Interview: Jemma Freeman & the Cosmic Something
Music is a Matter of Life and Death
Jemma Freeman talks to Ged Babey for Louder Than War website
Before he reviewed Jemma Freeman and the Cosmic Somethings debut album Ged emailed Jemma for ‘a bit of background’. The replies, which make up this interview are a frank and honest account of difficult life experiences and how music and songwriting pulled them back from the brink and resulted in an astonishing album. Rejected titles for the interview include ‘Jemma Is A Weirdo’ and ‘The Psychedelia of Cognitive Dissonance’. Whatever, it’s an incredible piece about an extraordinary and talented new artist.
(GB) Various people have always said that I ‘think too much’ about music. It’s really just disposable ‘pop music’. A pretty tune, nice voice, words, rhythm and rhyme, interesting melodies and changes. Just ‘music’….Tra-La-la-la. It’s not a deep well of meaning and mystery. It’s not the Only Art That Matters. ‘Yes it is’, I’ve always said. ‘Music is a matter of life and death’.
I quoted Lou Reeds ‘Between Thought and Expression… lies a lifetime’ at the end of my review of Jemma Freemans album because by sheer coincidence they paraphrased what Reed once said. If my music makes one person feel less alone… then I’ve done what I intended.
If you haven’t heard the freshly released debut album ‘Oh Really , What’s That Then? yet, then I hope you want to after reading this. Sections were used in my review, but this is the full unedited text, published with Freeman’s blessing. The title is me quoting myself, not Jemma.
(GB) The band name, ‘The Cosmic Something’? I’m guessing, what some people refer to as ‘God’ or fate/predestination?
(JF) The cosmic something is the idea of a power bigger than ourselves, an undefined force, nature and the universe. I don’t have any specific religion or spirituality I believe strongly in the power of love and nature to heal and guide us. It’s indefinable so it’s sort of an underwhelming title for something truly awesome and lacking tangibility. We are all connected to quote Einstein “Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.”
Do I refer to you as ‘she’ when I’m not using your name?
My pronouns are they/them as I identify as non binary.
I’ve seen you referred to as a Drag King…?
I’m a drag king when I perform, so he or they/them. He’s called Jeff from Barnet…
He has a private Instagram and he is there to help me access the more feminine and delicate emotions I felt embarrassed to access when I presented as female.
You’ve given loads away in previous interviews -your mum died when you were 21 ( I was 14 when mine died, so I know about the indelible mark that leaves no matter what age)-and you were in a controlling relationship which you broke free of (and seems to be the basis for at least two songs on the album?) So I can understand this isn’t just an album of wonky pop songs – it’s self-analysis and deep-seated self-help using the craft and art of song-writing …?
The controlling relationship was 10 years, I was destroyed by the end of it and had to entirely rebuild my life – What’s on your mind is so named because I spent hours on Facebook living what they described as my ‘secret life’. I sought solace in strangers, it was a platform they didn’t access so I could exist as myself. It’s where I re-found my queerness that had always been there but was pushed into the furthest recesses. I escaped by staying away from home more and more at a friend’s, “As the velcro detached so did my devotion” describes how as all tiny hooks he had attached were ripped away. I no longer felt that unblinking loyalty that had caused me to become isolated and a shadow of myself.
Black Rain was written during the dying years of that difficult relationship. I was living in secret, I made connections in my secret separate life as a musician at festivals and gigs. This was written after a chance encounter with a woman at a festival i was never unfaithful but this was the closest I ever came to it. Our lips brushed in a momentary embrace and was as if a decade of repression was vanquished with a strike of lightening that coursed through my body and wouldn’t leave for months. It took a further three years to leave.
Count To Ten is about having EUPD or a personality disorder. It’s about not being able to make healthy relationships and the frustration I feel about that, the fears I have about liking anyone, obsession, limerance and paradoxes. It’s about the laws of attraction and how I fear entering close relationships since having my diagnosis. It’s a warning and a lament. EUPD is often cast in a bad light, people call us manipulative, evil, all kinds of awful things. It’s an illness, it’s not deliberate. It’s the result of years of maladaptation and trauma – it’s painful.
Sorry to hear you lost your mum so young, it changes your perspective entirely from your peers I think. That barrier, or promise of unconditional love torn away too early, left me in a place where I felt and still do feel deeply uncertain about my place in the world.
Helen is a Reptile is focused on suicidal ideation, sleepless nights and obsession. It’s a dumb sounding song, heavy and direct. It’s the result of years of insomnia.
Tasteless is a flippant way of describing the most difficult idea. It’s a suicide note written at a time when I couldn’t tell the person closest to me the extremity of my mental state. It felt tasteless to say, “Hi I’m suicidal”. There was an expectation that I would get ‘better’ but my world seemed hopeless, I’d been bullied at work, had to reapply for my job through restructure and had painted myself into a corner where I didn’t feel like anything was important enough to discuss. This song was written at 5 in the morning after another of a series of entirely sleepless nights. It’s an apology to someone that deserved much better from me but I couldn’t possibly deliver because I was so broken.
