Jimmy Whispers

Text by Roxy Merrell
Photos shot by Lonneke van der Palen in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Master crooner of confessional pop, Jimmy Whispers is shivering and smoking in the bright morning light. His frazzled bed hair and slight tremor tell me he’s had a good night. Last night, he kicked off Subbacultcha’s first gig at De School, Amsterdam’s new hotspot, and it couldn’t have been sweeter. This man knows how to let loose: coercively crowd-surfing atop five unsuspecting audience members, climbing on to speaker towers, clumsily disrobing his iconic Summer in Pain white tee and denim combo to reveal a blue-and-yellow Dirndl dress. In the hazy Sunday aftermath, we’re back at De School to explore the premises and learn more about this offbeat heartthrob.

We ease into the day with coffee and a stroll, taking in the old technical school’s distinct artdeco aesthetic. We accidentally stumble straight into the full sweat of a kickboxing lesson in Het Gymlokaal, panic and take cover in the empty gymnasium next door. The striking primary colours and adrenaline evoke that classic PE fear. But there’s a sparkle in Jimmy’s eye. The thump of a basketball echoes as he reveals his moves – turns out, he spent his high school days playing. ‘I just did normal kid things. Smoking weed, driving girls around in my car, getting in trouble, playing basketball, y’know?’

I want people to move. It feels good to move. It’s good for your body.

At some point, there was even talk of a sports scholarship. Noticing my surprise at learning that about Jimmy the Jock, he quickly straightens me out. ‘Cool kids play basketball! It’s not so much a jock thing, like American football fraternities that are, like, “Uhh, smash shit!” Basketball is all about, “I want to be graceful and jump through the air.”’ He tells me that basketball is the professional sport closest to dancing. I ask him if that’s what he has to thank for his killer dance moves. ‘I guess so,’ he laughs. ‘Thanks, basketball!’

It comes as no surprise that a young Jimmy was also a drama buff, I think to myself as I observe his blond hair elegantly bobbing up and down while he confidently bounces on a trampoline in the dirty dress he rolled across stage in last night. He’s a sight for sore eyes

‘I was always acting and putting on costumes, being a weird little kid.’ Come grammar school, he was taking part in musicals, scoring minor roles in plays like The Wizard of Oz and Oliver. ‘That was the thing. I never got the good roles because of basketball practice – the times were conflicting. I really, really wanted to have a leading role but I couldn’t quit basketball because my dad would be upset.’ Turns out, the athletic scholarship wasn’t exactly his idea. ‘I never really wanted to do that. It took so long for me to do what I wanted to do.’ He loved playing basketball, but dreamt of pursuing more creative goals. We’ve heard this story before: the young boy is pushed down a masculine path, while he dreams of singing in musicals. This plot started early for Jimmy: ‘I remember putting on my mom’s make-up and stuff at, like, five years old and my dad being, like, “What the hell is wrong with you? Go wash your face!”’ He laughs at the memory.

Relax… feel good… feel nice. I don’t know. I just have a little girly side.

In between playing with gymnasium props, we talk performance and the immense energy Whispers is armed with as he climbs on to the stage. ‘I’m in entertainment mode when I’m on stage. I want people to move. It feels good to move. It’s good for your body.’ He delivers these lines with a knowing grin and proceeds to crack himself up. He’s a wild and outsized personality when performing, but can be introverted in his own time. His moniker, Jimmy Whispers, is a nod to his reputation as a soft-spoken kid. A few years back he was still performing as James Cicero, front man of Chicago-based indie-rock band, Light Pollution. There’s a touch of irony there, because ‘if anything, I was holding myself back from being myself, blending in as a cool indie-rock guy.’ Nowadays, as professed on his album, he’s ‘the greatest bedroom popper in the Tri-state area’, boldly claiming his childhood nickname. In spite of his flair for drama and mid-show outfit changes, he tells me, ‘I don’t create a character. There’s a lot of people who try to put on the weirdo persona or whatever, but this is just me… It’s Jimmy Whispers.

Heartfelt words from a straight shooter. We’re outside for his tenth cigarette of the afternoon. ‘People are always trying to wrap their heads around my shows. Like, how expressing all this sadness gets a reaction of joy. They ask me “Why?” and “How?” I do the things I do, and the thing is, I’m not exactly sure all of the time.’ We walk along the wide hallways, hoping to unearth potential pictorial gems hidden in this construction’s unfinished offices. He announces, ‘I make music because I make music at a fundamental level. I write songs because I just can’t help but writing songs.’

‘The music, and the actual songs, I just can’t help it. It just happens. I’m not putting thought into, y’know, like, “Oh, those are some deep and thoughtful lyrics,” and people come to me, like, “Oh, that’s really deep, you said this,” and I’m just, like, “I don’t know!” y’know? It just happens. It took me two seconds. It just fell out of my mouth, I couldn’t help it.’

It is exactly this raw emotion and effortlessness that makes us fall for Whisper’s everyday existentialism. If you’ve taken the time to tune into his record, Summer in Pain, you’ll know what I’m talking about. His debut has been dubbed no-fi – all one-shot takes recorded on his iPhone without a single edit. And if the candid sound doesn’t get ya, his tender lyricism will – the sound of a somewhat world-weary romantic murmuring optimisms under his breath: ‘Love is dying on the ground, you know it ain’t true./ I know it’s around all the time.’

We’ve found the changing rooms, and Jimmy is stripped down, wearing nothing but his oversized coat and a novel goatee. A gloved hand tugs at the fabric to hide his goods and he coyly raises his eyebrows at me. The vintage clip-on earrings, his racy poses, the feminine skip in his step – he’s uninhibited in playing with expectations. Locker rooms are great for honest talk. I pry.

 Maybe everyone feels happy and bonded at the end of the concert.

‘I think that when I was younger I hid that side of myself.’ Bullying is a real part of most kids’ lives, especially eccentric ones with a penchant for gender bending. ‘As you get older, you don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks. I do what I want, with my music, with my art, with my everything.’ As in the rest of his life, this transgression isn’t a thought-through declaration; he just feels good that way. ‘I have some dresses I like to wear when I get home after a really long day at work. I come home and put on this nice dress and sit down at the organ and play some nice music. Relax… feel good… feel nice. I don’t know. I just have a little girly side.’

‘It’s not like, “Oh, I’m gonna shock people! Shocking!” It’s more just like, it’s comfortable to be me. It feels good.’ He’s out to provoke, but not in the sense you might expect. The weird, the outrageous, the hilarious; these elements add up to his wholehearted rollercoaster of energy and emotion that he channels into his take on entertainment. It’s part musical, part theatre, part comedy – but really just all-round Jimmy Whispers. ‘There’s a grander scale to all of that, too – the performance, the songs… It’s about pushing people a little bit. Expressing sadness or whatever, but only to bring people full circle and bring them together. Get them to sing and dance together. That’s the end goal. Maybe everyone feels happy and bonded at the end of the concert.’

He loves getting his picture taken, and the camera can’t get enough of him. As I drift into thought, I realise it’s really quite simple: Jimmy Whispers is provoking us just by being his strange self. Even the honesty of his tortured exclamations puts a smile on our face. His mastery is this: he makes diving into the depths of our emotional havoc fun. Is that the key to what makes his shows work? Just doing what he wants, for himself? ‘Well, not doing it for myself, but doing what I want. I do it for other people as much as I do it for myself, because it’s still entertainment. But what I want is the same as what the crowds want.’ We couldn’t agree more.

Jimmy Whispers returns to please the crowds at s105 (De School), Amsterdam, on Thursday, 1 September. Support for the night will come from Rotterdam trio Venus Tropicaux.