Tenci Will Never Get Sick of Love Is Overtaking Me

Arthur Russell gave Jess Shoman the confidence to feel “like an open sore” on her new record.

I’ll admit that it took me a while to get into Arthur Russell. When I first got wind of him in 2018, I noticed there was a surge of people sharing his songs, particularly his experimental, dancier tunes. At the time it wasn’t sticking to me, but then I discovered Love is Overtaking Me. I remember being shocked that it existed because it was the complete opposite of what I had heard before. I became obsessed, listening solely to that album for weeks on end — which usually results in me over-listening and feeling like I need to give it a rest, but that didn’t happen with this album. I never got sick of it and I’m not sure I ever will. 

There are so many parts of the album that resonate with me deeply and inform the type of music I want to make: honest storytelling, a childlike sense of discovery, warmth and vulnerability, unveiling the soul with a sprinkle of playfulness, the list goes on. While many other artists I love also garner these qualities, the vivid imagery in Arthur Russell’s music feels like he’s sitting right beside you. 

I have so many beautiful memories listening to this album. Tina Scarpello, one of my dearest friends who played bass in Tenci, shared a mutual love for it. We would be hanging out and would yell to each other “Being sad is not a crime!” or leave trails of “Big big big moon/Don’t let me down” through parks in Chicago. One of the most beautiful memories I have was driving through the mountains in Los Angeles with Tina at 4:00 in the morning. We were there to shoot the music video for “Serpent” and were racing to the desert to catch the sunrise. We put on the album and the mountains felt like they had their arms wrapped around us. We yelled the songs till our throats were dry, and on the way back, we listened again. I thought I could live in that moment forever.

The title of the album Love is Overtaking Me inspired our album title My Heart is an Open Field. One day, Tina and I went to Skylark to brainstorm over tater tots and beer. My guidelines were, I wanted a long title and something that encompassed the open honesty of the songs. We kept returning to the word “Heart,” and after a slough of not-quite-rights Tina said, “What about ‘My Heart is an Open Field’?” Our eyes lit up.

While we were recording My Heart is an Open Field there was no doubt that the instrumentation of his album inspired me. The more I listened the more I started to daydream about new possibilities. I craved the freeing, tumbling sound that I admired so much in Arthur’s songs. I had a deep admiration for “Habit of You” because of his juxtaposition of lovelorn lyrics accompanied by playful instrumentation. It’s like a kid who falls down and scrapes their knee in a playground, it feels like a funny place to get hurt. This is something I tried to achieve in the second-to-last song on the album, “No Wings.” I knew this song was going to be hard for me to write, so I tried to make the guitar part mostly fun and playful. A song I thought was going to be painful now shines in a different light and is one of my favorites to perform.

I knew I wanted to experiment with cello in a song when I first heard the song “Eli.” I had never heard someone play cello in such a visceral way. It’s a song that strikes me with deep sadness — “A simple dog with ears and nose/Eli, Eli, Eli/I don’t know why nobody likes him” embodies the root of the song, about a dog who wants to be loved, but is rejected. As Arthur lets out croons accompanied by the weeping of his cello, I feel an undeniable ache for poor Eli.

I became fixated on the idea of an instrument crying and the personification of instruments in general. Our song “Blue Spring” holds a similar sentiment of not wanting to be forgotten. I wrote this song on one of my darkest days, but it was one of the first days of spring and I felt guilty for being so sad: “If spring is green, then I am blue.” I was on the bus on my way home from work, crying, and started to write the lyrics down in my notes. By the time I got home, the song was written. I wanted the cello, although it’s subtle, to mimic the stages of crying that happened on my commute home. The low hum of the cello are the silent hot tears that you hold back on the bus so strangers don’t see you, and the occasional cello harmony is the strange relief for when someone finally does. The tripled screeching of the guitar is the cry that you can finally let out once you get home. The song ends with a voicemail from my grandma, Tenci, that further embodies the sentiment of not wanting to be forgotten. “…This is your grandma love, your grandma loves you so much. That’s why I keep calling you. I hope I’m not a nuisance to you, but I love you. Don’t get tired of my calls, OK, love?”

Although the arrangements in Arthur’s songs were very influential, it was the simple, honest songwriting that truly captivated me. The sound of this album is really versatile, but it’s the sprinkles of country/folk songs that ground the way I write again and again. “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face,” probably my favorite song on the album, always puts some wind beneath my wings. “It’s my world, it’s my song/Didn’t ask you to sing along.” Before I had heard this song I felt like I was trying to mask my songs because I was afraid of being too vulnerable or giving too much away. This song serves as a reminder for me. This is my life! My song! Who cares what anyone else thinks! I feel so grateful to have discovered his music at the time that I did. I was uncovering a lot of myself for the first time and felt like an open sore. Love is Overtaking Me held my hand along the way.

My Heart Is An Open Field is out now

Tenci began as Jess Shoman’s bedroom-folk project in Chicago in December 2018.

With the help of Spencer Radcliffe and Tina Scarpello it quickly became something more fully-formed. By spring of 2019 they’d recorded their debut My Heart Is An Open Field, which is out now via Keeled Scales.

The current lineup of Tenci includes Chicago musicians she met playing some of her earliest shows. Curt Oren plays saxophone, flute, and guitar. Isabel Reidy (of Izzy True) plays bass, and Joseph Farago (of Joey Nebulous) plays drums. They’ve added a depth and playfulness to the songs that have made them even bigger and full of life.

(Photo Credit: Ashleigh Dye)