‘Mumble punk’ musician Jesse Jams’ survival story featured in new documentary

For Jesse Jams, punk music is powerful armour.

Jams, 25, lives with numerous mental health disorders including fetal alcohol syndrome, PTSD, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

As a child he endured mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Sometimes, there are voices in his head. When the noise gets too loud, he feels compelled to harm himself. 

“It’s really hard to function on a day-to-day basis because you just never know what’s going to go on that day,” Jams said in a new documentary profiling his life story.

“I might hear voices. I could be super depressed and I could be very angry.”

Jesse Jams, a 16-minute film funded by Telus, was produced by Edmonton filmmaker Trevor Anderson. Since its release last month, the documentary has earned a staff pick from Vimeo and been named an official selection at film festivals from Melbourne to Los Angeles.

The film follows Jams and his band — Jesse Jams and the Flams — as they prepare to perform the opening set at Edmonton’s 2019 Interstellar Rodeo. The band had played the music festival the year before but a thunderstorm cut their set short.

Jams, Indigenous and transgender, was raised by his grandparents until he was 10, spending much of the rest of his childhood in a series of group homes, foster homes and psychiatric wards.

Before he was 18, he would transfer through 45 such facilities.

There were also times when he lived on the street.

The band got its start in one of Jam’s group homes. Bassist Lyle Bell was volunteering at the facility and eventually taught Jams to play guitar. They started jamming together and by 2016, Jesse Jams and the Flams were performing their first show. 

Jams, who calls his particular brand of rock “mumble punk,”  said songwriting is often his only outlet. 

“Music is definitely a really good outlet for me to really get my feelings out there and that’s basically one of the only ways that I can,” Jams said in a interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“With my music, I usually write about real things and it can be funny and humorous but there’s a message behind it. 

“I just want to get out there and tell people how I really feel as somebody like me.” 

Jams and Anderson met through Penny Frazier, who managed one of Jesse’s group homes. She encouraged Anderson to pursue the project and would go on to serve as an executive producer for the film. 

“Penny Frazier had been documenting Jesse for the last couple of years previous to me coming on board,” Anderson said. 

“She was just telling me, you know, there’s a documentary there. She was absolutely right.

“I think Jesse is amazing. I really am inspired by how he uses music in his life to deal with what’s happening in his every day.” 

‘Hope from the power of art’

Jams said he was excited to take part in the documentary. He hopes others will take inspiration from his lyrics. 

“My initial thought was like, this is really just completely joyous. I have a lot of joy and I just never thought this would happen and I’m just like thankful. It’s awesome.

“It was really good. Like we have a connection and I felt really comfortable around everybody. 

“That’s something that never really happens with me. It really works well. The chemistry and everything, it’s 100 per cent on.” 

Anderson said music including a five-song soundtrack from the band is at the heart of the documentary.

He hopes people will listen to Jam’s lyrics carefully and hear his message.

“I thought the way to do this is through the songs because Jessie put so much of his life in the lyrics. 

“For me, what I get out of the film is hope and hope from the power of art. That’s something I’m kind of always looking for in my own life and Jesse has it in spades.

“When I watch the film, I feel hope and I feel joy and I hope that audiences will feel that too.” 

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