It’s a warm spring night in 2015. I’m at a house jam in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. In the middle of the session, a young woman named Abby Gurn walks in. She exudes a tough, take-no-shit kind of cool.
Abby — known by her stage name Abby Jeanne — smiles and takes a seat near one of the speakers. She closes her eyes and the music washes over her. It’s not long before she takes out a notebook and appears to enter another dimension.
Later in the night, as if out of nowhere, Abby stands up and jumps on a beat. Her voice is pained, but self-assured. Her poetry and vocal finesse blow me away.
“I was really inspired and excited,” she later recalls. “When I get like that I kind of shut down and start writing. I always keep a journal with me, no matter where I am.”
Those journals have followed Abby all over the globe. She’s traveled far and wide since she decided to make music her life’s work seven years ago. I met Abby at Hi-Fi Cafe in Bay View, where she came of age as a teenager.
A jukebox education
Abby Gurn is a Milwaukee native who grew up on the near north side of town, close to Elm Creative Arts and Roosevelt Middle School, both of which she attended. Her mother, Michelle, is a public school teacher. She introduced Abby to 60s and 70s music, while her father exposed her to 80s music.
“Before I knew what I wanted to do, I was always just dabbling. A little visual art here and music there. I was reading books, then I thought I wanted to write a book. My brain just soaked it all up when I was a kid,” says Abby.
Abby was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as a child. This sparked a fascination with mental illness. She read technical, college level books on mental disorders. She also poured over the writing of William Burroughs, Alan Watts and obscure art. Abby cites the comic books of Scottish writer Grant Morrison as a major influence, particularly the series The Invisibles. Most notably, the community around Hi-Fi Cafe nurtured Abby’s artistic sensibilities.
“There’s so many people who come here. It’s a network of artists and writers and really intelligent people. I can’t tell you how much good music is on the jukebox. Punk rock, old school hip-hop, 80s new wave, 90s grunge.”
One of Abby’s Hi-Fi finds was English guitarist Daniel Ash, known for playing in goth rock band Bauhaus. But Abby swears by his early work with Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets.
As a teenager, Abby taught herself guitar. She began writing and performing original songs at school. Abby recalls being a headstrong and restless student at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. She would attend her art and literature classes, but ditch others. When she was 16, she moved to Georgia to live with her older sister Gretchen, who was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design.
The rebel went down to Georgia
Growing up, Abby’s big sister Gretchen was the ying to her yang.
“She was this glowing, hippie, art prodigy, ego-less person. And I was this, ‘Fuck you,’ cynical, rebellious person. We were total opposites, but the same. Really when it came down to it, love was the biggest thing for us. We just had different ways of expressing it.”
A friend that Abby met at Hi-Fi Cafe moved down to Georgia with her. Gretchen also had a couple other roommates. Their house was a hive of artistic and political activity. They learned of injustice around the globe and were outraged by Scott Walker’s attack on workers back home. Gretchen was often hoping in cars to attend rallies.
“It was this spiral of ideas and information. We were writing music and making art and talking about the revolution. It was all over the place, but it was happening.”
One day Abby woke up at six in the morning and her sister was walking outside. Gretchen began screaming in the middle of the street. “We’re dying!” “People wake up!” Gretchen claimed to have several episodes where she felt energy passing through her and saw connections between her family and the cosmos.
“I couldn’t believe it was really happening, because I had been indulging in all of these ideas, and then I was literally watching them unfold in front of me with my best friend, my sister.”
“My life really changed when that happened. My sister lost her mind overnight, over the world, over politics, over spirituality, over everything. I think she had an overload of information and broke through to the other side in her waking state, without drugs, just with knowledge.”
Gretchen eventually took her own life. Abby was 18 years old. At this point college wasn’t an option. Abby resolved to making music and travel her life. Savannah had taught her to be independent. She hopped in a mini-van and rode it around the country, playing music for whoever would listen.
“She comes to me all the time in my dreams and in my head, but music is how I most feel her with me. When I’m writing and performing. She comes through my voice when I sing. I go away and she’s there. It’s a mystical experience that I can’t really explain.”
Looking back on the night I was introduced to Abby at the house jam, it was as if someone else was with Abby while she was listening to the music and writing, and then again when she was performing.
At age 14, Abby almost joined a touring Broadway company. The eight year contract would have taken her all over the country. While she may have turned down the offer, she ended up spending those years on the road anyways, as Gretchen’s death sent Abby on a nomadic journey of self-discovery.
The nomad builds a home
Following her odyssey across America, Abby decided to venture overseas. As a teenager, she did an internship with the Skylight Opera Theater in London, England. Abby reconnected with her host brother for her European adventure.
In Europe, Abby got by doing odd jobs, working at hostels, hopping trains, staying in squats, all the while playing music on the streets. Her favorite place was Naples, Italy, one of the poorest cities in Europe.
