The past two years have been a whirlwind for Summer Cannibals frontwoman Jessica Boudreaux. While most bands would be content with a solid debut record and a runner-up nod in WW's 2014 Best New Band poll, Boudreaux's grunge-pop powerhouse has maintained a level of forward momentum that would be staggering even for more established national touring acts.
Rather than enjoy the view from the plateau as one of Portland's most promising young rock acts, Boudreaux has decided to spend 2017 splitting her time between here and Los Angeles in hopes of making it as a career songwriter. She's too busy recording yet another record to leave for good just yet, but a half-hour picking her brain leads us to believe she has more than enough ambition and talent to make it just about anywhere.
Willamette Week: What was the goal when Summer Cannibals started out?
Jessica Boudreaux: I don't really know if there was a goal. We just wanted to play rock music. I definitely wanted to do it right from the start. I didn't know I was going to get so serious about it, but each month the goals would grow and shift, which they still are now.
So is Summer Cannibals now "your" band?
It's always just been me writing. Devon [Shirley, drums] and Jenny [Logan, bass] are my people and when it comes to decisions for the band it's the three of us, but the writing is just me. On this new record we're working on, I co-wrote half of it with Hutch [Harris of the Thermals], which is the first time anyone else has been involved.
How did you get hooked up with him?
We've been friends for a few years now. He was a fan of the band when we first started. We played some shows with [The Thermals], then in December of last year he asked me to play guitar with them on tour, which is how we got a spot opening for them on tour.
In your eyes, what's changed in Portland since you moved here?
I guess my position has changed. I have way more purpose now, and goals outside of what you can do here in terms of music. So I've been shifting my focus so what can be done in music outside of Portland.
So you are indeed moving to LA?
At least until the summer I'll be splitting my time between here and there, getting a feel for it and seeing if I want to make the full time move. But I'm still doing so much up here like making this record and working on other projects.
It's kinda the only option. I want to get involved in writing for other people and doing co-writing and that kind of stuff. You either go there or you go to Nashville—it's kinda one or the other.
So the goal now is to take being a career musician more seriously?
That was kinda my reflection this year from touring a lot. I thought, "This is awesome and I want to see how far it can go." But realistically, I want to be able to wake up in 10 or 15 years and go to work and have work be recording and writing music. [L.A. has] more opportunities and I'll be forced into being better because everyone around you is better and is in a better position. That challenge was why I did well in Portland—because everyone here was better than me. I was trying to have a status but I didn't, and I didn't know anyone, so working through that and seeing growth in my music…I don't want to have it just stop there. I'm kinda forcing myself to do this by spending time there and getting out of my comfort zone with the hope that I become a better musician.
If you had to pick one moment to trace this decision back to, what would it be?
I felt like the making of the last record [2016's Full of It] was a big turning point for me. That was the first record we put out on a label that wasn't mine, and it was Kill Rock Stars, which meant a lot to everyone in the band. That was the turning point. you can tell everyone you're good and work hard super hard and do everything you can to prove yourself, but it's not until someone you respect who's also backed people you really respect chooses to back you, and not just because they think they're gonna get rich off you. At that point, we finally got a booking agent after being told "no" by everyone we talked to for three years. Then I realized there were all these people who'd be affected if I didn't work super hard. So having that on my shoulders forced me to work harder.
It seems like prefer to be in a situation where you're pressured into a make-or-break scenario.
Well, I definitely procrastinate, but I feel like under stress and pressure is when I come out with my best work.
What's been the most stressful situation for the band so far?
Touring and playing with both bands [Summer Cannibals and the Thermals] was definitely amazing, but exhausting. I was with Marc [Swart, the group's previous guitarist] for six years, so l kinda learned to tour with someone who I was not only dating but was also living with and was best friends with. Touring for the first time without that kind of safety net had me feeling like I was doing it on my own for the first time. And I was doing it with two bands, one of whose records I've had since I was 15. It was hard and scary and stressful, but it was also extremely rewarding.
If you could change one thing about Portland, what would that be?
For me, it's the bubble. You see it in a lot of different areas, and I feel like I'm only qualified to talk about music. There can be an ego with bands who are doing well here that just kills creativity. It's the big fish in a small pond mentality. I don't think it happens to everyone and it's not all the time, but I've seen people I've been close to slip into the mindset of walking around Portland feeling like everyone knows you. Which may be the case, because we don't have a ton of bands who are super active in terms of opening bigger shows. You should just kill that ego [laughs]. That's what really gets on me here. When you go to a place like New York or L.A. where everyone's more connected or better or richer than you, it's an ego check. You're forced to confront all these things you don't have. I feel like you can lose sight of that in a place like Portland.
So you feel like you're ready for that ego check?
Oh, yeah. I already get it [here]. But I do think that's a part of the people I purposely surround myself with who I ask to tell me if my shit's not good. When I'm not on it, I need that.
Do you think people are too vulnerable or sensitive to criticism?
I think it's a lot of patting each other on the back. People won't like me for saying this, but I like a sense of healthy competition. I found that with Hutch because we've found ourselves in a working relationship where we like being competitive with one another. I need that because it pushes me to be better. I'm not trying to win anything, but I like the feeling of working to earn something. I think most music scenes deal with this. You ride to the top, but what are you realistically at the top of?
Are you optimistic about the future of the Portland music scene?
I am! A lot of people are conflicted about what's going on here, but I hope that confusion and frustration a lot of artists are feeling toward real-estate people and tech people gets channeled into creative endeavors. I know there's enough people here who are smart enough and good enough to use it in a positive way. That's my hope, at least.
Any advice for people who are thinking about moving here and making it like you did?
Write good songs. [Laughs] Just ask for anything you want. Ask politely. When people give you things and let you play their shows, be nice and respectful and say "thank you." That's how you get on the next show. Just be fucking nice to people. With art and music there's people with egos, and there just isn't room for it when you're starting a project. I don't think there's ever room for it, especially at that point. Being humble is very important. I asked for things I knew we'd never get, and when people responded I thought, "OK, when we're ready for that, they'll remember us."
SEE IT: Summer Cannibals play Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., with Gazebos and Hurry Up, on Friday, Jan. 13. 8 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. All ages.