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Photo by Allison Barr
Photo by Allison Barr
Photo by Tobias Wisner
Photo by Tobias Wisner
Photo by Allison Barr
Photo by Allison Barr
Photo by Winter Burris
Photo by Winter Burris
Photo by Allison Barr
Photo by Allison Barr

Wrapping Up Portland Music Month with Chipped Nail Polish / January 28th, 2024 at Holocene

By TOBIAS WISNER // Lead singer of local ukulele Indie rock outfit, Chipped Nail Polish, sits down to discuss the vibrancy of the Portland music scene, the importance of creative community, Dido, and a reverberating love of performing live with her friends.

In typical Portland fashion, the January rain fell hard around us as I sat down with Jill Sullivan - lead singer, songwriter, and creator of Chipped Nail Polish - to discuss both her new single and the band’s live show capping off Portland Music Month, which happened this past weekend at Holocene on January 28th.

Jill had braved the micro-storm to come talk to me at SE Portland institution The Vern, walking from her nearby home in the neighborhood to meet me on the bar’s covered back patio with a tabletop fireplace roaring to counter the wind chill. After exchanging the standard lamentations about the weather, I could tell we were both eager to get started and discuss just how much has been going on for her and her bandmates since Chipped Nails’ humble beginnings during the pandemic to its luminary status today in the city’s indie scene. 

And quite a run it’s been. What started as just her, a ukulele, a few written songs, some chord progressions, and a list of influences has blossomed over the course of the last three to four years into an exciting and unique project with seemingly nowhere to go but up, all with great support from her contemporaries that serve as huge sources of inspiration. 

She explains, “I feel like I’ve blinked and it’s already been over three years of growing Chipped Nails. I’ve really made it a priority to seek honest feedback from my friends in other bands, and it’s been empowering to hear things like, ‘No, you should definitely keep pursuing this. It’s good and you should keep going.’ after all this time. It gives me a lot of motivation to keep creating and writing.”

The encouragement and votes of confidence in the scene are certainly warranted - the band has been on a tear recently with Portland Music Month in full swing, scoring a feature on local news station KOIN 6 on top of a releasing new tunes and crafting new material, but the place Sullivan creates from doesn’t always feel so cosmically aligned, making her successes feel especially earned and worthy of celebrating.

Far from being perfect all the time, the band name Chipped Nail Polish is itself a testament to life’s less-than-amazing moments in Sullivan’s mind: “What I tend to write about are the imperfect things in my life, things I’m often actively processing or going through. Someone with chipped nails all the time probably has other things going on, so my process has become about leaning into flaws and imperfections. This project has been my way of processing my life, and my songs are kind of like my journal.”

That authenticity and vulnerability are infectious not only in just speaking with Jill about her work, but are also an immediate draw into what Chipped Nail Polish does musically. Sullivan has a laundry list of influences to pull from including strong, female-led Indie acts like Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, and Beach Bunny, plus Pop and Emo leanings courtesy of singers like Avril Lavigne and bands like Paramore. 

Dido, both historically and recently, has also served as a source of inspiration for Sullivan. The band's aforementioned new single is a cover of “White Flag,” that she’s been shopping live for quite some time. When asked, she says with a laugh, “Dido is just kind of underrated in my opinion. The idea behind the cover was just the thought that the song would be fun to play live, and the people who would get it would end up getting it. It’s also just a really good love song.”

The ukulele is also, unquestionably, a distinct aspect of what makes Chipped Nail Polish sound like Chipped Nail Polish. It’s Sullivan’s signature oeuvre over so many of her band’s songs, weaving a Pop and Singer/songwriter aesthetic with harder hitting Indie rock between each other effortlessly. From solo numbers to it just being another element of a different track, Jill’s uke journey and Chipped Nail Polish are almost one and the same. 

She explains, “The uke and its ease of access is really conducive to how I create and how my brain operates. Within a few hours of picking it up it unlocked a lot of things for me, especially since I had been wanting to learn to play an instrument so badly just from being so involved in music behind the scenes in college. When the pandemic hit I suddenly had the time to practice, and before I knew it, I had fallen in love with songwriting and was playing house shows in Eugene with my friends down the road as things got safer.”

That general appreciation for music and sense of what’s fun to play are immediately apparent when you watch Sullivan perform with her bandmates and friends. While Chipped Nails is her brainchild with most if not all songwriting duties and structuring being left up to her, her sense of community in the scene permeates everything she does. She credits local producer Justin Yu K (IG @justinyukay) with being instrumental to developing her sound in her early days into today, and is hyper-aware of the rippling effect that making quality music can have in such a dynamic creative landscape like Portland.

Jill emphasizes, “I’m not trying to sell myself or my work short, but I’m eternally grateful for what my friends have done for me here in going above and beyond to help me out with this project. It’s like an ebb and flow where we all pack the crowd at our respective shows, stream each others’ music, and promote each other where we can. Portland is filled with so many nice, sweet, and community-minded creatives - it's one of the main things that keeps me here.”

Community as inspiration plays just as much of a role in Sullivan’s work as her personal life does, and her show at Holocene was a perfect example of that ethos on full display. Though the evening had to be rescheduled initially due to the apocalyptic ice storm that struck the city a little over two weeks ago, the energy when I arrived was filled with excitement for a bill Sullivan worked with the venue to curate - featuring Katy and the Null Sets (IG: @katyandthenullsets) and Jakki and the Pink Smudge (IG: @jakkiandthepinksmudge) as supporting acts.