“When you’re in that travel lifestyle and getting by in that magical world where you have nothing, then you have everything, then you have nothing, it just keeps coming and coming, and you think you can do it forever.”
But one day while living in Europe, Abby received an email from her mother. Michelle had gone through a divorce, lost her eldest daughter, and was about to lose her house.
“She basically lost everything she had worked her whole life for, it was just crumbling in front of her.”
It was then that Abby decided to move back home and help her mother rebuild her life. Using money she had made working in Europe, Abby bought a foreclosed home on the lake in Cudahy. With the help of her mother and friends — plus YouTube tutorial videos — Abby refurbished the duplex. Her mother now lives on one floor and Abby has a home base on the other, complete with a recording studio, library and art space.
“It’s like the best thing that’s ever happened to me, because now I own property and I have a recording studio. I can leave and rent it out to my friends.”
Upon her return, Abby dived into the Milwaukee music scene. She sang with New Age Narcissism at a few shows in 2015 and joined the jazz/R&B/hip-hop/funk supergroup Foreign Goods. After a number of high profile gigs with Foreign Goods, Abby eventually left the group to focus on her solo project.
“It was hard for me to leave Foreign Goods. All those people are awesome and everything about my time in that group was fun, especially the creative process.”
Into the spotlight
Abby Jeanne’s debut record, Rebel Love, is the culmination of her musical journey thus far. While it was difficult for her to give up the nomadic lifestyle, rooting herself in Milwaukee gave Abby the space and time to create her heartfelt 10-track debut.
The songs may have been written in various corners of the globe, but the production on Rebel Love was meticulously crafted in her home studio on Lake Michigan. Abby’s attention to detail comes across on Rebel Love, which was delayed several months. The opening track — “Pisces” — is a poignant and heartbreaking homage to her sister Gretchen.
“Right now I feel that a lot of my music is whining, like I’m crying about my life. ‘Boo hoo, this person hurt me.’ ‘Boo hoo, I’ve experienced death.’ But that’s just the beginning. I feel like every artist has to get out their complaints before they can actually start to change what they want to change.”
“I’m still expressing and I’m still healing. I know I have a lot of work to do. But somehow I want to morph the truth about mental health with my music and help people who have experienced these things, death, loss and prophetic experiences. I want to be there somehow with my music to support it, encourage it and help nurture people.”
Once Abby put the finishing touches on Rebel Love, she couldn’t help but get out of town. In early 2017, she traveled through India with her good friend and guitar player Palmer Shah, who has roots in the country. The journey gave her a renewed perspective on our shared humanity and the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone.
“When I’m being my truest self or when I’m making the biggest impact is when I let go of this idea of security, comfort and structured reality. It’s when I let destiny, dharma, or whatever you want to call it, take the lead.”
While music has been the through line in the last decade of Abby’s life, making it her career hasn’t always been easy.
“I had spurts of paranoia where I thought music was going to make me sell my soul. But it was a lie. I’m just agreeing to this love and what I’m supposed to being doing. It took me a long time to say ‘Yes’ to music. Eventually, you have to come to terms with who you are.”
For now, Abby hopes to tour around the Midwest behind the new record and eventually take it to Europe. Her hope is that by the time that cycle is complete she’ll have material for her next project.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Abby often experiences moments of déjà vu.
“It can be really intense. Sometimes it feels like I’m having an existential crisis. But it’s a reminder that it’s all good, it’s all okay. I am where I’m supposed to be. And it feels good.”
[ IN CONCERT ]
On March 9, Abby Jeanne will perform at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s ‘414 Live’ series, which is free, all-ages, and open to the public. Doors open at 5 p.m., performance at 5:30 p.m.
On March 10, Abby Jeanne will headline a 21+ record release show at Cactus Club with Paper Holland and D’Amato. Doors open at 9 p.m., show begins at 10 p.m. Admission is $10.
[ FULL TRANSCRIPT ]
This warm weather we’re having in October is crazy, makes it hard to think.
Sometimes my brain just gets so frazzled and I turn into a crazy person.
And then in deep winter too, it’s like the opposite, but the same.
Then you’re just losing it half the time. Existential crisis like every other day. Actually happened to me last week after a show, but I was probably just working too hard. My spirit was outside of my body. Too much work at one time.
You may not remember this, but the first time we met was at a jam session at Kiran’s house in late spring 2015.
Oh yeah, I remember, totally.
Cam brought you over and I don’t think a lot of people knew who you were at that point…
Yeah, I had just moved back from Europe at that point.
Where in Europe were you?
I went everywhere. Started in Ireland, then I went to France…
Did you have one of those work visas or were you just traveling?
