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Interview with Jess Cornelius

Circa 1978

Jess Cornelius

Image & Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cook or a fashion designer,
but by the time I was playing in bands I was kind of hooked.”

Jess Cornelius

Jess Cornelius
New-Zealand born musician Jess Cornelius is best known for her work as Teeth & Tongue, a project with Cornelius as the singer and songwriter at its core. Cornelius has released a total of four critically-acclaimed albums with Teeth & Tongue, including last year’s Give Up On Your Health (2016). She recently launched her eponymous solo career with her debut EP, Nothing Is Lost (2017).

On the heels of last year’s Teeth & Tongue album, Give Up on Your Health, Australian musician Jess Cornelius has returned with her EP Nothing Is Lost, the first in what she plans to expand as a solo career. The songs on the EP are the first of what Cornelius describes as a “really immediate, stripped back and minimal” project. A straightway hit with Australia’s massive alternative and indie radio, Triple J, Cornelius’ music has been reviewed by Rolling Stone and featured on VH1 and MTV. Fresh on the heels of a tour with Paul Kelly, Cornelius discusses her flexibility as a songwriter and the making of Nothing Is Lost.

Where are you from?
I grew up in New Zealand and then I moved to Melbourne.

When did you start making music?
When I was about 14. My mom had a guitar that she didn’t really play, and I wrote songs on that—kind of like weird, twelve-bar blues.

Who did you listen to growing up?
I listened to a lot of community radio in Wellington because my parents always had it on. A lot of student radio, so all sorts of R&B and hip-hop because that was big in New Zealand, but also a lot of country and blues. My parents listened to a lot of Lou Reed and Nina Simone. Talking Heads was another big one, and Leonard Cohen. I listened mostly to what my parents were listening to until I became a teenager, and then I listened to lots of really bad music for a few years.

How did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
I initially didn’t want to study music in high school. My parents didn’t push me into it, but they suggested that it would be a good thing to do. So then I did study music, but at a high school level. When I started making music and learning guitar and singing, I started writing straight away and found that to be why I wanted to make music. It was the writing component.

Then I started playing in bands, and then I didn’t want to go to Uni because there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do at that point. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cook or a fashion designer, but by the time I was playing in bands I was kind of hooked.

“[As a musician,] there’s always so much flux in my life, which is inspiring, but really disruptive and sometimes kind of awful.”
— Jess Cornelius

What was your first break?
It hasn’t come yet! No, I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. A lot of great things have happened, but nothing really happened until I moved to Melbourne—actually, years after I moved to Melbourne. I was still a teenager when I moved there, and it took a long time to find people with the same types of music.

I guess the first thing that happened was I walked into Triple R, which is the really amazing community radio station in Melbourne. Back then, you had to give them a CD and stuff. One of the presenters played me on a show, and I built a relationship with the station that has continued until the present day. So Triple R has been huge in terms of me doing this.

You’ve put out some great records under the name of Teeth and Tongue. What’s the difference between that and what you’re doing now?
There’s a big difference in a lot of ways because with Teeth and Tongue—even though I ended up playing as five piece band and it became more collaborative as the albums progressed—I still wrote all the songs, but they were written with other instruments in mind. So even though I might start writing on guitar, I’d change it to a synth and would change the song around. So Teeth and Tongue is a different sound. I conceptualized the sound differently as being layered with other instruments, whereas with this project I specifically wanted to write songs that didn’t need any other instruments so that they work as a solo song and a solo performance. When I play Teeth and Tongue songs solo, something’s missing.

Is Teeth and Tongue ongoing?
I would really like to make another album under Teeth and Tongue with the same members as before because we’re really close and they’re incredible musicians. I think I would split both of my projects up to the extremes. Teeth and Tongue would become more instrumental jam-focused and more synthy and less song writer-y.

How did your Nothing Is Lost EP come about?
It happened really quickly. I put out the last Teeth and Tongue album a year ago, and I wrote these songs right after that. It was a reaction to the album in a way. The four albums I had made as Teeth and Tongue were multi-tracked and layered and very produced. With this, I wanted to do something really immediate, stripped back and minimal. And I really wanted to record something. I hadn’t done much live recording, like in the old days when they pressed “record” and you just had to get it done.

