Jessica Risker has learned to enjoy playing music onstage, but it’s mostly a means to an end for her. “Being in a band is a necessity for what I actually enjoy most, which is writing songs and recording,” she says. She’s loved listening to and making music for her whole life—she took piano lessons as a child, learned flute and saxophone in school band programs, and taught herself guitar in high school in the late 90s—but it wasn’t till February 2007, when she was 28, that she finally finished a recording of her songs. At that point she’d never played any of that material with a band or at a show—she made an album called My Imaginary Life at home alone as part of that year’s RPM Challenge, a sort of musical equivalent to National Novel Writing Month.
Now 39, Risker maintains a private practice as a therapist in Logan Square, but the well of creativity she tapped with that home-recording project is still flowing. For the past decade she’s moved restlessly from one sound to another, working on her own and with bands—her subsequent recordings include sparse acoustic tunes, full-band pop rock drenched in electronic textures, and music-box lullabies. On May 4 her first formal release under her own name comes out via Texas label Western Vinyl: I See You Among the Stars is her most impressive and assured accomplishment yet. She celebrates the album with a show at the Empty Bottle on May 8.
Jessica Risker, Emily Ritz, Ty Maxon
Tue 5/8, 8:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, $8, $5 in advance, 21+
I See You Among the Stars is tender and delicate, creating a warm, watery, almost womblike space for Risker’s gentle folk pop. Hushed melodies and cooing vocals cascade over clean, arpeggiated acoustic guitar, and Risker’s longtime collaborator Joshua Wentz adds keyboards and electronic enhancements that help push the material into a spacey, reverberant psychedelic zone. The introspective songwriting conjures the spirits of Sibylle Baier, Vashti Bunyan, and Joanna Newsom, and the subtly warped production gives a contemporary feel to Risker’s tunes even as they hark back to the 60s. Her usual melodic generosity is on display, but with more concision and consistency than ever before.
Risker grew up in tiny Archie, Missouri (population 1,028 in the 2010 census), about 50 minutes south of Kansas City, and earned a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 2002 she moved to Chicago, and two years later she graduated from Northwestern’s masters program in counseling psychology. She landed a job as a case manager at the now-defunct REST (Residents for Effective Shelter Transitions), helping connect women to housing and social services. Her love of music didn’t leave her as she began her professional career, but it would take a few more years for her to find an outlet.
A dorm neighbor at Mizzou had given Risker an old MIDI sequencing program called Digital Orchestrator, which fired up her imagination and facilitated her early dabbling in home recording. But it wasn’t till she’d been in Chicago for five years that her experiments produced something concrete. Her brother told her about the RPM Challenge, then in its second year—participants endeavor to write and record an album (defined as at least ten songs or 35 minutes of original material) in the month of February. “Even though I’d always played instruments, that really kicked off the songwriting and recording,” Risker says. At a meeting of Chicago-area RPM Challenge participants, she met Wentz, who’s been a friend and musical partner ever since.
Risker stands behind the material on My Imaginary Life, but she blanches at its chintzy MIDI arrangements (it’s no longer on her Bandcamp page). She recorded her voice and guitar live, but all the other instruments were generated by the software: strings, clarinet, trumpet, drums, bass. “When I compose in a digital sequencer, I tend to have a basic idea for the song, often a melody I’ve found with guitar and singing,” she says. “Then I begin building the song in the program. I just click in the notes in the piano roll, and I can work pretty quickly like that. From there it kind of takes on a life of its own.”
In 2008 Risker began working at the Heartland Alliance, a much larger social-service agency. But she still wanted to learn more about music, so in July of that year she began an internship at Earhole Studios downtown. “They took me in and let me come as often as I wanted to,” she says. “I just sat and helped and learned.” While there she met engineer Matt Harting and producer Adam Wiebe, who joined Risker and Wentz in her first band, Absinthe & the Dirty Floors. (She played guitar, sang, and wrote the songs; Harting played second guitar and bass, Wiebe drums, and Wentz keyboards and electronics.) They gigged steadily from 2009 till 2012, when Harting moved away, and recorded a self-titled album of punchy, tuneful, and rather ordinary pop rock that they released on Bandcamp in 2010.
At the same time, Risker was working on solo material under the name Deadbeat, which she’s since started applying to full-band releases too. She’d moved into a Logan Square basement apartment after a divorce, and she holed up at home to make an acoustic breakup album called One Foot out the Door (self-released in 2009 and later issued on cassette by Athletic Tapes). It presaged the approach she uses on I See You Among the Stars, but the performances are shakier, with wobbly intonation and flubbed guitar notes. The songs have a pop feel similar to that of Absinthe & the Dirty Floors, but they proved that Risker’s melodies could stand on their own.