I didn’t have a work visa, but I did work. I actually overstayed my time there. Luckily I left out of Portugal so they didn’t catch me. For some reason the barriers there are really loose. So I went to France, I lived in Italy for a while in Naples, which is like the poorest city in Europe. That was probably my favorite place. I went to Spain, I went to Portugal, I went to Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, the U.K….
Whereabouts in the U.K.?
Just London and I actually went to Europe when I was 16 with the Skylight Opera Theater on an internship for their TeenWrites program. So I went over there, I had a host brother that lived in a village like an hour away from London, so that’s where I stayed most of the time. And in Ireland I just went to Dublin and a small town 45 minutes away that I can’t remember the name of, but it was really nice being in the country.
The Irish countryside is awesome.
Oh my god, it’s amazing. So good, feels like home there.
After college I got a work visa for the U.K. and lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for six months and traveled around Europe for a few more months. I met a girl from Montreal, lived there off-and-on for three years, doing something similar to what you were doing, coming back to the Midwest, making some money, and then bouncing out.
That’s awesome. It’s such a good experience. I can’t help but live my life like that. Being here for two years is like, “Holy shit. I can’t believe I’ve been here for this long.”
It’s hard to stop living the nomadic lifestyle.
I’m glad I did though because I’ve gotten so much done and I built a house. I came back to Milwaukee and built a house with money I made in Europe, which is crazy. I mean I bought it foreclosed, but I built a studio and a library and an arts studio, so that I could do what I wanted to do here.
Where’s it at?
It’s in Cudahy on the lake. It was so cheap and it’s so great being right on the lake. It’s kind of nuts though because I thought I would be in Europe forever. I was like, “I’m not leaving. I want to live my life here.” Because when you’re in that travel lifestyle and getting by in that magical world where you have nothing, then you have everything, then you have nothing. It just keeps coming and coming, and you think you can do it forever.
There’s beautiful people there, it’s a lifestyle. It’s more easily accessible to get by being broke over there than it is here. But I ended up making more money from saving, and I was living kind of crazy there. I was hopping trains, when I wasn’t working at hostels I was sleeping in squats and random people’s houses. And then my mom emailed me when I was in Europe and told me she was losing her home.
She’s an MPS teacher. She used to work at Roosevelt, now she works at Golda. She was working at an arts school and funding was really poor and everything happened with Scott Walker and she had also gotten a divorce. On top of all of that, in 2011, my sister passed and she was in college going to a really great arts school, Savannah College of Art and Design, and my mom was the one who signed off on her loan. So when my sister passed, which was her senior year of college, my mom had to pay so much money of art school debt.
She basically lost everything she had worked her whole life for, it was just crumbling in front of her. So I had to come back and do something. We found this duplex in Cudahy and I rebuilt the bottom for her, just off YouTube tutorials and asking friends to help me. And then rebuilt the upstairs for myself. Now we live together and I have my art hub and she has a safe place. It’s a really good setup.
At first it was really scary then you remember that life takes care of you. So actually this is like the best thing that’s ever happened to me, because now I own property and I have a recording studio. I can leave and rent it out to my friends. It’s a really good setup. Of course at the time we only had three months to take care of it so I was losing my mind a little bit. But hey, somehow I did it. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. Floors and drywall and all that shit, I did it. It just happened. When you’re under pressure you get it done.
So let’s take it back a little bit. You’ve mentioned that you’ve gone to art schools since you were little. And I remember from the Local/Live interview that you originally wanted to be a visual artist and did some theater. So what were you into and who were you inspired by when you were a kid?
Oh man. So many artists. I was always really inspired by pop art and comics. I really wanted to be an illustrator. Do you know Grant Morrison? He wrote for Batman, that was the most corporate thing he did, but he came out with this comic book called The Invisibles in the early 90s and it was really, really alternative and really smart. This guy is a genius. He references poets and musicians and artists and everything that you can think of that’s affected society in some kind of way. It’s all about magic. And it’s just a really profound comic book when you’re into counterculture, which I was always really into. That comic book changed my life. I felt like I wasn’t alone.
How do you think you got started forming a counterculture perspective?
Well, when I was younger I had an obsession. This is kind of a long story. So I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was diagnosed with A.D.D. I always wanted to do something great, I always had it in my head that I was going to do something really great. I had to do something great. I wanted to be this intense artist. And I got really into mental illness when I was 13 or 14. That’s when I first started stealing books from the library about mental health. I was taking really huge technical books, like college books on mental disorders.
Once I started reading that something changed in my brain. I think I just started becoming more aware of the different structures of what this life actually is. And I was just so interested in it. I was already having profound experiences as a kid, like, you start predicting things or you play games with yourself like, “If I do this today, then this will happen.” So then I started reading about the mind and the power of the mind, and it just became a full blown obsession and it didn’t go away.
