Jess Cornelius — the Melbourne songwriter behind Teeth & Tongue — didn't plan on becoming a musician when she was a kid. "My mother is an artist, so being creative was always an option," she explains, "[but] I wanted to become a cook or a fashion designer." But then she learned how to play guitar and started writing songs. One thing led to another, and as the years passed, her love for music led to Teeth & Tongue's debut, Monobasic, in 2008, and their more recent full-length Give Up on Your Health. A compilation of synth-drenched ballads and catchy hooks, Teeth & Tongue's latest LP explores the way that uncertainty, human closeness, and risk can shape a person. Amplified by the staccato trill of "Are You Satisfied," the dance-inducing chorus of "Dianne," and the electric hum of the album's title track, Give Up on Your Health is a sonic remedy for modern life.
I spoke with Jess last week over Skype about her new album, the value of risk, and the inspiration for the vividly lush video for "Turn, Turn, Turn."
Dianca Potts: You initially started off with a solo project. How did that evolve into a band?
Jess Cornelius: Before I started Teeth & Tongue, I was in a different band, and that was difficult to navigate. I didn't want to fight over artwork or be slowed down by other people's availability. Even when I was working on the solo project, I wasn't being totally autonomous. I was too naïve to retain the kind of creative control I should have and I let producers dictate when we were going to use real drums or electronic drums and whether we were going to use a piano or a synthesizer. I felt compromised in those situations. The people that I work with now are very good friends and I respect their tastes and their musicality, so I'm not worried about losing creative control. I don't feel compromised in any way.
DP: A lot of the songs on this album focus on relationships. Did they teach you anything new about human closeness?
JC: The thing that drives me the most in songwriting is relationships and how our connections to other people are the most important thing that we have going on. Everything we do is related to how we're connecting or not connecting to other people, how people perceive us or whether we're being accepted or feeling accepted. It's something that I'm completely obsessed with, and writing about it changes my perspective on relationships and helps me find ways to make sense of what I'm feeling. It's a process of exploration.
DP: Songs like "Dianne" and "Do Harm" grapple with the weight of risk and the unpredictability of life. Have either of those things ever led to a breakthrough in your life?
JC: I've noticed that when I put myself in uncomfortable situations, that's when I'm the most productive. I think that being comfortable and feeling very certain isn't that great for being creative, for me anyway. When you have to make a choice whether you're going to stay in a situation that's safe and comfortable but not really serving you anymore and challenging you, you have to make a decision where you put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, and that's a risk, I suppose, but those risks lead to greater things.
DP: I love the way that "Turn, Turn, Turn" comments on the way our appetites and desires shape us. What's the story behind that song?
JC: It was one of the first songs that we wrote and arranged for the album. I wrote it on an acoustic guitar when I'd just come out of a serious live-in relationship and I was in a new and challenging situation. It was only half written, but I took it to the band and started playing it on an arpeggiated synth, and it just became a totally different song and we worked on it. It took a bit of a process, but it was fun, so I kept writing and we pulled together an album. "Turn, Turn, Turn" really informed the style of the record, and I'm glad that it did.
DP: The music video for "Turn, Turn, Turn" is really striking, especially the colors and the use of food. What was your vision for the video?
JC: I worked with this director named Matt Cribb. We got the idea to [visually depict] consumerism and gluttony and to have close-ups of people stuffing their faces with food. We wanted to make it kind of gross but also heavily stylized. We made hamburgers out of donuts, covered sardines in chocolate sauce, and fed our friends disgusting foods. It was a really fun day. We just wanted it to be quite odd but aesthetically beautiful.
DP: That sounds like a really fun experience.
JC: Yeah. I sometimes just kick myself and think about how it's a really privileged position to be in to be able to keep making records and to have avenues to put them out and have people hear them, but it's also a really life-affirming experience to be able to make music. I feel very grateful.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.