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In this stillness

An interview with Tica Douglas

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by sammy maine

Do you ever find yourself seeing something differently for the first time? The beauty of the shadows upon the train tracks you stare at every morning; the immaculate edges of your office building; the flowers starting to bloom in your neighbour’s window box. The first time I heard Tica Douglas’ ‘Joey’, time stood still. It was as if the world around me had become a slow-motion montage of life through naïve eyes, yet with experience behind me, I was able to appreciate this new-found stillness. The world was quiet.

It’s in this stillness that Tica Douglas is able to pick apart the things that unite us all; the anxiety, the butterflies-in-your-stomach, the hope, the despair. “There was a party last night where you used to live / And I wanted to go… but I didn’t” she utters on ‘I Didn’t’, bringing regret to the forefront but turning that regret into a beautiful part of life; commenting on bird songs and sunlight as the song goes on. Tica is a songwriter that will make you appreciate the smaller things.

I first spoke to Tica towards the end of 2013, when her previous record ‘Summer Valentine’ instantly hit me, right in the chest. Thankfully, for me, she stayed in touch and I was lucky enough to talk to her about her new release ‘Joey’. An autobiographical LP that’s as devastating as it is affirming.

‘Joey’ is a devastatingly beautiful record that I think everyone can relate to in some way but for you, it’s very personal. Can you tell me a little bit about growing up? And your experience in being a gender outlier? That must have been really tough.

I was lucky growing up, and that’s a major point of emphasis I want to make. I’ve always felt confusion around my gender. At various points in my life – both past and present – this has been the cause of a deep melancholy that has at times felt defeating.

I was about 5 years old when I told my mom ‘I feel like a boy’ – there is more nuance to my identity than this but hey, I was 5. Anyways, my parents framed this as a special duality, one which ultimately made me bigger and more whole, so despite the sadness stemming from this confusion, my ‘in-betweenness’ ultimately became a great source of joy and confidence for me. I think this is 100 % due to my parents’ framing it as such; that made all the difference, and it’s translated into a wider ability to see bright spots in difficult situations. That’s what the end of the song Joey references and that’s why I’m lucky. Parents: take note.

You’ve said that ‘Joey’ is autobiographical – did writing the songs help you in a cathartic sense? Or did it just pour out of you?

I would say that Joey – the song Joey especially – is a definite catharsis, but it didn’t pour out of me in one sitting. Songs almost never do – maybe 2 or 3 in my whole life but that’s it. The rest have been the result of toiling, editing, imagining what I am trying to say and then, most importantly, making sure that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Before Joey, I would sort of just keep an ongoing journal of thoughts and observations, random lines. I would put them to melody when a melody came, and slowly build them over the course of weeks or months, multiple songs and song parts floating around. I would always know when I had written the last one on an album. In retrospect, the songs on these albums were always very connected to each other, even though no specific concept fuelled them, which makes sense.

I knew I wanted to write this album before I wrote the first song. I knew i wanted it to be called Joey and I knew I wanted it revolve around my gender and how it has directly related to /formed my relationships with and in the world. So I was extra hard on myself regarding each song and whether it was saying what I wanted it to say, whether it was being true to my personal experience and nothing else. I cut a lot of songs, a lot of songs didn’t pass the test.

Some of the songs are brilliantly light-hearted. Do you believe it’s sometimes best to just laugh at difficult situations? Are you able to look back on stuff now and just see the – somewhat – brighter side?

I think this goes back to the idea of me trying to represent my true experience. I’m a pretty joyful person for the most part, despite having regular contact with feelings of confusion, sadness and anxiety, so it didn’t feel like exactly what I was trying to say if i didn’t represent that whole picture. I always feel like if my songs don’t balance lows with highs, they are writing for reaction rather than from experience. It’s much easier for me to write a purely sad song than a song that acknowledges the nuance/paradox of life.

