Jess Kemp: “I never expected to be headlining a venue, ever…”


Jess Kemp is one of Manchester’s newest musical success stories. In 2016 she’s launched an EP (Camden) headlined at Manchester Academy 3 and, as a part of IndieWeek EU, headlined the city’s historic Factory venue. In an IndieWeek competition full of talented bands and soloists, she placed third, as well as coming third in the Best of British Unsigned Female competition.

A compelling singer-songwriter with a singing voice three sizes bigger than one would expect, she has a commanding stage presence and a easy, congenial manner with her audience. Are We Alive? sat down with Jess for a quick interview before her headline set at Factory Manchester last month, and talked about the past year, her roots, and her plans for 2017.

It’s been a busy 2016 for you

It has

… and you’re headling Factory tonight…

I am. I’m very excited!

… which is a big deal for a Manc artist. How’d that come about?

Basically, Dusty Pop – the people who put me on at the [Manchester] Academy earlier this year to launch my EP, partnered up with IndieWeek, which is based in Toronto in Canada. And they’re putting on an IndieWeek EU, which is based in Manchester — so from Thursday up until Saturday are the separate rounds, and then from there — I think it’s the top two acts from the four every night — will go through to the final on Sunday, and then all of those bands compete for a place in IndieWeek Canada, which is actually next month.

So it’s a competition as well as showcasing new music?

Yeah, so we’re really buzzing about it. But we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s a competition; I completely forgot. And I know it’s such a big thing, but at the same time it’s such a big deal to be headlining Factory. It’s cool!

So, you launched Camden earlier this year. Has that changed things for you? You played Manchester Academy, you’re playing at Factory… Is playing those bigger venues a result of having the EP out there or is it just a natural progression?

It’s pretty much a natural progression. Me and the band are now trying to push to play the higher profile gigs and big them up a little bit more. We’ve just been confirmed for a gig at Sound Control, and I’m really excited about that, because Sound Control has always been one of those big venues that I’ve always wanted to get into, but at the same time it’s kind of a way in to some better support slots with some bigger touring bands. Hopefully it should go from there; naturally with all other unsigned bands that I know that have got somewhere that’s the way they’ve done it, off the back of support slots. You’ve got Cabbage, from Manchester, who are supporting Blossoms at the minute, and they’ve just gone massive. And the same’s going to happen with Cabbage, I can see it happening.

Doing some touring shows in Amsterdam was the other big deal for you this year. How many dates did you do?

We were there for 4 days and we played 3 biggish gigs. Originally it was supposed to be about 5, but getting hold of venue owners in Amsterdam is hard.

You need to know the right people?

Yeah, next time I’d try and get in touch with a local band and maybe team up with them, and possibly return the favour in Manchester. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to come over to Manchester and play some gigs over here. It literally is who you know, cos in Manchester we’ve played quite a lot of the venues now. And solo, before I even got with the band, I played quite a few venues. So there’s always a way in. But over in Amsterdam it was a lot harder.

We played some crazy gigs. We played at a place called the CC Muziekcafé where they had a decibel meter on the ceiling, and René, who put on the gig — he’s a top guy, and he’s got all these rules and he drills them into you as soon as you get there, like: don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this. And I suppose in Manchester that wouldn’t go down very well. People would just be like “whatever, see you later,” but we had to respect his bar.

But it worked in a way. Because if it’s too loud… it was quite a small place. People would be just like “nah, I’m going.” But it was crazy because… on Camden the ending is very big and very loud. And it has to be loud and big for it to come across the way we want it to. So playing it in there was mad because I was constantly staring at this thing… on all the pictures everyone took my eyes are pointing off to the top corner of the ceiling.

I can imagine a bar in Manchester having a decibel meter as a competition … the idea would be to hit a point and then beat it.

Well in Amsterdam, you’ve got to keep it down! Except in the last venue that we played in of the whole tour, a place called The Waterhole. They had [a decibel meter] but they really didn’t care where we were on it. That was probably our favourite gig out of them all. To be fair they were all quite good, but that one was different in the way that there was a massive crowd that came for us, and we were so confused. It was very strange. I’m just some girl from Manchester who took her band to Amsterdam to play some gigs!

That’s a very very British mindset!

Yeah! People turned up and watched the whole set and then stayed and partied with us as well. It’s crazy!

Sounds like the beginning of a fanbase to me.

Yeah, it was cool, it was ace.

Did you think about playing anywhere else in Europe?

I had ideas of going to Belgium and Berlin even going to Spain and staying in a friend of a friend’s villa over there. That was the plan, but it didn’t take off. But I wouldn’t have wished for Amsterdam to happen any other way, so I’m kind of glad. ‘Cos it was a massive learning curve as well, trying to front a band every night but at the same time get up the next morning clear-headed, level-headed, and manage the tour.

