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In-depth: Jessica Winter on re-framing her artist image

“Where are my glasses? Somebody help me, I cannot see!” Jessica Winter playfully called for direction from the crowd at the end of her energetic gig in Bristol. Her glasses had flown off during adrenaline-fuelled performance of ‘Do You Do You’, the penultimate song of her set, and she had opted to push through her final song without them. 

I first met Jessica, who has recently been highlighted by BBC Radio 1 DJ Jack Saunders, during a recording session for Fat White Family’s ‘Serfs Up!’ album, where over lunch, after complimenting each other on our specs, we had spoken about wearing glasses in the music business, and the fact that not many artists do. This was one of the moments where I realised a resource such as Sound Without Sight could be valuable to the community of glasses-wearing aspiring musicians. 

I caught up with Jessica on her tour recently, to build upon this conversation.

JP: With my eyesight not being great, at times I’ve found it a bit of a struggle to fit into music industry culture – or its idea of what an industry professional should be. Is that something you can relate to?

JW: Absolutely, I spent years wearing contact lenses trying to fit that mould of a performing artist, also to satisfy my own vanity – what I thought I should look like on stage. 

It was a real conscious decision for me to make the change to wearing glasses rather than contact lenses. I’d been struggling wearing contacts for years and there was this moment where my thoughts about my ‘look’ just clicked into place. 

JP: What made you think that you were better off wearing contacts as opposed to glasses?

JW: I just thought: “Of course you can’t wear glasses on stage.” That’s what I always thought. You just don’t really see people doing it. I guess it was socially engineered. In some ways that stemmed from wearing glasses at school, and the effect that can have on you. I thought that if I was going to get on stage in front of people, I was definitely not going to wear glasses. 

And I’ve certainly had a few comments along the lines of: “We need to see your eyes; you need to share your emotion with the audience”. But after a while I started thinking: “So you’re telling me that if people can’t quite see the very detail of my eyeball, then they can’t connect with me?” That’s insane. But when you’re young and impressionable, you just accept people’s comments. 

JP: What happened to change your mind?

JW: I had a serious form of pink eye for around 9 months, from some nasty bacteria that had got onto my contact lens. For all that time I had these awful bloodshot eyes that made me look seriously ill. Although that image kind of worked for the heavy metal band I was performing with at the time, I was getting so worried. I couldn’t wear contact lenses for that amount of time.

It turned out that I’d repeatedly been given the wrong treatment. The doctor said that the bacteria had got so bad that it was eating my cornea away. I came really close to losing my sight. I didn’t really notice because my vision was blurry without contacts anyway. 

Luckily, when I finally got the right treatment, the condition cleared up quickly, but that experience inspired me to reassess: “For f***’s sake, I’m risking my eyesight for vanity and to be accepted as an artist? This has to stop.”

JP: How has this influenced your journey as an artist so far?

JW: I think earlier in my career, I felt almost forced to pander to the very male-dominated industry. I was surrounded by a music industry where, most commonly, older male producers manufacture and sculpt young female artists. You see a lot of women get pigeon-holed in music, as they do in film. If you wear glasses then you are the nerdy, quirky girl. Why is it always typecast like that? Why can’t you be sexy and cool?

JP: Do you feel like that’s something you’re rebelling against with your artist image?

JW: Totally. It’s difficult, and I still struggle with it all the time, but I’m really trying to portray a confident person making music. It’s not about using glasses to conform to any particular style. They’re something I’m choosing to emphasise because they feel like ‘me’. I guess I’m trying to show that you can wear glasses or do whatever the f*** else you want – don’t let industry or internalised pressure get in the way. 

Sometimes I get tempted to put contacts in because I don’t want to feel something on my face, but it feels weird in a different way – I’m quickly reminded that they make me feel like a different person. When I put my glasses back on, I just feel more comfortable and freer. 

You shouldn’t have to stray from yourself to be successful, that’s just not going to work. But sometimes there’s subconscious pressure to look a certain way and you have to keep a check on it. 

Jessica Winter posing, squeezing her face with black leather gloved hands
Photo credit: Nan Moore

JP: Is that something you still need to check in with yourself about now?

JW: Yeah, recently I made a music video, and the director and I had some different ideas of what we wanted out of it. I had to can the video in the end because I felt it was trying to portray me in an objectifiable way. One part of that was taking my glasses off for the shoot. I realised afterwards that the video was the complete opposite of what I wanted to go for. 

I want to break down the expectation that you must be ‘sexy’ all the time – or the industry’s definition of sexy, at least – to succeed. I want to deliver great music and that makes people feel something, why do I have to make that sexy?

