Failing In Really Funny Ways: A Conversation with Sidney Gish

I’m in front of a coffee chain that Sidney Gish is not at.

A middle aged couple in khaki zip-offs walk by. It’s late February and everything is wrong.

This is the second location of said coffee chain I’ve biked to, failing to specify the exact location near Fenway that Sidney and I were going to meet. Even after the sun set, the temperature hangs in the upper 60s. A delivery truck weaves a little too leisurely into my lane. I assume the driver is consumed by the fact that they got to break out short sleeve uniforms so early this year. I silently forgive them and keep biking.

I reject the custom as a New Englander to put shorts on at the absolute first sign of warmth each year, but I am an island in my black jeans. I begin to imagine a Greek god of New England, smiting me with poor directions and double parked cars in my bike lane for being so out of step with the rest of the city’s exposed calves.

I recognize I’m using absurdity to hide the fact that I’m just bad at making plans, but it feels like the kind of thought process that would find solace in one of Sidney Gish’s songs. I forget to bring it up when we finally meet at the third location, but it’s fine; Sidney has more than enough odd observations of the universe stockpiled from making her first proper full-length album.

“I stayed up all night. My sleep schedule went to absolute shit over that winter break,” Gish recalls, mimicking a catatonic stare at the floor. “I put the album up at 7 AM and, later that morning, my mom and I were going to a cooking class.”

Hailing from a New Jersey suburb that boasts “a Panera, then lots of farms,” Gish modestly admits that the completion of her album this past December didn’t make much of a blip in her hometown.

“In the car on the way to the cooking class, I told [my mom] I just put out an album. She asked what it was called, I said Ed Buys Houses, and she was like, ‘alright… that’s fine, I guess.’ The release day party was me trying not to pass out at a cooking class in suburban New Jersey.”

Named after a mysterious realty sign Gish found in her hometown suburbs, Ed Buys Houses is the kind of engrossing record that deserves far more celebration than a well deserved nap. Taking cues from Courtney Barnett’s hyper-observational lyricism and Frances Quinlan’s freak folk tendencies before Hop Along dropped “Queen Ansleis” from their name, Gish’s sound is both markedly self-assured and playfully absurd.

Between fears of growing old on the cusp of her 20th birthday, hopes of getting a 95 in math class, contextualizing intimacy by knowing a partner’s password without changing it in Preferences, working at a plastic dinosaur factory, and a guy in New Jersey with an unquenchable lust for real estate, Ed’s world, like its creator’s, is humble in its singularity, effortlessly willing and able to make even the most mundane afternoons of being emotionally (and physically) lost worth documenting.

“I rebelled by playing ukulele,” Sidney states matter of factly.

The subject is “rediscovering art made in your teenage years” and my immediate reaction is to burn it all in a giant pyre outside the nearest Hot Topic. Gish takes the opposite route: air it all out and hope shame doesn’t override your confidence.

Partially inspired by her guitar enthusiast father (“Like, types of wood, guitar conventions… he’s one of those people”), Gish genuinely picked up the ukulele as a form of teenage rebellion.

“I just didn’t want to do the same thing my dad was doing,” she says. “I also thought it made me more quirky… I guess I was one of those people.”

The rebellion led Gish directly into a YouTube ukulele community led by Charlie McDonnell, a “quirky, totally 2011-y YouTube boy.” As a self-proclaimed “total choir kid that was also horrendously introverted,” Gish found something in their penchant for writing zany, humor-heavy ukulele songs. She began to privately post her own songs on Tumblr soon after.

“If I thought a song didn’t get enough notes to have it not be embarrassing, I’d delete it. I didn’t want anyone seeing [anything on] my music tag with zero notes! Even if it was a Sherlock fan blog that would like a song, I would keep it up.”

Aside from trading between her sister and close friends, Gish kept her recorded output between her and her Tumblr until releasing Don’t Call On Me, a self-proclaimed “dump album” compiled after a fateful Frankie Cosmos show.

“I put that out literally the day after I saw Frankie Cosmos. I went to her Bandcamp and saw she posted everything she’d made since she was sixteen. I was like, ‘I’ve been making stuff since I was sixteen and it’s not anywhere cool.”

Despite being removed from the confines of Tumblr, Don’t Call seemingly couldn’t have existed without the site’s constantly generating, aesthetic-cultivating mindset. An early version of Ed single “Midnight Jingle” appears as a humble bedroom demo, whereas “Music Tech Project” was made with the purpose of writing an orchestral song in 5/4.

“I was always thinking I had to record with multiple tracks because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I would sing with really tall vowels for no reason,” Gish says with a laugh.

While the occasional message from a high schooler championing the album is enough for Gish to keep it online, Don’t Call is equally important as a central statement of her early artistic mentality.

“I always felt the pressure of making sure what I put out was good, but then [I realized] it’s not going to be good because it’s your first time making stuff. I like having it up to show people that you can be really weird and bad and fifteen and still make music. It might be kinda bad, but you’ve still got time!”

If Don’t Call On Me was a collection of tentative first attempts at releasing songs, “The College Admissions Song” serves as the album’s outlier.

As the title suggests, the song was brazenly packaged with her college applications in the eternal high school senior’s quest of standing out to schools she felt unworthy of attending. 

“I [visited] NYU and was literally, like, ‘I’m not cool enough to be there.’ Same thing at Bard… if I went there as myself a year and a half ago, I probably wouldn’t have survived.”

None of the schools she applied to ever commented on the song, but several let her in, including Northeastern. “I remember really, really wanting to get into [the Boston scene] because I did a Berklee summer program here in high school, so I joined a songwriting club at school where I met a bunch of friends.”

