IN CONVERSATION: Jemma Freeman & The Cosmic Something 3

IN CONVERSATION: Jemma Freeman & The Cosmic Something

Jemma Freeman & The Cosmic Something are not only a band that are hard to pigeon-hole, but a band who are beating their own unique path in defiance of today’s mainstream music industry landscape. Started in 2018 as a solo project by Jemma Freeman (the bassist in Bella Union’s psych favourites Landshapes) the project quickly morphed into a trio when bassist Samuel Nicholson and drummer Jason Ribeiro came on board.

Described as ‘Led Zeppelin fronted by Madonna’ and positioned somewhere in the spaces between pop, indie, glam rock, and psych, lead singer Jemma Freeman is also refreshingly non-conformist, honest, and down-to-earth. The subjects they tackle in their music will chime with anyone navigating the slight-whiff-of-apocalypse atmosphere the UK currently gives off, whilst also celebrating the unusual and off-kilter. Jemma is neurodivergent (diagnosed with autism and ADHD) and non-binary, and is refreshingly honest about both the good and bad facets of moving through a world viewed through a queer lens, as well as how their differences positively affect the band’s sound and direction.

Their follow-up album to 2019’s debut Oh Really? What’s That Then? was released on 25th November on Trapped Animal Records. Miffed is ‘an introspective journey through psychedelic glam-rock nightmares, woozy flows of self-discovery and beguiling lyrics … with Jemma’s sonorous voice telling a story of unravelling completely and tying yourself back up again’. We caught up with Jemma to talk about their latest release, the band’s cosmic journey so far, the trials and tribulations of making music in our current landscape of lockdowns and uncertainty, and all things ADHD, autism and creativity.

We met in the leafy back garden of West London’s legendary music venue The Troubadour. Jemma thinks they may have learnt the basslines for their first set with Landshapes in the toilets here, but maybe not, maybe it was somewhere else, but they tell me they’ve definitely played here and it’s good to be back again. I’m guessing it feels pretty unrecognisable on a sunny, warm October lunchtime sipping herbal tea compared to the sweaty, intimate late night gigs the venue is renowned for.

How did Jemma and the Cosmic Something come into existence?

After Landshapes’ second album, we’d been on tour, and it was a really intense period of time. I wanted to do something else – I love playing live so I auditioned for a couple of different bands, but it didn’t quite feel right. My partner at the time was like, ‘well, you’ve always written songs so why don’t you record your own songs?’ and so I went and did that. It was a big step for me, because prior to that I had a band called The Fucks when I was at uni, and we got absolutely fucked over by this producer who recorded us and then refused to release our album, but I just started recording stuff and it sounded really good.

Annika from Bella Union was putting on a night and it was something to do with stargazing, and we were chatting about what I should call my thing, because it’s not Landshapes, and it’s not this, or that. And she suggested I call it ‘Jemma Freeman performs the Cosmic Something’, and I thought ‘actually, that’s really good, I’m gonna keep that’. I love the idea of something as big and galactic as ‘cosmic’ and then adding the word ‘something’ – how silly that juxtaposition sounded – making something quite pedestrian sound infinite, in a way.

Tell us about making Miffed.

We did the first album in 2019 and then everything got really disrupted by lock down, and also we had to record Miffed twice, for reasons I won’t go into. But that was really good, actually – we went in and just did [the second recording] in three days, out of spite in a way, we just went and, boom, did the whole thing pretty much live, apart from a few overdubs which we did at home. The first album was very much done in dribs and drabs, bits and pieces of time I had off from work, and I worked out all the bits myself. But this one, I’ve actually got a bit more confidence in trusting other people to put their own performance down now, put their own spin on things, and not be so prescriptive. We felt really confident when we were in the studio, just letting the engineer make sure we sounded really good, and then we went for it and did a really good performance rather than worrying about every single note being exactly in the right place.

Was that always your role before, being the one making sure everything was perfect?

Yeah, I think so. Most of the time I would make demos at home and I think I would get quite attached to arrangements I made and think it has to sound exactly like that. It’s been quite a precise kind of music making – I think that that is one way of doing things and then there’s a joy and catharsis that comes from just coming together. A lot of the songs on this new album came out of a rehearsal; it was the first time we could get into a rehearsal studio [after lock down] and make loud noise – not just in our bedrooms. We wrote loads of the songs really quickly, in less than fifteen minutes, they just kind of came together. We tried to not over-practice so that when we went in to record some of that scrappiness was kept and that abandon was maintained.

What do Samuel and Jason bring to the band?

