COVER STORY | IAN SWEET Holds On to Herself
Jilian Medford talks quitting her day job, savoring trust between collaborators, learning to separate herself from her on-stage persona and her recent album, Sucker.Photo by Shervin Lainez Music Features IAN SWEET
Not even two minutes into our Zoom call, Jilian Medford is quick to explain how much of her weekend was punctuated by her throwing up a lot. She’d spent most of it filming the music video for her single “Smoking Again,” which features a double-life portrayed across split-screens—the left side is dominated by a home-bound Medford who’s going through it and giving a copious amount of fuck yous to the Surgeon General, while the right side is populated by a more motivated version of herself. By her own admission, Medford was ripping cigs for pretty much the entire shoot—to the point that it made her sick beyond comprehension and second-guessing whether or not she’d even keep up with the habit when it was all over and done with. “I can’t even think about having a cigarette,” she says, while sitting at a table in the very kitchen the “Smoking Again” video was filmed in. “I think I’m done. I think I quit.” No need for hypnosis or nicotine patches. The tried and true way is to make a music video and chain-smoke yourself into a day-long stomach ache. I ask Medford if anyone had considered using the prop cigarettes like they do in movies. “Nobody thought of that,” she responds. “Instead, it was smoking a whole pack within 10 minutes. And that was not cool.”
Though the aftermath was unglamorous, what came of it was an intimate visual paired with one of the year’s best songs. “Smoking Again,” to me, is the quintessential heartbreak anthem of 2023—delivered via a sticky-sweet, catchy melody that is as propulsively gentle as its lyrics. It’s the cornerstone of Sucker, Medford’s latest offering under her beloved IAN SWEET moniker. The work is sublime for its incomparable poetics of devotion and separation, a benchmark of glossy bedroom synths and crushing guitars. Colossal hooks that hurt so good fall into each other, as Medford’s singing grows larger-than-life and flirt with the grey area between noise-pop and club bangers.
When Medford put out her last IAN SWEET album, Show Me How You Disappear, in 2021, she was still working a full-time day job as a music supervisor for a company that makes movie and TV trailers. Last October, she finally quit so she could devote herself to and finish Sucker. But the decision to leave income on the table hasn’t necessarily been smooth-sailing for Medford. “Damn, I do miss having that stability, but it was really important for me to quit and fully focus on making [Sucker] and put everything into it,” she says. “But, it’s really tough to make money and survive as a musician. And it’s the only thing I want to do, it’s all I care about. But, yeah, is anybody hiring?”
In 2021, her work gig was still remote because of the pandemic, and it allowed her to take the job on the road with her whenever she was touring. But that, inevitably, became less and less practical. “They were really supportive of my music,” Medford adds. “I was good at it. I would answer all of the emails, be on all the calls. I’d be super hands-on. But, then, I would get calls during soundcheck being like ‘Can you hop on this brief right now? We need to get this over to the client.’ I would go off-stage and immediately be on a Zoom meeting.” That set-up worked for a few tours, but once Medford hit a breaking point—where she would be playing shows in Europe and the time-difference forced her to stay up late and work backstage after performing—she packed it up.
IAN SWEET began as a solo project called IAN for Medford when she was at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she discovered DIY scenes for the first time and started booking her own tours. It was after leaving Massachusetts for New York City that she would record her debut album, Shapeshifter, in 2016 and, just a few months later, canned her drummer from the band and played an entire Euro tour with Girlpool by herself. That dissolution, which was sparked by her feeling like the musicality had exiled her own artistic and personal autonomy, completely rearranged the algorithm of Medford’s emotional headspace in creative spaces. “After so much reconfiguration of IAN SWEET, I’ve losted a lot of faith in collaborators, which was sad for me—becuase I really loved working with a band dynamic and being able to share ideas with people,” she says. “But I was so traumatized by that experience and felt like, when I was with the other band members, I was young and being taken advantage of. I lost my voice for a bit.”
It wasn’t until recently, when Medford met Alex Craig, that she slowly started to re-capture that band-centric faith in collaboration that she’d lost so many years prior. She was introduced to him through a mutual friend and, together, they wrote the song “Fight” and worked on the 2022 EP Star Stuff. “It just made so much sense that I felt really comfortable,” Medford explains. “I felt really heard and seen. That can be really tough, to go into a room and just share your most intimate thoughts and feelings with someone. It’s like, who does that the first time you meet? Alex just felt like such a safe person to me.” Craig and Medford would co-produce Sucker together, and the joy and trust they have with each other reverberates across the album’s 10 tracks. In fact, there’s one mark of continuity running throughout the project that is unbeknownst to listeners but crucial for Medford:
“What was awesome about making this record is how much I laughed,” she says. “Looking back on writing it, I was laughing all the time. I was happy and we were having fun and it wasn’t so serious. If we messed up, a mistake was the best thing we could have done and it contributed to the beauty of it in the end. I love working with Alex, we spoke our own language—literally, we made up lots of words and things and nobody else really can understand us. I just adore him. I’m a skeptical person, I really have a hard time trusting people. I just knew that, once I had that connection with him, I was like ‘I need to savor this make sure we stick together.’”