It all sounds a bit depressing but my aim is to expose these difficult parts of myself and hopefully create a place where people can feel held momentarily. Where they can give air to those challenging ideas and feel less alone.
I wrote Heaven on a Plate for a close friend who was having a tough time and I struggled to know how to help. I wanted them to feel seen but also I could see the irony of being told that your brave or trying hard. I was also responding to my own experience of having to accept a plate of something you don’t want to swallow.
Was the EUPD a direct/indirect result of the relationship ?
The relationship didn’t cause the illness, I ended up in that negative, co-dependent situation as a result of the illness. Part of it surrounds the idea of not having a strong sense of self. I was malleable and vulnerable.
I think that the EUPD has been with me ever since I remember. I told a school counsellor I thought I had it aged 15 and was told not to be silly, every one gets a bit sad and it’s hard being a teenager. I’d read an article and it resonated so profoundly I was certain it was what was wrong with the way I related to the world. it took 21 years of maladaptative behaviour and almost a complete loss of my sense of self to present as evidence to get a diagnosis, which is a shame. If only I’d been taken seriously to start with I wouldn’t have had to experience half the painful and confusing situations I ended up in not to mention the pain and hurt and bizarre behaviour I displayed to others who were close to me. It’s probably not the only issue to be honest but it’s exhausting navigating the NHS for things like this.
It’s important that your impressions are there, I don’t want the reasons behind the songs to dictate how any one listens to it really. There is always a slight ambiguity in the lyrics and it’s important to say that I write lyrics almost entirely as ad-libs to a guitar part or series of guitar parts I’ve been working on. The way the themes rise to the surface is as a stream of consciousness, taking in words I see in my surroundings (book titles, letters strewn on the floor, phrases half heard from the TV) it’s afterwards I see what I’ve channelled so there is a psychedelic element…it’s all very drifty and indirect.
It seems like you are fully conscious of how your art/music is inextricably-bound with your identity (gender-politically) – because you ‘play with it’ – using ‘Jeff’ – addressing your audience as ‘weirdos’ – do you anticipate that becoming problematic as you become more well-known?
I asked the audience the question “Who’s a weirdo?” and I put my own hand up first, rather than address them as weirdos. I think weirdos reserve the right to self identify, you don’t have to be one and I’m not going to assume the audiences feeling.
In a similar vein to the word queer being reclaimed as a positive identifier I think weirdo can also be used in a positive fashion, I need to make it very clear that being a weirdo doesn’t denote any particular gender identity or sexual preference, it’s a separate classification more to do with feeling like you are on the fringes, that you are an outsider. You could feel like that because of gender or sexuality, but it’s a more open brief in my mind. I ask it before I play the song The Visitor, which is about feeling othered, transitory, on the outside.
It’s a former insult that I now fully resonate with, I am a weirdo, and proud. Asking the audience if they feel like they identify too is a way of showing solidarity, we’re well past the days of mental health, dying your hair, being queer or any other variety of former weirdnesses being seen as taboo, whereas before we might have been called weirdos.
It depends on the room of course but I felt like a feminist punk festival was a relatively safe bet to find like minded folk to side with me, and even if they hadn’t I would not care. If I became well known I think it would be unavoidable that some people might find my presentation on stage offensive, just like the way my off stage every day identity is rejected and found offensive.
I was assaulted three times last year called a dyke, a slag, batty, I’ve been spat at just for being out and on the street and visibly queer. I get preached at and told I’m going to hell on an almost weekly basis. I’m far safer in a glitter beard on a stage, a few people dissing me or questioning my gender identity doesn’t really frighten me. There will always be bigots, it seems inherent that some people just need someone else to kick, the subject of their abuse changes slowly over time but it’s always a moronic and simplistic attitude to attack something just because you fear anything that’s different to you.
Having access to a stage is a privilege and how you use that platform is important. I think being seen as different or weird on a stage is important. Being non binary and in drag is important, you can’t be what you can’t see, if its helpful to other people that I’m there being who I am then that’s great.
I always try and talk to people and share what I can but I’m just one person and it’s far easier to reach more people as a performer than an on an individual level. People like Annie Lennox, Marc Bolan, Brian Molko, Ezra Furman, Skin and Jana Hunter being visible made my existence more bearable and real.
Being visibly queer is the most powerful thing I can do, showing honesty about mental health is a powerful thing I can do. Yes, I am weird, but I’m here and there’s nothing you can do about it and I’m never going to be shamed into being silent.
(GB) Reading that all back, Jemma comes across as ultra-serious and intense. Freeman knows how to have fun though. The Helen Is A Reptile video and Jeff’s appearance in Anarchistwood Fear Is The Mind Killer film, show them having a ball.
When I say ‘Music is a matter of life and death’, what I mean, apart from how serious I take it is, that it is as important as air and water to survival. Jemma Freeman is a survivor and a huge talent, ready to make an entrance on bigger stages… and make an impact in popular culture and art.
Interview by Ged Babey – all content (C) Ged Babey/Jemma Freeman.