Tess in Venice is London based artist Tess Cunningham. Her debut ‘Let’s Compare Scars’ (2013), an ethereal piano-led confessional EP, was produced by Marc Pell (of Micachu and the Shapes). In a departure from this elaborate introduction, Tess picked up a guitar, taught herself to play, and wrote a collection of lo-fi garagey guitar based songs which formed the backbone of her second release ‘Flood Heart Fly’ (2015). Tess appeared solo and with a band playing both instruments to promote these releases, affirming her diversity as a songwriter and performer and receiving positive reviews.
Growing up in Melbourne Australia, the youngest of six with five rock loving older brothers, Tess balanced this noisy household with a serious ballet career that began in childhood resulting in her relocating overseas as a teenager, all the while subconsciously synthesising these experiences to create her unique and diverse sound. As well as ‘poets, painters, Prince and Prokofiev’ Tess embraces the possibilities that come from the crossover of different creative forms. Her upcoming release ‘Polly Psyche’ is a futuristic re-imagining of the story of Cupid and Psyche and a return to the arpeggio driven piano of her debut.
Ahead of her Polly Psyche single release, we asked Tess in Venice all about the creative process and meaning of the dark and spell-bounding single.
For our readers who have never heard your music, describe your sound in 6 words:
Daring, dark, colourful, uplifting, honest, imaginative, and pianocore.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new single Polly Psyche? What was the cultivation and songwriting process like and what inspired the aesthetic?
It’s a re-imagining of the Greek mythological story of Cupid and Psyche. It’s kind of about overcoming obstacles to find true love, which is the central theme of the original story. I like to plant a classical idea in everyday life so I made Polly an ordinary girl. I decided to make it as long as it needed to be — at 7 minutes it is quite long!. I had the intro and first part right away and added instrumentation building up sounds using both my voice and anything else I could lay my hands on – violin bowed guitar!- to create the atmosphere. I always draw my songs as I’m going along and I’d sketched Cupid dressed in jeans and boots…the music inspired the aesthetic and the drawings strengthened the emotion behind the character, giving Cupid an identity. I make videos for my songs and the Polly Psyche video features all my drawings.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
When I first began writing songs it was all from personal experience. I like to create these worlds of escapism that are somewhere between real life and fantasy. The relationship between classical and rock music is another inspiration. I also observe what’s going on around me, conversations, or even a word overheard. I’m very inspired by words and read a lot, especially female poets.
How did your interest in music begin?
Music was big in my house growing up, with five older brothers there was always something playing, mostly rock music. Mum and Dad got a piano and I had lessons, but at the same time I also started to learn ballet, and I was performing professionally by ten with that, so the piano got neglected for a while. Ultimately, I found myself in London, I bought a small keyboard and started writing songs. I felt that I had a lot of stuff that I needed to say at that time in my life and music helped me work through some difficult things I’d been through, it was healing as well as something that I enjoyed spending hours escaping to.
You’re a self-taught guitarist. Do you have any advice to women in music who are afraid to be instrumentalists?
The best thing about learning the guitar is that you never go backwards, each step you get a bit better and then suddenly it all drops into place. As soon as I was able, I started writing songs on the guitar, in fact, the first three songs on my ‘Flood Heart Fly’ EP were the first songs I ever wrote on the guitar! So, have no fear and also really learn as much as you can about the technical side, too — how to plug things in and tune up, etc. It will give you confidence in a live or studio situation. You can find a lot of great female guitarists on the web for inspiration, artists like St. Vincent, Anna Calvi, Theresa Wayman, Joni Mitchell and Kat Bjelland to name a few.
Women in music are pressured to follow a certain path, usually a highly sexualized image — which can distract from their songwriting. What is your opinion on how women in music are treated?
The internet is enabling a lot more women to go it alone and take ownership of their music and image completely. Hopefully, this will lead to more honest and diverse representations of women in music, not just as products of hyper-sexualized marketing campaigns. More women are getting involved in writing and producing and becoming label owners, and hopefully over time the balance will be restored. We might not get such a narrow minded perspective of what defines female sexuality in music. There are some really great examples of women who are putting their music and intelligence first and if we have more of this then we can have a variety of models to aspire to. It’s fine if the woman is owning it and that’s what she wants to do, but it’s not okay if there’s pressure coming from above to boost sales.
What artists have influenced your sound?
My music isn’t influenced by anyone really but I am definitely inspired by certain artists, writers and bands. The Pixies, Emily Dickinson, Prokofiev, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Chagall, Picasso, The Invisible, Babes in Toyland, Nina Simone, William Blake and the incomparable Prince are just a few. I also like heavy music, but I’ll listen to really poppy stuff and classical. I also like dance music because I love dancing!
If you could work with any artist, dead or alive, who would you collaborate with and why?
My idol was still alive earlier this week, and now sadly he has passed away and so it would have to be Prince. As well as being a musical genius and visionary, Prince was a really great promoter of female musicians and dancers, the focus was always on their music and abilities first.
Best advice ever given to you?
You know those blinkers that horses wear, so they are not distracted? Someone once told me to ‘keep my blinkers on’ and I try to apply this, to keep focused on what I’m doing and where I’m heading and not get too distracted about other stuff that’s going on, especially negativity. It’s still there, but you’re not letting it steer you away from your goal.
Who inspires you, personally?
Polly Psyche is dedicated to my dad who has been through and come out the other side of some health problems, his optimism for life inspires me and he has always supported me. He and mum have encouraged me to write, and to never feel that something wasn’t possible.
Polly Psyche is out on iTunes, streaming and bandcamp on 29 April 2016 via Midnight Cat Records.