Additional production for Sucker was helmed by Isaac Eiger of Strange Ranger, an—according to Melford—“encyclopedia of music.” On their most recent (and now final, after their announced breakup last month) album Pure Music, the band that once went by the name Sioux Falls had found themselves making a tonal shift from indie rock to synth-pop. It was a well-executed pivot, and Eiger and his former bandmates having such trust in each other to be comfortable enough to make that jump was an inspiring moment for Medford. “We played a show together at SXSW in 2014 that was indie rock guitar stuff,” she says. “And then seeing [Isaac] be so inspired by OPN and Aphex Twin, that’s my world, too. I really love meshing guitar sounds with experimental, Brian Eno-like ambient and everything in-between—anything from The Replacements to Björk. We were just all finding new roads and new paths, as we were playing a guitar line and putting new pedals in the mix. That’s what I love so much about the studio process, literally just finding a sound that I’ve never heard before and making it feel familiar. I want to make something that no one’s ever heard before but, at the same time, feels nostalgic. That’s the music I love listening to the most, where you’re like ‘This sounds brand new but, for some reason, I’m so comforted by it and feel like I’ve heard it 100 times.’”
That sentiment is Sucker in a nutshell. Songs like “Your Spit,” “Emergency Contact” and “Hard” are fragments of IAN SWEET that are unprecedentedly beautiful new footsteps for Medford. Her voice evokes the world she builds: chapped lips macking feverishly, car crashes, fucking and fighting with partners, breakups, bad habits and wounds split open physically and emotionally. Sucker is a portrait of optimism wrapped in heartbreak’s clothing. On the surface, Medford has lost parts of herself and is still mining through the devastation. Read between the lines, though, and you’ll be graced with a particularly striking undercurrent of hope and closure. “You cried for the first time in front of me that night, and you said you’ve never felt more alive,” she sings at the end of the record. “Why do you make it so hard?”
Sucker plays around with everything from dream pop to shoegaze, but it never lends itself to any specific genre or sound for too long. Many of these songs feel like exercises where Medford is trying to bend her vocals into as many different shapes as she can atop colorful, pensive arrangements. She’s insistent on, during the recording sessions, tapping into a performance space within herself that she’s never visited before. It’s mood-based for her and, on a song like “Hard,” she recorded the singing late at night with all of the lights off in a huge, open room and seeing what her voice can do.
“We were all getting really, really emotional about it,” Medford says. “We just kept running takes and, every time, I would sing a part differently. I remember Isaac, in the other room, would be like ‘Remember how you sang it last time? I really liked that.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do that again.’ It was impossible, because it was so emotionally charged that I couldn’t do the same thing twice. Those are my favorite vocal takes, when we just let it roll and, every time, something different is coming out of me—depending on that exact ‘zing’ moment that I feel within me. If I’m feeling the emotion of the song, anything could happen. And I’m excited by that. I want to be excited by the things my voice does. I like surprising myself.”
The title track is particularly incredible and epic, as it crawls from a distinctive, slow-paced ballad into an anthemic wall of massive distortion. “I’m on the couch, floor, ceiling; I’m so far from healing,” Medford sings in the chorus. “‘Cause I’m a sucker for the pain and the heartbreak.” It was the first song she, Craig, Eiger and engineer Al Carson worked on when they decamped to a studio in Upstate New York— and they built it around the piano line that ushers in the song’s breakdown and then emerges from its ashes. “I feel like we were trying to top that the rest of the time we were there,” Medford notes. “I was grinning ear-to-ear blasting that back in the studio speakers—because I was like, ‘Hey, this is gonna be good. I feel like this is gonna be something I’m proud of.’” She’s normally someone who is reserved with what she creates and refuses to share the sketches of her albums before they’re finished. But, when she and the guys laid down “Sucker,” she went outside and sent a voice memo to her boyfriend about how excited she was to show him.
