At least twice over the course of an hour, in the quietest available corner of a sonorous Brunswick café, Jess Cornelius casually refers to herself as “introspective.” It’s a description, I tell her, which seems surprisingly unlikely. As performer, songwriter and the creative force behind Teeth & Tongue, Cornelius seems anything but. At the launch of new single ‘Dianne’ at the Northcote Social Club only a few weeks prior, she had literally flung herself about the stage alongside bandmates Marc Regueiro-McKelvie, Damian Sullivan and James Harvey. It was a party set, and the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s fourth – and distinctly party-like – record, Give Up On Your Health.
“Well, I haven’t done one of those proper tests yet,” she laughs, her Kiwi accent rising above a cavernous room of squawking Aussies. “I think a lot of people who write and perform are probably in a similar vein. In that, you have to give so much energy – there is so much energy output in the performance and in the recording and the rehearsing – that [this] translates to me needing a lot of time on my own, around all those other times.”
It is perhaps, then, this need to be alone and remove herself from the endless social demands of a close-knit creative community in Melbourne that led Cornelius to one of the farthest flung corners of the world. Following the break-up of a longterm relationship and the exhaustive touring and promotional cycle of 2014’s Grids, last year the singer embarked on a three-month artist residency in remote Iceland. “I was so isolated there and there was nothing to do apart from make work, which was brilliant because it was very beautiful and brutal the weather, and quite extreme,” she recalls.
Locked away, at the behest of sporadic snowstorms and muddled by small bursts of daylight and long spells of darkness she fell into a strange kind of routine. Waking each morning at 5am she would stretch, and then head straight to the shared recording space – a large, heated, concrete room – to try and grab a few moments to herself. “There were 15 artists there altogether,” she explains, “you’re in a shared studio so everyone could hear what I was doing. So you’d kind of get used to just really quietly singing scratch vocals into a microphone – and that’s one of the reasons I’d try to get up so early. I’d try to get to the studio before anyone was there.”
The introvert in Cornelius loved the solitude. “It felt really right to me. And of course that doesn’t fit in with playing shows or having a normal relationship with people who like to go out and do things, so it was interesting. I was euphoric. But that only lasted a few weeks.”
“It wasn’t until I got to Melbourne that I was surrounded by people making music.”
Once the euphoria of isolation had worn off, Cornelius actually found herself struggling to disconnect from the outside world. “I had just started seeing someone – and the whole point was to go and be alone. That was the idea, but it doesn’t always work like that. Because technology allows you just to text immediately – any time of the day or night. So in reality you are so connected and it’s hard to get that sense that you can cut off that world.” This feeling of connectedness inspired the track ‘Small Towns’, funnily enough the only song – along with a “remixed” version of early single ‘Cupcake’- which would make the cut from “the Iceland sessions.”
What happened to the rest of the songs? “What came out in Iceland was mostly rubbish,” she says with a wry smile. “[The work] ended up being really inward looking … I don’t really write songs about scenery or landscape, so I kind of internalised everything and I wrote all these songs about me – which I normally do anyway – but they were just kind of worse. And then I got that all out of my system and came back and wrote a whole lot of songs that weren’t so much about me.”
She doesn’t view the trip as a waste of time, though. Quite the opposite. The way she sees it Iceland allowed Cornelius to get all that post-breakup introspection “out of her system” and to really hone her craft, forcing her out of old song-writing routines and into uncharted territory. And there is every chance that those long, dark Nordic days eventually (if only subconsciously) inspired Give Up On Your Health – a sparkling party record, rich with synth and syrupy melodies and the perfect antidote to any lingering Icelandic melancholia. “[The band] had been having a lot of fun jamming and I decided I wanted to make a fun record – one that was fun to record, fun to play and fun to listen to and watch live. A record you can dance to.”
“There are obviously all these wonderful women making great music right into middle age and beyond but there is just not as much of it.”
As well as being stacked with a couple of pop bangers, the record explores new territory, lyrically, for Cornelius as well. The main narratives that feature on Give Up On Your Health, while personal, are much less insular than usual; there is a distance about her as she observes situations from afar, weaving together little vignettes as they pass her by. “It’s sort of all events that are closely related to me,” she says, hesitant to give away any specific people or moments that may have inspired tracks. “But it’s about other people and how whatever happens in the these external circumstances, I’m questioning my own role in that.”
