Jess Viscius is going to break your heart, gently and slowly. In August, Fire Talk Records released Everything – her dreamy, fuzzy, captivating debut album as Bnny. It shows off the intense musicality and vulnerability the Chicago singer-songwriter has demonstrated since her first EP Sucker in 2017. That same year, tragedy struck when Viscius unexpectedly lost her partner, fellow Chicago musician Trey Gruber, who had been struggling with substance abuse issues; writing Everything became an outlet for Viscius to process her grief around his death.
It is a delicate creature, this album. It softly writhes, baring its naked belly for you to scratch then pulls away so that you can’t get too close. It is bristling with hurt, but sweetly surrendering too. Its delicacy and articulation of grief took several years to finely sculpt while Viscius mourned Gruber and tried to make sense of the dueling powers of love and loss. That is not to say that the album is morose or melancholy. Rather, it exists somewhere between dusk and dawn, hovering blurrily between the enormity of a new day and the possibility that the light will remain and memories won’t scar the senses.
The all-encompassing nature of “everything” offers so much potential for interpretation, but Viscius knows exactly what it means to her.
“I remember I was listening to the final track on our album titled ‘Voice Memo’ that I wrote with Trey. It’s the only recording I have of us singing together and I remember thinking… ‘Is this really everything?’ And that word kept coming back… is this everything I have?” she explains. “Everything feels like all my memories in one place. The word itself is at once all-encompassing and, in some ways, finite, which resonated with me, my own experience with grief and making this album.”
According to his friend and journalist Charlie Johnson in this Chicago Tribune editorial, Gruber was only one week out of a detox facility when he fatally overdosed on heroin spiked with fentanyl in 2017. The frontman of Parent was just 26. Viscius and Gruber’s mother, Desiree, released a collection of Gruber’s work, Herculean House of Cards, in 2019. The songs are lo-fi, charming, funny and quirky while also revealing a musician who really loved the art of songwriting (“Do You Feel Fine” epitomizes the strangely melodic garage-folk feel of the album).
Without wanting to point out the obvious, Gruber was a different musician to Viscius, and Bnny. Everything is poignant in its multi-tonal, ever-changing hues – in some places, sky blue and soft, and elsewhere deepening into a star-speckled indigo night. It is not a commiseration, but a chronicle of love and a paean to life.
It is not a solo affair, either; Viscius is joined by her twin sister Alexa on bass. “She picked up bass when I started the band so she could play with us. She’s an amazing photographer and designer as well,” Viscius says. Tim Makowski plays lead guitar. “I really don’t remember how he joined the band… I just remember him just being there one day in the beginning and he’s been here ever since. He’s one of the funniest people I know,” she continues. “Matt Pelkey is our drummer, he joined about two years ago. He’s also an amazing writer. Adam Schubert is the newest member. He plays guitar and keys. He’s an incredible multi-instrumentalist and has his own solo project called Ulna.”
Viscius can trace her inspirational spark back to hearing an ABBA CD that her friend’s older sister was blasting at home and being moved to ecstatically dance, all her senses ignited and attuned to this novel sound. In terms of her career in music though, her humble beginnings came a decade later.
“In my early twenties I started casually teaching myself guitar and then became more immersed in the Chicago music scene,” she recalls. “That’s when I became interested in writing my own music, at first, as some kind of challenge to myself, like, can I play guitar? Can I write a song?”
There’s no doubt she can write a song; Everything proves it from beginning to end. It was not a painless process, and that is evident in the lyrics and the sound, but it is beautiful, and there are silver linings tracing all the ragged edges. There’s never a sense of being lost in someone else’s grief. Viscius may send you out to sea in a little rowboat, but she is always there ready to draw you towards the shore when the waves begin to rage.
On “Not Even You,” Viscius fools herself into believing her beloved is present despite the reality of their absence. She catches sight of her partner, mistakes memories for reality, allows desire to trump truth. When she swallows her heart, repeating “what we dreamed…” anyone who has lost someone they loved (all of us?) will understand. “Blind” is gently catchy, a slow-but-determined wander through busy streets lost in one’s own reflections and revelations, the elastic, deep bass strum keeping time with boots on the pavement.
“The first half of the record… was easy and fun. I was just starting to play music, learning how to be in a band, everything was new and exciting. The second half was written during a period of time when I felt like I was in hell; everything was difficult,” she says. “You can’t change the past, you can only learn from it.”
That sentiment is at the core of “August,” a gorgeously sepia-toned ride through sun-drenched folk, supported by woozy rhythmic guitar. “I’ll change, I’ll change, I’ll change,” Viscius chants with increased determination. There’s a lovely nostalgic quality to Viscius’ dreamy voice – not unlike Mazzy Star or Lana Del Rey in its romantic, hyper-feminine quality. “In ‘August’ I’m promising myself that I’ll change,” she explains. “It’s a promise I’m still working towards.”
Bnny heads out on tour in October with beloved “trashpop” Chicago rockers Dehd – performing the songs on Everything as though opening a time capsule, allowing her to simultaneously remember, and let go.
“I think of [this album] as preserving this period in my life that I can always access,” Viscius says. “The songs live on, and with them, so does Trey.”
Follow Bnny on Instagram for ongoing updates.
DEHD/BUNNY TOUR DATES:
Fri. 10/1 – Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
Sat. 10/2 – Oberlin, OH @ Oberlin College
Sun. 10/3 – Detroit, MI @ El Club
Mon. 10/5 – Columbus, OH @ Ace of Cups
Thu. 10/7 – Brooklyn, NY @ Market Hotel – SOLD OUT
Fri. 10/8 – Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
Sat. 10/9 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Made
Tue. 10/12 – Boston, MA @ Northeastern University