(Interview initially conducted September 11, 2015)
Love and mercy and forgiveness and “all that good stuff.” That’s how Chicago “bedroom popper” Jimmy Whispers pegs his particular brand of lo-fi music which compared to Daniel Johnston “hanging out by himself at a beach party.” A quick listen to his sparse but spry 2015 debut Summer in Pain reveals this love and mercy in full. There’s of course “I Love You” where he essentially repeats the title as a mantra over his humming Thomas organ, which he’s had for seven years, and the slight thwacking of drums. Efforts such as “Michael Don’t Cry” somehow manage to find the good stuff too. The track stumbles along with faint percussion and has Whispers offering up a pick-me up to someone even as own his head seems to be down. “Summer in Pain,” where Whispers croons into his iPhone and plays gentle chords, wades through “beer and piss” and an “Apocalypse” but is resilient enough to not drown in all of that bullshit. To continue you’d have to have at least have a smidgen of faith in those concepts up above, a compulsion toward the light even when darkness is more prevalent.
In conversation with Whispers this bright affability comes through. He giggles between answers, in part to keep himself entertained on the solo drive to the night’s gig in Bloomington, Illinois but also out of sheer amusement with how’s his music’s been compared to Frank Sinatra by “someone’s mom.” “No fedora though,” he prefers a ball cap with “Chicago” written in a 70s font. The Sinatra comparison is one that has him genuinely stoked. And that excitement bleeds into everything. He insists that “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong, a song he occasionally plays at his live shows, is “the best.” At a handful of those same shows Whispers crams into a red dress and preens around on stage as the “song and dance man” he dubs himself. It originally started as more of an entertaining provocation, but Whispers admits “Now I just like wearing dresses. I leave a couple of dresses at my house all the time.”
Two years ago Whispers didn’t have the same kind of time to enjoy a luxuriant red dress. He was driving around “drunken idiots” in his white Honda Civic for Uber, working 12 hours shifts on occasion. He was recording songs, nearly 500 of them from his recollection, into an iPhone and promoting them with street art and zines without any idea when they might come out. In the past year he opened for heroes such as Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink. “It took me a minute not to be starstruck talking to R. Stevie” he fondly remembers. Over the summer at Pitchfork Music Festival in his native Chicago, he crowd surfed, danced and mock-executed his way to one of the standout sets of the weekend. He recently traveled to Europe for the first time and played in Holland, France, England, Sweden and Denmark. Now he’s rocking the heartland, having a drink or two backstage and doing pushups to prep for the shows. In between there’s the long stretches of road that make up this “Midwest driving shit.” At most he can hope to see a twister while he’s out on the highway. “Maybe I’ll catch one,” he gleefully imagines. Even if bad weather hits, Whispers places it as part of the good stuff.
Those giggles and laughs sometimes paper over a certain seriousness though. “Everyday something creeps into my mind and tries to mess me up,” he responds to when he’s felt distanced from his musical dreams. “It’s constant revaluation and affirmation.” “I wanna change the way I feel tonight,” is how he puts it in “Pain in My Love,” a highlight of his debut record as recorded by a guilt-plagued calliope player. When he’s not on wax he enacts that change by “Thinking where I was a couple of months before and every day’s getting better, things get better all of the time.”