Photo by Wei Shi
Dark wood, thickly-bound books, and tufted leather are the building blocks of Gild Hall, where it would all take place. The Shoe’s performance and Consequence of Sound’s interview with the indie pop duo, that is.
Pounding the Pavement
The Shoe’s fourth stop on its five-show Thompson Hotels “Takeover Tour” was comfortable, intimate — fitting for the dynamic between 29-year-old actress Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, Hunger Games) and Lem Jay Ignacio. The two met at a Christmas party in 2008 where they ended up freestyling a gibberish-laden rendition of “Winter Wonderland”. They’ve been making music together ever since, vibing off each other to create mostly improvised songs via mostly impromptu performances.
“We played a lot of crazy places. In a motel room in the bathroom. For hours. Most of the stranger places we’ve played have been for no one. As Jena says, ‘We play for the birds,’” says Ignacio, outfitted in a bright jumpsuit.
Lounging against a cushioned armrest, Malone explains the hotel concept, a slight departure: “I really wanted to be able to find more interior spaces, because obviously you can’t really control the sound,” referencing the pair’s many roadside gigs.
Ignacio continues: “The random spaces thing also parallels how we approach music. We never got together and said, ‘This is a band, and we’ll play clubs or theaters.’ It always paralleled the way that we made music, which was just really spontaneous, freestyle. Just getting together at my house, or making music in the car or on a road trip. So, these stranger, more alternative places that we play work with how we do the whole picture musically and all.”
“The seed that you capture in the freestyle is the mood, the energy. That’s the spark of life,” Malone adds.
Molding the Seed
The Shoe released its debut full-length, I’m Okay, in June, the crafting of which was a refining process. Referring to the album’s songs, Malone explains, “They all started with these spontaneous captured moments, but then to take that and to rewrite it and to make it unique and to make it a voice and to make it a story that I wanted to tell … for me that was the biggest difference.”
Even so, the songs are far from static; they’re ever-changing, breathing entities. “Sometimes ‘Broken Hearted Love Song’ becomes a raucous punk song. And then sometimes it has me on the floor crying,” Malone says.
“Going into our shows, there really are no rules, and there really is no script,” explains Ignacio.
“And sometimes we’ll play it just like the album, because that’s fun, too,” adds Malone.
“That can be surprising for us, too.”
“We’re like, ‘Did we just do that? That’s amazing! We haven’t even rehearsed!’” Malone laughs.
“Oh, that’s so experimental!” exclaims Ignacio, chuckling.
Soul of the Shoe
When it came time to kick off the set, fittingly, it started with an improvised ditty. Malone slid chairs across the floor to standing crowd members, crooning, “Sit down, sit down.” It was an inviting gesture; the vibe became instantly cozy.
Malone was fluid, confident, and uninhibited; she removed her pumps during the very first number.
The second number, “Broken Hearted Love Song”, saw moments of despair and elation. Dancing on the balls of her feet, Malone shook a tambourine, eventually placing it on her head like a crown. She ventured into the crowd, held eye contact for verses, initiating the inhabitants of the small room into her world.
It was an unbridled performance — a liberated one — akin to putting on a show in your parents’ living room as a child. And it was crafted, strategic at the same time. Ignacio intuitively picked up on cues as to where Malone might take a song. She picked up drum sticks, rapping on the hold-all steamer trunk, aka “the shoe,” for which the project is named. Immediately, if not before, Ignacio accommodated her direction, ramping up keys or cushioning a falsetto as it crashed down.
Towards the end of the brief set, Malone asked the crowd for words they associate with New York. Tough, forever, and sweaty — this was one of those fry an egg on the sidewalk days — were the descriptors around which Malone generated a wistful, yet playful tune.
The few technical hiccups, like a prematurely triggered loop, met with Malone’s tinkling laughter and proved humanizing. They actually added to the whimsical DIY charm.
And, according to Ignacio, the unpredictability is the fun of it. “Sometimes we’re just so in sync with the chase. I’m right there to catch her, or I’m right there when she goes up, I go up with her, I go left when she goes up. If she does a spiral, I’m there to hold her musically. Even when we’re not super parallel or super in sync, there’s something cool and fun about that, too. Any sort of chase is fun, whether it’s music or love or life. We wouldn’t chase something if it wasn’t fun. We wouldn’t chase something if we didn’t want to be with that person or go to that place or go to the end of whatever it is.”
