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Finom

Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart have each served as principal figures in Chicago’s music scene. Together as Finom, they created a pop album that draws from the vocal beauty of folk music and the experimental impulses of Chicago’s free jazz scene.

Photo Courtesy of Anna Clair Barlow

Folk-pop duo Finom draws heavily from Chicago’s music influences, from Wilco to free jazz

Jeff Tweedy produced the duo’s new album, Not God, which delivers a wildly inventive soundscape reflective of the city’s music scene past and present.

When Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart sing together, Cunningham’s alto and Stewart’s soprano become a singular voice that’s unlike either.

“That is Finom,” Cunningham said. “That character wouldn’t exist if we didn’t blend together.”

The Chicago duo has together and separately served as principal figures in Chicago’s music scene since they were teenagers, as multi-instrumentalists, arrangers for other artists and performers in their own right across the indie pop and free jazz worlds.

Finom in studio

Macie Stewart (left) and Sima Cunningham (right) grew up in Chicago and attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, where they separately worked on musical projects.

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis/WBEZ

Originally, they made music together under the name OHMME. But they’ve rebranded, and Finom, their latest project, is the furthest both women have gone in creating a unique form of pop music that draws heavily from the eerie vocal beauty of folk music and the experimental impulses of Chicago’s free jazz scene.

On Not God, their new album out Friday (Joyful Noise Recordings), Finom draws easy comparisons to folk sister act the Roches, but the duo sets warm guitars and vocal harmonies against a restless backdrop of buzzing electro-pop guitars and synthesizers. For Stewart, 31, operating under a new name gave the pair “this weird license to work without precedent.”

Cunningham, 34, said at this point in their nearly decadelong collaboration, they both appreciate how their music exists on its own terms.

“People never know quite where to put us. That also means the algorithms don’t know what to do with us either. That can be frustrating — but on the other hand it’s awesome,” she said, because Finom’s music “is just what comes out of us as musicians and artists.”

Both women grew up near one another — Stewart in Mayfair and Cunningham in Old Irving Park — and attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, where they separately worked on musical projects and recording. They each knew of the other’s musical abilities but didn’t start performing together until Cunningham returned to Chicago after attending college at New York University. By then, Stewart had been collaborating with Cunningham’s brother, the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Liam Kazar, in Kids These Days, a hip-hop and soul band consisting largely of teenagers. Afterward, Stewart and Kazar formed a second band, Marrow.

By then, Cunningham started working at Constellation, the city’s premiere space for improvisational music. She and Stewart became regulars, and they soon took to what they heard as limitless possibilities in the music, something they wanted to apply to their own songwriting.

“It instilled this spirit of adventure and trying to push the boundaries … and being able to sit and listen even when something feels uncomfortable,” said Stewart, a multi-instrumentalist who also emerged as an improviser; she plays keyboard and violin in Marker, Ken Vandermark’s quintet, and has recorded with, among others, guitarist James Elkington, drummer Makaya McCraven and percussionist Bex Burch.

Being Chicago natives was key to the sound they developed organically over time. They had freedom to experiment and who to experiment with. Inside Constellation, the pair interacted and performed with musicians from different genres who were often several generations older.

Finom

Formerly known as OHMME, Finom creates pop music that draws from the eerie vocal beauty of folk music and the impulses of Chicago’s free jazz scene.

Photo Courtesy of Anna Clair Barlow

“It’s not only a bunch of 20-year-olds,” who are vital to Chicago’s scene, Cunningham said. “When I was 19, I was hanging out with musicians who were 20, 40, 50, 60. I don’t know if that happens in other places.” That openness gave her the sense that “so much more feels possible here.”

“The creative community in Chicago is limitless. I’ve lived here almost my whole life here, this is my town, but I still don’t know everyone,” Cunningham said.

It took about two weeks in late 2022 to record Not God at the Loft, Wilco’s recording studio and headquarters. Wilco auteur Jeff Tweedy produced the sessions and pushed the duo to think of new ways to improve songs they might otherwise have considered finished.

The approach “enabled us to see the core of the songs in a new way,” Stewart said. On a handful of songs, he suggested slight key changes or introduced sound elements. The song “Dirt” benefited from a minor shift that deepened the song’s nocturnal mood.

“Now when I hear that moment in the song, I cry instantly. That was Jeff knowing how to nudge chords that you don’t know why you feel different, but you feel different for some reason,” Cunningham said.

Tweedy’s son Spencer, who currently plays percussion with the folk-pop singer Waxahatchee, drummed on Not God, and he’ll play with the band at the Hideout on Friday along with bassist V.V. Lightbody. After touring this summer, Finom returns to Chicago to headline Metro for the first time on Nov. 2.

The songs on Not God exist on a wildly inventive soundscape with interjections of spiky guitars and Afrobeats that together often build to thrilling, hypnotic jams. Cunningham and Stewart combine their voices into a single instrument throughout, an approach that grounds the music, focuses on the melody and makes it accessible even for casual listeners.

Finom_Not-God_cover-art.jpeg

Finom’s newest release is Not God, out May 24.

Courtesy of Finom

“We want people to feel invited into what we’re feeling,” Cunningham said. The marriage of sonic experimentation and folk music storytelling is a unique Chicago brand of music — most notably by Wilco — and both Stewart and Cunningham say their early roots as teenage musicians playing Irish reels were fundamental to their appreciation of older styles of folk music. Cunningham said she grew up in the folk tradition and followed the adults in her life to anti-war protests where she performed songs from the canon dating back decades.

The name change, from OHMME to Finom, signals a new beginning for Cunningham and Stewart that is reflected in the music’s confident sound and accessibility.

“I’m in love with letting the melody do its thing,” Stewart said. “For this record, we wanted that kind of clarity.”

If you go: Finom performs at the Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia Ave.) on Friday. Tickets from $20. The pair headline the Metro (3730 N. Clark St.) on Nov. 2. Tickets from $20.

Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago and the author of Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival.

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