The Collapse Board Interview: Jess Cornelius
After moving from New Zealand to Melbourne in the early 2000s, Jess Cornelius found fame through Teeth & Tongue, the band she formed in 2007. After releasing four critically acclaimed albums, Monobasic (2008), Tambourine (2011), Grids (2014) and Give Up on Your Health (2016), they disbanded in 2017, with Cornelius starting to release music under her own name that same year, with the Nothing Is Lost EP. She moved to Los Angeles in 2018, integrated herself into the city’s music scene and started to work on the songs that form her debut solo album, Distance. A few weeks before the album’s release she gave birth to her daughter.
We talked to Jess about moving to LA and building a community, recording the new album, playing streaming shows during Covid-19 lockdown and whether she anticipated the career she’s had when she first started playing in the Melbourne music scene.
Collapse Board: You’ve been living in LA for a couple of years now. It’s the second big move you’ve done, coming from New Zealand, from Wellington to Melbourne, and now you’ve from Melbourne to LA. As a musician, what do you think is key to making a successful geographic move ?
Jess Cornelius: Probably community building, finding your people, finding like-minded people is the biggest thing, making friends with people that you like, and hopefully people who are doing the same or or similar things as you so that you can support each other. That’s probably something that I learnt moving to Melbourne, how important that community was and something that I had in mind or understood when I moved to LA.
CB: Were there people you already knew in LA?
JC: Not really, no. I came here on tour and spent a few months here and met one or two people but it wasn’t until I got here and started putting together my band for live shows and I met a lot of people through them, a lot of different musicians, and also just going out to shows as well.
CB: Obviously LA is a lot bigger than Melbourne, Was it easy to start to build your community?
JC: I think anywhere, you have to definitely put yourself out there a bit. My life is so different now, but when I first moved here I would go out to shows every night and would just try and find out who was playing and try and talk to people. If there were musicians I liked when I saw them play, I would talk to them. Because you are in a new place and no one knows you, I had less inhibitions because I was unknown, it was like starting again. It’s like I had nothing to lose, no one knew anything about me. In some ways it was liberating because I could just be nobody, just be a person at a show and just talk to people. It’s very vulnerable to be saying to people, “Oh yeah, you know, I’m a musician and I play this,” and people maybe get it straight away or they’re really open it or whatever, you get different things. But I very quickly made some really good friends who were musicians and, from there, it just expanded outwards, so I’ve been really lucky.
CB: Has living in LA changed your approach to writing or recording or how you look at the music industry in general?
JC: I don’t think so. My plan is still to do more collaboration, that’s something that I’ve had to work on because I tend to write alone a lot. I would like to do more co-writing, that’s something that I guess I want to do differently. With this latest record I made it and definitely wanted it to be more like “This is band in a room playing these songs,” and recorded it in a very live way. So that was a different approach, but it’s definitely not a unique approach, people do that all the time, I just hadn’t done it for myself. With Teeth & Tongue it was much more about track-laying instruments and using drum machines. So I don’t think that my approach to make music and write songs has changed, it’s just, I guess, that I have different resources now. I have less resources in some ways and more in other aspects.
CB: Other than size, is there much difference between the LA music scene and the Melbourne music scene?
JC: Obviously LA is huge but the actual, I guess scene, of the type of music that I’m into and involved in doesn’t seem much bigger than Melbourne. It tends to be like anywhere where you start knowing a lot of people within that world and it becomes very connected. So it doesn’t feel huge but of course LA, as a whole, is massive.
CB: Is that music scene based around certain suburbs or do you have to travel back and forth across the city to see people?
JC: It’s such a hard question to answer at the moment because obviously things have been on hold for what feels like so long and I don’t know if all the venues are going to re-open. There are a few different neighborhoods where there are more venues that would have the kinds of bands that I’d go to or that I would play at. I guess they don’t call them suburbs but there are different neighborhoods. You still have to travel a bit, it’s LA there’s always travel, and the venues aren’t grouped together, it’s not like you can walk between venues really, you have to pick one or you can Lyft between them. People generally don’t crawl between shows, which is, you know, a bummer, and takes getting used to and it’s harder to get people to shows in a sense, because they can’t go to more one in a night. If it’s a busy night, it’s very difficult for people to go a couple of shows. I guess that it’s hard to get people to come out to shows in LA but I think it’s just part of it and eventually it gets easier.
CB: It says in the press release for the album that it was important for it to reflect the local music scene. Why was this important for you?
JC: A lot of that was it to do with wanting to just play with different people. I had this one band for a number of years, you know playing with the same people, and that was great. For this record, I really wanted to make use of the fact that there were all these musicians around and they were very willing to collaborate and make music together. So it was about getting to know these people better or getting to know them in the first place and working with them and also getting great players on the record.
CB: The people you’ve got to play on the album have a really impressive list of credentials. These were just the people that you spoke about earlier that you met at shows?
JC: Mary Lattimore [harpist] is a friend of mine that I met through my drummer, who I met through a guy who was my bass player that I met through Facebook. That’s kind of a weird story but I met a whole bunch of people from Philadelphia and she was one of them, so she’s become a good friend. Then people like Stella Mozgawa [drummer], I’d met her but didn’t know her very well and the producer that I was working with knew her a bit better than I did so she came in for a session. Jesse [Quebbeman-Turley], who was the Hand Habits drummer, I’d met through my housemate, as I was living with a bunch of musicians as well. So there’s different ways that I met people and sometimes you’d meet someone and then you’d see them at a bunch of shows, it just happened in different ways.