Risker continued to develop her craft on her own, spending her free hours tinkering with home recordings and hitting open mikes several nights a week at places such as the Gallery Cabaret and Quenchers. (In 2011 she won one of Uncommon Ground’s regular open-mike competitions.) Not long after Harting moved away, Wiebe’s friend Jarrett Hothan replaced him on bass, and they dropped the Absinthe & the Dirty Floors name—that’s when Risker started using Deadbeat for all her work, even stuff with the band.
The earliest Deadbeat group material in 2012 took an experimental, noisy turn, blending samples, synthesizer riffs, electronic beats, and chantlike vocals. Risker had begun immersing herself in the local DIY scene, and she felt energized. “I really loved noise shows—how they felt and sounded. And some of the electronic stuff was really inspiring,” she says. “I was positively inspired by those things, but I was also negatively inspired by what seemed to be a lack of focus sometimes. I wanted to do something with those sounds that felt more thoughtful.” After a couple of rambling digital releases, the Deadbeat group sound began to cohere on the 2016 tape Big Forever (Already Dead). Risker’s pop sensibilities came into alignment with her interest in electronic soundscapes to create a futuristic sound influenced by British band Broadcast.
Not long after Big Forever came out, though, Risker switched gears, and she hasn’t worked much with the band since. She went into private practice as a therapist, and later in 2016 she self-released Soft Moons: Twenty Lullabies, whose brief, delicate melodies she composed using the music software Logic and played using a hand-cranked “music box” kit that uses a long strip of paper punched with a pattern of holes rather than the usual revolving cylinder. “For the lullabies, I usually have just sung a little tune to myself earlier in the day that serves as my starting point,” she says.
Risker funded Soft Moons in part with a 2016 Individual Artists Program grant from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. She’d already received one in 2015, which helped pay for Big Forever, and she won another in 2017 to defray the cost of producing I See You Among the Stars. The lullaby album also attracted the attention of the Lillstreet Art Center, and it invited Risker to teach a children’s class incorporating those songs for its Lil’ Kidstreet program.
Risker began writing the songs on I See You Among the Stars in 2016, and she spent much of 2017 recording them with Wentz and engineer Dave Vettraino (who’s done a lot of work for International Anthem) in Vettraino’s home studio. She started shopping demos last spring, and at the suggestion of Rob Sevier, co-owner of the Numero Group, she approached Western Vinyl in Austin, Texas. Their deal for her new album is her first with a nationally distributed label.
Sevier had seen Risker evolve at DIY shows over the years. “When I saw her style transition into something more stripped-down, it started to connect with me,” he says. “I felt like the songwriting was breaking through some of the trappings of the busier Deadbeat sound (not that I didn’t like the Deadbeat stuff—I did and do). It was really compelling for me, and I wanted to help get it to a bigger audience than the local scene could sustain. Music like this is, and I think should be, mostly local. These songs have been hammered out in front of crowds big and small, and it seems like a document that’s not just about its creator but the physical spaces and people it was created in and for.”
Risker also considers I See You Among the Stars a stripped-down singer-songwriter record, albeit one with what she describes as a “psych-space-folk” sound. “The tradition of a singer and a guitar is something I want to carry on in my own way, and I worked really hard on the balance of the album,” she says. “I want listeners to take away that this a singer-songwriter guitar album, but there’s also spacey, kind of modern ambient noises. Josh and I worked very hard in placing them in just the right amount.”
Risker’s lyrics on the new album also move away from the confessional style of her previous work. “It was written from a space of being a woman at home by myself, going about my day-to-day things and capturing a slice of life, in a domestic sense,” she says. “Just dealing with tasks like cleaning up, doing the dishes, while I’m in a growing relationship and reflecting on that.” She remarried last fall to David Yontz, who’s served as music director for the likes of Second City, iO Chicago, ComedySportz, and the Annoyance; they’d met on the open-mike circuit nearly eight years ago.
Risker doesn’t express her happiness with dull, goopy romantic cliches, thankfully. The observations in her lyrics are the sort of thing that just don’t tend to occur to people wrapped up in emotional trauma or tumult. On “Zero Summer Mind” she lets herself relax into the mundane while pedaling around Logan Square on her bike (“And the car in front of me / Your lights are blinking violently . . . Mind the potholes / Mind the traffic lights / And the rear-view signs”), and on “Shallow Seas” she indulges in a meditation on contentment (“You and I / Are lost in a dream / But there are times / I know you exactly / I love you exactly”).
Risker is planning a summer tour, but after a couple years in acoustic mode she’s itching for a change. “Now that I’ve written a folk album, I’m ready to get back with the band and get noisy,” she says. She’s already written a bunch of songs for a new Deadbeat group album.
“I think she’s ambitious and driven without being a hustler or self-promoter, which is good and bad, of course,” says Sevier. “Everything she does is very unassuming but built on work-intensive approaches. I like that she does kids’ music, electronic music, and whatever she sees fit, whenever she is compelled to make it. She doesn’t need to be wrapped up in an easily marketable package, so isn’t.” v