It’s easily her strongest body of work yet and the most stylistically different to Teeth & Tongue’s 2008’s debut, Monobasic, which had Cornelius somewhat lazily pigeonholed, for a few years, as a PJ Harvey-sound-alike. “I really rebelled against that, I think,” she muses. “It is frustrating because you do feel like people are being lazy when that happens and they are just picking the nearest female artist who comes to hand. And that gets frustrating because you are obviously influenced by all these different musical things. But I understand that people are trying to explain how something sounds to people who have never heard it – I understand the need for it,” she says looking back on her early days as a songwriter. “It was good in a way, though – in that it was a bit of a wake-up call. Because I probably was very influenced by certain artists and that was coming through [in my work]. And it really made me think well I have to find more of my own sounds. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but it did take me a while to figure out what I sounded like.”
Cornelius attributes her move to Melbourne, made well over a decade ago now, as an integral part of her journey as a songwriter. Raised in Ngāruawāhia, a New Zealand town located near Hamilton – “culturally a really great place to grow up but a very poor town” – for the first 10 years of her life, her family moved to Wellington when she was 11. “That was a real culture shock because it was very white, middle class – everyone had Reeboks and slouch socks, and I wasn’t allowed them,” she laughs. Music was the one constant, her parent’s record collection – which featured the likes of Nina Simone and Johnny Cash – playing a huge role in fuelling her desire to pick up a guitar and enter a couple of local “battle of the bands” comps while at school. But it was here in Melbourne that she really began to tap into her songwriting potential. “It wasn’t until I got to Melbourne that I was surrounded by people making music,” she reflects. “Previously, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to feed off other people in the real world. And even when I got here it took a few years to find my feet musically and even longer to find a style that was my own.”
While Teeth & Tongue is very much a collaborative project these days, allowing Cornelius to jam out ideas and arrange songs with the help of her bandmates, she continues to obsess over the craft of songwriting. An obsession fuelled, in part, by fellow Melbourne musician and good friend Laura Jean. “We’ve always been quite different musically,” she admits, “but we operate as songwriters in a similar way.” So much so that the pair, who met while they were both studying Professional Writing at RMIT, worked quite a bit together while Cornelius was still in the process of structuring her songs on Give Up On Your Health.
“Previously, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to feed off other people in the real world.”
“We had these sessions when I was working on the album where I would bring a batch of songs to her and she would bring some to me and we would get together. Laura teaches songwriting and I’m obsessed with the craft, so we both love talking about songwriting and we love pulling things apart and questioning them. She is writing this incredible pop record and I’ve been helping her and she helped me, so we have this kind of exchange of ideas and it’s just really nice being able to nerd out with someone talking about that stuff.”
Laura Jean and Cornelius are also both at the same point in their careers “professionally”, so to speak. They’ve released a similar number of albums and are around the same age which means they often bond over shared “industry” experiences – whether that be the emotional roller-coaster of watching your work get critiqued, or dealing with the realities of being a woman in “the biz”- a particularly unique and occasionally difficult challenge. “I know the public reception of my records is not always going to go my way – and I’ve been very lucky so far – but there is always new people coming out. And being female and getting older in the music industry, there’s not a lot of precedent for that. There are obviously all these wonderful women making great music right into middle age and beyond but there is just not as much of it.”
And while critical and public adulation is always welcome, at the end of the day, once all the interviews have been completed and the records reviewed, Cornelius just wants to be able to keep on writing, right up until she is a grey in the hair and long in the tooth. “I want to find a way where the songwriting takes precedent,” she smiles. “Because I’d like to write with, and for, other people and do that until I’m 80.”
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Give Up On Your Health is out now on Dot Dash / Remote Control. Teeth & Tongue will be launching the album on an East Coast tour, following appearances at next week’s BIGSOUND.
September 6-8 – BIGSOUND, Brisbane QLD
Friday September 30 – QAGOMA, Brisbane QLD
Friday October 7 – Brighton Up Bar, Sydney NSW
Saturday October 8 – Howler, Melbourne VIC
Saturday October 22 – Grand Poobah, Hobart TAS