Teeth & Tongue: The 13th Floor Interview

Originally published at: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=74343

Like a dog with a bone, Wellington-based writer Tim Gruar calls up Australia to talk with an expat about getting her molars into a more funky palate of soul searching.   

Wellington born/Melbourne based Jess Cornelius expresses great surprise and joy when I tell her that I’m sitting in the Wellington Public Library reading the back cover of St Vincent’s new album – on vinyl!  “Wow.  I never thought that would happen.  Those days should have been gone.  The Library was always a pretty cool place but now they are even cooler!  I’m going to have to visit the next time I’m in town.  Do they still have those green cardboard carriers?” Yes, they do, Jess. Although she has family here it’s Melbourne that Jess Cornelius, founder and the main woman behind the moniker Teeth and Tongue, chooses to base herself – at least for now. Although writing in one place has not been important or even possible for her.

Teeth & Tongue’s new album Give Up On Your Health (available now) came about from a series of extreme experiences and many degrees of separation.  For her, like every songwriter there’s always something of a dilemma, she explains: whether to be so vague that the listener has no choice but to reinterpret the song in their own way or to get so specific that the listener can’t help but form opinions and take sides.  This is particularly true of love songs, she says.  “I wanted to distance my self to some degree because of many of these songs extrapolations of breakups and arguments.  But not with people I know.  Well not specifically.”  I ask if what’s she’s created to equate to tiny ‘kitchen sink dramas’ or mini soap operas.  “Yes, a good way of putting it.  I wanted to just observe others this time and transpose my feelings onto those scenarios.”

How could you not miss that?  It’s writ large all over the album.  Take Are You Satisfied, for example: “My sister’s going through a heavy time. Her husband left her for a landmine. She sleeps at Mum and Dad’s every second night”.  Just one of the relationship vignettes crafted in the mode of Ken Loach through to Jarvis Cocker. Jess is a little reluctant to admit how personal these lyrics are.  “Sure, my previous work, which I mainly made by myself, was more personal.  This time I wanted to expand the palate.  I wanted my themes and subjects to have a wider base.  But, you’ll notice, they are all set to a really funky beat.  I like to offset the drama with music you can groove to.  Is that weird?”

Give Up on Your Health grew out of one rogue song. Turn, Turn, Turn, which was originally recorded as an experimental track with a driving, arpeggiated synth sound, drawing on ’70s electronica. The label liked it so much they wanted a full album to go ‘pop’.  But Jess couldn’t just do that without infusing her own special lyrics into each number.  No drippy, lippy love songs for her.  Instead, she prefers to be an aural photographer of life and people.

Her penchant for the observation, she’s neither confirming or denying, comes from a recent obsession with US poet Eileen Myles who operates with a very fluid stream-of-consciousness style.  “There’s no filter with her.  Like a kid that sees someone who’s a bit different and just blurts it all out.  Kids have not social filters because they say it how it is.  They don’t know they’re offending anyone because the truth is just an observation to them.”

You get some of that on her ‘second-person songs’, like Do Harm which is both an instruction manual and a story in the making:  are instructional in narrative:  “Pain can be a strange relief and you think you want it has gone but you don’t really mean it. I see you at the pub and I want to talk, but everything I say would make you hate him more”

“The thing about a song is I can write like I’m really pissed right then, but later I’ve changed my mind.  But it’s already locked down and amplified through your speakers or on your iPod so you only know how I felt then – and on record, I still do.  But it’s not like that really.”

If you google the song Cupcake you’ll get an iPhone film of Jess setting up her studio in a barren room, followed by scenes of a cold, desolate winters cape of ice and snow.  This is Skagaströnd, a remote village, located in northern Iceland.  Jess went there as part of a writing fellowship and to escape a crumbling relationship.  It inspired at least one song, Small Towns: “We’ve got unavoidable contact. There’s always email and phone. I went as far away as I thought I could. You’re dying in the heat, I’m dying in the cold”.

“Don’t think Cup Cakes came from there.  It’s too upbeat.  I had that one already so I made a film on my phone and emailed it back to the producers.  Small Towns is a response, yeah.  But not necessarily a breakup song.  Your Ghost is the Hardest to Kill definitely is.  Initially sung into an iPhone in a tiny bathroom in a Tokyo apartment, so as not to disturb sleepers, it’s just a little possessed and creepy, especially with a distorted guitar chasing the vocal refrain as the time signature shifts uneasily across your ears.

The rest of the album was written in Melbourne, with Jess bringing the material to the band (Marc Regueiro-McKelvie – guitars; Damian Sullivan – Bass; and James Harvey – Drums). This was a completely different approach, she says, from her previous release, GRIDS (2014), which was a more ambient, digital affair with textures and layers of vocals and choruses.  “I was a little bit influenced by Giorgio Moroder, I think,” she laughs, “kind of like anti-disco.”

“This record is different be cause I’m in a band and the sound is instant.  It’s not programmed and built up in layers from files.  I get to jam and get feedback and I can make a really funky, energetic dance-pop record, but with substance but also a little disturbing.  The lyrics don’t match the vibe.  It offsets you.”

Co-produced by Haima Marriott (Banoffee, Architecture in Helsinki), whose knowledge of vintage synths especially when referencing Giorgio Moroder and Daft Punk, Jess got her wish.

Of course, there’s always a moment when you double blink when making art – when it starts to imitate life.  Jess’ moment came when putting the title track together, sacrificing her own health to achieve her vision.  “I wasn’t spewing or anything but I got really run down and drained.  There’s this ridiculous notion that to achieve success in your career you’re supposed to stay on form And you make all these demands on yourself that only you can see, maybe only in your head.  It does you in sometimes, trying to achieve it but it is worth it when you get there.”

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