CB: Did you always plan to release the album at this point in time, so close to when you were due to have your baby?
JC: Definitely weird timing. I knew I would be hectic but I just decided to go for it! [laughs] I was hoping to release it earlier but it just took a long time for things to line up or get finished, to get the labels sorted out, and then I ended up writing ‘Body Memory’ at the last minute and added that. So that was kind of good in a way that it took a bit longer because otherwise that song wouldn’t have been on the record. I started writing it back in 2017 so it’s been a while coming.
CB: The press release also mentions that you’ve been researching the most sustainable ways to tour in coming years.
JC: Oh, right. That was more about trying to tour with a baby.
CB: Where did you go to find information about that?
JC: I was reading a lot of stories about women touring with their children and just digging it up on the internet and talking to friends and friends of friends.
CB: What advice and recommendations did they give you?
JC: I guess it wasn’t advice as such, it was just different anecdotal stories. People talking to people who had toured with babies and some had had good experiences, some had had very difficult experiences. I think it all depends on the age of the child and what kind of child you have. I’m sort of glad that I don’t have to think about that at the moment! [laughs]
CB: Had you actually planned any tours or shows before everything stopped?
JC: Yeah, my agent had started out looking at an album release tour but obviously it didn’t get booked completely because things started shutting down. I was planning on touring the record around October/November but that’s obviously not happening.
CB: In the meantime you’ve been doing a lot of streaming performances, how’s that worked for you?
JC: It’s been good. It’s kind of nerve wracking in a different way. It’s really nice not having to organise logistical stuff like travel. I started out much more complex and was doing much more of what I would do at a normal show, using electric guitar and using different pedals and voice effects. Then the last show I did, which I’ll probably do again just because there’s so much going on, I actually found it more enjoyable to just keep it really simple and have much more of an intimate kind of exchange with the audience. One of the lovely things about doing, say an Instagram live stream, is you can see people, you can see the comments come up and so I really liked being quite close to the phone and being able to respond between songs, rather than having a kind of stage set up where I can’t interact. So I’ve kind of changed my approach to that recently.
CB: In an older video interview I saw, you said jokingly that you have a nervous breakdown over every album over getting what’s in your head out into the world. Was that the same for this album?
JC: There’s definitely been some meltdown moments, especially with also having a baby at the same time. It’s been intense but I guess that having a kid has also kind of given me a little bit of a distance from caring so much about the record, because obviously your priorities get a little bit realigned. I’d like to think that I’m a little less concerned and it’s been more fun this time because I’ve had a lot more creative input into the videos and everything. Normally I would get video people to make the videos and then worry that they weren’t going to be how I wanted them or they wouldn’t have the right end result. This time, being kind of forced to just make them all myself, has been a real blessing in a way. Although it’s been quite stressful, because there’s always been a lot of work and I’ve had to learn the video programs and then meet these deadlines, it’s actually been really rewarding, because it feels like a kind of extension of the album and the artistic expression. So, you know, it’s been fun this time.
CB: You touched on being more in control of the overall creative process, and although you released your last EP [2017’s Nothing Is Lost] under your own name, this is the first album under your own name. Has that made it feel any different?
JC: It sort of does in a way because there are fewer people, I guess, directly invested. I mean with Teeth & Tongue it did sort of become more like a band, but I was still, I guess, the one who probably had the most invested in it, as Teeth & Tongue was always kind of essentially my project. So it doesn’t feel like a huge change, but it is just me, I guess. There are just fewer people to celebrate with, or commiserate with [laughs], depending on what the situation is, but, you know, I’m kind of used to it. It feels really normal, It doesn’t really feel any different.
CB: It feels like a million years ago now, but I remember seeing you in Brisbane with Moscow Schoolboy. My then girlfriend and I saw you on the Friday night at Fat Louie’s and then we came and saw you on the Saturday night at Ric’s. We bought your CD and we were telling you the story afterwards and you were completely amazed that we’d come to see you two nights running…
JC: Gosh, yes, that was a long time ago. I would still be amazed if that happened now! [laughs]
CB: …Back them did you dream of the career you’ve had, were you planning out what you wanted to achieve and working towards certain goals?
JC: It’s interesting. I guess I always knew I would keep doing it, keep making music for a really long time, and I guess I hoped to be able to do that. I probably had different intentions in terms of how much I’d be touring, all the types of places I’d be playing or I’d go to. I’m just really happy that I’ve kept doing it. I probably wouldn’t have thought that maybe I’d move to the US or the UK or something, but the circumstances have been very different, the actual real circumstances. I mean I didn’t think I would be so sort of late and then, you know, having a baby here, none of that would’ve crossed my mind, but in terms of just making records, I think I imagined that would always do that.
CB: To finish, I was just going to ask about the album cover, what’s the story behind it?
JC: That was a photographer friend of mine called Pony, we just drove out to this town called Victorville and we just found the entrance to a national park and it was really windy and really freezing and we just took some photos, we didn’t have very long. I can’t remember who brought the chair or where that chair came from, to be honest! That was just one of the photos we took from that shoot and ended up being the cover. This designer that I’ve worked with for all the Teeth & Tongue records actually did the cover. I asked him to play around with, with colour and monochromatic effects and we did that.
Distance by Jess Cornelius is out now on Part Time Records / Remote Control.