Tiny Vipers is the work of 26-year-old Seattleite Jesy Fortino, who authors solemn, near-gothic folksongs in long-form; her compositions sprawling out in stark repetition. After releasing her debut album Hands Across the Void, on Sub Pop Records in 2007, she returned with Life on Earth.
Interview: 1 August 2009
When did you first start making any kind of music?
"Growing up, I never planned on doing music, or even thought about me playing and performing. It never crossed my mind. It’s weird that it’s turned out to be this way. I’m kind of surprised. But when I was about 20, not long after I moved to Seattle, I was really anti-social. I didn’t hang out with anybody, I didn’t have a TV, and I had a night-job where I stayed up all night baking. I spent a lot of time alone. My roommate had a guitar, and I just started playing it. I would record things on a tape-recorder just to sort of remember the music. I enjoyed it so much. It was just what I’d do: I’d go to work, come home and play guitar, then fall asleep. Eventually, my roommate overheard one of these tapes, and said: ‘you should pursue this, I think it’s good.’ Before she said that, I never even thought that about that.”
What music inspired you, back then?
“Originally, Tangerine Dream.”
“Yeah! That same period where I was baking in the middle of the night and playing guitar, pretty much the only thing I listened to was this taped cassette of Tangerine Dream that I just found laying around. I’d bring that tape to work, and I’d listen to it all night. I think that had a tremendous influence on how I developed playing guitar. It was inevitable, really. I’d listen to it over and over, then playing guitar; it had to have leaked into what I was doing.”
How surprising was it, to you, that not only would you end up playing music, but that you’d be on Sub Pop, with scores of people listening to you?
“Very surprising. I’m really glad, and definitely appreciate people listening to it and stuff. But, I don't feel too comfortable in that. Just because you have a record deal doesn't automatically mean people will like it. So, I’ve avoided a lot of that; I don’t know how the album’s ‘doing,’ whether people are buying it or writing nice reviews about it.”
Even when you’re touring, and playing shows, and coming face-to-face with your audience? Isn’t being in a room with piles of other people is the opposite of isolation?
“Yeah, but the shows go back and forth, especially in the United States. There’ll be a lot of people at one show, and then two people at the next. One day you feel like nobody cares, and you should just go back to doing it in your bedroom. And then in another town, it feels like everybody cares, and cares really deeply. It’s this daily rollercoaster ride, and you’re constantly adjusting to it.”
Are you comfortable on stage, given you started out playing in such privacy?
“I’m getter better. It’s hard for me to mentally keep up with touring, keep my mood up even as I'm playing the same songs for people every day. Sometimes it feels like I’m just a shell. Just because of the kind of person that I am, I find the shows hard, too. The fact that people know who I am, and have come out to see me, that just means they have expectations, like maybe they have my album and like it. And that’s a lot of pressure, if you think about it.”
Life on Earth definitely feels like a whole, cogent work. Was that something you had in mind this time around?
“It wasn't something I planned when I was writing the songs. I just keep writing them, and then when it’s time to make a record I think ‘which songs should I use?’ It’s often clear to me what those are; there’s a certain aesthetic that unites them. But it’s an aesthetic, not a concept.”
What’s the thread that runs through the songs on Life on Earth?
“Hmmm. I don’t know. They all have a certain feeling to them, but I don’t know what that is. They just felt right together. I just go with my gut, what it tells me should be and shouldn’t be. It’s kind of a vague answer, sorry. That’s just how I do it.”
Do you not think of what your songs are about?
“After the fact I do. The way that I do things is pretty abstract, so I can be completely clueless as to what they're about. Because it’s almost like they come from my subconscious, so it’s mysterious to me, too. It’s like we’re talking about my dreams. I can guess what they’re about, but your guess might be as good as mine. And the meaning of songs is always changing to me; when put in different contexts, and when I’m in different stages of my life.”
Well, how do you feel at the moment about the songs on Life on Earth? What kind of themes or motifs are very present in them to you, now?
“A lot of them seem to be about small-towns. I guess from that you could infer they’re about the small-town I grew up in, this tiny place called Hobart, outside of Issaquah. Like, I use that town as a metaphor.”
A metaphor for what?
“I don’t really know. I guess something that you’re used to, that you’re stuck in for the moment, but that you want to escape someday; which doesn’t have to be about a town or a place, but a job or a relationship or whatever. Because, when you live in a small-town, you think about the rest of the world and it seems really huge, daunting, and kind of mysterious. There’s something about being confined to a small space that makes everything outside of it seem so much bigger. There’s weird dynamic stuff between me and my hometown, it’s hard to explain.”
A dynamic between positive and negative associations?
“Yeah, there’s something about that town that’s just really drawn me in. It’s weird, because I spent the first part of my life desperately trying to leave it, and now that I’ve seen a lot more of the world than I ever thought I would, something still draws me back to that place, and how weird it was. It was so strange growing up that kind of isolation, to not know what the rest of the world is like. Yet I keep coming back to it.”
Can you imagine living in a small-town again someday?
“For sure, I could even see myself living in my same old small-town again. But it’ll never be the same as then. You can never go back to when that was all you knew."