Jessica Hottman has long been a chameleon in the world of pop music. She’s also always unapologetically herself and giving of her time, which is why I’ve had the good fortune to interview her over the years. The last time we spoke Hottman’s synth-driven solo project Sun Cycles was gaining traction but then the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. It’s fair to say Hottman isn’t the same person I first interviewed. She will happily tell you herself that she has been transitioning in life and occasionally her music gets a makeover too. That’s a good thing because immersing herself in change has given life to Giveth, a new cinematic, industrial dark-pop project with friend and collaborator Ben Petty (ManDancing). For Hottman, Giveth is a worthy successor to Sun Cycles. Let’s find out more.
Jessica, three years have passed since we last touched base. At the time Sun Cycles was your new solo project. But more recently you stepped back in a collaborated venture with Ben Petty. Tell me how Giveth, your new dark-pop project came to be?
Giveth came into existence during the pandemic. Both Ben and I have separate music projects (Sun Cycles and ManDancing) and we live in the same house – so we had spent a lot of time making music near each other, but had never fully explored making music together. As the days stuck inside stretched on, we found ourselves down in the basement of our house (the music area/laundry room/storage space), jamming together more. One particular day, we were playing ‘Exile’ by Enya (a big inspiration for us) and something subliminally clicked. We both have a love for eerie, brooding, heavy music and I think we subconsciously felt like there was more to be explored in that moment. We casually decided to try writing just one song together, to see where it could go. It all started with our single ‘Spectre of the Wasteland,’ which was born from an old demo Ben trudged up. I heard this demo and wanted to try singing something over it, and adding in layers of synth. Right then and there, our writing process was formed. We didn’t want to put pressure on being a band, but when we listened to the demo for ‘Spectre of the Wasteland,’ our sound seemed to be right there within reach…so we decided to keep going. We ended up writing and releasing our full length album ‘Wasteland’ within a year’s time, and I think that says a lot.
I guess it’s fair to say you took what you started with Sun Cycles and amped it up. Tell me how your passion for more industrial synths and haunting vocals has taken flight further?
Giveth is the darker sibling of Sun Cycles – like the middle child or the black sheep of the family. It’s really the melding of my mind and Ben’s mind. He brings the guitar, bass, drums/percussion, and I layer in the synth, strange sounds, and haunting vocals. To me, it is less about amping up Sun Cycles and more about uncovering this stranger side of myself that has always existed. I remember being on a bus in middle school, hearing Imogen Heap for the first time, letting my mind explode into a million little pieces. Shortly after, I also started getting into heavier metal bands. I loved the wild and angsty release it gave me. What’s sort of comical, is that I think Giveth is somewhere in between Imogen Heap and a metal band. So it makes sense that this is where I find myself today. I’ve always dreamed of being in a dark theatrical project, but I think I’ve been timid or possibly even unsure of how to excavate that piece of myself. I also don’t think I’ve ever found someone that is willing to go there with me fully…until Ben (he’s equally as into haunting music as I am). Ben has also expressed that he’s always wanted to make this style of music, so it’s somewhat serendipitous that we found each other. I also feel that the lengthy time inside and overall uncertainty of life during the pandemic, lead us to uncover Giveth. I guess it’s easier to write dark music in a dark time.
Last year you released your debut album Wasteland. What were the circumstances that you remember best that helped shape the evolution of your sound?
‘Wasteland’ really explores the vast landscape of the human psyche…both through lyrics and through sound layers. It was also largely inspired by the many films we watched during the pandemic – which I believe lead to the record’s cinematic quality. It possibly even reflects what I believe a soundtrack to my life would sound like. Ben and I really wanted to blend these terrifying walls of sound with more traditional pop elements, and to give the music momentum through extensive crescendos and decrescendos. We both love world music, so there are also a lot of these elements mixed into the record (‘Masticate like Lady,’ ‘Down in Ice’ and others). We tried not to box ourselves in or to be too concerned with what things “should sound like.” We just let our creativity run free and if something didn’t end up working, we moved on – but we made an effort to let each idea have its moment in the light. I think this is why the record ended up spanning across multiple genres.