Sullivan was bouncing around from friend to friend in the audience as I snuck to the back of the crowd with my notebook right before the first opener, but I could tell going in that this would be a very wholesome event. Every audience member seemed to know of or know personally at least one band on the bill, and was clear that Sullivan’s community work had come home to roost in the best way possible for a great cause in Portland Music Month. It felt like everyone in the crowd were friends with each other, and that made for a stellar night of live music.

Katy and the Null Sets were the first to play, and I was immediately struck by the talent the lead vocalist was working with as the crowd got warm. Moving effortlessly between higher and lower points on her register, talk-singing certain parts and embellishing others, Katy’s lyrics were conversational and honest, adept yet approachable. The set was chilled out and oozed Neo-soul vibes mixed with Indie sounds and aesthetics that bands like Hiatus Kaiyote pull off so well, and Katy and the Null Sets pulled them off all the same. The band sang one about hating grad school, carried a swimming metaphor across a couple different tunes, and thanked the crowd for coming out on the Lord’s day in a tongue-and-cheek way that got the room laughing and relaxed. Overall, it was a solid start to a night that would continue to impress me.

Next on the bill was Jakki and the Pink Smudge, who started their set in about one smoked cigarette’s time from when Katy and the Null Sets finished. Equally ethereal yet a little more rough around the edges, Jakki brought a sultry Surf rock sound to her set, with expressive vocals and catchy guitars coupled with bass lines that lent themselves to her omnipresent high kicks in between vocal deliveries. The Smudge also covered one of my favorite Julia Jacklin songs, “Pressure to Party,” and I was impressed with their take on the track as they mentioned they wouldn’t be playing it again for “quite some time.” The band at one point allowed Jakki the stage to herself, where themes of community emerged once again.

She seemed to speak to everyone as if she knew all of us, thanking us for being there and telling us how thankful she was to have a real backing band, something she didn’t always have, and worked her way through a couple solo numbers that had the support of the room despite a moment of forgetting the lyrics. It didn’t matter, because she was among friends, and it seemed everyone there was attending with the goal of supporting each other. Support became literal as she ascended to a friend from the crowd’s shoulders for the last song with her guitar in hand, and made for a moment that many will remember at least for a day when they go back and check their Instagram story.

In another smoked cigarette’s time, Jill and Chipped Nails took the stage as the crowd packed in to see the headliner. The excitement in the room was palpable, and Jill immediately took on new form as she began to thank everyone for coming out. She had mentioned that performing live was her “happy place” during our earlier conversation, but to see it happen in real time was something to behold, especially coming off of just talking to her in a more low-key setting. She filled the stage and grew with it as she launched into her first song, and her power only increased as she launched into some hits off her year-old EP, Bottom Feeder, like “Say Something” and “Shakin’ in Yer Boots.” The room was moving and grooving like they had not been previously, and Sullivan’s stage presence continued to be both inspiring and infectious. She kept the crowd’s full attention through a sweet solo number, played an early hit in “Rut” to great aplomb that coincided with feelings of being stuck during PNW winters, and launched into “White Flag” with her bandmates right behind her, the audience in full support thanks in part to Dido.

It was a romp in the best way possible, a performance where self-consciousness and doubt were seemingly thrown to the wind and Sullivan’s community came together to celebrate just how far she’s come. Like I said before, it was nothing if not wholesome. But toward the last song the night turned bittersweet much to even my surprise, as Jill announced that her lead guitarist (whose talent I had been admiring the whole performance) would be departing the band to work on her own project titled Pillow Spiders. The entire Chipped Nails community came together to wish her farewell, a fitting end to the night inspired by so much mutual friendship and success. 

The only shortcoming, if you could even call it that, was that the band didn’t have an encore prepared much to the chagrin of dozens of Chipped Nails fans, but it did nothing to detract from the overall vibe and feeling of the night - that community and a love of independent music reign supreme in this city, and we have minds like Sullivan's with her Chipped Nails project to thank for that. Without the scene we all hold so dear, nights like these would be impossible, months like Portland Music Month would be impossible, and stories like mine would be impossible to tell. However, despite the lead guitarist's departure from the band, this is far from the last that we’ll see from Jill or her Chipped Nails project.

When asked about what her next plans were, what she wanted to do next with the band, Sullivan’s immediate response was that she’s in need of some time off: “After the show I’m taking a break until like May to put my head down, write, and hibernate a bit. I have a lot of things I’m working on, and that all needs some extra time to be fully fleshed out.” 

It’s understandable - Chipped Nails has so much going for it and has been doing so much even in the last few years, and given the amount of weight that’s on Sullivan’s shoulders for the project, it’s natural that she needs some time to recuperate from the full sprint the band has been engaged in since its early iterations. Call it winter, call it being tired, none of it invalidates what Jill has accomplished in such a short time, and to me she’s deserving of some rest.

Sullivan is not only an inspiring artist, but also a down to earth person who’s deserving of the attention her band is getting. While you won’t be able to catch them live again for a couple months, I encourage you to stream their work wherever you get your music and follow them on social media if you’re looking for a local Portland band that emulates what makes the Portland scene great - quality art, kind people, and community-focused music that has the potential to extend beyond Portland’s borders.

Happy Portland Music Month, and thank you to Jill, Chipped Nails, and the rest of the bill that night for an amazing experience. I’m eager to hear more from everyone, and I’ll be waiting with bated breath at the next mention of what she and her friends have to offer.

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