Last Wednesday, a bill of Chicago DIY-scene based artists graced Cambridge and packed the Sinclair. Jimmy Whispers, who opened with Ne-Hi for Twin Peaks’ Down In Heaven Tour, drew a delightfully mixed response from the all-ages crowd; teens flocked to the front of the stage early on, seemingly unaware of the incredible personality that would kick off the evening of Chicago-based entertainment.
Whispers released his debut album Summer In Pain last year, a collection of intimate pop songs featuring an electric organ and Jimmy’s vocals. He had been sitting on these tracks for a while and performing under the name Jimmy Whispers for roughly 2 years before releasing the record, an ultra lo-fi affair recorded with the voice memo app on his iPhone. Gaining popularity through word-of-mouth hometown hype, Whispers’ magnetic personality and daring performances quickly attracted the attention of larger artists, including as Ariel Pink, who asked Jimmy to open for a few of his shows last year. Since Summer In Pain’s debut, Jimmy has toured both coasts and Europe twice. He is soon returning for a third tour this summer (Europeans really love Jimmy and his incredibly long microphone cord).
Jimmy performed with his backtracks to allow for him and his microphone to move about the stage of the Sinclair freely. He made the audience feel like they were at the karaoke birthday party of the most unstable girl they knew in early high school. During his set he stripped off his pleated slacks to reveal a mini cut-off floral dress and flirtatiously pranced around the stage singing about never having kissed a girl before. Later, after a particularly sad song, Jimmy wrapped his microphone cord around his neck twice and pulled upward for so long- and with such sincerity- that the timid crowd gasped in horror. Jimmy then sauntered backstage for a while, creating a fascinating and momentary disconnect between his stage presence and his music. His raw and piercingly beautiful voice continued to fill the room with sweet and intimate lyrics, but the performer who seemed to thrive off shocking the young and apprehensive crowd had disappeared.
Jimmy did eventually return back to the stage – after some of the Sinclair’s stage crew members threw their arms up in the air as if to tell us they were clueless as to what was going on. Whispers never once gave any indication that his performance was anything other than entirely sincere and heartfelt. His confrontational performance and interactions with the crowd (like repetitive stage diving into a skeptical audience and slow dancing with show goers to Louis Armstrong moments after his set ended) seemed to have sparked something in all of us. Jimmy Whispers sure is an enigma who one will never quite figure out, but his ability to make us dance, laugh, and maybe cry to an album recorded on an iPhone is no small feat.
Jimmy graciously accepted my request to interview him after his show. Sadly, the original audio recording of our in-person interview was lost, but we were able to talk over the phone a few days later after Jimmy continued to travel up and down the east coast on the rest of his tour. We talked late on a Friday night, after he had taken an 8-hour bus from Pittsburgh (back) to New York to headline a show at Baby’s All Right. We chatted while he sat on the back porch of a house full of friends and musicians in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Davin:Jimmy Whispers… is that your real name?
Jimmy: No, it’s James Cicero. Jimmy Whispers was my nickname since I was a little kid… I was quiet I guess.
D: How do you explain your music to people who haven’t heard it before?
J: I don’t know, I try not to explain shit. I just kind of tell them to come and see for themselves.
D: How long have you been making music for?
J: My whole life, all the time, since I was very young.
D: If you didn’t live in Chicago where would you like to live?
J: Um, well, I’m moving to LA probably for a little bit. I have some shows lined up and I’ll be going back and forth from Chicago in June… so there, I guess.
D: What do you do in Chicago when you’re not touring?
J: I work all the time. It’s a menial job that allows me to take time off when I want. I mostly put up posters for them. Sometimes I exercise (laughs) I was really into running last year… I think I will start doing it again when it gets warm.
D: Does anything stand out as a very special moment that you’ve had on tour?
J: It’s all just crazy.. There are all of these moments all the time where it just feels like a weird dream or something. I could just be looking at some water next to a bay that’s somewhere I don’t live and it feels surreal but I realize that it’s actually happening.
D: You recently toured Europe alone. What was that like; were you ever lonely?
J: Yes and no. I like to force myself to be social with the people I meet along the way but it’s also pretty cool to not have to talk to anyone else or be like ‘where’s this dude, where’s that dude’; you’re just looking out for yourself. It just feels like nice vacations for me. But it’s still so much work because it’s just me… I don’t have a manager or a tour manager… I have to wake myself up to make sure I catch a bus or a train at 6 in the morning or something.
D: What response do you like to have from the audience when you’re performing?
J: I want everyone to feel good and come together and have a shared experience.
D: What is your favorite thing to wear?
J: My goatee
D: Have your family members ever come to see you perform?
J: Yeah, my mom has a bunch of times. She thinks I shouldn’t cross-dress or things like that and she thinks there are things I do that are too crazy; she comments on it but I think she likes it.
D: What were your favorite bands in high school?
J: like uh.. The Cure, and Korn and Dave Matthew Band (laughs).
D: What instruments are recorded on your backing tracks?
J: Summer in Pain was recorded on my iphone with an electric organ that has beats and basslines and stuff built in that you can manipulate.
D: You performed some new songs at your show; can we expect a new album soon?
J: There’s a bunch of new things I’m sitting on that are ready to come out, I’m just waiting on a few things. I also have some collaborations with friends I am working on… It’s a surprise!