Teeth & Tongue is the musical project of Jess Cornelius – a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based songwriter who sings about real and gut-wrenching moments to tunes that have our collective butts wriggling. We’re massive suckers for ’70s electronica, and Jess’ latest album, Give Up On Your Health, is chock full of it. She took a little time out to tell us about how this album and her songwriting career came to be.
What inspired you to start making music? I had a few boyfriends who played guitar when I was in high school, so I kind of started playing guitar when I was about 14 or 15, and then I studied music. We had this thing called ‘Rock Quest’; it’s like a battle of the bands. I formed some bands to play in these Rock Quest things, and then I was just always writing songs.
Have relationships and music always been interwoven for you? I think that’s probably true to say. I couldn’t really separate my music from my life. And people I’ve met have been become very influential. If they’re influential socially, they tend to become influential musically.
We heard that you first sang the track “Your Ghost is the Hardest to Kill” into a phone in a bathroom in a Tokyo apartment. Why was that? I was on holiday and in a new relationship. I’d been in this long relationship for about four-and-a-half years, and when that ended, I kind of fell into another one quite soon after. I found that hard, that sort of sudden transition with this other person, and then I found that whole trip really difficult. I thought I’d left a lot of stuff behind, but it all revisited me – it was just this stampede of memories. So I had this idea for a song, I had the melody, and I wanted to capture it. I was holed up in this bathroom, because you don’t want to be writing songs in front of other people. It just doesn’t work that way.
So that’s how you write a song – a melody will come to mind and you’ll just start singing it? It’s different every time. But I find the songs that often work best come with the lyric and the melody kind of together. It’s very difficult to put a fully formed set of words to music.
And you’re a writer professionally as well, right? My professional writing is a lot more dry. It’s a lot of copywriting and internal communications. Sometimes it’s really, really fun and can be creative. But I’m lucky that it doesn’t have to be creative. I think the songwriting side would suffer a little if I were spreading myself too thin artistically. It’s nice to have a brief, too, because with music you don’t write to a brief. You just write what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, what you’re questioning.
Writing can be quite an all-consuming process when you’re drawing from emotions and personal experience. Definitely. It’s interesting that decision you make – whether you’re going to be very true to your own ideas and your own emotions, or how far you take it into being a character-based song. It always starts with a real emotion and then you sort of elaborate on it, you exaggerate, and I think you have a choice. I want to make every song the best song it can be, and sometimes you have to leave the truth behind, I think, in order to do that.
But then maybe you find another truth. Well, this is true. There’s a few particular songs on the album that make me I think, “Gosh, I’m kind of worried about what certain people will think if they hear these songs, because they’re about particular people.” And then I think, “Well, I don’t feel exactly like that now. That was a moment, I felt that way for 10 minutes.” But once the song has started, you can’t go, “I’m going to tone it all down and I’m not going to feel that extreme about it – my feelings aren’t so black and white now.” No one wants to hear that. You want the extremes, because it’s more interesting. And we all feel that strongly at some point.
Friday September 30th – Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Friday October 6th – Brighton Up Bar, Sydney
Saturday October 9th – Howler, Melbourne
Saturday October 22nd – The Grand Poobah, Hobart
For more Teeth & Tongue, head here.