We are all kind of special aliens, I think. So Samuel, or Sam, is an absolutely virtuosic kind of guitar player – he’s amazing – very soulful, very intuitive, like a musical genius – he understands all the theory. I asked him to play bass and he has got such a good ear for tone and sound and feel, so although he’s got all that music theory he’s a very emotive player and plays bass in unusual way. Being a guitarist, he plays bass very melodically, which is how I play it. That works really well because there’s lead lines in his bass playing, and also different textures, sounds and rhythms.

Jason Ribeiro, who’s on drums, has got this real tenacity and joy for life, it is almost like a very excitable puppy-like energy. He’s very enthusiastic, very creative, and endlessly patient with us. I think, together, we just seem to gel. Those two have got similar tastes – they like jazz musicians I don’t know the names of – they’ve got a similar understanding and ethos of that sort of jazz. And then I come in and just spoil it for everyone – I’m like, ‘let’s just play three chords’ – but I think they like the weird, punky chaos that I bring. I think it’s safe to say we’re all neurodivergent – Sam definitely is and has a diagnosis – I do as well. Jason? I don’t know, but if I get on with him, the chances are that there’s some sort of neurodiversity going on there!

When we’re meant to be rehearsing for a gig, what tends to happen is we’re all completely avoidant, and we’re like, ‘no, we don’t want to do that, because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing!’. So we’ll just end up jamming for hours and hours, and there’s actually a lot of vulnerability in that – there’s a lot of unspoken communication through music. I think what works really well is that kind of trust and vulnerability, where we frequently end up jamming and making really terrible funk – horrible, horrible, cheesy funk and/or disco. But you know, it’s really fun, we’re really exercising and perhaps exorcising all of our ideas and working things out. I think it’s that sense of playfulness that we all have which makes it all work.

Do you think that being autistic and having ADHD affects your approach to making music?

Yeah, absolutely. For example, when I’m making demos time is not linear, time sort of stands still, and the only thing that actually stops me from carrying on creating is just literal, physical exhaustion. I’m trying to edit and I’m like, ‘no, you literally can’t even operate your computer anymore’. I’ve accidentally stayed up until the sun’s come up, because I’ve just been so engaged in this thing. Quite often when I’m writing a song it’s playing in the background in my head all day long. I’ll be talking to you, for example, and then in the background, in my head, I’m working stuff out. It’s almost like there’s a computer program running in the background the whole time. And then when I come back to my guitar I’ve figured it out without even working on it.

It can be like a blessing and a curse. The nature of neurodiversity tends to be extremes. I’m not always very aware of how I’m feeling – like if I’m hungry or if I’m cold or hot, so it’s good in the sense that those other bits can be switched off – it means that I can focus on the thing that I’m doing, but sometimes it can be that I can’t get started and I’m overwhelmed. I think it’s really key to my creativity. It’s like how I learned guitar – I taught myself to play the guitar by learning the chords upside down on a violin. It’s not a very normal thing to do but when I got a guitar I picked it up and I could play it because I had taught myself chords before I even got a guitar. So that is because of hyper focus – absolutely blinkered attention to one particular thing. Nothing else mattered to me, all I wanted was a guitar, all I wanted to do was to be really good at guitar.

When I said I’m not very good at noticing things about myself, sometimes I’m hyper vigilant and hyper aware of how I present – when I’m on stage performing, strangely enough, is when I disappear. When I’m playing music time stands still and I am in control. It’s like everything else stops for a moment in time and I’m able to actually deliver some kind of important thing that is flowing through me. I can actually get on with stuff without being interrupted by all these unhelpful interrogations that normal regular life throws at me.

Do you think that music made by neurodivergent people has got a different flavour to it?

Yeah. I think it is different, it is kind of timeless. I definitely think that David Bowie was neurodivergent. But why is that? Why are certain types of music so timeless? Why are you able to connect with them no matter when they were made? What’s different? When I’m making music, it’s about trying to communicate across all time to all people in a way that is not exclusive. Whereas I think some music feels very stylised and particular to a certain time and place in history. You might listen to it in ten years and it just sounds absolutely horrible and there’s nothing you can take from it.

I don’t know if I make this kind of music, but any kind of amazing piece of art has something that moves you and you do not know why. There is nothing particularly tangible that you can cement down. It’s like it draws into focus some kind of minutiae of life that occurs, but you have never thought to spend time with it. Somebody has spent hours making an oil painting of a particular way that somebody looks at something or someone, or the particular way two objects interact, or two colours or two shapes. It’s kind of an odd thing that has no name, it has no verbs, it has no nouns, it has no way of describing itself, other than within that painting or within that music.

