Bandcamp of the Day: Public Universal Friend

Public Universal Friend is an Indianapolis-based folk rock band lead by Jody Friend. The band is releasing their first LP today, titled Perennials. It is a lovingly performed and thoughtfully crafted album that conveys a welcoming, healing, and universalist spirit. It is absolutely an album worth of the band’s namesake.

Public Universal Friend are named for a Rhode Island preacher, who was stricken with typhus in October of 1776. The Friend, as they would later be called, was bed stricken for several days with a fever. After the fever broke, the Friend rose and declared that the person they had previously been had died due to the illness and ascended to Heaven. The Friend declared that they were now a new person, charged with spreading God’s love, under the premise that there was truly room for all in the Kingdom of Heaven. They no longer responded to any other name than the Public Universal Friend and refused to be identified as either male or female. The Public Universal Friend represented an important reference point for Jody during a time when she was coming to terms with their own gender identity and so it became the name of her band.

Because this is such a fantastic story and Perennials is so very good, I caught up with Jody over email to discuss her project and her life in Indiana. The resulting conversation is fascinating and provides some great insights into the music of a fantastic up-and-coming Midwest artist.

You can check out the entire album below, and keep scrolling to read the full interview with Jody.

Interview was conducted via email on January 31, 2021. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.

How have you been holding up during the pandemic?
To be real, I’m grateful to have made it through the last year [2020]. So much in my life has changed and I have grown in ways I never imagined I would be able to, including the release of this album.

With its fair share of total shittness, there have also been sweet moments of slowing down, exploring extra-musical endeavors like work on my first book, drawing, and ripping up the skatepark on m’ board. 

What has it been like living in Indiana during this whole mess?
The Indianapolis arts community has been devastated since last March due to the pandemic and it’s apparent that it will take a long time to heal from this collective trauma.

I’m confident the good people of Indianapolis will grow into the next season, but I can only really speak for a small microcosm of my perspective of our state’s capital and what I’ve witnessed there. I’m always impressed by Indy’s resilience through hardship and reckoning and its dedication to perpetuating human value, which is made sorely evident in the loss of that community existing at its full potential.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the next season of Indianapolis will be; stronger, more patient, and hopefully, kinder. 

If someone who’s not familiar with your part of the midwest wanted to get a sense of what Indiana is like, what films, books, or songs would you recommend to them? 
In order to get an honest picture of the true culture of Indianapolis, go listen to any local music, support any of our artists, filmmakers, photographers, business owners, writers, poets, speakers, food and beverage establishments, and community organizations and see what sets us apart from the rest of the midwest. Our spirit is what makes Indianapolis what it is.

How long have you been performing as Public Universal Friend, and what is the significance of that name to the project as a whole?
We adopted the band name this past summer, toward the beginning of the pandemic, so not long. We are named after a Quaker prophet from the 18th century, who adopted the name after a near-death experience. Looking forward to having our first show under the new name as soon as it’s safe to have an album release show.

Does the legacy of Public Universal Friend have significance for you beyond your musical project?
New Life is a perennial (ha) theme of the work, so the name seemed to be fitting for what we’re putting out into the world. I found the name when exploring my own gender identity a few years back, and the name remained at the top of the list until we decided to adopt it this year. The hope is that the name might evoke a communal sense when coming to our shows, giving space for people of all kinds to get weird and be themselves. 

How are the themes of death and rebirth explored on your album, Perennials?
The album was written over the last three (or so) years of my life, in which time just about every tenant of my understanding of myself and my place in the world has been upturned and refined into who I see myself becoming. Within that “Death” there is held tremendous grief and loss at what was, whereas “Life” is representative of authenticity, self-respect, and a new chapter of expression that was once insurmountable to me. The album speaks universally to that spirit of change but holds a personal narrative that I predict I’ll still be unpacking for many years.

Who is playing with you on Perennials and how did they come to be associated with the project? 
The band consists mainly of friends I met when I was in high school and college when I lived in Tennessee, save my drummer Jarrod Bright, who I met when I moved to Indy in 2015.

Chris Hickman and I co-produced and engineered the album together beginning in February 2020, with help from Jared Garner on guitar and trumpet and Phil Lofton on percussion. My band has been a collection of sorts for a long time, but these guys have been around my musical progression for longer than anyone else and were my A-team for making a record in quarantine.

All of these folks hold immeasurable worth in my life and have been engaged in so much of my personal growth, so once production plans began, these guys were my crew without a second thought.

Are there any songs off of Perennials you’re particularly looking forward to playing live once touring starts back up? 
Every time I’ve picked up a guitar this last year, I’ve gravitated toward both “Firestarter” and “Healer,” both of which I think are going to be high energy points during a live set. Euphoria just flows so naturally with those tunes.

There’s also just so much flavorful dynamic between the different tracks that I’m looking forward to the unique procurements of energy we’ll be exploring with different setlists on any given night.

I’m certain that many of the songs are going to challenge me musically and I’m very much looking forward to celebrating that with audiences as soon as dang possible.

What was the hardest song on this record to write? 
“Tomboy” took many twists and turns within its iterations over time, turning over its sound three or four times until it became what it is. It’s one of the simplest compositions, but finding the right composition in order for the lyrics to come alive was a total right-brained exercise, suspending the methods of how I normally write.

