“I Just Don’t Churn Out Shit” – Jerskin Fendrix interview

Rob Hakimian catches up with enigmatic pop sensation in waiting Jerskin Fendrix who announces his debut album today; plus we have an exclusive play of his new single, 'A Star Is Born'

New Jerskin Fendrix single, ‘A Star Is Born’

“At great expense I basically cut my bedroom in half and distributed it across the city,” says Jerskin Fendrix by way of explaining his cosy studio. It does literally look like that: if the artist spread his arms out to his full wingspan he’d touch the rugs that hang on opposite walls. Illumination in the cramped space comes from a couple of angle-poise lamps sitting on his small desk, a microphone stand dominates the space while a MIDI keyboard and a guitar perch at the peripheries, a few items of clothing hover in a corner and a heater gives the small space a sauna-like closeness.

Then, of course, there is his bookshelf, stuffed with writings both classic and contemporary, from the complete works of Emily Dickinson to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels via Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise. “These are just the things I would like to read at some point,” he explains, as Gravity’s Rainbow glowers with menace.

They say that you can tell a lot about a person from their book collection, and this assortment certainly reflects the voracious and inexhaustible appetite of Jerskin Fendrix – real name Joscelin Dent-Pooley. The Shropshire-raised producer has already graduated from Cambridge, had a post-modern opera staged at the V&A and inveigled his way into the South London scene centred around Brixton Windmill, where he is seen as a guiding force by the likes of Black Midi and Black Country, New Road.

Fendrix first worked his way onto the stage at the Windmill as part of art-pop act Famous while still at university. He decided to split from the band as he felt that there was no need for the expressive personalities of both he and Jack Merrett in the same group, although they are still in close contact and have been “good influences on each other”. It’s this magnanimous attitude that has earned Fendrix the position of a quasi-godfather of the South London scene. Discussing former tour-mates Black Midi he says, “It was incredibly heartwarming to watch them explode”, while he explains how he supported Black Country, New Road’s leader Isaac Woods through a creative rough patch while in Cambridge – it’s no wonder that the young singer recently described himself as Fendrix’s nephew.

Fendrix speaks with poise, his words rounded with the slight mid-Atlantic laxness that comes with years spent in the company of international peers. These colleagues were in fact the first to adorn him with the Jerskin Fendrix name ("I have weird friends" is all he offers by way of explanation). He grew up in “a very remote place where there was no scene, there was no city that we went out to”, so his musical upbringing cut across genre with a penchant for the likes of Joanna Newsom, James Blake and Bach. Perhaps above all he idolised the collective spirit and style of Odd Future: “They were a big part of my musical education; something to aspire to, not just in terms of musical innovation, but because they had very good in-jokes.”

He welcomes any comparisons between the Windmill collective and the Californian rap posse. (“I think everyone would like that, wouldn’t they?”) Fendrix, Woods and co certainly have in-jokes too, which he claims are “not repeatable”, but he does explain their alternate zodiac, in which 2018 was the ‘Year of Fear’ and 2020 is the ‘Year of the Pear’, because “it feels right; it doesn’t rhyme, but it looks like it does”.

Despite being the eldest of the group, Fendrix has released relatively little music, instead sustaining and raising interest through invigorating tracks and videos released at months-long intervals. It’s little wonder that they have been so spaced out, as he is a perfectionist and takes months to finish a song – which also explains why they all eschew typical pop structure, instead taking the form of patchworks that reflect protracted emotional arcs. Additionally, each one has its own disparate bibliography, for example, recent single ‘Black Hair’ was the product of watching a few films on repeat: 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the 1965 Japanese horror anthology film Kwaidan, and the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus.

Today he is announcing his debut album, Winterreise, due on April 17. The title translates to ‘Winter Journey’ and has a rough narrative around a breakup on a trip to New York during the blizzard of 2017. Although the city is a constant presence through the record – it’s the setting of the cover image, it’s referenced in track titles and further in the lyrics – it’s also a place Fendrix has visited enough to know that he doesn’t like it.