There were about 25 people that came over from Manchester to see us, and everyone wanted to stay in this big group. So in the daytime everyone wanted to do different things. Everyone was coming to me and saying “what are we doing today?” and I was like “argh, I don’t know! Just… come to the gig later. Do what you want.”

At times it got a little bit hectic, but hopefully it paid off. It’s definitely given me a lot of space to write about with uni essays. Which is not the reason I’m doing music — uni’s an afterthought. I go to uni to make myself feel like a normal person and not just like a musical slob.

What are you studying?

Music Business. The uni I go to [BIMM Manchester] does a lot of songwriting and performance courses. But I didn’t want to do that because I thought … I’m kind of happy with where I am at the moment with my songwriting, because last year and this year things have taken off quite well with my original songs. So I thought “what can I do that I don’t know anything about? Business.”

I want to make money out of my music; I want to make a career out of it, so the only way I’m going to be able to do it is maybe to learn a little bit about the business and start by self-managing, which is what I do. I’ve just come out of a physics of sound lecture and my brain’s frazzled. But when I’m playing tonight I’ll know all the wavelengths of the amps.

You’ll be able to look at a room and size up its acoustics before you soundcheck.

Yeah. And that goes back to Amsterdam too, playing in Vondelpark — and that was strange — with no amplification at all. But we still gathered a crowd! Amsterdam’s a weird place but it’s so good.

It has a very vibrant music scene, like Manchester does.

It does. And I think another place that loves its music scene is Germany, so I definitely need to look at heading over there at some point.

What are some things that happened this year that didn’t you expect to happen?

Radio 2. I did not expect that to happen. No way. I was on BBC Introducing last year, and I sent Stars off to quite a few places to see what would happen, and I woke up to tweets from Radio 2! Janice Long saying that it had been played. I genuinely didn’t think that investing the time and effort into sending these songs out … I didn’t think anything would come of it. I thought it was something I had to try, something I’d never done before, so I did it. And it paid off! It’s kinda fuelled me to write a few more radio-worthy songs and hope that they get played.

Is there a big difference in your work between the radio-worthy and the not radio-worthy?

There is a difference. I’ve got a song called Killer Shoes, and I would say that’s not too suited to radio, though I couldn’t tell you why — I just can’t imagine it being played on the radio. But I love playing that song live, especially with the band. It’s made for the stage. Camden, again, is another great song to finish the set with — it’s massive — but then at the same time I think that it could make it onto the radio, but because I released it much earlier before I sent it off anywhere, and a lot of radio stations won’t pick up on that because it’s been out for a few months.

With the next stuff in mind I’ve learned from that. The next time I put something out I’ve got to think a bit more strategically about that.

You’ve got plenty of fodder for new songs after this year, surely?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’m going back into the studio [in November]. We’re going to Sugar House again — the same people who did the EP and Stars and everything. They’re top producers. I’m going to go in and do the next single, which is written and ready. And this time I’m taking the band in with me.

I’ve written this one to be a bit more radio-worthy but also with a band in mind. Cos [with past tracks] it was hard sometimes. I’ve got a song called Stay that’s very much acoustic. I took that to the band and said “can we do this live?” and nothing really came of it. We’ve got to respect that I wrote that song for the acoustic guitar and we’ve kind of got to keep it like that. But with this new song, it’s very much written to play with a band. There’s not much production that needs doing on it, though I’m sure Sugar House will put their spin on it, cos their stuff’s great. If anyone’s listening and you want to listen to some top new music then definitely have a look at what Sugar House are doing cos their music’s ace. They did the Viola Beach record — Swings and Waterslides.

How does your writing process work for you? Do you start with just a grain of an idea or do you know the shape of the song before you sit and write it?

It’s always got to be something that I feel quite strongly about. The new single — without giving too much away — is something that definitely affected me on a personal level. The feelings I experienced during the time I was writing it have definitely helped coordinate the way the song moves along. I’ve taken some influence from some of the old bands I used to listen to years ago. Because I found myself with Camden trying to take a bit of influence from modern music that’s out and about now; a lot of stuff that’s playing on RadioX. And I thought “that’s not really working for me.”

So I went back to my roots and where I started listening to music and what made me want to become a musician. It’s embarrassing… you know the Ting Tings? This new song is very much influenced by their style. And Paramour is always influencing my music — their style, you know. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s influenced this new track. And it’s a new writing style; it’s very catchy.

To be fair it’s the first time I’ve ever spoken about this song, so it’s probably a good thing that I’m talking about it but not giving too much away at the same time. It’s very catchy and it’s gonna sound good on stage.

