J. Graves. Photo by Dorothy Siemens.

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Get ‘weird’ with Portland power trio J. Graves in Eugene

Portland power trio J. Graves is trying new things. 

While writing and recording the follow-up to their 2022 breakout record, Fortress of Fun, they’re prepping Undercover Summer for an online release, a series of cover songs, Depeche Mode, Blondie and The Police included. Expect the first cover single July 26. 

The band has also rerecorded “Doctor,” the viral hit off their 2019 debut record, Marathon, with J. Graves’ current lineup — call it “Doctor: J. Graves’ Version.” Look for that in the fall. J. Graves plays July 18 at John Henry’s behind their latest original single, “Leap Year II.” 

Fortress of Fun caught massive attention from Portland media, filled with tight, punchy, missile-like post-punk and two compelling tempos, urgent and panicked, something like Sleater-Kinney. 

Jessa “J.” Graves, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, tells Eugene Weekly she’s keeping her expectations in line for the next release. Instead, she’s focused on her community. “The amazing group of folks around me who support me,” she explains, “and all of the amazing people in the community I connected with over the years — those seeds of friendships and helping people out. These little bits and pieces may seem innocuous at the time, but you cultivate those relationships, and then you release the record, and everybody’s excited,” she says. 

Before all that, though, Graves’ song “Doctor” off Marathon put J. Graves on the indie rock map. “In the spirit of celebrating Marathon, we were like, let’s bring an elevated version of this song to the table,” Graves says of the rerecording project.

Graves, a Camas, Washington, native, has lived in Portland for about 12 years. She formed J. Graves in 2019. The band’s current lineup includes Kelly Clifton on bass and Aaron MacDonald on drums. Her romantic partner is Eugene native Dorothy Siemens, an illustrator and muralist now based in Portland, whom Graves calls an honorary band member. When asked if J. Graves is a band or a stage name, Graves answers, “Yes.” She is J. Graves. But when the musicians perform together, they’re J. Graves, too.    

As for cover songs, “It’s not what we are known for,” she says. “Music is what I love most in the world. It fills my cup, and it’s energizing to me.” But cover songs help her have fun, too. “I take everything very, very, very seriously,” she admits, consistent with J. Graves’ “rally cry” spirit. Now, “we’re getting a little weird,” she says, mentioning Devo and the Undercover Summer project.

Graves’ songs are purpose-driven, with personal subject matter. As a teen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lead singer Karen O inspired her, and you can hear O’s influence in Graves’ vocal tone and phrasing.

With that in mind, Graves’ songs originate from an unlikely place: Her mother’s 50-year-old nylon-string classical guitar, where Graves says all her songs start. That guitar is familiar and comfortable, she says. But it also suits her style. “The way I play guitar: open chords, things that ring, and these weird interactions between strings that my fingers aren’t necessarily touching,” she says. 

With her mom’s guitar, “I can hear that resonance that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear with a different acoustic. I need to be in a space where I can be pretty loud, but still, there’s this warmth and depth,” she says. 

J. Graves plays with Bellingham, Washington’s Full Color Dream and Eugene’s Die Right, 9 pm Thursday, July 18, at John Henry’s, 881 Willamette Street; $12 advance, $15 door, 21-plus.