we left off and not betray any sort of creative trust, and also the practicality of just wanting the songs to sound as good they can. Being dug in sentimentally isn’t a great asset when making mix or arrangement decisions. Imagine sitting with the choice of whether or not to mute your deceased collaborators guitar part during a verse because it’s kind of in the way — normally a no brainer, but in this situation, there’s a little sting after you hit command-M, and then stare at the now uncolored clip section. 

There’s also the question of what to use and what not to use. There was one I struggled with — and it is kind of on the record, as a brief drone instrumental between two tracks at the end of the album. I ended up putting that there because I thought it needed a little bridge, since it’s going from one extreme into another. But I had originally recorded that as a scratch instrumental under a demo Jessi had sent me that we didn’t finish. We had probably started and deconstructed this song more than three times already. Her original demo was almost in reggaeton territory. I remember her sending me this recording, saying, “I wrote a final verse that makes this complete now.” The recording was so raw, just vocal and acoustic guitar. I thought it was so good. It sounds special, but also really vulnerable, to a point that made me uncomfortable not knowing if she’d want people to hear it in that form. It’s super sparse, kind of a poem sitting on top of the music, but I couldn’t get past the notion, Maybe this is too dark. You go back and forth on it, and just err on the side of caution.

It’s a little awkward to have to steward these songs on behalf of Jessi. I tend to be more sarcastic and self-deprecating, which feels out of place for this moment. I also don’t want to get her own voice twisted. I remember with the song “Emotional Warrior,” when we were originally working on it, I thought it was autobiographical. I was trying to figure it out — and I would always try to do that with her songs, and it would drive her insane. I think sometimes when I’d ask her what her lyrics meant, she’d think I was picking them apart in a critical way but really I was like, “I just want to know what the narrative is!” So I asked and she just started laughing at me: “That song’s about Trump. Why would you think it’s about me?” You take a step back and there’s all these obvious clues in the lyrics, so I was like, “OK, I get it, I’m a moron.” 

When Thirty Tigers was interested in putting the record out, I proposed — and I knew they would say, “absolutely not” — that we put it out without a story, without a band picture, without a single thing, maybe a Gorillaz type situation, though I definitely couldn’t afford that level of animation. Clearly, Jessi getting sick is part of the story, but it’s not THE story with the songs themselves. And you know, when someone gets sick, they start to look different, and over time that becomes the permanent image that sticks. I remember looking at a photo of us from shows in 2008 or something, and you just forget — Oh, my god, that’s what we used to do. So I absolutely want to be respectful of both of those sides, but I’m also not trying to rewrite The Year of Magical Thinking alongside this release. 

There’s this self portrait Jessi had painted, and one of her brothers felt like it should be the cover. I was hesitant, only as the image could be taken as a sort of death apparition. Personally, I felt like it was going to be too much, especially if this record is coming out of the blue and this painting is the first thing people see. It’s a little twisted. But its also something that Jessi might’ve found funny — Jessi was one of the funniest people. Most of the time we would spend together was basically just trying to clown each other.  But the general consensus from label folks was, “No, this is too much,” so I just put it on the back of the record instead of the front. Maybe we’ll flip the imagery if we do a second run of vinyl. 

When the first song, “Lip,” came out, I wasn’t sure what people would think. There was no announcement or lead up, so maybe it was a little jarring at first. I got some messages — from both close friends and fans — and it was almost like it was too much for them. Just hearing Jessi’s voice again caused a level of shock. One person texted me a week after it came out, just to tell they “weren’t ready to listen yet, but they are getting around to it soon.” And I just said, “What the hell are you waiting on?” But these are the exact feelings that kept me from wanting to work on the record again, so I get it. It’s just so bizarre having this this emotional element being a constant companion at a time when all you naturally wanna do is celebrate these songs and celebrate her. You’d think six years would soften the blow. Although the opening line of that song, “I used to be alive, but now I’m in the wind” — which was metaphorical — almost takes it to a theatrical level, like she’s singing to you from the other side. But that wasn’t intentional at all. 

Then when “Safe Place,” came out, we needed a promo image. I had taken this photo of her that looked kind of like a classical painting. It was older, probably from 2014, and she happened to have a skull in her hand. I thought it was perfect. I sent it to her mom to get approval, and Kathy said, “No, absolutely not.” And I’m thinking, “What’s wrong with it?” She was like, “She’s got a skull in her hands!” and I’m flippantly just saying, “Oh, come on, what’s the big deal!” It’s just funny how your perspective or level of adroitness on what might be appropriate can vary from moment to moment.  And obviously if someone’s gone, you have to be a little touchier about things — so you photoshop a halftone disco ball with titling overtop of the skull. It’s a struggle to comb through archival material to find shots that work in lieu of just being able to have a photo shoot. 

This younger artist sent me a DM that same week and was being super complimentary. We were messaging back and forth, and he said he was interested in collaborating. They were a songwriter, so I asked, “Sure, in what capacity? Are you looking for production help?” But it turned out, he was interested in getting Jessi to sing on a verse of one of his songs. And so then I try to relay with a sense of lightness, “I hate to tell you this, but she’s not gonna be able to…” And then it’s obviously really awkward for a moment, but it comes with the territory. I’ve also been getting people asking if we’re going to tour. And maybe what I’m learning here is that all questions don’t require immediate explanations. But no, we won’t be touring. 

My relationship with Jessi — even during the toughest of times, we were always looking to have fun. It kind of tarnishes it all in a way, as putting this out mean, at times, having to rehash the heavier emotional toll. That’s not what I’m interested in doing, especially when it becomes rote. When people ask me questions, it always goes in that direction. I try to pull it away, but I can only answer the questions that are asked of me, and I worry that I’ll look a little callous if I don’t. But it’s worth saying that we kind of had this who-gives-a-fuck attitude while working. It felt like for the first time in a while, we were in an uncompromised space musically, and the future seemed wide open (respect to Tom Petty). And you want carry that attitude forward. It’s funny how at that time, recording seemed to create a bubble shielding from the surrounding uncertainty and chaos. But then you have to pop that bubble when you release the music and reencounter all of it. And while I might feel fatigued from a certain angle, I get there is a level of courtesy people would feel obligated to engage in instead of just wanting to talk music. 

It’s also bizarre, because everything with this pulls you back in time. Usually when you make a record, it’s all about looking forward and building. And I have that opportunity beyond, but currently it’s all past tense, and it’s strange. As if you’re living in two moments at the same time. This is essentially a debut album, but then you have a reviewer calling it a “swan song,” and that changes the narrative and context. Worth nothing that these songs all seem apropos to this current moment though. Sexism and fascists never seem to go out of style, sadly.

Linden Regensburg (Those Darlins) is a musician and producer. His record with Jessi ZazuQuilt Floor, as Mama Zu — is out now on Thirty Tigers.