By the time I was in high school I was making art all the time. A lot of it was relating my life to the things that I was reading and then thinking about other people who were also thinking these things or experiencing these mental illusions, or disillusions, for that matter. I think that’s where the obsession came from. On top of that then I started getting into alternative reading. Started reading William Burroughs, Alan Watts, getting more into obscure art that is related to mental illness.
That kind of moved itself into spirituality, because it’s all kind of connected. I started with this kind of like dark, “What is this life?” thing, and then reading these really heavy, intense books, and having these profound experiences on my own. When you indulge in all of that, it kind of unfolds in your life. First it starts as a fantasy, where you’re learning about it and then the fantasy turns into your reality. Then it gets intense and you actually have something to create about, because it’s happening to you in that moment.
Anyways, that’s how it all happened. I was young. It’s interesting even to me now wondering how I got into stuff. I don’t know. It just kind of came to me. The craziest thing about all of this is that it became a full blown obsession, I was correlating it with my art, and in high school I started skipping school a lot. I would go to my art classes or my literature classes because I loved to read, and kind of ditched out on everything else. Economics? Fuck that. (Laughs)
They have econ classes at Arts?
They did. I wouldn’t say they were the best, maybe that’s why I skipped them. I thought I was smarter than everyone else, so I was like, “I’m gonna go do something.” And then I started meeting people here at Hi-Fi. I started coming here a lot. Some of my best friends I met here when I was young. People who were way older than me, we were all kind of in the same boat, we were thinking alike.
It’s weird because this is a business, but it’s also kind of like a collective. There’s so many people who come here. It’s a network of artists and writers and really intelligent people. At least for me, it completely changed my life. Anyways, when I moved to Georgia I was still figuring out what I wanted to do.
You were 16 at the time?
Yeah. I wanted to be an artist and my sister was living there. I was always an independent person and I was always kind of allowed to be independent. I had a crazy family growing up. My mom was a teacher, but is also kind of a hippie baby boomer. And my dad is a crazy gay theater man. I just had a really weird upbringing. I had a hippie mom, a gay dad, they were still together. I was indulging in art and I was allowed to express myself and do pretty much what I wanted to do.
What kind of music were you exposed to as a kid?
Oh my god. So much music. Like from my parents, a lot of 60s and 70s music from my mom. My dad played a lot of 80s music. But when I started coming here, which is when I was like 13, that’s when I really got into music. Because one, this is Hi-Fi Cafe, and I can’t even tell you how much good music is on the jukebox. I got really into punk rock music here. I got really into old school hip-hop when I was 13 or 14. Even younger than that, I think I was 12. I thought it was so cool. 80s new wave music. 90s grunge music. Pretty much everything up until the early 2000s, which wasn’t even really a thing for me when I was young. I started collecting records. I gained a lot of weird hobbies when I was kid. Collecting books, collecting records, collecting comics. I’m such a nerd.
And when did you start performing?
Well, I started performing when I was a kid. Actually, I was almost on Broadway. This is kind of a weird story. My dad, who was really into theater, he always kind of pushed me into theater. I was always kind of bitter about it because my sister was always an amazing art prodigy. I swear to god, she came out of the womb drawing realism or something. She was so good. She could sit there and draw something perfectly.
And that’s what she went to school for in Savannah?
Yep, for art. And she was a visual artist her whole life. Even when she was a kid, she knew that’s what she was going to do. But I was always kind of in flux. I wanted to be a visual artist but my dad was a theater guy so he exposed me to that world when I was a kid. He did a lot of community theater so I would always go into the shows. He would find me a part. When I was at Elm and Roosevelt I did a lot of theater there.
And when I was 14, my dad pulled me out of class one day and was like, “Just come with me.” All of a sudden we were in the car for two hours and we end up in Chicago and he gives me some sheet music and says you’re going to sing this. I’m like, “What the fuck is going on? You didn’t even tell me what we were doing.” Then I find out that we’re going to an audition for Hairspray the Musical, for the touring Broadway company. I actually got into a fight that day with my dad.
I mean, I knew I was good at it and I knew I could sing or whatever. I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway because we were there. So we did it and then after they eliminated people I was one of the final four or five people and they said they were sending us to New York City. So they gave me a plane ticket and I flew to New York with my dad and then they offered me a role.
The role was to be an under-under study for the lead character, Tracy Turnblad. I would have had to tour with this company for 8 years, it was an 8 year contract, and I would rarely get to perform. And it would be at the end of my high school years so I would have to be doing high school on the road and not being able to decide what I wanted to do after high school. So I declined the offer, because I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to want to do in three years, don’t make me do this!” I’m glad I did that, because I don’t think I would want to be there right now.
That’s intense. I can’t believe they offer those contracts to kids.
I know! The theater industry is kind of weird. And I don’t like to act. Even if I’m in a formal setting I get annoyed. It’s hard for me to pretend or whatever. Even if it’s just a normal thing. I’m too rebellious for any kind of authority or any kind of structure like that. I get to say what I’m doing. So acting just couldn’t work. I like dramatics and I like drama in the sense of emotional portrayal, but musical theater I just couldn’t do.