I don’t necessarily think it’s best to laugh at difficult situations, but I do understand how sometimes it feels like there’s nothing else to do. I also think laughter can function as a powerful survival tool. It’s definitely easier to retrospectively see the brighter side of painful situations; the real difficulty is living in such a troubled world and trying to hold on to your joy without denying the trouble.

Did you specifically go with a sparser sound for this record, so people could hone in more on what you were saying?

Yeah, we definitely did. Like I said, I always used to write songs and make bedroom recordings of them, and once I had an album of them, I’d just put them up online. They were terribly recorded – just into my mac speakers on garageband. It’s really funny actually, you can like, hear me hitting the space bar to end the recording on pretty much all of them. Anyways, they were shitty but they had a thing – something about the intimacy and immediacy… I would always miss that intimacy after studio experiences. So with Joey, I was completely clear that I wanted a stripped down immediacy to mark this record, and any accompaniment to be deliberate, and simple.

You’ve also said that you were inspired by Edinburgh. What was it about that place that still resonates with you? And how does Brooklyn compare?

Edinburgh was just a magical place for me. I think it is for a lot of people – I’ve heard it a lot. I feel like it’s a place where people reckon with themselves – I don’t know why – maybe it’s the grey and green starkness, maybe it’s actually magic, maybe I’m just crazy. But for me, I found a community of songwriters and musicians – some of the best I’ve ever met. We would play almost every night at different bars around the city, and when we weren’t gigging we would be passing the guitar back and forth at somebody’s place, workshopping new songs or playing covers. It was like every second was music, like music bootcamp, and it felt like I’d walked into a dream. I ended up staying even after my semester ended, taking time off from school to stay. It’s hard to compare it to Brooklyn, because it’s such a different time in my life. Brooklyn’s obviously much less low key but I’ve found a way to be low key in Brooklyn, so I’m happy.

You worked with Andrew and Ryan again – what’s it like working with those guys? What do they bring to the table?

It’s great working with Andrew and Ryan, as well as the other two musicians who recorded with me – Kyle and Alex. It’s important to incorporate other voices and ideas into the creative process, and to be open. I worked with this exact same team for Summer Valentine – both times I dragged them out of the city to an old barn house not studio-equipped _ so they’re good sports and we just have good chemistry. They’re also brilliant musicians, who manage to really ‘get’ the songs and figure out how to build on them without taking anything from them.

Also a huge shoutout to my girlfriend Gracie, who not only does all my artwork/videos, but also basically kept the ship afloat at pretty much every stage of making this record. It’s good to have someone with you who hears all your neuroses, because then in the moments when decision-making happens, there’s someone to remind you of your mission, which you sometimes forget in the craziness of recording.

How has it gone with self-releasing the record? Were there any major challenges you faced?

Self-releasing is intense. In some ways I love it; it’s fun to conceive of creative ways to roll out a record. It’s just really easy to become super overwhelmed and defeatist by the whole scene. It’s hard not to get desperate and then try to ‘sell’ your music to writers and labels, which never works – or it never has for me. It’s hard to zoom out and remember that you are just sending your music to another person, and all you can do is be polite and say what you mean.

I think I learned that the hard way when I self-released my last album, ‘Summer Valentine’. When I think about some of the emails I wrote! It’s embarrassing! By the end of that cycle, I was figuring out that you just had to find writers you respected, and approach them sincerely. So with ‘Joey’, I was conscious to try to just be straight-forward from the start. I was proud of this record and I thought people might genuinely enjoy it if they had the time to listen to it, so that was my approach.

What’s the reaction been like to ‘Joey’? Have you been surprised by any of the comments or reviews? Have you heard from anyone that you mention in the songs?

The reaction’s been beautiful. I’ve been lucky to have some amazing words written about the record already by writers I really respect, and I’m happy because it’s reaching a lot more people than my previous releases did, which is what I really hoped for. It’s unbelievably nice to have new fans, who care about the music I make.

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Joey is out now.

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