Ness Heads’ voice spirals out of speakers. It coils around our hearts and brings us back to our basest memories. Her brand of pop-trap is royal purple in timbre and earnest in tone. The Chicago artist leans into her spheres of identity as a Latinx, queer woman, resulting in pulpy and full-bodied work. Her 2019 debut EP, Numb, boasts five succinct songs tracking her experience as a wounded woman. Though the title suggests Ness can no longer feel, she packs the EP with emotive highs—“Glowing” and “My Own Enemy”—as well as breathtaking flows on “Pull Me Up” and the slack “Make Me Feel.”
“Me and my producer Drew [Damen] will get in the studio, and he’ll just start playing his guitars,” Ness tells me over the phone. “I’ll see what kind of feeling I get from it. Once he’s playing and gets something solid down, I’m in my head playing with different melodies. I’ll get on the mic and start mumbling shit. This year has been chaotic, so once I get in the actual booth, I just let my feelings come out.”
On Numb, Ness’ feelings revolve primarily around a cataclysmic breakup taking place over the past two years. Though hurt is all over the EP, Ness did not find it challenging to reach back into her emotive bank and spill her feelings onto wax. On the contrary, making music is how she finds her peace and gives herself over to feeling. Ness makes music for fans looking to escape their rough patches. She hopes to be a source of empowerment for listeners, as well as someone who can level with their emotions. It’s noble, and it’s working.
Whether Ness Heads, 28, is summoning humor from the collective queer subconscious or delivering guttural lines in search of feeling something special, she is always playing with space and enchanting our ear. In less than 15 minutes, Numb hooks us with its winding and quietly colossal sound. Trap’s signature rattling hi-hats share space with pop’s dramatic synth chords. All the bounding, moving parts of Ness’ soundscape bow down to her demanding vocal. A whirlwind of emotion and a masterclass in melding genres, Numb is a harmonious event.
Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
Talk to me about when you realized the power of music.
I would say, maybe, two years ago. This was when I was working my full-time job. I was a sales rep at ADP. At sales, they let you set up your day. I was going through a rough period in my relationship, so going to the studio was my outlet for a while. With work, I would never set up meetings—I was just at the studio all the time. My manager would call me, and I’d be like, “I’m at this place, holding a meeting!” There’s bass going crazy in the background [laughs].
I’m not too good at channeling my emotions regularly. [Going to the studio] was how I could do it in a healthy manner. I hit my point of, “What am I doing?” I’m not getting younger. Me and Drew [Damen] are finding a sound, and we’re half-assing it. And we’re doing alright for half-assing it, so why not just put our all into it? I hit that point of feeling too overwhelmed and wanting to perfect my art and seeing how much it was helping me cope with my breakup. I decided to quit [my job] and go [make music] full-time.
Was there any fear?
There was fear, but it was so weird how it happened. I was in a daze of “I’m doing this, and I don’t care what risk there is to it.” I remember my ex at the time was like, “Are you serious?” Because I was like, “I’m moving out! I’m moving back to my parents’ house. I wanna make this work.” Being in this space of “I’m not gonna let anyone change my mind,” kept me from the reality of “You’re not gonna have a paycheck! How are you gonna pay your bills?” People figured it out, and I figured it out.
How did you and your producer Drew Damen settle on your current pop-trap sound?
Me and him, for a year or two, were sitting there and doing random songs. We have some Chicago-style, electric-type music. I think “Flip Em” was where we hit our point of “Wow, this sounds cool.” We took inspiration from Post Malone and Syd. It was just experimenting with different sounds until we realized this was it; this feels comfortable. This is taking inspiration from both of our backgrounds. I love hip-hop, but we also grew up on alternative stuff—alternative pop.
What I appreciate in your music is how you play with space and your breath control. How do you come up with your inventive flows?
Me and my producer Drew [Damen] will get in the studio, and he’ll start playing his guitars. I’ll see what kind of feeling I get from it. Once he’s playing and gets something solid down, I’m in my head playing with different melodies. I’ll get on the mic and start mumbling shit. This year has been chaotic, so once I get in the booth, I just let my feelings come out. Try different melodies. Freestyle. We’ll take that, cut some pieces off. Sometimes, I feel like my melodies are pretty basic. When I feel like that, I take different notes and try to make it not standard.
Before, I would start trying to write. Now that we’ve swapped it to see what kind of feeling comes out… Through my mumbles, I’ll hear what should be there. I know this is what I’m trying to say, and this is the feeling I’m having in the booth. That helps give it that raw emotion. Sometimes [Drew]’ll be like, “Are you okay? Are you crying in there?”
Your debut EP is called Numb, but you loaded it with feeling. Was that juxtaposition purposeful?
I never thought about it like that, but that’s an excellent way to put it. I was more numb to my emotions writing this whole thing. I’ve gone through this breakup, and for the past year, I’ve been trying to feel something for someone. It was more about feeling numb to someone than not being able to feel.
Through that, you gave yourself over to feeling?
Yeah, for sure. That’s cool that you put it that way.
With so many people working in the pop-trap sound, how do you make sure your music is uniquely Ness?
I would say more in the lyrics… Eddie [her manager] asked me about a lyric, like “What does that mean?” I make sure my lyrics have some meaning, even if it doesn’t look like there’s a meaning behind it. A lot of people are just throwing lyrics at the wall, and saying shit to say shit, because the vibe’s there. Kudos to people who can make a feeling from just random words. I try to make my lyrics separate me from those people.
Has it been difficult for you to tap into the dark feelings that color the EP?
Not difficult, because I was still kinda going through them. Also, some of the [material] was current writing about one of the girls in my life. It was easier with her, too, because she would bring the emotions out of me. There was so much chaos in that relationship. I would feel the emotions so hard when I got into the studio. I will say, trying to go back into other feelings [is] something I’m trying to get better at.
My favorite line on the whole project is, “You think I’m dumb, but I think I’m just gay.”
That’s the line that Eddie asked me about! I like that one, too. I’m glad you connected with that. After my ex, I started talking to this girl [and] it got serious. She would always tell me because I didn’t want to get into another relationship, “Why do you think like that? You are so dumb.” Nirvana’s one of my favorite bands and one of their songs is called “Dumb,” and it goes, “You think I’m dumb, but I’m just happy.” So I gave it my own twist of: I am gay, but I’m not dumb, I’m happy. I’m living my life. Two different meanings there.
How important is it for you to put forward your queer identity in your music?
I need to do it. It’s so important because, growing up—and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too—I didn’t feel like I had songs I could sing to. I mean, I could, but it was a guy singing about a girl. It was never a girl singing about a girl. Now, as people are becoming more accepting, I want little girls that are gay to have something that’s theirs. Something they can sing to.
Are there any other facets of your identity you think about when you’re making music?
Being Latina, I’m trying to bring the influence of Bad Bunny, Becky G, Ozuna… I’m trying to bring those elements into the newer stuff we’re doing. Whether it’s doing a part in Spanish, or the drums [Drew] uses. I think that’s important, too, and it’s a new wave right now. Bad Bunny is huge. I mess with his music. That’s another part of my identity I’m trying to bring in.
Besides yourself, who do you make music for?
The ideal fan is someone who’s going through a rough time and feels like there’s no hope for them. I want them to take my music, feel that emotion, and get empowerment from it. Even though I write songs about being sad, I’m not crying about it. It’s gonna be okay, you know? So, for those people going through a rough time and needing that escape, I’m hoping they can find that through my songs.