Your music has a lot of emotional weight that comes across.
When did you start writing original stuff?
I started writing when I was about 15, officially writing songs. I performed at school with my guitar.
Did you teach yourself guitar?
Yeah, I taught myself all the instruments I play.
What other instruments do you play?
I play guitar and piano, a little bit of drums, but very poorly. A little bit of banjo, pretty poorly. I can play bass. But yeah, I was never actually trained in any of those things, I just wanted to learn them. I was kind of obsessed with learning in general. Before I knew what I wanted to do, I was always just dabbling. A little art here and music there. I was reading books, then I thought I wanted to write a book. My brain just soaked it all up when I was a kid.
Did your distaste for institutions and your love of learning sort of come into conflict when it was time to go to college?
A little bit, and that was kind of the reason I just fled to Georgia. Because my sister, who is three years older than me, she was there. She was my best, best, best friend. We were direct opposites. She was this glowing, hippie, art prodigy, ego-less person. And I was this “Fuck you!”, cynical, rebellious person. We were total opposites, but the same. Really when it came down to it, love was the biggest thing for us. We just had different ways of expressing that.
Even our art was different. My music was always like, “Rahhh!” She played music too, she was a cellist and guitar, it was very light and beautiful. Her art was so perfect and mine was scribbles. So I moved to Georgia to be with her and she was in school too so I thought, “Maybe I’ll try this.” I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to go to college. I told my mom that I was just going to take a year off and then figure it out. And you know how parents are. They might be like, “Okay, just one year and then you gotta figure it out.” I’m like, “Nope, that’s not happening.”
The reason it didn’t happen is that when I was in Georgia I learned a lot about being on your own and being independent, survival in general. I mean, I was always really independent and kind of risky. But when you’re actually on your own and don’t have any money that’s when you gotta figure it out. So I got there, I learned a lot. Aside from that, the city, which was Savannah, just kind of changed my world.
As I was telling you before, I got really into mental illness and spirituality and counterculture and paranormal stuff, everything. And of course I decided to move to the second most haunted city in America, which is Savannah, Georgia. The whole city has been burned down like four times, there’s Indian burial grounds, there’s been wars there, and it has a really crazy reputation for being haunted. And it definitely haunted me. That place was crazy. Lots of weird things happened to me there. And I was really excited but also it was getting very real.
About a year in is when my life really changed, that’s when it started getting serious. We had some roommates too, one of my best friends moved down there with me, who I met here at Hi-Fi. We all had our own things going on, but there were also a lot of things going on politically that we were focused on. There was a lot happening in Wisconsin with Scott Walker. My sister was leaving Savannah and hopping in cars to go to rallies. We wanted to start the revolution at that time.
I mean, the revolution is happening right now and this was 2010, almost seven years ago. We were like, ‘Shit is about to hit the fan! I think shit’s getting real.’ When you’re in the midst of an awakening in a household of like 5 people it feels very real, and you’re together all the time and you’re creating art and you’re thinking about it all the time. It’s really intense. And she was thinking about politics and I was thinking about dimensions, like “What is reality?” It was this spiral of ideas and information. We were writing music and making art and talking about the revolution. It was just all over the place, but it was happening. It felt like it was moving.
One day we woke up and my sister walked outside, it was like six in the morning. I heard her leave the house and I thought, “Where is she going?” And we go outside and she’s just wearing this one t-shirt, nothing else, and she’s looking around and I’m like, “What’s going on?” and she just looks at me and is like, “We have to save the world.” And I was like, “I know Gretch, but what are you doing?”
She’s just kind of freaking out and I’m like, “Gretchen, what are you doing? Get inside, it’s six in the morning.” And she starts walking down the street and she just loses it. She starts screaming in the middle of the street. Like, “We’re dying!” “We need to save the world!” “People wake up!” Literally yelling in the middle of the street. So I’m like, “Okay, something’s not right here.” It was just totally out of her character, one hundred percent.
It kept happening and she was having these episodes where she claimed she was feeling energy passing through her. She could see connections between our family and the cosmos. Everything that I was on that she wasn’t on, because she was always more grounded in reality and I was the one floating around up here and before I knew it, one day, we just woke up and she was the one floating around in space.
The whole mental illness thing is really crazy because I just remembered sitting there like, “Is this real? Is this actually happening to me right now?” I couldn’t believe it was really happening, because I had been indulging in all of these ideas and things and I’m literally watching them unfold in front of me with my best friend, my sister, who doesn’t even know about these things, just watching it happen. Wooo, sorry. I’ve got to take a minute.
