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Q&A with Naomi Jichita of Payphones

By Christopher Treacy & Naomi Jichita

Payphones are a fairly new project out of Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada, fronted by singer-songwriter Naomi Jichita. To make the foursome’s debut, ‘Rioting Heart,’ Jichita pulled from a decade’s worth of writing, some of the songs being more fully realized than others. Growing from an acoustic duo to a full fledged band meant that the songs got to grow as well, and the results are something likened to a folk-pop-Americana stew.

Lead track “Can’t Escape It”—our current Song of The Week in the CQ Roundup—describes the disquieting scenario of falling in love with someone whose mental wellness is in question. Some folks can handle that situation and some cannot. And some think they can handle it until they’re in the thick of something relentless and wild. Most of cannot help but absorb at least a little of whatever our partners may be going through. ‘Nuff said.

“Can’t Escape It” finds our narrator in a tough spot. Mental health issues are so pervasive in modern culture, most of us are dealing with some degree of it, some sort of issue, whether we have an official diagnosis or not. Wellness is so subjective and we never want to tell someone they could be working harder to be better. Can you talk a bit about it?.

For this particular song, I was mainly drawing from my experiences in a relationship about a decade ago (oh god, aging) from my biased, time-weathered perspective. In short, the person had patterns of behavior that impacted me quite poorly, and the dynamic caused my own mental health to spiral. They expressed that they behaved this way due to mental illness, so, it wasn’t really them hurting me—it was the illness.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

Ultimately, I left, because I decided that even if their behavior wasn’t their fault, from their perspective, their inability to get some help was. Definitely still an oversimplification: So many different things can influence a person’s access to ‘help’ in the first place, not to mention that it’s entirely possible to struggle with the effects of trauma or mental illness, and still maintain healthy relationships! 

The way I see it now, it’s not my place to judge anyone’s degree of mental health wellness, or their actions related to it. That’s just not my business. I can always provide compassion, love, advice (if appropriate), and support, without getting too involved. And, I can recognize when I’m not happy with the dynamic or how I’m being treated, whatever the reason, and assert my own needs. 

“Despair will find a home.” It sure as hell will. Is so-called ‘healthy detachment’ even possible in the early stages of a romance? It almost spoils all the fun.

It’s great to hear that those lines in the song resonated with you! I think these open-ended metaphors can mean different things to different people, so I hesitate to over-explain.

Early romance can definitely be intense! Over time I’ve learned to recognize my own tendency to get very attached to people right off the bat. Now, when I notice certain habits brewing, I have strategies to keep my vibes in check so the intense, fun, infatuation phase doesn’t become an unhealthy hyper-fixation.

“When you wander into space and you can’t see anyone…”  The vast emptiness this describes is startling. But then, when coupled with the idea that “The emptiness has been the only place I feel safe,” it really comes into view how emotionally paralyzing the dichotomy in the song ends up being. It’s almost as if to say “At least having nowhere to go with this has discernible parameters, so I’ll just hang here…” Is that a fair summation?

The contradiction of noticing that ‘the emptiness’ is… well… empty, but being drawn to the familiarity of it anyway, was definitely something on my mind while writing. I don’t want to go too, too far into breaking the song down, or justifying the perspective based on the exact events that inspired it. Connecting with listeners based on the more general human emotions the songs evoke is more my lane. It’s very cool to get a sense of how things are being interpreted, in ways I/we may not have considered. Those meanings are very much valid. The lyrics are a jumping off point for the listener’s experience.

Tell me a little about writing ‘Rioting Heart.’ The press materials said that these were writings from a 10 year period. Have these always been songs/intended for music, or were there snippets of poetry?

My contributions were always intended to be songs! Some of the songs were much more complete when I brought them to my bandmates, with a general song/chord structure, while some of them were closer to a collection of scattered phrases and a vibe.

Together, we refined the melody and structure of the songs, layered vocal harmonies, etc. My bandmates have had more formal music education than I have, and contributed essentially all of the harmonic complexity and instrumental arrangements in the songs. The finished products represent all of our varied skills and experiences coming together.

Taking these lyrics that I wrote as a tool of catharsis over many difficult years, and having such a blast turning them into real, finished songs with the band, has been an incredible experience.

I love the band name—it evokes a sense of nostalgia. Payphones are also something folks used to use to call for help in times of danger or distress. How did you come to naming the band Payphones?

Our music tends toward folk/roots—a broad category, but often a fairly classic and nostalgic type of music. But, our tunes also have a modern edge influenced by more singer-songwriter, pop-punk, and rock elements, as well as explicit queer themes, which have relatively recently become more common to discuss openly. Our sound exists in a sort of liminal space as a grab bag of those so-called classic and modern elements.

Throughout the pandemic, more and more articles along the lines of “x city closes the last remaining payphone” kept appearing. Payphones are, let’s say, recently antiquated. They’re not true ‘good old days’ nostalgia faire, but are officially a thing of the past—in a sort of transitional category of newly old. We feel like that vibes with our sound.

The point about using a payphone to call for help, as well as the general association to connection, communication, relationships, etc, that phones in general suggest, also play into our affinity for the name!. It’s very fun that it works on different levels. 

Is this something you intend to continue – are you writing more? Or is the album a one-off?

This is absolutely an ongoing project. I’m bursting with ideas, and collaborating with these fine folks is by far one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. We’ve got more projects in the works, and we’re gearing up for spring/summer festivals. We hope folks will want to join us on this journey!

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.

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