The most beautiful part of Sucker, however, is Medford’s ability to craft dance tracks that don’t let go sonically while still boasting a gripping narrative. A song like “Your Spit” was crafted around the “In the backseat on the highway going 105” opening line, and the guitars and drum beat shape around her voice like a club track. It’s a balance that pop musicians don’t often tap into. Even indie artists who take a stab at that realm lose that dimension to their work sometimes. So few records in 2023 have that Animal Collective’s “The Purple Bottle,” break-my-neck-dancing tone while also projecting a narrative throughline that makes you want to sob. But Sucker hits the mark, even if it hasn’t always been an easy flick of the switch for Medford—as she sat on the Show Me How You Disappear song “Sword” for two years before releasing it. “I was like, ‘No one’s gonna like this, this is way too poppy. Oh, my God, I’m embarrassed,’” she says. “And then I put it out and everyone liked it and I was like, ‘What? Are you serious?’ Then, I just started feeling more competent to go in that direction and still write with that intent to feel movement but have something real at its core.”
Two years ago, Show Me How You Disappear arrived like a recovery record. It was cathartic and uncomfortably vulnerable and messy. Writing and recording and performing it took a toll on Medford to the point where, for a good while afterwards, she wasn’t writing at all. “I was doing mundane things, like hanging out with my dog all the time and read—,” she says. “I mean, these are awesome things, but reading a lot and just connecting with myself again, I needed a break from music. It was really heavy, what I had gone through to write those songs—because it was such a survival mechanism for me. That record was made in the mode of ‘do or die,’ like ‘If I don’t write these songs, I’m gonna die,’ basically.” The comedown from Show Me How You Disappear for Medford took a lot of untangling and unwinding from the process for her, where she was taking steps to remove herself from the music because she was so torn up. But that exercise in itself was healthy and therapeutic, allowing her to organically re-emerge with the creativity she needed to not just push the momentum of IAN SWEET forward, but to separate herself from her on-stage life.
“Sucker is a confidence in myself that I had to regain,” Medford adds. “I’m not so enmeshed in it like I was before. I have a healthier perspective with these songs and can see them as IAN SWEET. There’s Jilian and there’s IAN SWEET. On [Show Me How You Disappear], I couldn’t see the difference. It’s really important to be my own person outside of IAN SWEEET. But, I think that there’s a guilt that comes with it. You’re like, ‘No, this is your whole life. This is your everything.’ You can get so wrapped up in the music and the persona and this and that, it’s like ‘I need to be my own person and have a life outside of thinking about my musical project all the time’—because it can just take over.”
Traumatic songwriting has been revered for decades. At face-value, it makes complete sense. Everyone knows exactly what grief and loss and heartache feel like. But there’s something about what record comes after that that really moves me—this sonic personification of how life doesn’t just stop once you’ve conquered the hill; how, miraculously, you have to go back down it. In-between Show Me How You Disappear and Sucker, Medford went through a breakup and you can feel the grips of that wreckage across these songs. Sucker is, at its core, her aftermath album—and it feels grievously familiar. IAN SWEET, as a catalog, is a tome pretty affixed to the unbearably tedious and cyclical arc of life, how we are often living the same stories over and over again. The results and transformations for Medford have been not just emotionally vivid, but musically vivid, too. Having such a strong document of healing and clarity and confidence like Sucker has changed the very DNA of her approach to songwriting.
“There’s so much letting go that’s come with [Sucker] and being like ‘This is everybody else’s now,’” Medford explains. “I still love the songs I’ve written and I, honestly, feel so proud of this body of work—this record—but I want it to be everybody else’s. I want to water-off-a-duck’s-back and let go, like ‘You need to move forward after this and keep growing and seeing the joy in writing music.’ [Show Me How You Disappear] was, truly—of course, I loved writing it, but there wasn’t a lot of joy, and not in necessarily a bad way. I was going through something really, really intense and I’m a healthier, happier person just recognizing my patterns and my behavior and just fucking trying everyday not to be so hard on myself—because, like, what’s the point? I have so many friends, family, everybody. I have a beautiful life but, at the end of the day, it’s just me with myself and I need to cherish what I’ve given myself. I’ve grown comfortable with who I am.”
Given that the music industry—most especially in the indie world—tends to reward grief, there were hurdles and hesitations for Medford when it came to approaching the type of storytelling that is emotional but isn’t the side-effect of a deep wound anymore. It’s not surface-level, but she’s no longer torturing herself for the sake of distancing the songs from some sort of theatrical artifice. But, sometimes, the big suits and record labels want their artists to torture themselves for the sake of resonance or ingenuity. For Medford, it was the conversation between what a story is if an album isn’t soaked to the bone in trauma and baggage—how a one-sheet might get filled out or, really, if lyrical expectations are worth a damn.