It is so fucking crazy dude, oh my god. My life really changed when that happened. My sister lost her mind overnight, over the world, over politics, over spirituality, over everything. She had gotten a new Macbook and I looked at her browser and she had like 50 tiny little tabs open. One of them was about six different religions, then another was mythology and then astrology, then conspiracies, it was all of these things and I think she had a big bang in her head where she had an overload of information and she broke through to the other side in her waking state basically, without drugs, just with knowledge.
Too much knowledge at one time and she just lost it. Then she couldn’t control it and she knew that it had happened. She said she was seeing everything very clearly. I thought maybe she was going on some kind of ego trip until the third day, then it started getting really scary when she was talking about our family and our ancestry. Things that had happened that I’d never known had happened. Things from the past. The scariest part was that we were all in it together and we were trying to get the ball rolling with the revolution, so it happened mid those things going on in our household.
None of us really knew what was real and what was not real. It was like everyone was tripping for four days. We were like “Yeah! Yeah, this is happening!” But then we stepped back and were like, “Wait, is this happening? Am I in reality?” So that was really scary.
What ended up happening was she had to drop out of school. I moved back to Milwaukee because I couldn’t handle it, I was so young. She decided she wanted to go to the hospital. They diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but the mental health industry is so messed up. They don’t know. You go in there one day, they take you to the E.R. and they’re like “Sedate her, sedate her!” She was fine, she told them she was having these visions. They were talking to me while we were right next to her as if she wasn’t there. So she starts yelling, “I’m right here!” And they’re like, “She’s crazy.”
I just remember thinking, “Is this real? Why aren’t they listening to her? She’s right there and she’s still a person.” They treated her like she was a child, but she was just being honest. And so then they sedated her and told her she had to go to a psych ward for a few days. Then they tried to put her on drugs and that’s when I saw how little knowledge there is when it comes to the mental health industry and what we’re actually doing for people who have these breakthroughs.
For me personally, after experiencing it all, I now think, after all the research that I’ve done, that what she was talking about was completely legitimate, it’s completely real. I’d say 80% of the things my sister was feeling and hearing and witnessing in her own mind was correct. She told me about race wars happening, she told me about certain things collapsing in our cities, she told me about so many things that I’ve watched happen over the past 7 years, one after the other. How could you not think that’s prophetic when it’s a direct experience of what’s happening to you. It’s funny because they asked me about magic at Local/Live and I said, “Yes, I do believe in magic because I’ve watched it happen.”
Eventually she came back to Milwaukee and she couldn’t handle it anymore. She was having these prophetic dreams and then she would go to the hospital and they would tell her that she was crazy and they would give her more drugs. She knew it was fucked and at the end she told me, “My spirit is somewhere floating around, I’m not the same person.” She lost all ability to draw, it was crazy. She couldn’t draw anything. And then her art actually started looking like my art. It was just the biggest trip for me.
She couldn’t handle it anymore and she told me, she said, “Abby, I think I’ve figured it out.” I said, “What?” And she said, “How would you feel if I was not here anymore?” And I just started crying and said, “No, no, no, don’t tell me you’re going to do that.” And she said, “I figured it out.” And she told me, “The thing I had before this happened to me was some kind of pure love,” which was true, her ego was very low. Mine was skyrocketing, but hers was practically non-existent. She was like some kind of celestial being. I don’t know what she was, but she said, “I figured it out. I had this love, this unconditional love, and now I’m witnessing my own unconditional love and now I think I have to die to expand this love.”
I was like, “What are you talking about?” But then it made sense to me. She wants to leave here, she wants to leave her energy behind, she wants to get outside of her physical body so that the bliss and the joy and the love that she has can explode into the universe. But naturally, I didn’t want her to do that. I didn’t want her to kill herself because she was my best friend. I was like, “I need you here. We have a million things to do. We have to finish what we started.” But for her that was finishing what she started.
Two weeks later she told me she wasn’t going to do it, but she ended up doing it anyway. She left a huge letter about th world, her prophetic dreams and the things that were going to happen. She told me about magic, she told me about love, she told me about sacrifice, that she was sacrificing herself for the sake of love. Just this huge letter. “This is what I’m doing, it’s not about depression. It’s about something bigger,” and that was that. After that college was not a thing at all. I was like, “No way.”
How old were you when that happened?
I was 18. I went to Georgia when I was 16 going on 17. I was there for a year and then this happened in the summer after I got back. So is was still really young. And that’s when I was like, “I have to do something about this.” So I started writing songs about it, trying to figure it out. My sister was always better at everything than me. She was an amazing artist, she was a musician, she did everything. She was just fucking great, and I was just a mess.
She comes to me all the time in my dreams and in my head, but music is how I most feel her with me. When I’m writing and performing. She comes through my voice when I sing. I go away and she’s there. It’s a mystical experience that I can’t really explain. But that’s why the music is the biggest thing for me. Right now I feel that a lot of my music is whining, like I’m crying about my life. “Boo hoo, this person hurt me.” “Boo hoo, I’ve experienced death.” But that’s just the beginning.
