Dec 02, 2022
By Mark Moody
Photography by Henry Jordan Smith
If you listen to Chicago band Tenci’s debut album, My Heart Is An Open Field, or their just released follow-up, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing (on Keeled Scales), the first thing you are likely to notice is Jess Shoman’s voice. Indie rock is certainly open to unorthodox vocal approaches, but few sing as freely as they do. Whether softly cooing a lullaby inspired by a children’s book cover on “Great Big Elephant,” or soaring, diving, and strafing on the improvisational, “Be,” Shoman goes where they please. “I feel like singing is the truest form of what my spirit wants to say,” Shoman (who uses they/them pronouns) explains. “When I’m singing I have complete freedom and none of it can really be wrong. It feels good just to shake my voice around.”
The oldest of four siblings, Shoman grew up in the suburbs about 20 miles north of Chicago. Raised by a single mother, who was raised by a single mother herself, Shoman has a special connection with their grandmother. So much so that the band’s name was directly derived from the same grandmother, Hortensia, who immigrated from Belize, children in tow. “My grandmother is a very strong and resilient person. She basically raised me because my own mom, as a single mother, had to work,” Shoman shares. “My grandmother watched a lot of Spanish novelas and the music is very romantic and dramatic. She would sing [songs from those shows] and had a really lovely vibrato. I don’t know if that’s where I got that from, but I’m definitely drawn to it.”
Shoman explains that songs from the band’s first album came about through the process of therapy and provided a release for them. “I had a big release which felt awesome, but then I felt like an empty shell of myself. So for this album, I really wanted to write songs that filled me back up, that even if not perfectly joyous, they have gentle reminders of what that can be,” Shoman says.
Certainly a good portion of the songs convey a joyful exuberance, with “Sharp Wheel” standing out as a particularly sunny one. “That song came from when I had just moved in with my partner and I wrote my first love song even though it might not come off that way. I was doubting that I could even have someone in my life and it’s just a reminder that you deserve goodness and good things,” Shoman says.
Having previously toured in support of bands like Hop Along and Squirrel Flower, Tenci is taking their own headlining show on the road in pretty unusual fashion. Rather than tour with a set opener, Shoman has been lining up a different band in each city. “When we’ve had some off days on tour as support we’ve tried to line up [some local shows] and those were always the most fun. You’re getting a good look into the community,” Shoman says. “It took a lot of digging to find local bands, which is also a lot of fun because I got to discover a lot of new music. But it’s a bit hard.”
Tenci are carving out a name for themselves by taking unconventional approaches in their song craft and to how things are done in general. Shoman concludes, in part speaking to their self-taught roots, “I feel like I don’t have a choice sometimes, because I don’t know how to do things in the way everyone else does it.”