Full Q&A with The Shoe:
You’ve gone from playing street corners to living rooms, small venues to now Thompson Hotels. How’d the hotel concept come about?
Jena Malone (JM): We’ve both been so protective about that; we’ve done a lot of freestyling, and it’s so much about being spontaneous and being in the moment. With every show, I want to protect that, to manifest that. Living rooms, rooftops, elevators, motels — whatever it is, that’s always been where we’ve been most excited. And so after this album, that’s where I really wanted to be able to find more interior spaces, because obviously you can’t really control the sound.
Lem Jay Ignacio (LJI): We’ve always done kinda outdoor performances — by the LA river, or a rooftop … in front of a laundromat … you know, just random places in LA, and now in New York.
So, what’s the craziest place you’ve played?
JM: We played a show for no one in front of a building that was upside down. Remember that show, off the 395?
LJI: Yeah, and that same road trip we played a lot of crazy places. In a motel room in the bathroom. For hours. Most of the stranger places we’ve played have been for no one. As Jena says, “We play for the birds.”
JM: Or for strangers.
LJI: We’d just go for hours and press Memo, just like you’re doing on your iPhone.
JM: So, we wanted to find more interior spaces, and I was trying to conceive where, to figure what it was going to be, and I instantly thought of hotels.
LJI: We were actually in New York when we thought of that. We were in one of her hotel rooms, and we thought that it would be great to maybe partner with a hotel.
JM: To explore the entire space. You get a really nice mix of strangers and fans, and people who work here. There’s power, there’s rooms built in. It’s been an incredible tour so far.
LJI: The random spaces thing also parallels how we approach music. We never got together and said, “This is a band, and we’ll play clubs or theaters.” It always paralleled the way that we made music, which was just really spontaneous, freestyle. Just getting together at my house, or making music in the car or on a road trip. So, these stranger, more alternative places that we play work with how we do the whole picture musically and all.
And so for the new album, congrats by the way, you’ve mentioned there’s been a molding process/a refining process because it all starts sort of with this spontaneous jamming. How do the songs change? What does that process look like when you’re refining?
JM: I think it’s different for both of us. We’re always starting with the seed of freestyle. I think that’s because we’ve explored that so intensely throughout our musical friendship; we were both really interested, and the experiment was in the crafting. We both sort of think about structure and what we’re adding musically, but for me it was really more just about writing the lyrics. That’s the difference between freestyling and the songs on the album. Yeah, they all started with these spontaneous, captured moments, but then to take that and to rewrite it and to make it unique and to make it a voice and to make it a story that I wanted to tell … for me that was the biggest difference.
LJI: We didn’t tighten it and craft it and put it on the grid super tightly, but I think moving in that direction production-wise where we would take these songs that we would basically compose and improvise on the spot — those were always recorded. So, when we went in to do the album, it was just kind of refining it 37% — we added a guitar, or we added some layering of the vocals. We’d do some interesting percussion tricks.
So, has the mood and feeling always been the same within these tracks, or does that evolve as the refining process continues?
JM: The seed that you capture in the freestyle is the mood, the energy. That’s the spark of life.
LJI: It doesn’t change that much as we push these songs into the future and record/produce them.
JM: We try to protect that.
LJI: The smell of that seed is always there until the song is finished.
Jena, you’ve discussed the similarities between film and musical performance: nerves, nausea, and then bliss. It sounds kind of exhausting.
JM: It is. It can be exhausting. I’m so tired right now; I’m ready for a nap. You know, it’s also because music performances are so new to me. It’s a little intimidating and terrifying, and there’s a taste of blood in your mouth. But I feel like now that I’m digging in a little bit more, there’s something changing in that nervousness. I mean, there’s always the nerves, but I’m starting to feel much calmer in the presence of that nerve.
And so what separates these two types of performances? What’s the process of summoning the emotions when you’re going on stage to sing? Is that different than getting into a character? Or, when you’re up there, is that the authentic Jena — no character necessary?
JM: Well, they are characters. You write these songs that are time capsules, so it’s kind of like stepping into different facets of you, stories that you want to tell. What’s so fun is that even though the way they exist on the album is this one specific thing when we create them, sometimes “Broken Hearted Love Song” becomes a raucous punk song. And then sometimes it has me on the floor crying.
LJI: When we do them live.
JM: When we perform them live, I really like the idea that you can kind of change the story via the performance. So, with acting, it’s different — you’re working with a script, it’s more contained. The freedom is such a specific moment of freedom, whereas this, there’s so much freedom.
