Thelma Natasha Jacobs talks pathetic love songs, illness, and Lana Del Rey

Photo: Grace Pendleton

The story behind Thelma’s The Only Thing is that it’s a return to music-making after its songwriter, Natasha Jacobs, was doubly diagnosed with both thyroid cancer and a rare joint disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Forced to approach music-making from a new angle, Jacobs shifted her approach, resulting in a striking and unexpected difference between her new album and her much darker debut, 2017’s Thelma. The album shows hues of those maladies, but it isn’t so explicitly “about” them. Its themes are broader: isolation, fantasy, and the horrors of corporeality dominate. A general fog of melancholy too is sustained across an otherwise relatively buoyant, playful album.

I was pleased to talk to Jacobs about the forthcoming album The Only Thing, to be released on February 22, and am happy to share both the delightfully grainy, unkempt video for album opener “Stranger Love” and new single “Sway.” Check them out embedded in the interview below, where Jacobs also talks pathetic love songs, illness, and Lana Del Rey.

I wanted to start by asking about your background in music. It sounds like you might be specifically trained in music?

I didn’t get into playing music until I was in my early 20s. I sang a lot growing up. I’d say that’s the only thing that I’ve been doing my whole life, but actually I had been lightly playing guitar and I took a few piano lessons when I was little, but really I didn’t know how to play an instrument. After I graduated college, I fell off a ladder and was bed-bound for a year and got really into playing guitar and writing songs. I ended up actually going back to school for music and I started guitar lessons around that time too. So since then I’ve gotten a degree in music, but it actually didn’t start until I was in my early 20s.

Somehow your work comes off as coming from someone who had learned music at a very young age.

My bandmates are all very trained musicians, and I feel like I got a pretty good education while I was at Purchase. And I guess, even though I didn’t study music growing up, I was always super into music. So, doing music school, I realized how my ear was already pretty good.

Both of your albums, I feel, are very strongly structured. I was wondering how you personally approach making an album from the writing, arranging, editing of the songs, etc. Do you approach them starting with an overarching concept, or is it working it out as it comes along?

Both records are so different. On the first one, I had been playing those songs solo for a while and then I started playing them with the band, so they really arranged their parts around mine and then we recorded it the exact way we had been playing it already for a year. Whereas this time, I wrote the songs — the band had barely even learned some of them, and I went into the studio, mostly just me and my co-producer Zubin Hensler. I really wanted to iron out the songs and try different things, so these songs — unlike the first record — had many versions, and it was a very different process. I wrote most of these songs with one hand on a keyboard after I had had surgery on my arm, and it was just very simple, focusing on basic chord progressions and melody and adding all the complexities later. Whereas with my last record, all the complexities came as I was writing.

Conceptually, I feel this record I had a lot more intention. I was having a really hard time playing music for a while because of some physical limitations with guitar. So I was just feeling really miserable playing those old songs. They’re pretty dark from the last record, and they really hurt me to play. So this record, even though it has a lot of sad lyrics, I just wanted it to be really fun to play. I feel like I also let that come alive with my vocals. I was a lot more playful, and I was taking on fun characters. I guess I just really wanted to enjoy playing these songs.

Yeah, the themes on the new record are very — I noted there’s loneliness, lack of reciprocation when looking for connection, also things to do with pain and having a body (“Laughter makes my ribs get sore,” “If I knew how to untangle my body like the silver chain the floats to the bottom of my bag…”) — knowing the backstory of the album a bit, it’s this really dense lyrical stuff, but it comes off as such a more playful album than your first one.

Thank you. Yeah, I feel like it’s somehow simultaneously sadder and happier than the last one.

I think on the newer album, your voice sounds much more comfortable in the way you’re singing, almost like it’s where it should be.

I appreciate that so much. I really stopped focusing on sounding good and just focused on capturing the emotion that I wanted.

You were diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Did you have surgery?

I actually didn’t. So, here’s what happened, I don’t think this is written about anywhere.

Do you want it to be?

Oh yeah, I don’t mind it at all. In fact, I want people to know that there are other options for some people, because the treatment for some kinds of thyroid cancer has really changed in recent years. Basically, the location of my tumor was really close to my vocal cords, and because I have Hashimoto’s, which is an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, it makes your thyroid gland kind of really sticky. So, the risk of having my vocal cords effected with surgery, even though they weren’t super high — it was a definite possibility. And I was already struggling so much being able to play guitar that I was really lucky and I caught it early enough that the tumor was small enough and not spreading that, with medication and really close monitoring — constantly getting blood tests and constantly getting ultrasounds and stuff — I actually did not have to have surgery. I mean, I’m still getting monitored, and there’s still a chance it could grow, and if it grows, then I have to get surgery. But basically what they’re realizing about thyroid cancer is that — at least the kind I have — it’s extraordinarily slow growing and some people’s never grow. So I basically opted to live with it rather than risk vocal paralysis.