The title Winterreise is also borrowed from an 1828 Schubert song cycle for piano and voice that uses the hyper-romantic poetry of Wilhelm Müller. Fendrix speaks eloquently about his admiration for the work, describing how it charts the mental collapse of the poet, moving from heartbreak into something very surreal and moving by the end. Drawing parallels between the Schubert work and his own, he says: “My Winterreise was the result of starting to write a breakup album and then watching what happens when you work on it for too long, seeing it slowly move into something which is a lot broader and a lot more odd.” Fully aware of the haughty shade all this casts on his music, he then blurts, “It’s very pretentious, isn’t it?”

Fendrix has never hidden his privileged background, and continues to be forthright about the position of his work in the modern world: “Within the context of contemporary arts, it’s very important to recognise where one should speak up and where one should not speak up. I think that for anybody who’s been keeping up to date with any issues over the last few decades, or even the last century, it should be relatively clear when it’s right to do so.”

The space heater seems to bristle as this topic is broached, condensing the atmosphere, but Fendrix, despite wearing two cardigans over his shirt, seems impervious, focusing only on his words. He pauses at length, hand on his chin as ponders carefully how to express his view. “I don’t feel like I’m owed anything or any kind of inherent right to take any position whatsoever,” he explains. “The only way I justify continuing to be a songwriter and a musician is by doing something that will be as good as necessary to justify itself and something which will hopefully positively affect the future momentum of art.”

It seems like a lofty ambition, but he cuts it down to size by summarising: “I just don’t churn out shit.”

Delving further into the contents of Jerskin Fendrix’s Winterreise, and its deeply personal origins, he claims: “I’m looking to be as explicit as possible. I’m looking to convey an idea or an emotional event as truthfully and justly as I can.” Ever self-aware, he also understands the power of the songwriter, and how writing and releasing his version of events is seizing control of the narrative in a way that overrides and potentially negates the feelings of the other party involved.

“There are songs that on the album which if I’d started writing now, I wouldn’t have written,” he admits. “The whole idea of a breakup album is a very violent thing, especially if it’s a very funny breakup album. I generally tend to write songs which probably would be described as funny or playful – that’s also very, very aggressive.”

Nevertheless, he also believes that it’s important to express these feelings as a record of who he was and how his emotions have developed over the three or more years since the events. These songs will be something he will further reflect upon in years to come, holding himself to account for his actions and expressions and using them to chart his development as an artist and person.

His feelings, both emotional and physical, are also expressed through the particular sounds he uses, sometimes taking days to find the perfect texture to reflect his pain. “In writing some of these songs I really didn’t want to settle for anything less than the most specific manifestation of these feelings I could possibly achieve,” he explains. “In the future, I might listen back to it and think, ‘Oh god, why? Why couldn’t you be more subtle about it?’ – but it made sense at the time.”

There’s a tightening effect to the layers of sound Fendrix can sometimes build up to at his most paranoid peaks on Winterreise, which he believes in part was inspired by reading Elias Canetti’s 1935 classic Auto-da-Fé: “There’s only been a couple times I’ve been reading something that felt so claustrophobic and very difficult to go through, and that affected some of the production I think,” he says, before admitting: “I’ve not really helped anyone feel comfortable.”

This attitude is something he sees reflected in the work of German conceptual artist and musician Hanne Darboven, whom he discovered at an exhibit in New York. Although the repetitive nature of Darboven’s work is anathema to Fendrix’s formless musical style, the literary detail and gigantic size of her work is certainly something that connects back to his own.

All of these musical, literary, visual and filmic art references merge in the contorted parcel of sound that is ‘A Star Is Born’, the centrepoint of Winterreise and the single that is released today to announce the record. “It’s a very stupid song,” Fendrix says, which is true, but this silliness is a tool to slice all these weighty influences down to a size that allows them to exist in a pop song without overwhelming it.

“It’s about being massive in a context where I’m not,” he continues. “I think debut albums are always regarded as the first presentation of someone at a gala, it’s like a Bar Mitzvah kind of event when someone that you’ve known for a while releases their debut album, so I think having this stupid grandeur about it made a lot of sense.”

‘A Star Is Born’ also name-checks this online magazine specifically: “I like the fact that you’re covering it,” he admits. “That’s very sweet of you, thank you.”

Thank you Jerskin Fendrix, and mazel tov on the announcement of Winterreise.

Winterreise is released by untitled (recs) on April 17

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today