So I think, for me, neurodivergent music is something that you listen to, and you don’t know exactly what it is that you’re being told about. There’s something kind of really freeing about that, a relief that your human experience is echoed somewhere in this huge world. And you are less alone somehow – that person has experienced that same sensation as you and they are sharing it with you and you can connect with them in some kind of way, in a more profound way than you can in everyday life.

Do you find it easier to communicate through music?

What’s funny for me is I can look back at songs that I’ve written and within those songs it’s very clear, in retrospect, that I’ve written about a feeling, a sensation, an emotion, a situation, a relationship, but I would have been unaware at the time that I was writing about it. Same for this last album, I had an idea about something I wanted to put across, a sensation, a feeling – I don’t necessarily relate it to my actual life until afterwards. I think with art you lose some conscious layer of yourself and you’re kind of directly hitting the energy.

I’m definitely not good at communicating with lots of people in a room – that is not my forte at all, unless I’m on stage and no one is actually interacting with me and I’m just allowed to talk – then I’m quite good at connecting with people that way.

Is the music industry more difficult to navigate as a neurodivergent artist?

I think that I’ve probably missed opportunities, because it’s so much to do with networking in terms of how you get ahead. Someone will come and talk to me after a show and I just think, ‘oh, that was a nice person’, in the same way that I’m oblivious if somebody is flirting with me. Other people seem to be very strategic – I very much do not do any of that – that would feel very synthesised and odd to me.

I think people might think I’m rude or blunt, or just not taking them up on things. I’ve probably accidentally upset promoters and labels and all kinds of people. I’ve got a very strong sense of righteousness, and you know, things are quite unfair sometimes in the music industry. It’s like, how come some people who are in the same group as me have got so far? It’s because they know how to communicate with people, they know what to ask for, they know how to ask for it. They know how to make things happen. It doesn’t mean they’re any more intelligent or better at what they’re doing than me, but they’ve just got the right skills and said the right things at the right time. I literally don’t give a fuck what you’re meant to do, all that kind of stuff, but the music industry, it is all about that.

So, the title of Miffed – you’ve said that it is something your Grandma used to say all of the time?

She’d be really, really furious about something and then she would just reduce it, simmer it down almost to being a bit miffed about it. It’s often not about specific words you use, it’s about how you say them – I just loved how ridiculous it was that she would say something that was such a mismatch. Language is so weird – I always strive to try and use accurate language in an attempt to be understood – but that’s obviously not how people usually communicate. I think neurotypical communication is all about saying one thing and meaning something else and I’m constantly trying to understand what’s going on. When I was a kid I just thought, ‘oh, she was a tiny bit upset’, but on reflection, she was fucking furious about all kinds of things throughout her whole life.

Also, it’s something about the pettiness of the word miffed that really appealed to me. Everything is so absolutely screwed at the minute and yet the kind of the things that people are getting upset about – English people in particular – is really stupid little things rather than massive global issues, like the earth heating up an exponential rate or things costing the earth. I don’t like that kind of pettiness. The mood throughout lockdown that particularly got to me was the pettiness – people getting very irate and very emotionally involved with the tiniest infractions on their freedom – rather than the global picture of what was going on. I wanted to think about that microcosm that we get into.

Miffed Packshot

That is really interesting, because you’ve got an album which actually addresses some massive issues. With the first single ‘Easy Peelers’, for example, it’s full of blatant, urgent fury, but you’re telling us you’re miffed.

Yeah, it’s like the word quite, we use that all the time. Like ‘I was quite annoyed by that’ rather than ‘I was fucking furious’. Nothing is ever fully expressed, we don’t allow ourselves to fully open up and feel things. And the same with the album cover as well – I liked the idea of something a bit vague, a vague reflection. I liked the lack of identity that the picture has – the word miffed and the picture work together. But the album is huge. It’s ginormous. It’s the biggest sounding thing I think I’ve ever made.

Do you think there is also an element of not feeling that we’ve got permission to fully put across our anger or our frustrations?

Yeah, I think it’s looked upon as being slightly vulgar. There’s a shame associated with feeling things fully and expressing them how you want to express them. I think it’s probably a lot to do with being neurodivergent – you’re always editing yourself, masking or softening the edges, trying to make it palatable and acceptable and manageable in some sort of way. I also think we exist in this shuttered existence whereby we don’t fully engage because the true horror of it is too much for one human brain to bear. I can remember one moment of time in lockdown feeling so horrified with the ugliness of humanity and the world and how everything was panning out, all of the things that were going on at one particular time. Black Lives Matter, all of that inequality that occurred throughout, who got to go to work and who didn’t go to work and the privilege that some people had was so blatant, and yet it’s seen as being slightly embarrassing to bring it up and talk about it, to be fully furious about something or to feel any emotion fully, it is seen as inconvenient. By not seeing it and not talking about it, it doesn’t exist.