And there’s obviously nothing wrong with being sexy, but it’s about reframing the idea of what ‘sexy’ means. Being sexy and wearing glasses are not two mutually exclusive things. 

JP: For sure, being confidently ‘you’ is probably the most potent version of sexy. You can always tell if someone is not being completely genuine. 

JW: Exactly.

JP: How is your sight, if you don’t mind me asking?

JW: So I’m quite short sighted, and I have astigmatism and blepharitis, which an eyelid condition that can give me really dry eyes and sometimes sensitivity to light and blurred vision. Without glasses I do struggle, and even with them my vision still feels a bit weird due to the astigmatism. I did consider laser eye surgery, but the surgeon kicked me out of the chair. Apparently, my eyes were too weird for it to be successful, and it was far more likely that my vision would have been worsened. I was seconds away from getting the laser!

I’m noticing the sensitivity to bright lights more these days too, a lot more since I nearly lost my sight. I can’t go outside in the day without sunglasses and a hat, no matter what day of the year it is. People think that I’m being a diva, but I really can’t. I do notice it on stage too, but the adrenaline kicks in and makes it a little easier to push through. But when the lights flash directly on me I do feel dazzled for ages!

JP: Can you think of any areas of your creative practice that have been influenced by your sight?

JW: Blepharitis can make it difficult to be in the studio for long periods. My eyes quickly get tired, dry and sensitive, which doesn’t mix well with staring at a screen. You’ll probably catch me crying in the studio and it’s not always because the music is particularly moving! It’s because my eyes are screaming out at me for oxygen and darkness. 

JP: I totally get that – it’s one of the reasons that I’ve moved to spending less time in studios and more time mixing from home. There’s so much screen work, often in control rooms that just weren’t really compatible with the way my eyes work.

JW: Yeah, it’s basically how studios are these days, right? I think there are definitely ways that technology could cater for people who are susceptible to eye strain. I’m sure everyone must get it to some degree when they’re looking at little buttons and MIDI notes, and often for ridiculous hours. 

JP: Some of Sound Without Sight’s aim is to promote solutions and suggest new ones. Do you use any?

JW: I have night mode on my screen all the time, just to take the edge of the harsh bright colours, and I use dark mode where possible. Things like that. There should be more solutions for people with sensitive eyes, because it must affect a lot of people! I keep thinking I want to get a huge monitor so I can see without straining, but I also worry that it’s just going to engulf me with even more light. I don’t really know what other solutions there are, so this sounds like a helpful project. Although my sight problems are relatively minor, I can really relate. 

Not sight-related, but I’ve got hip dysplasia, and so a game-changer for me was when I started using my stick. I was so embarrassed about it to begin with, wondering what people would think, but it’s actually such a godsend. People suddenly give you a little bit of extra space and you can breathe. I think that’s true of any solution or adjustment. It’s about getting the confidence to use it – accepting you’re different and making that a positive for you. 

JP: Are you doing mainly your solo music currently?

JW: That’s a big part of what I’m up to, but I’m also writing with others and producing others. I’m always up for working with others if I believe in that artist. A lot of alt-pop girls and thems – I very much seem to be working with the girls and the gays. I don’t know how that’s happened, but I guess I was raised by gays. I feel very much part of the queer community. 

JP: The first time I saw you perform, you were in a band called GLASS…

JW: Oh, yeah! I have gone through a few different forms. Scott from GLASS is still my writing partner. Among other projects, I started out as Hall of Mirrors, which was like a 60’s psychedelic dreampop thing, and then GLASS, which allowed me to explore my love of 80’s and electronic music. Now I feel like I’m putting all of that experience into one thing under my own name. 

JP: Which other artists do you think Sound Without Sight should speak to?

JW: Jarvis Cocker is one of my biggest performance inspirations – and maybe it is because of the glasses, come to think of it! The way he just owns himself onstage is inspiring. The music is obviously good, but the way he performs is just so ‘him’. I’m also good friends with Spector, whose glasses are a big part of his look. 

JP: I saw on Instagram you’re connected to David Wrench, who is obviously a great mix engineer and producer, and he also happens to be partially sighted. Have you ever worked together?

JW: We haven’t recorded together, but I’ve played some gigs with has band Audiobooks. He’s great and I really like his mixes. I had been thinking I would like to work with him on a track actually – you’ve just reminded me!

Perhaps as a nod to the sentiment expressed in this interview, the cover art for Jessica’s latest EP release, ‘Limerence’, features a photo of her with glasses drawn onto her face in thick black eyeliner. 

‘Limerence’ is out now, and you can catch Jessica at numerous festivals this summer, including the Great Escape and Bluedot. You can watch the video for her latest single, ‘Clutter’ on YouTube.

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