I feel like every artist has to get out their complaints before they can actually start to change what they want to change. ut somehow I want to morph the truth about mental health with my music and help people who have experienced these things, death, loss and prophetic experiences.
A lot of people are waking up now in general. There’s heightening consciousness. It’s scary for them. I feel like I’ve been well equipped because the past 10 years of my life have been mental training for all of these things that are happening in our society. Not everyone has that. A lot of people are responding like, “Oh my god, how am I seeing this?” or “Why do I feel like something has happened to me in the past?” So I want to be there somehow with my music to support it, encourage it and help nurture people.
In terms of your music being a lot of complaining right now, I think you have to identify the issues you’re trying to transcend before you can transform yourself and transcend those issues.
It’s the natural first step.
And I know that, I’m just very impatient. I just want to help now, but I’m still expressing and I’m still healing. I’m still really young and I know I have a lot of work to do. Sorry that was a huge long story.
It’s okay, that’s what I’m here for.
And the thing with Gretchen too, the thing that reminded me of who I was and also, like I was saying on 91.7, the idea of letting go of security and comfort and this idea of structured reality. Letting go of that to see what comes of it is so important. When I’m being my truest self or when I’m making the biggest impact is when I let go of this idea of security, comfort and structured reality. It’s when I let destiny, dharma, or whatever you want to call it, take the lead.
Because after all of those crazy experiences, when you do that, you can’t go back. You can only surrender to it. And that was the same thing with music. Music was haunting me. I had spurts of paranoia where I thought music was going to make me sell my soul. If I do this I’m not going to be my true self. But it was a lie. I’m just agreeing to this love and what I’m supposed to being doing. It took me a long time to say ‘Yes’ to music.
You didn’t want to make it your thing.
Yeah, I think I was also afraid of being seen. I wanted to be this quiet humble artist, but that’s not who I am. I’m not a meek, quiet artist. I’m actually pretty loud and rebellious and I can’t hide who I am. Eventually, you have to come to terms with who you are. It was hard to come to terms with that, but I’m cool now. I’m happy now.
You are who you are. You gotta take it, you can’t leave it. If you try it’ll just haunt you. And after Gretchen died it was even more apparent. It was this thing crawling all over me. I remember writing a poem questioning if I should get rid of all these other ideals and just give in to this, and my answer on paper was “Yes, I’m giving in to this.” And that was the day that I decided that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Were you playing in Europe when you were living there?
I was yeah, I was performing on the streets. When I went to Europe it was mainly so I could write. I wanted to be away from America one, because I was pissed and actually terrified of America. I wanted to leave. I actually got more terrified when I was in Europe because I realized that all the indoctrination in America stems from Europe, because we’re like Europe’s bastard child. There was a lot of indoctrination in Catholicism, these huge glorious castles of religion. And I was like, “Holy shit, it’s all connected.” So I kind of got crazier when I went over there, but it was all good.
It gave you that space, right?
Oh definitely. I wrote so many songs and I created a network of people and artists and musicians. Those people are some of my best friends that I can always go to and play shows with there. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time but I was creating a network. I just wanted to explore and experience and get out of America, and it was totally worth it. Because now I want to go back to tour and see my friends.
But since you moved back, you had like two years to work on your music and collaborate with people. Tell me about your time with Foreign Goods.
Foreign Goods is awesome. I had the best time with Foreign Goods, I really did. It was hard for me to leave Foreign Goods, because first of all the people are just awesome. Everybody in that group is the shit. They all kind of grew up together too. Sam and I went to Arts. Kellen went to Arts and he knew my sister. Britney knew my sister. We all kind of knew each other and knew each other stories. And then there’s Jay. (Laughs)
I just had such a good time. The reason I left was to focus on my album. All those people are awesome and everything about my time in that group was fun, especially the creative process. It was always good hearts and good people and so much love. Every time we played a show it was fun. Foreign Goods definitely filled this joy that I was looking for in Milwaukee. I’m really happy that I had the experience to be a part of that group and have those people as my friends. They’re so cool. And it’s magical too. Everyone in there is so talented and in terms of the ego, as crazy as Jay Anderson is, it’s really not there when everyone’s creating. And that’s why I think it creates such a magical balance. And that’s why it can be the supergroup that it is, because no one is on stage like, “Now let me do this.” No, we’re doing it together and it’s awesome.
I’m going to miss it for sure. But I had to take this step out so that I could focus on my personal art. That’s the thing, everyone else in Foreign Goods has their solo career or another band. I was the only person who hadn’t gotten to exploit myself in the States in that way yet as an individual artist. I had my EP and a few singles, but I also have all these other songs that have never been released and I really needed to work on that individually. So it was the right decision for sure.
