“I’m just incredibly bad at making decisions,” says a remarkably earnest Jess Cornelius. “I get really distracted and really influenced at different times by a lot of different things.”
It’s this simple yet somewhat contradictory statement that perhaps captures Cornelius – or Teeth & Tongue, as she is more commonly known – most effectively. Primarily a solo project, Teeth & Tongue has grown steadily over the years with each release, and Cornelius has continued to bend genres along the way, resulting in a distinct take on modern pop. Having released her third album Grids earlier this year and on the cusp of a national headline tour, Cornelius talks about everything from making final tour preparations to the joy of drum machines and what it takes to discover one’s own sound.
The creation of Grids certainly wasn’t easy for Cornelius – it came at a time when the singer was not even contemplating writing another record. Originally hatched back in 2012, it would be nearly two years before Grids saw the light of day.
“One of the reasons [for the long process] was that I actually didn’t have a full album written when I started recording because I’d never actually planned on starting it,” says Cornelius. “I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to make a record.’ I didn’t actually feel like I was quite ready to make another album. I had a handful of songs and I really wanted to get them down and demo them, because I felt like they were a bit of a departure from what I’d done before and I was really excited about them. So I went and demoed them with AJ [producer AJ Bradford], and the demos were the ones we ended up using for the album recordings and so I just decided to keep going.”
Grids is a truly 21st-century album. Written and recorded by Cornelius in her home as well as in the studio, it was built layer by layer and is the outcome of new technologies that enable such DIY efforts while producing polished results. It’s a diverse record – no two songs sound the same, and Cornelius’ strong, soulful voice is the only constant. Grids is experimental, quirky, and perhaps even a little weird; it’s the sound of an artist not afraid to let her far-ranging influences come through.
Cornelius says the album’s diversity owes much to technology and the access it allows to an endless array of sounds and effects. “When you’re using drum samples, you can obviously use a lot of hip hop sounds and a lot of things you might not be able to get with a drummer, which is why I really like using drum machines. I’ve just always been fascinated with all those sounds that are within a little drum machine box, you know; all those ’80s snares, like fully gated pop sounds. But, you know, I also like really messy, noise guitar stuff.”
It’s this clash of musical influences that gives Grids its sound. However, it’s also been the cause of some criticism over the record’s lack of cohesion. “I really did try to make a cohesive album,” says Cornelius, almost apologetically. “But I have to admit, my influences are all over the shop so it can be a struggle to do that.”
For the Grids national tour, Cornelius will be armed with not only a growing list of songs to choose from but also a full live band. “Everything’s in real time now,” she says. “There’s no backing track on a metronome or anything, which means we can really play with a lot of timing; we can change the time mapping to make things longer or shorter, and be a lot more adaptable and flexible.”
The band Cornelius has assembled is her most ambitious yet, with a live drum kit, and a backing vocalist to help out with the melodies. “There’s a lot going on,” she admits. “But we’ve really tried to retain that kind of space. With five people it’s really easy to fill in all the gaps, so we’re trying not to do that.”
If recent rehearsals are anything to go by, it seems the addition of extra musicians onstage has given the songs on Grids a new lease of life. “There were a handful that we’d never played live before recording them, and when we did go to play them live things did change,” says Cornelius. “We do a much tougher version of ‘Easy Living’ live; it’s become this sort of extended math rock jam session at the end. But yeah, songs take on a bit of a different personality when they are played live.”
So with the release of Grids and on the eve of a national tour, has Cornelius finally found Teeth & Tongue’s sound? “People talk about discovering your own sound and that kind of thing, but I think it’s this ever-changing thing,” says Cornelius. “If I’d made this album in three months’ time it would probably be a really different album.”