During production, I actually used the drums from a previous version of the song, which sounded completely different from what it became. Part of the challenge was writing an arrangement for a totally different song while using the same drums from a previous version. I also wanted to write a song on a Rhodes that used only black keys, so that was an interesting exercise as well.

“Firestarter” is another one that was very difficult to make happen, since it was written after we had already recorded the live drums, so once again, I had to recycle. I actually programmed most of the drums in the verses on Garageband and then for the choruses I compiled the drums from “Tomboy” and “Vigil Annie” but changed the tempos to match the idea. 

Where was the video for your song “Heather” filmed?  
We filmed in three locations around Indianapolis, basically at Holliday Park (the ruins and flowers), Newfields (red/blue arches), and at MacGregor Park (white sheet dancers, ghost snog). The idea was to combine several scenes but shoot it extremely simply, without a subplot or narrative, save for some practical visual effects. The framing and pace were intended to give more focus to the song flow itself, in what I believe was a successful statement, while also setting the tone of visual language for the rest of the album.

The afghan sweater you’re wearing in the “Heather” video looks extremely cozy. Do you mind telling us where you picked it up?
Honestly, that’s my favorite sweater and I found it on Etsy a couple of years back. Gives me Laura Palmer vibes and it’s kinda silly how often I wear it. Our budget was $0 and I got to use a bunch of clothes from my closet I thought would look kinda enigmatic and other-worldly (’cause like, welcome to my life) and then that night I decided to just grab whatever sweater I was wearing that day and, you guessed it, it ended up in the video. Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to just wear it in everything else we’re working on?

Parts of “Firestarter” have a bit of Radiohead vibe to my ears. Was this intentional? Who were some of your reference points for this song and others? 
I fully acknowledge that “Firestater” uses quite a similar arpeggiation as a certain Radiohead song, which was a chief influence that inspired the record as a whole. The song I think compounds (complicates?) that motif enough for it to be it’s own. But yes, I love Radiohead.

If you’re looking for a great book about their impact on the music world, check out This isn’t Happening by Steven Hyden. Some other bands that have inspired how I look at songwriting have been Fugazi’s Argument, Pinegrove, Big Thief, early Switchfoot, Built to Spill, and choice selections from lo-fi hip hop beats to relax/study to.

How much do you love the Posies? So much, or not at all?
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that comparison, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard of them. Guess I’ll be adding them to my list!

Would you consider yourself more of a punk or folk artist?
I think punk and folk as ideas come from the same heart of authenticity and storytelling free of compromise. What I love about punk is the ethic of there being no pretense: only realness, and having that be the measure one’s art is held to above all else. I’ve been deeply affected by writers in the arena of folk as well, which I define strictly as “people’s music,” which I think is one of the purest vehicles dedicated to connecting one human’s story to another. So, hopefully both. 

What does the punk scene look like in Indianapolis? Is there anyone you’d like to shout out? 
To roll with the aforementioned definition of punk, there are plenty of punk-minded artists in Indianapolis, most of which are dedicated to making Indianapolis a better place for artists to prosper and be heard, especially in amplifying the voices of the marginalized. Plenty of festivals aim to do this: GPAMF, Buzzcut, Chreece, Low Pone, and the folks at Healer, Square Cat, Black Circle, and the HIFI – all brilliantly dedicated minds who work toward making Indianapolis as diverse and equitable of a music scene as possible. Look for the ones speaking truth to power and you’ll find Indy’s real punk scene. 

Who are some of your favorite folk musicians? Who helped you discover your love of folk music? 
For me, it all began with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger-type songwriters early on, then with the New Folk wave of the late 2000s, I was swept up with all the acoustic-rock based “folk” bands, but after a while those grew disenchanting and I was looking for something that was more connected to the intention and honesty that made American folk music what it is.

Often the bands I’m most interested in are the ones who chase the ever-elusive “Realness” that it takes to write good folk songs. It requires that you’re on a constant path of growth. Folk has a similar message to punk, but like I mentioned a minute ago, folk really comes down to being who gives voice to the marginalized.

Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Dolly Parton, Nick Drake, Otis Redding, R.L. Burnside, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – these are our folk parents. They’re the real deal. Outside of the establishment of the indie folk sound, these are what I’m always trying to get to when I write; true poets with a message that’s thought through, truthful, and not chasing a trend around. 

Who are you excited to get back out there and play with once live shows start back up? 
Something that the pandemic has afforded me has been plenty of time to connect with and listen to local bands I might have been too focused on my own endeavors to notice.

Some bands that come to mind that I’d love to share a stage with (listen up, guys) are Diane Coffee, Joshua Powell, Genevva, Wife Patrol, Chives, Kelsi Walker, Phoebe Bridgers (hey, who knows?) and oh so many more.

My hope is to play locally as much as I can afford to in this next season and to travel to some never-before-played cities beyond (but including) the midwest and south. Especially now that the sound has evolved to something hopefully more dynamic and true to myself as an artist, I’ll be able to show up to spaces that are unfamiliar as more of myself than ever.

You can pick up a copy of Public Universal Friend’s Perennials here.

Follow Public Universal Friend on Facebook and Instagram.

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