Who Is Jandek, Outsider Music’s Most Mysterious Recluse?

Since 1978, Houston, Texas native Sterling Richard Smith has been creating polarizing music under the alias Jandek.

Released under Smith’s own label Corwood Industries, Jandek’s current discography consists of over 40 full-length albums.

A cacophony of out-of-tune guitars, pained half-sung, half-spoken vocals, and cryptic lyrics that are thought to reflect their narrator’s state of mental anguish, his music has earned him a place within the canon of “outsider music.” 

Does Jandek Set Out to Create Bizarre Music, or Does It Come Naturally?

A photo of Jandek performing live in 2007.
Source: John Pham – www.flickr.com

It’s difficult to listen to Jandek without asking questions, namely, “Does he set out to create such strange music, or is it his natural mode of expression?”

Debates over the nuances of Jandek’s work have become something of a cliché amongst music-based communities, with Kurt Cobain even saying, “[Jandek’s] not pretentious… but only pretentious people like his music.”

Jandek’s private nature only feeds the curiosity of his so-called “pretentious” listeners. In the almost 50 years since his debut, he has given few interviews and performed live sparingly.

Fans’ attempts to contact him have proven futile, and he generally refuses to be photographed.

How much of Sterling Richard Smith’s own life is reflected in Jandek’s music? If decoded, would his cryptic lyrics provide answers to this and fans’ other questions about him?

The mystery of Jandek certainly augments the intrigue of his music, leading some critics to believe that his reclusiveness is something of an unconventional marketing strategy.

How Did Jandek Come Into the Public Eye?

The cover of Jandek's first album 'Ready for the House,' depicting a photograph of a living room.
The cover of Ready for the House

With Jandek’s hesitancy to reveal himself publicly—as well as 100% of his music being self-released—it’s a wonder that he has managed to attain his cult status. His journey from unknown oddity to niche music icon was a gradual one. 

His first album, 1978’s Ready for the House was released quietly, distributed through a select few independent record stores.

It did, however, manage to find a fan in young music critic Byron Coley, who wrote a glowing review of the album in a fanzine called OP

In the years that followed, Coley did everything he could to bring Jandek’s music to the attention of the public.

His promotion of Jandek via positive reviews snowballed into the artist becoming something of an enigmatic legend amongst collectors of obscure music, a fascination that would reach its peak when Kurt Cobain publicly referenced the artist. 

Who Is Nancy?

Some of the biggest mysteries with regard to Jandek are the identities of other musicians who make appearances on his albums.

With all of his records lacking liner notes and credits, one can only wonder: Are they well-known musicians performing anonymously? How did the reclusive Jandek even come across these people? 

One collaborator, who fans assume is named Nancy based on her appearance on the track “Nancy Sings,” is the primary target of speculation.

This is mainly due to the fact that her singing voice is objectively gorgeous, and when mixed above Jandek’s out-of-tune guitar playing, it makes for the absolute pinnacle of outsider music: haunting, strange, beautiful.

“Nancy Sings” is not only one of the best Jandek songs, but one of the best songs in outsider music.

Fans’ imaginations have run wild in guessing the identity of Nancy, some insisting that she is a lover of Jandek’s, though there is no proof of this.

Jandek’s Few Public Appearances

Despite his proclivity for privacy, Smith has on occasion spoken with the independent music press, his most famous interview occurring in 1985.

Interviewed for Spin by musician and writer John Trubee, Jandek answered in brevities, ultimately making himself appear even more enigmatic than before.

For example, when asked, “Who is Nancy?” he responded, “She’s some girl I met.” 

When asked where the name Jandek came from, he told Trubee that he thought of it while speaking on the phone with someone named Decker during the month of January, an explanation so simple and devoid of profundity that it almost sounds made up.

Some have gone as far as to assert that Jandek used the interview to intentionally taunt his curious audience.

However, he did go into some detail about his creative process, describing it as intuitive and improvisational, his music birthed from a stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting. 

The Truth About Jandek

Jandek enthusiasts tend to fall into two camps: those who see him as an enigmatic genius whose reclusive nature is the result of the mental anguish he expresses via his music, as well as those who believe that he is playing up his “reclusiveness” to bolster his image as an enigmatic genius.

In truth, and this cannot be outright proven, he is probably neither. Like any true artist, Jandek creates because he must: To give in to the confines of convention, he would be doing himself a disservice by watering down his own artistic vision, which is, yes, probably influenced by some level of mental anguish. He is not a “genius.” He is an artist. 

His reclusive nature likely has less to do with his desire to be perceived as “enigmatic,” and more to do with the fact that, like many others, is simply a private person. 

Of course, the inner workings of Sterling Richard Smith’s mind are known only to him, and if the mysteriousness of Jandek as a person is a motivator for people to listen to his music, this is undoubtedly a good thing, as his work is irreplicable in its haunting beauty.

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