Who are some of your biggest sonic influences that inspired the formation of Giveth?
I’ve already mentioned Enya and Imogen Heap – so I will list some other influences. I’m currently looking at a Spotify playlist we made during the recording process, to help shape the sonic direction of our album. Okay, we’ve got everything from Nine Inch Nails, to Fever Ray, to Chevelle, HEALTH, Warpaint, Portishead, Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, The Birthday Massacre, Katatonia, Clannad, and Yanni.
During the height of the pandemic did you have a go-to place to write and create? What is a typical songwriting process like with you and Ben?
Our basement is the place where we wrote and created most of the ‘Wasteland’ album. It’s a dark and windowless area, and the ceiling is so low in some parts that you have to duck down, so as not to smash your head. We have since moved our studio to the upstairs living room of our house, and this is where our new single ‘Mourning Glory’ was written. Perhaps that’s why it’s a little lighter sounding? (haha) Ben and I have a very back-and-forth writing method. We will take turns starting a demo, working on it for a while, then we will pass it onto the other person, and they will work on it for a while, then they will pass it back, and so on and so forth. We don’t really write together in the same room, but we will occasionally talk things through together during the creation process. I think that having this metaphorical space in our writing process, is what allows us each to create with freedom and without worrying about what the other person is thinking, or trying to force ideas into existence. Maybe we will explore doing things differently down the road, especially now that we are starting to put together a live band and are having regular practices – but for now, this method seems to suit us well. I also want to mention that these songs would not be as polished without the work of our mixing engineer Joel Martin (or Joel Merlin as I call him, since he’s a wizard in the studio). Joel is our super talented, enigmatic, left-field engineer who is always thinking outside of the box and helps to put that finishing touch on each song. He’s also a damn good synth player and he really adds his own layer to each track.
Giveth’s latest offering Mourning Glory. is a great track. Can you elaborate more on the backstory and inspiration behind the track?
Ben began ‘Mourning Glory’ on a vintage Casio keyboard that he found at the thrift store. It’s a song that repeats a lot, like little cycles all connected together. It was fun to explore adding and taking layers away to each little repetition, to give the song movement. I eventually added the vocal melody and lyrics, which I am particularly excited about with this track. Around five years ago I wrote some lyrics on an acoustic guitar about mourning something in the morning. I loved this play on words, and I’ve always wanted to do something with that concept. When I heard the sweet and unsettling keyboard melody, I knew this was the right time and place to use the idea. ‘Mourning Glory’ is about waking up with a crippling anxiety and not wanting to get out of bed. I wanted to personify the idea of “Glory” by turning her into a fictional character that has died. In the song, I am mourning that she no longer exists in the morning for me. It’s a play on words, and ultimately, an honest look at the depression and inevitable dread that I often face.
I can’t help but feel a sense of mystery about Giveth. What does success mean to you as an artist? As a person? Is it a case of you wanting listeners to focus on the music rather than on the musicians behind the music?
Giveth is mysterious. I think fans will start to find out more as we grow, but I suppose we are taking our time more than usual. It’s a slow burn into existence. A lot of our choices have gone against the grain of what we would “normally do” with music releases…simply because we want to try things a little differently. You are correct in saying that the music is at the forefront of our whole operation. It’s the driving force and we will go where it carries us. Of course, we would love to be making money at our endeavor, but at the end of the day, making music that feels like us and uncovering pieces within ourselves is the true success. We are also just having a lot of fun with this project, and we want to find ways to keep that going.
Finally, what are your plans for the near future?
As I mentioned earlier, we are putting together a live band, and we plan to start playing shows soon. We also have a few more singles and a spooky horror music video coming out this year. We are sort of letting the music and the responses to the music dictate our next move – so I’m not entirely sure what the future holds, but I kind of enjoy that uncertainty.
Great interview, Robert, congrats!