Denton’s Jessica Minshew plays under the moniker Dreamed, a title that is dangerously literal considering the fog and haze that envelops the eight tracks on the artist’s SoundCloud page. The atmospheric recording style employed by Minshew on this solo song-cycle of strikingly beautiful music is only one of her numerous strengths. Indeed the work presented here is so varyingly captivating that it might lead you to the same arrogant conclusion that strikes many an attentive local music observer: “Well, why haven’t I heard of this before?”
After all, there is the oft-referred to drought in new and worthwhile North Texas musical activity lately, and I’ve personally found it hard to find singer-songwriters in particular that are worth championing.
After Old Snack’s Aaron White passed the Denton singer’s work to my old writing partner, Colin Cameron, he forwarded the music to me and told me how good he thought it was — the first time he has done so in what seems like years. I wasn’t expecting much. But I was immediately taken with the songs, especially tracks like “Izumi,” which melds a stirringly emotional vocal performance with electronic beats and keyboard in a way that is better than those indicators usually imply. Whether it’s covered with recording hiss on the multi-tracks or alone with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and reverb, Minshew has a talent for turning misery into melody, mood, and atmosphere that goes beyond the shroud of the home studio recording technique. On tracks like “I Will Make You Mine,” she is doing little more than simply singing alone with a guitar. There is no fancy picking method and a very basic melody. Nonetheless, the song sounds like the lost classic of some songwriting giant before her (take your pick), or maybe even an unearthed piece of an overworked hit-maker — buried treasure hiding in piano benches in Nashville or New York. It is the stuff comprehensive box sets are made of.
Minshew has slightly more modest inspirations when the subject of her songwriting and recording style comes up, mentioning other disciples of lovingly-tampered home recordings, Tobin Sprout, East River Pipe, and R. Stevie Moore. To hear a singer-songwriter mention the helplessly bizarre and impossibly creative R. Stevie Moore over say, Chan Marshall or Iron & Wine, isn’t only music to this interviewer’s ears, but it also goes a long way into giving insight as to what makes Minshew special.
Despite the previous reference to the pop industry, she would disagree with the characterization of being capable of making widely appealing music.
“I have never been able to write a straight out marketable or commercial sounding song, which really frustrated me in the beginning but now it is what I like best about my music,” Minshew said. “It is challenging for most people to listen to, but doesn’t really bother me.”
Considering how well some rough-around-the-edges self-recorded artists have fared lately, that might not be entirely true. Minshew is at least as good or better than some of the local acts she mentioned being a fan of. And I’ll spare the debate, but if you also wonder why you haven’t heard of her before, there are perhaps many reasons for that.
Minshew says she has been playing music since she was a child, introduced in that classic tradition, by way of an influential older sibling
“I would borrow my older brother’s guitar and play the only two chords I knew, and make song-after-song with just that,” she said. “After that I convinced my parents to buy me my own guitar. I never had any musical training, so I just play by ear.”
But it wasn’t until her teen years that she stumbled upon a particular aspect of the creative process to which she was most drawn.
“I didn’t start really writing and recording until I was fourteen when I got my first tape recorder, Minshew remembers. “I think I was more drawn to the recording process.”
Improvising with the limitations of the equipment, she manipulated the spartan setup, saying she “eventually learned to make multiple tracks by using my tape recorder and a boom box.”
“I would record one track of guitar or keyboard and then play that through my stereo while recording a second track and so and so on,” she said. “I really loved how it sounded so warbley and distorted after so many tracks.”
Jessica spent most of those crucial formative years in Denton, before moving to another North American music hub: Portland, Oregon. It was there that she would run across not only other Lone Star ex-pats but also artistic sympathizers who had both previously played in established acts, or eventually would.
“I played a good amount of shows in Portland with a band called Ruby Starfruit. That group was made up of musicians from North Texas and Illinois who migrated to Portland. . . . I was fortunate enough to play music with a large pool of super talented people in Portland.”
True enough, as Minshew worked with everyone from members of Portland pop act Starf***er to the former drummer of Kill Rock Stars act Shaky Hands.
Unfortunately, Minshew tells me she hasn’t played live for nearly two years, which is a real shame considering the quality of work presented on her music page. But perhaps her priorities have understandably been elsewhere.
“I lived in the NW for close to seven years,” she said. “I moved back to Denton last June, after my older brother passed away.”
At the risk of exploiting the tragedy, I didn’t press for details, but I did make sure it was acceptable to mention something that has obviously shaped her current life. She responded thusly: “Feel free to mention whatever you like. The death of my brother is part of who I am now.”
As for pursuing music at this point, Minshew mentions an eventual degree in nursing and says “I am not sure if I will ever play live again.” And surely nobody can blame her for the sentiment. She continued:
“The songs I posted under Dreamed are just skeletons of songs that I have had for years. I just decided to let them see the light of day. All of the songs were influenced by whatever I was going through at the time I recorded them — heartbreak, love, loneliness. Music is an outlet for my emotional letdowns, I guess.”
She is quick to clarify.
“But I don’t think I record negative music. I try to be positive even when things are sucking.”
Image: Art for Jessica Minshew’s “Izumi” single (detail). Artwork by Natalie Phillips (Gouache and acrylic on illustration board).