I’m curious about your upcoming trip to India, what are your goals with that trip?
I’m going to India in January with my best friend Palmer Shaw who’s in Ugly Brothers. And he’s actually leaving Ugly Brothers to work on music with me, just temporarily, they’re sorting it out but we’re going there together. And he’s my best friend, so it’s going to be a really personal experience. His family is from India, his dad’s side of the family were born and raised there and came to America, and then his father met his mother, who is like German, I think maybe French. So he has a white mom and an Indian dad and he was born here and he has never gone to India.
So we decided as friends and as music makers that we were going to go there to have an intense experience. Really the reason why we decided to do this is because I had a dream that we were in India and we wrote all this magical music. So I was like, “Hey, let’s go to India.” It was just one of those things. I’ve been here for two years, I’m ready to release this project and I want to have an extreme experience again. I’m ready for another chapter, I’m ready to take on the world again.
Because that’s who I am, I can’t stop it. Who knows what the hell’s going to happen when we’re over there. Then we’re going to write songs while touring. The plan is to go to Europe and tour with the album. Remember I was telling you I have a host brother from that program I did? Well, he went to the Paul McCartney school of music for engineering and producing. He’s a producer now in the U.K. and he does stuff for tons of people. He produces theater shows, he produces television shows, he produces music. So the plan is to go to India, have an experience, write some songs. Come back here and then before we go to Europe I want to do a Midwest tour. Even if that’s for like a month. Then go to Europe, tour it some places there, and then record at the end with my friend in the U.K.
So by the time that whole cycle is done you’ll have another new project?
Exactly, that’s kind of the whole idea. Because I’m at the point now where I just want to keep going. I just want to travel and write and produce. Once you realize you can do all of it, just don’t stop, just keep going, why wouldn’t you?
Last thing I’ll ask you about, which you mentioned during the 91.7 interview, is who is Daniel Ash?
Oh my god, he’s so cool. He’s a guitar player and writer and producer. He started this band called Tones on Tail in the 80s. And it was like a gothic industrial kind of NuWave band. It’s like dark psychedelic music, which I relate to so heavily. Because music takes me to that place where I remember when everyone was losing their minds back in Georgia. Where you’re on the other side and it’s beneficial, but it’s also a blessing and a curse. And it’s relatable to death. But also just the sounds are so incredibly out of this world. Just one of those transcendental things that take you somewhere immediately.
But after Tones on Tail he actually founded Love and Rockets, which was a bit bigger. Tones on Tail was big, but they were underground big. Love and Rockets were a little bit bigger. Then he became the guitar player for Bauhaus, which was a really big industrial goth band. So when you say Daniel Ask people mainly think, “Is that the guitarist from Bauhaus?” And I say, “Yes,” but also he did this and that, which are like my favorite projects. Tones on Tail only had one album, but it’s one of the best albums of all time in my opinion. Also because of my experience and my nostalgia behind it.
I actually sent my music to him. We got a hold of his manager and he was like, “Yeah, we’re really interested in working with new artists and Daniel’s going to listen to it.” To my knowledge he may have listened to it, but we haven’t heard back. I really want to meet him, but it’s always nerve-wracking if you ever get to meet your idols. You never want to put them up too high. I guess it doesn’t really matter because the music is where it’s at.
Everything just feels so cosmic, everything just feels so perfectly placed. His music specifically has a very special cosmic part in my heart. But everything that’s happened to me so far has been cosmic. It just feels like everything that’s happened is meant to happen.
Do you have déjà vu?
Like everyday. And that’s what I was saying at the beginning about the existential crisis. It’s not really a crisis, it’s just an experience. Like I played a show the other day at Britney Freeman’s record release party and afterwards I was in my car remembering everything, it was déjà vu but like times 10. Where you’re watching what’s happening already happen in the future while still being in your present body, but mentally watching it and thinking this has already happened. Palmer was driving me home and I was like freaking out. But that’s why it’s magical because you know it’s already happened, yet you still don’t really know what’s going to happen next. You got a feeling, but you won’t know until it’s happening.
It’s kind of comforting when I have those déjà vu moments.
It is! It can be really intense, but it’s a reminder that it’s all good, it’s all okay. You are where you’re supposed to be, and it feels good honestly. I feel good about what I’ve done with my life thus far. I feel good about all the great things and all the horrible things that have happened to me. Even the worst things that have happened to me, like my mom losing her house, losing my sister, crazy things happening with my father, it’s the most work I’ve ever done. Or at least the most work I ever really thought I could do when I was a kid, especially always thinking that I was so crazy and rebellious.
When you see the work you’ve done and you get a chance to look back, it’s like, “Holy crap, I’ve really done a lot in these six years. I’ve really met a lot of people. I’ve made a lot of impact.” Now let’s see what I can do in the next five years. Let’s see who I can touch or connect with or what I can change.