Less parameters …
JM: Yeah, there’s less parameters, but also on this album, I think it’s genuinely more authentically me. I wanted to be as honest as I could. I wanted to tell stories for women, for 16-year-old girls, and I think that you have to start with yourself. You have to say, “Hey, I’ve got bloody knees and bruised elbows, and I’m kind of a strange-looking woman in the morning.”
LJI: You are [laughing]. No, you’re not.
JM: I feel like if you’re able to share your truth, you have the ability to penetrate deeper. So, it is me, but it’s also me channeling these different stories.
LJI: Half our show, too, is truly unrehearsed and improvised. I’m not an actress. I don’t do movies, but going into our shows, there really are no rules, and there really is no script. Sometimes, she’ll want to do a song off the album, but the country song may turn into a punk rock song.
JM: And sometimes we’ll play it just like the album, because that’s fun, too.
LJI: That can be surprising for us, too.
JM: We’re like, “Did we just do that? That’s amazing! We haven’t even rehearsed!” [laughing]
LJI: Oh, that’s so experimental! [laughing]
Going off the whole acting vs. performing thing, do you find it challenging that The Shoe is automatically associated with Jena Malone, the actress? Does it feel constricting? Do you feel like people come in with an idea of what it’s going to be like because of it?
JM: Preconceived notions exist for everything. But I believe in the shelf life of music; I believe in the shelf life of films. The preconceived notions only exist in the now, in the society we live in.
LJI: And maybe that’s the first spark that gets you there. That’s the energy that brings you to the music, but once you’re there, I don’t think you’re sitting there equating it to the movies or to her being a starlet or actress.
JM: In 50 years, a 14-year-old boy is going to pick up this album, and he’s not going to think about the context of who it was. They’re just going to think about the songs. So, the songs exist more than we will exist. We’ll die.
LJI: And it’s interesting having that audience, too, like having her fans at our shows or buying our album.
JM: They’re just so sweet. They’re the sweetest.
LJI: The love of the music becomes something else kind of. It becomes a hybrid love of what Jena does. I think it’s really interesting and special.
JM: We’ve really had such a supportive fan base. I get that there’s preconceived ideas — more I think in the music world, less I think in the film world. People have been openhearted.
Lem Jay, you’ve used the expression “chasing her” … is it hard to keep up?
LJI: [laughter] I’ve used that expression maybe 23,000 times. It really does feel like that for me because of the spontaneity and because of the freestyle. I really have to listen to where she’s going, what’s she’s doing, what she’s singing. It could be a little melodic bit — it could be just two notes, and I’ll start playing that. And no, it’s not hard at all.
JM: That’s the fun, really!
LJI: Yeah, that’s the fun of it. Sometimes we’re just so in sync with the chase. I’m right there to catch her, or I’m right there when she goes up, I go up with her, I go left when she goes up. If she does a spiral, I’m there to hold her musically. Even when we’re not super parallel or super in sync, there’s something cool and fun about that, too. Any sort of chase is fun, whether it’s music or love or life. We wouldn’t chase something if it wasn’t fun. We wouldn’t chase something if we didn’t want to be with that person or go to that place or go to the end of whatever it is — the end of the song. Or the middle, maybe [laughs]. I don’t think I want it to end. And I definitely do that. I’ve used that expression because that’s where I am — when we’re recording, when we’re performing. It’s a cool thing.
After this hotel tour, where would you ideally perform next? What’s next for The Shoe?
LJI: [Laughing] Your apartment!
Come! You guys are invited anytime.
JM: We’re conceiving. Seeds are blooming. This tour is definitely planting really beautiful seeds in my heart to figure out what the next thing is. I really want to work with more teenagers. I want to do a high school tour, or a college tour.
And I want to do something that’s really, not educational, but let’s have a therapeutic heart tour, a lot of girl-to-girl. I want to open it up in a way that allows young women and young men into our process. But I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.
LJI: I love that idea of continuing and never stopping the hotel tour. [Laughter]. As a musician, I’ve played with other acts and other bands and usually you’re in a theater or a club and you have to go to the hotel. I love the idea of playing where I can just go to my room. It’s pretty amazing that everything is encapsulated in one place. We can eat, perform, and sleep under the same roof. [Laughter]
It’s certainly convenient!
JM: And these are really beautiful hotels as well, and everyone’s just been so accommodating and sweet.