Oh wow.

Which is kind of a crazy choice, especially because when I first got diagnosed, I saw this one doctor who told me that I had a rare aggressive form that was gonna spread very fast, and I was like “fuck.” But then I decided to get a second opinion, and the second-opinion doctor who’s like the head of the thyroid section at Memorial Sloan told me, “No, I think you actually are able to go this very gentle path if it all works out.” And so I decided to just be optimistic and go with that, and so far it’s worked out.

So they basically just medicate you and shut down your thyroid, because they believe if they shut down your thyroid gland, it won’t provoke the cancer to grow, so I just have like sleeping thyroid basically.

I wouldn’t have even found out I have it if I wasn’t dealing with a lot of physical pain and trying to find out why that was happening and why my neck and my bones hurt so bad, which actually had nothing to do with thyroid cancer. But I found out I had thyroid cancer in the process of finding out I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a really hard-to-diagnose disease of the soft tissues that effects your joints.

You had to see several people to find out you had that too?

Yeah, it took three years.

Oh my god.

But in a way, it’s a blessing, because if it weren’t for that and getting all the imaging, I probably would’ve found out about the thyroid cancer when it got huge.

Yeah, wow, that’s crazy. And so, going back to the music, do you feel either of those things are effecting you when you play today? I know you switched to the keyboard. Are you going to be able to play guitar anymore?

I play it still on a few songs, and today I played it at practice. I’m playing, reluctantly. I learned most of the guitar songs on synth, so if I’m having a rough time, then I can switch, but it’s still hard. Even just carrying my gear is hard. But it’s definitely a lot better. But, yeah, I hope that one day [playing] guitar can not be so painful, but it is just kind of a huge bummer to play it.

And singing? I guess your voice is okay with it?

Yeah, I saw a speech therapist when it was all going down. My thyroid — because it’s inflamed — definitely effects my voice but it just tires out easily. But besides that, I feel like it’s not super effecting since I didn’t get the surgery.

I read this quote from a Virginia Woolf book you were reading in recovery, and I think this quote was really great, and it helped frame for me a lot of the themes on the album. It was, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us.’” I know you wrote “Take Me To Orlando” based on that, but others, even the first song “Stranger Love,” I felt like that quote worked for those lyrics: “I don’t know you well enough to know an ugly side, and it’s looking like I probably never will.” That sort of theme is looming over it, so I was just wondering how big that book was to the album overall.

Subconsciously, it could’ve been. I probably read that book in the middle of writing the record. Actually come to think of it, the three pathetic love songs — “Take Me to Orlando,” “Stranger Love,” and “Stephen” — were all written after the fact, and those kind of feel like the relevant songs, so subconsciously, I guess probably quite a bit. I hadn’t really thought about it until now. But, yeah, I think after writing “Take Me to Orlando,” I just got really into the idea of writing really pathetic love songs just talking about infatuation and illusion and how lost you can get in it. So I guess it did have quite an impact on those three songs. I forget when it was, and I’m not gonna say who it was, but like a year ago, I read an interview with an artist talking about how love songs can’t be pathetic and how you have to show your strength, and I was like, “What? No, we all get infatuated. We all get vulnerable.” I really just enjoy kind of writing about that and kind of showing how ridiculous it is.

Are there any other books or albums you feel like you have leaned on for the most recent album? Providing a template or a spiritual resonance?

Yeah, this is actually so embarrassing. It’s funny because now, recently, I’ve gotten really into pop music, Top 40 hits, but — except for when I was really young and I was super into that — I just really didn’t listen to pop music for many, many years. And then, I don’t know why, I just became obsessed with Lana Del Rey’s 2017 record Lust For Life. Just fucking obsessed. I just thought it was so funny. I think musically it’s incredible, and it’s just so sugary, but I find her lyrics to be fucking hilarious. They’re good, but she takes on this role — I mean, I don’t know how serious she is — to me, she’s like a caricature of something that one would want to critique, but I was just obsessed with that record, and I feel like somehow that record had an influence on this, which is really funny.

I’m not the kind of person who writes all the time. I kind of write in chunks. I’ll write a song here or there. I think I wrote three songs for this record over the course of a year, and then in a few months I just wrote the rest of it. And during that intense heavy writing period, I honestly wasn’t listening to too much. When I get into intense writing phases, I don’t listen to much music. I find it’s distracting, and it gets in the music too much, but I have to admit that that Lana Del Rey record — I think when I got my stupid Spotify yearly whatever — I had listened to that record for like 48 hours. I was horrified.

That’s amazing. I don’t know if you’ll love this or hate this, but I was just today showing my friend Rebecca the new album, and they said it reminded them of Lana Del Rey a bit.

Oh my god, really honestly that’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever received. It makes me wanna cry. That’s so sweet. That’s so funny. No one has said that. That makes me so happy.

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