Gish also joined Pitch Please, one of Northeastern’s most prominent a cappella groups. Up until this past semester, she was the group’s beatboxer.

“Beatboxing ended up being the most fun way to do a cappella ever [compared to singing]. You don’t have to worry about getting out of breath… you’re just beatboxing everywhere! How is that not fun?”

The a cappella experience, songwriting prompts, and the guitar-driven quarters of Boston’s music scene peacefully co-habitated on her 2016 output, January’s Merry Crisis EP and September’s Dummy Parade. Crisis’ creation was based around the discovery of customizable amp models on Garageband, but Dummy is Don’t Call’s turbo-charged dump album sequel, cobbled together over Gish’s Freshman year at Northeastern.

Shifting from “feeling like Piper Chapman pre-incarceration” over fuzzy guitars (“The Big Bang”) to prolonged collegiate fears (“Megalopolis”), odes to dogs (“percy is a dog and it’s 7 am”) and cheeky self-promotion (“go like my frickin facebook page”), Dummy is as diverse in sound as Gish is confident in its “do what you want” approach.

“At the end of high school, I went to Seattle on a family trip and just listened to a lot of Sleater Kinney, Beat Happening, and Nirvana,” Gish recalls. “I was, like, looking at mountains in the distance like, ‘woah, this is probably what Kurt Cobain saw.’ I’m aggressively not punk enough, but it’s fine.”

Still, Gish actively champions the punk ethos exemplified in acts like Frankie Cosmos, Eskimeaux, Japanese Breakfast, and Girlpool. “Like, it’s kind of punk,” she says, “but they don’t use aggression for the sake of being aggressive.” Also noting their immediately gratifying song lengths and DIY mindset from production to album art, Gish kept her modern punk heroes in mind when Ed Buys Houses began taking shape in unusual order.

“Last March, when I was still making Dummy Parade, I made the collage that was the cover for Ed Buys Houses. [Then] I was like, ‘I think this is going to be the tracklist for Ed Buys Houses… I just gotta write the songs first and record them, I guess.”

An eye for crafty instrumentation has always been present on Gish’s songs, but Ed takes it to another level: ping pong balls and chopsticks serve as percussion on “It’s Afternoon, I’m Feeling Sick,” a tin mailbox becomes a snare on a few songs, and her guitar does double duty as bass on most of the record.

“I’ll just pitch [the guitar] down, put a sub bass on it, and take away high frequencies. I got a real bass for Christmas… hopefully I use it,” Gish says jokingly.

Although Ed is pretty assuredly Gish’s most cohesive album-length statement, she lightly jokes about it being a “Garageband record” simply because she doesn’t have enough room on her laptop for Pro Tools or Logic. Regardless of any debate over the populist recording app, Garageband seems to fit Gish’s whim-based recording style, whether she’s looping herself into a one person choir on “!Ed Buys Houses!” or adding a skit about working at a plastic toy dinosaur factory onto “Midnight Jingle.”

“I record things in my dorm room or my basement at home mostly. It’ll be 3 AM, I’m watching a House Hunters re-run with mute on, and I’m just talking to myself… that’s the recording process.”

Swirling ice in a long-since downed tea cup, Gish mentions her goal of releasing a new album or EP by the time she turns 20 in a couple weeks.

She revises the goal almost immediately, talking through nervous laughter about how she won’t have it ready by her birthday despite the wealth of lyrics she has in complaints written on her phone (“If it’s a rant, I’ll try to make it rhyme.”) All she needs is a peaceful night of mac and cheese, a really good movie, and a glass of wine to begin making “this prolific collage” that will herald the next album, but she believes laziness is ultimately her chief roadblock. If that’s truly the case, Gish does a fair job of hiding it.

While making an absurdist line of pins last year for show merch (ex. a “reverse Medusa” snake with human heads as hair, a cat with tiny cats as feet, a sentient egg advising the buyer to “make good choices”), Gish arbitrarily sent a few designs to her mother.

“She’s really crafty, so she just sends back the egg embroidered,” Gish says. “I was like, ‘yo!’ and sent her the cat too.”

The two generations of Gishs began collaborating on a line of embroideries based on Sidney’s drawings, snowballing into viral fame on Tumblr, fan tattoos, and, at its peak, a Buzzfeed article.

“My mom thinks it’s really funny,” Sidney says. “She does craft fairs and now custom embroidery, but the market for that kind of thing in New Jersey is questionable… so she laminated the Buzzfeed article and displays it next to her craft table.”

On top of her family’s burgeoning craft fair circuit, Gish also lends her vocals across the Boston scene gamut, popping up on producer Camino 84’s lounge disco track “Oh My” and singing back-up on the EP of Local Natives-y act Cosmic Johnny. I keep recalling Gish’s summation of Ed’s themes as she discusses her collaborations, mainly her summarization of Ed as “trying your best to be normal, but failing in really, really funny ways.” Like the Greek god of New England casting judgement on my pants, it feels a bit off from the confident reality Gish leads, but like Don’t Call On Me and Dummy Parade, the themes of Ed are just residual feelings she’s finally dumping out.

“I’ve noticed that I tend to overcompensate for feeling weird,” she begins. “Like, my panic response is to be weird as fuck. It used to be being quiet and it still is, but now there’s, like, a threshold where I start being terrifying once I cross. I felt super weird about that for a long time, but [I realized people] just express their anxiety in different ways than me. They don’t just think I’m uncool… well, they probably do, but I’m expressing it through being loud.”

Ed Buys Houses is available now via Bandcamp. Catch Sidney with Stolen Jars and Du Vide on April 8th and with Xiu Xiu, Harocaz, and Funeral Advantage on April 15th.