“People almost malfunction,” she says. “They’re like, ‘If she’s not going through the most insane thing ever, how can we trust the meaning behind these songs?’ It’s crazy to have to have something terrible happen or something you’ve gone through in order for the songs to have meaning. But, in pop music, nobody’s asking these questions—pop artists aren’t being asked as explicitly to explain the themes and the meaning behind every lyric. I’ll never be that songwriter, really. I have to write songs that have meaning to me. I find it difficult to write something that doesn’t mean something to me, but it’s fucking okay to just be okay. I was feeling kind of confused about what the big story was [on Sucker], and I was grappling with that while we were finishing up the record. I was like, ‘How am I going to angle this towards press? How am I going to get people onboard?’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck? Fuck this, I don’t need to be hurting in order for you to appreciate my music. That’s so lame.’”
In that sense, too, the idea of reclamation holds a big role on Sucker. A lot of us resonate with IAN SWEET because of the vulnerability that Medford has put on record across all of her projects. Whenever she’s spoken about the band’s transformation over the last decade, she’s been upfront about every misstep and triumph she’s fallen into—with a refreshing sense of earnestness about what each next phase holds for her. When you hangout with Medford, you’re not getting an act from her. She’s not shining it on for the sake of routine journalism. From the jump, we were going back and forth like we’ve been friends for years. There’s a certain, familiar warmth to whatever orbit she enters, which makes it all the more frustrating to know that—when she started making music—folks weren’t reciprocating that same kindness.
“I love meeting new people. I’m so fucking friendly. I know these things about myself, that I make friends really easily and I get along with people great,” Medford says. “I’m loving and caring, and I know that, sometimes, that can get me into situations of being overly trusting. In hindsight, I’ve been like, ‘I need to tread a little bit lightly when it comes to my music,’ because this is so fragile and sacred and I need to hold the power.” In her own words, the fallout she had with the first IAN SWEET drummer years ago wrecked her, and it took her a long time to make it back to a place where she felt safe.
“I was afraid I was gonna get lost again and not be able to find my way, if other people were getting involved in the project,” she adds, getting visibly choked up. “I never stop learning from myself and from other people, and I’m constantly inspired to fucking just be better. But I think, for a while, I was confused about who I really wanted to be better for. Was it my family, was it my friends, was it the music industry? Who was I really trying to impress or make feel comfortable? IAN SWEET went from being a band band at the very beginning, when I was really young—and I just got really lost in that and lost my voice. And then, I was trying to do IAN SWEET solo but still needing to have other people’s opinions in order to feel validated. On Show Me How You Disappear, I started really recognizing that it’s just me, and that’s kind of terrifying. But [Sucker], I’m fully comfortable with that. And I feel proud that I’ve gotten to this place and haven’t given up. There could have been so many moments where it was the end, and it makes me emotional—because I’m still here and doing this and this is all I want to do. I’m happy to be alive and doing it; I can say that with clarity: It’s good to be alive.”
I ask Medford how she sees the making of Sucker—and the newfound trust in collaboration that came with it—affecting the way the next phase might go, how the next record might get made. It’s a totally speculative question, but she immediately starts glowing, smiling ear-to-ear. “I’ve got ideas,” she says. “It’s joyous.” She made all of the demos of Sucker during an artist residency at a Catskills-based recording studio called The Outlier Inn. She’d wanted to escape her life in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, where she was living at the time. She took a cross-country road trip with her mom to New York, where she now resides, and it changed her entire life. Medford had never gone and created something alone before, which she calls “setting up a strange obstacle.” She had access to a studio 24 hours a day on 12 acres of land, surrounded by alpacas and chickens. The only other person around was the guy who owned the property and, when he would go south to NYC, Medford would watch his dog and be by herself.
“For some reason, I wasn’t scared at all. I was doing a lot of experimenting, I wasn’t totally sure about lyrical themes, or anything. I wanted to just see what I could accomplish and play guitar as loud as I possibly could and sing as loud as I wanted and see what came out of me. I didn’t leave there with fully fleshed-out songs, but there was intention and feeling and a lot more semantic ideas. I would drink so much wine and just stay in the studio all night. But, I also had to teach myself how to use a lot of synths. It was cool, homeschooling yourself. I’m proud to have done something like that alone without help.”
And that’s the theme of Sucker: Medford being proud of the work she’s made on her own, getting back to herself and remembering why she chose this destiny for herself in the first place. Every time she went into the studio, there was an immediate and deliberate choice made to grow and try new avenues. It’s why this chapter of IAN SWEET is Jilian Medford’s greatest turn yet, and why we get to—in real time, across 40 minutes—watch her grow into the type of musician she intended to become when she started this project at Berklee a decade ago. “You’re a slow dance, a weekend morning,” she sings. “A fight breaks out without warning, and I bet you never lose.” As Sucker concludes, one thing is for sure: IAN SWEET has come out on top.
Watch IAN SWEET perform at the Paste 20th anniversary showcase in Austin in 2022 below.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.