Collage by Elizabeth Owens
In the spring of 2020, as much of the U.S. began to shut down in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, rural-Virginia-based artist Nancy Grim Kells–aka Spartan Jet-Plex–was laid off from their day job, like so many others. It was a difficult situation, but it also accelerated their work as the facilitator of Grimalkin Records (Gr) and the germination of a new album project.
“I was still writing new songs while I was playing out before the pandemic, but they would just get introduced into my live sets occasionally and during practice,” they say. “Once laid off, I had more time and I put all my focus into Grimalkin and also on trying to make an album that might be similar to what I was hoping my live set would evolve into eventually had the pandemic not happened.”
The result is out now, titled Live–a simple name with a double meaning. Kells chose to release the album on September 13, marking 10 years since the passing of their mother. The lyrics continue Kells’ reflections on a familial bond that has persisted even in death, but they also celebrate the positive changes in Kells’ life since they moved to rural VA back in 2008. That move got Kells involved with local activism and led to the founding of Grimalkin Records.
“Although I was seeking a much more quiet, simple, and solitary life when I left Los Angeles to move here, I not only found that, but I also ironically found a family and group of friends through the work I did organizing in Richmond and through Grimalkin,” says Kells. “That work and those relationships extend far beyond where I actually physically live.”
There’s a certain irony in the structure of the new album as well. Though at its core it’s a more minimal, live arrangement than past Spartan Jet-Plex records, it’s also one of Kells’ most expansive and ambitious bodies of work. Inspired by their physical locale, the digital release includes a bonus series of field recordings from around Kells’ home. Inspired by their Gr relationships, they’re also releasing Live as a visual album.
Kells teamed up with Rafael de Toledo Pedroso, a Gr collective member based in Ponta Grossa, Brazil, to craft the film. It combines footage that Kells shot in Virginia with material recorded by Pedroso and their partner, Pedro Pedrosa.
“We made them as separate videos for each song, but then there’s the final, long version that can be viewed all at once while listening to the album,” says Kells. “The album and video version has a loose story and journey that the listener and viewer can take, if drawn into it. I also from the very start had the intention that it could be used as a visual backdrop if/when playing live again is a thing in the future.”
Featuring lots of warped filters, full of frolicking cats, and draped in the colors of the agender flag, there’s a loose, kaleidoscopic quality to the way it presents Kells’ point of view. “I think the way I put it together lends itself to people reading into the interludes and songs with whatever thoughts happen to be going on in any one listener’s mind when they are taking it in,” they say. “There is a story, but I think it’s vague enough that it can be anyone’s story.”
Kells developed the album’s cover art and the accompanying film poster in collaboration with label mate Elizabeth Owens, who assembled Kells’ family photographs into a collage. It’s one more way of celebrating the community and context behind Live.
“Eli has been my main partner in crime in bringing Gr to life from the very beginning,” they say. “They have been with me from the start and are hugely responsible for how Gr looks online artistically and aesthetically. They created our logo and built our website for us.”
The visual elements give more dimension to an album that already plays as a solid, continuous whole (maybe Kells’ most cohesive work yet). In the process of fleshing out their sparse, acoustic set, they began incorporating interludes made of layered and distorted soap opera samples–specifically drawn to the gothic aesthetic and campy horror of Dark Shadows.
“I listen to a lot of music, but sometimes when I am working on Gr stuff, I just need background noise, so I’ll put on meaningless, dumb TV,” says Kells. “For months the old 60s and 70s Dark Shadows soap was free on streaming, so I would have it on while I was working. Occasionally I would hear these really ridiculous lines that would catch my ear, and so over time, I started recording clips, and that’s how they crept into this album. I really liked the dark and campy aspect. The show is awful for sure–like, incredibly awful–but I do have an affection for soaps in general.”
Part of that ties into Kells’ fond memories of their mother, though neither of them were avid soap viewers. The two lived in separate cities for all of Kells’ adult life, but they would talk daily, and every now and then, the conversation would take a turn.
“We’d be having a serious conversation, or maybe just some regular friendly one, and then one of us would ask the other: ‘have you been keeping up with All My Children these days?’ And then we would laugh and gossip for a short while about dumb soap bullshit. It was fun and funny. Sometimes I miss stupid things like that.”
In keeping with the way Kells would keep Dark Shadows on as background noise while they worked, they aim to create an unconscious impression with the album’s transitions.
“By pulling some things out, chopping them up, and mixing them in with music, I hope to capture the undercurrent of emotions that possibly could be representative of one’s unconscious mind–dreams, nightmares, or something otherworldly. Maybe even deep inside the dark and paranoid crevices of one’s mind–maybe my mind or maybe the listener’s mind.”
Kells kept back three songs from their live set that just didn’t fit the album concept, instead grouping them as a new EP, titled Carry Me To My Grave. The first, “Kill the Greed,” came out via Bandcamp in July. The second, “Shipwreck,” is available today as a video through Grimalkin’s YouTube channel. Filmed in the ruins of an old church and a cemetery near Kells’ home, it’s another product of their collaboration with Pedroso. They decided to release it on the same day as Live because of the way it works as an inverted companion piece.
“Live is very much about celebrating living and my life here in Virginia, while ‘Shipwreck’ is more of a lamentation of how death is the one true certainty in this life,” they say. “It is more about the uneasy and lost feelings I have that are constantly in contrast with the hopefulness that I think you can hear in Live. Rafa helped me create it using footage I took, and rather than it being footage of my yard, cats, and other life surrounding me here in Virginia, it is local footage outside my immediate life.”
The full EP–tentatively slated for Halloween release–will put the last nail in the coffin that is this phase of Kells’ creative output. They say in the future they want to focus more on the folk and blues roots of their sound, sampling old standards alongside clips of the Spartan Jet-Plex songs that take influence from them. You can hear an early example in “Shipwreck,” which samples from Charlie McCoy’s recording of “Candy Man Blues,” giving the Carry Me To My Grave EP its title.
“It’s a song I am obsessed with since I heard it for the first time a few years ago,” says Kells. “‘Shipwreck,’ other songs on Live, and several of my previous albums definitely have been influenced by his music and other folk and blues songs in general. My songs don’t sound like him or any of the folk and blues people that inspire me. It’s more of the feelings and essence or core of his songs and other folk and blues songs.”
Combine that sound with the field recordings and transitions from Live, and you have an idea of what the next project will look like. In the meantime, Kells feels that they accomplished what they set out to do with Live, especially as it pays homage to all the good that’s come from their move to Virginia 12 years ago.
“I sought out life and music in Richmond and online, and everything just sort of came and fit together in ways I never really expected or purposely sought out,” says Kells. “It often feels like I found and created everything I really ever wanted or needed by moving here and through Grimalkin. Best of all, it feels like that keeps growing and evolving. I have a lot of hopes and dreams for what Grimalkin could be and what we can and could accomplish. Sometimes it even feels like I’m finally, truly living and not just surviving.”
Live is available now digitally, on hand-dubbed cassette, and as a limited edition 12″ lathe cut via Grimalkin Records.