You worked with Dave Holmes (not to be confused with David Holmes) on Miffed. Why Dave in particular?

Dave Holmes runs and owns a studio called Lightship 85. He’s worked with Landshapes in the past. He is a monstrous bass player and I thought that we needed somebody that understands textures and sounds because I knew that I really wanted lots of bottom end on this record, I wanted it to feel huge. I knew that this is where we needed to go to get that subby kind of textured bass.

Which tracks on the album are you particularly proud of, or you just loved making?

It’s different at different times. I think the ones that I’m most proud of are the ones that we recorded together in no time at all, that we just created in a jam. I think they have a real kind of flavour and a different identity. ‘Sicilian Mousse’ is probably one of my favourites because it’s got a cool intro and it sounds really different to some of the other things I make – it’s got a lot of space which is kind of interesting. I’m really proud of ‘Big Bread’ because it’s epic and I think it perfectly captures what I was trying to get across – that complete devastation when a relationship has failed – that epic black hole that’s created in your universe. I like ‘Huge’ because I just sent a phone recording to Jason and it was all out of time and weird, then he sat down and he actually worked out what all of the timings were, so then we had to learn it how I’d fucking written it, this kind of broken song – it’s ridiculous. But I think I like all of them for a lot of different reasons.

Was a lot of the album written during lockdown?

Most of the tracks were written in lockdown, only maybe two of them were written before that. Some tracks started just in my room, or I posted a thing on Instagram or something and then Jason would say ‘that’s cool, send it over, I’ll put some drums on it’, and then others were written when we first got into rehearsal studios. We had a gig coming up and as I’ve mentioned before we don’t actually rehearse the songs we’re supposed to – we just started playing and wrote a bunch of stuff and I said ‘let’s just play that at the gig, let’s play the new one. I don’t want to play stuff from 2019, that’s a fucking million years ago. I don’t care about then anymore, it doesn’t exist’. So when we did our first gig post-lockdown that cemented what the album was.

Some of the album tracks are about that feeling of constriction and an exasperation with that inequity that we experienced, ‘Bugles’ is about that. And some of it is about the trajectory of some relationships within lockdown. I’m not very good at staying in touch with people unless I have a reason, so it was a very challenging time for me. I think it really exposed how alienated and isolated I really was.

How is it going back on the live music circuit? Has it changed post 2020?

I think it feels a little bit more healed, but I think it’s taking a long time. Last Friday we did a gig and I think that’s the first time it felt more normal. But what has happened is lots of smaller venues seem to have disappeared. Some promoters have survived and they seem to be very strong and doing well, but I think there’s fewer promoters putting on shows and fewer venues for us to play. It feels more condensed. Whereas before you’d get quite a few people who were just deciding to put random things on, I don’t think that’s happening so much. Particularly queer DIY bands – I go to watch those kinds of gigs but they don’t seem to be happening so much.

What has definitely changed things is Brexit – people not being able to go on European tours, for example. I’ve noticed that the other smaller bands that you tend to see in your social media feeds at service stations in Switzerland or wherever, that’s not happening anymore. We aren’t going either because it’s too expensive now.

Now Miffed is finished, are you looking forward to making new music?

We’ve got hundreds of phone recordings we need to go through, amongst all the terrible disco and funk, so I think we’ve probably written the next album already. And I’ve snuck in a new song to our set which is not recorded yet, which is a bit cheeky. We’ve already definitely written four.

Why not do a terrible disco and funk album next?

We thought about that, but, you know what? That’d be really devastating if that was the thing that actually made it – we would be like ‘for fucks sake, we’ve now got to tour the world playing this fucking shit music!’.

And what is next for you?

I just literally love playing guitar. My ambition is not to get famous just for the sake of being famous, I just want to get to a point where what I do is play guitar. At the moment I work full time but it would be so good if all I had to do to get by was play guitar. That is my motivator, what I want to do.

Miffed is out and available to buy now, as well as the second single from the album Nobody Ever.

Follow Jemma Freeman and The Cosmic Something on Facebook Instagram Twitter and Bandcamp.

Photo credit: Suzi Corker.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.