So that’s what I did on Christmas Day last year. All my family was in New Zealand, and I didn’t have anything to do so I asked my friend who had a studio if he could set me up in there. He set me up with a mic, and he went to Christmas lunch. It was 104 degrees or something, and we couldn’t have air conditioning on because of the noise. So I just played. I spent about nine hours playing these nine songs until I got them right with no overdubs. Five of those songs ended up on Nothing Is Lost. There are a few extra instruments, but not much otherwise.

Your songs are very personal and cathartic. Does music play that role for you?
Definitely. It’s a processing thing. It’s also just the most accessible material for songwriting, and I find it interesting. Everyone finds themselves interesting, I guess, but it’s not just about my own relationships and existential crises. I find interactions with other people and internal struggles in general are interesting topics.

“I conceptualized the sound differently as being layered with other instruments, whereas with this project I specifically wanted to write songs that didn’t need any other instruments so that they work as a solo song and a solo performance.”
— Jess Cornelius

Jack Ladder
Jack Ladder is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Sydney, Australia whose music is characterized by his baritone voice, themes of love and death and frequent gallows humor. Ladder has released four solo albums, with his second album Love Is Gone (2008) receiving special critical attention in Australia. Ladder co-released the album Hurstville (2011) with The Dreamlanders, comprised of Kirin J. Callinan, Donny Benét and Laurence Pike.

Thundercat is the stage name of LA-based bassist, singer and producer Stephen Bruner. He has released three solo albums in addition to being a member of thrash band Suicidal Tendencies. Thundercat contributed significantly to Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and he has recorded for the likes of Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus, the producer of Thundercat’s debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011).

Scott Walker
British-American singer-songwriter, composer and producer Scott Walker is known for his work as both a 1960s pop icon and 21st century avant-garde musician. Walker came to fame as the frontman of 60s pop trio The Walker Brothers and continued on through the mid-80s with his contemporary solo career, which included three albums to hit the Top 10 charts in the UK. Walker has also produced for musicians the likes of Pulp and Bat for Lashes.

Mac DeMarco
Mac DeMarco is a Canadian singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. In the wake of his 2012 debut album, entitled 2, DeMarco became a favorite of music critics and slacker rock fans. He has released a total of two mini-LPS and three studio albums, including this year’s album This Old Dog (2017).

What are some issues that you look to address through your music?
It’s often things like how you should be spending your life, which is up to no one except yourself. It’s a broad topic: “Is this how I want to be using my time?” Do you want to be having this relationship? Do I want to be having this career? Am I treating other people right? Are my priorities right? Personal dissatisfaction vs. satisfaction with your own life.

Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
There’s an Australian artist, Jack Ladder, that I’d like to do some stuff with. Sharon Van Etten would be great to work with.I always love singing on other people’s records, so it would be cool to do stuff with Thundercat or something. And also more classic stuff, like duets. I’d like to work with Scott Walker. Mac DeMarco would be really fun. Too many!

What life events have impacted or inspired you and your music the most?
Probably the process of living, getting older and following a path that’s not necessarily conventional. Not choosing to be comfortable—not that I’ve directly chosen to be uncomfortable. But making decisions that have put me through phases of disruption: financially, creatively and in terms of relationships, living situations and jobs. There’s always so much flux in my life, which is inspiring, but really disruptive and sometimes kind of awful.

What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I like writing, reading, drawing and cooking. Sometimes I like running, but that depends on the month. I like hiking. I love riding my bike, but I haven’t ridden since I’ve been in LA, so I forgot about that great love. My favorite is riding my bike at night in summer.

What are your favorite books, film and music right now?
I watched Midnight Cowboy (1969) for the first time a few months ago. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it earlier because it was great. I went to the movies the other night and watched Happy Death Day (2017) for a bit of trashy entertainment. That was really good. But overall, I’m not a big movie watcher.

Paul Kelly
Australian singer-songwriter and rock musician Paul Kelly is known for his solo career as well as for leading numerous rock groups such as the Dots, the Colored Girls and the Messengers. Hailed for his songwriting talent, Kelly has released multiple Top 40 singles in Australia, has won 10 ARIA Music Awards and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997.

I’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden because someone gave it to me. I was on tour for five weeks on a big bus with Paul Kelly, going through 25 American states, and my housemate from Melbourne gave me East of Eden because it’s focused on middle American culture. I’m also a fan of Joy Williams. She’s a great writer, and I’ve read a lot of her short stories.

For music, I’m listening to some folky stuff. There’s a guy in Melbourne, Ryan Downey, who’s great. And I just discovered The Weather Channel. Also, an Australian punk band called Royal Headache.

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