You made me feel old when you described the Ting Tings as an old band, you know. When you said “old bands” I thought of cassette tapes and vinyl — which, of course, everyone is into again these days!

Vinyl doesn’t really do it for me. Going to a music uni, people do like to latch on to the “authentic” stuff to keep hold of it, but to me … I think we should just embrace the change. Records… yeah, they’re cool and they sound authentic but at the end of the day it sounds so much better and clearer via Spotify through some decent speakers. Just stick Spotify on! Embrace the change! Get over it!

Last year I got as a present Adele’s album on vinyl. And I’ve listened to it maybe 5 times. It’s nice to look at, but when I want to listen to Adele it’s so much easier to whip my phone out and search for her on Spotify.

And the record player in our house is downstairs in the living room, so I can’t just whip out a record and put it on; everyone would be like “turn it off, I’m trying to watch telly!”

Obviously the music industry is in rude health but artists aren’t doing as well out of it as they used to… Are people listening to your music mostly through Spotify and SoundCloud?

Yeah, I think if I put my EP out of vinyl it wouldn’t do very well!

Do you not think it would sell if you had it on the merch table at a gig?

Yeah, when you think about it like that I think people would buy it. It’s quite authentic to do something like that, isn’t it?

With your EP, the cover art is so beautiful… I think people would love to own that on vinyl.

Yeah, it would look cool. Paige, the girl who designed that artwork, would love that. She’s into all that vintage-y stuff. She would be quite happy for me to do that. I got the artwork printed on a roll-up poster, and I keep meaning to give her that because that’s her print on one of those.

Looking forward a year, what do you want the highlight of next year to be?

I think a UK tour definitely. It’s not in the planning yet — I’m not lying, it’s actually not! I’ve gotten quite good at keeping secrets over the last few years. But that’s genuinely something I do want to do, maybe off the back of a single launch. At the minute the dates for that aren’t finalised.

I want to put a lot more thought into stuff, so maybe a bit more national radio play. And I’d really like to hit the big festivals, get on some of the really good lineups. How I go about that I don’t know. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed and see what happens.

When you say the big festivals, where would you be aiming at?

The festival of the year for me is Blackthorn. I’ve played it for the last three years, this year with my band. Hopefully we’ll be going back next year — that’ll be confirmed soon, hopefully. And Manchester Pride was massive for me this year.

Next year I’m hoping to look at maybe Kendal Calling, Festival No6. I don’t think Glastonbury just yet. I don’t think they’d listen to my Soundcloud links just yet. It’s worth a try maybe. There’s loads. Green Man’s another good one.

Looking back at where you were when you started out, where did you think it would take you?

To be fair, I’ve started reminiscing quite a bit, back to the start, recently. I started at a local acoustic night in Irlam, and then I moved on from there and started getting on some support slots with the local promoters. Some don’t exist any more, some are still going. And I got kind of sick of it, because with big gigs you have to go in quite early — you have to load in at half three, four, soundcheck at five and you might not be on stage til nine. And as as soloist at the age of 17, 18, doing that… it was getting a bit boring. I knew I was going to be opening the show and that there wouldn’t be anyone there.

So I kind of thought about what I was doing and tried to put more quality into what I was doing than quantity. And that’s basically where it’s come from now with the band. I brought the band on board to do the single of Stars last year, just to get the bigger sound, and since then we’ve done a few gigs and quite a few festivals. And the game plan has changed again. You’ll see from January next year, things have changed again. And I put that down to my learning, things I’ve learned from uni, from other musicians, from watching things, reading things.

I never expected to be headlining a venue, ever. That was my dream. I remember — I know everyone says this — but I remember standing in my bedroom when I was younger, and I used to sing all the time, every night. This was before I could play the guitar. I used to sing along to Grease. I used to dream of just being in front of an audience but then I thought “I’ll never be able to do that” because I was so nervous.

When I did start eventually getting up onstage and signing I couldn’t speak in between songs. I was very very nervous. My mum would vouch for that. She’d sit me down after gigs and say “you need to start talking a bit more ‘cos you’re a bit wooden”. And it’s just kinda stemmed from there. My mum and dad are big influences on my stage presence and my confidence and how professionally I deal with things. They’ve helped me a lot. I’d say my mum is my non-musical manager. She kind of talks me through everything.

I never thought I’d end up where I am now, going from a local acoustic night to headlining Academy 3 back in April. That was crazy. I still can’t believe that.

Jess Kemp will be performing as part of Set2Go Live! at Sound Control, Manchester on Sunday November 6th 2016. Her debut EP, Camden is now available to buy on iTunes and Google Play, and can be streamed on Spotify.

Graham Binns

Graham Binns is a music photographer, writer and artist, as well as being the co-founder and chief beard-keeper of Are We Alive?.