“You Always Want What You Can’t Be.” – An interview with Tess Parks by A Love That’s Sound.
Razor-voiced songwriter Tess Parks originally from Toronto, now resides in London where she is writing a follow-up to her sophomore album. Speaking to A Love That’s Sound at the 2016 Levitation Festival in Austin, Texas, Parks talks about her collaborations with Anton Newcombe, being a Brian Jonestown Massacre Fan, her writing process and the romance of discovering music in unlikely places.
David Lacroix: Here we are at Levitation festival in Austin, Texas. Have you ever performed in this city?
Tess Parks: No, I have only ever played in New York. I sang for the first time this weekend with the Brian Jonestown Massacre but they only had an hour long set, I do a few songs with them.
DL: Tell us a bit about your single released last year on Record Store Day, it has a pair of strong songs with “Cocaine Cat” and “Mama.” How did you come to do an RSD release?
Tess Parks: Originally, I had done “Mama” and a song called “Wehmut,” that I did in 2014 with Anton Newcombe. I thought that the extent of it would be doing single but we ended deciding that we liking the songs that we did so we made a whole record. He wanted to put something out before we released the record; it all happened quite naturally.
DL: Tell us about the making of I Declare Nothing. How was that process different from your previous album?
Tess Parks: I was a big fan of Anton, I originally messaged him and said that I was going to Berlin to visit friends, as a fan I said “it would be really cool to meet you.” He had heard some songs that I had done before and said “we should do some songs while you are here.” It turned out well; we recorded the whole record in a little over two weeks. We finished recording in September 2014 and it was out in June 2015. We toured Europe in the summer and did some festivals in the fall. It has been a very natural, organic collaboration. I’m very happy about it.
DL: Tell us about how you first came into contact with Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre?
Tess Parks: We spoke on DeadTV in 2010 once or twice. That was before I was a signed artist, I was 19, I was stealing wifi from my downstairs neighbours and then the wifi cut out so we stopped talking and that was it. I put out a record in 2013 through Alan McGee’s new label and Anton was paying attention to what Alan was doing. I messaged him and said I was coming to Berlin and that’s the first time we met.
DL: What can you tell us about working with Anton Newcomb?
Tess Parks: You would have to see it to believe it. He works very fast, he’s really quite good, he knows so much about music and he hears things. That’s it, it just happens.
DL: Do you have any favourite BJM records?
Tess Parks: No, I like so much of that music! I can’t pick.
DL: How about songs? Are there a few BJM songs that you just love to pieces?
Tess Parks: There are so many. When “Servo” comes on, you’re just like “YEAH!” Or “the Devil May Care,” “You have been Disconnected” or “Open Heart Surgery.” I love that band.
DL: Musically, what was it like growing up in Ontario?
Tess Parks: Do you know the Edge 102.1? That used to be a good radio station and my dad grew up listening to Led Zepplin, the Who, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, you know, the ‘90s, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis… so I kind of listened to whatever my dad listened to. From a young age, I remember when Kurt Cobain died, I was only three and a half. I remembered my dad talking about it, that is probably one of my earliest memories. I was always musical, I guess, but i’ve never been mad about music that has come out of Ontario. There’s Neil Young…. there’s good local bands in Toronto now but I wasn’t familiar with them growing up. I feel that Canada is limited in a way and that we look to other countries for what’s good. Whatever is good in other countries needs approval; we need the approval of other countries for local bands. In Toronto, you have to leave and then come back with the approval of the UK or America. Sometimes your like “why didn’t you appreciate me before?” I’m not saying that nobody did, but it’s not accepted by your peers from the get-go.
DL: Canada is very supportive of artists, they are just generally mainstream artists that aren’t that interesting.
Tess Parks: When it comes to Factor Grants, it’s this niche thing that ends up being commercialized instead of what is cool or what is good. What starts off as an “Indie” band, I don’t want to name names, but I’m sure you can think of some. I was in Winnipeg in 2003 and I remember seeing adds for Metric on Much Music or something. Remember “Combat Baby”? It was adds for that record or that song, you don’t see shit like that on TV anymore but they really used to push it on all media.
DL: Did any Toronto festivals have a significant impact on your musical development?
Tess: No, I’ve played NXNE, and that’s fine or whatever. In Canada, I can’t say that I haven’t been fucked over in a monetary way. NXNE will either pay you $50 or give you a wrist band for the festival, and you’re like “fuck you guys, the rehearsal space cost $50 and we have four members in the band who need to eat and pay for gas to and from, not to mention the costs of instruments and all of the effort, love and sweat that has gone into this. In a way I don’t necessarily agree with those things like Canadian Music Week. The big bands get big bucks but bands starting out don’t always get the help they need. It’s not something i’ve really gotten help out of, it’s something that I did because it was there.
DL: Most female singers follow a conventional vocal styles, your personal style of singing really stands out. Who are some of the singers who have most influenced your vocal style?
Tess Parks: The first female vocalist I really got into was Cat Power, I used to sing along to her and try to emulate it. Janis Joplin, who’s from Texas, Port Arthur, I’m not sure where that is compared to Austin. I’ve modelled myself largely after men like Jim Morrison, Liam Gallagher. I think for men, they like a female voice more but for women, I’d like to sound more like Bob Dylan. You always want what you can’t be. I was more inspired by male vocalists growing up. Oh, and Patty Smith.
DL: What’s the biggest difference between the artistic communities in North America versus, say, London?
Tess Parks: Oh man, both have changed so much since I became part of them. In Toronto, you are either commercial or you are not; there are the smaller smaller, different, DIY labels and then there’s Arts&Crafts which is more mainstream shit. There’s not necessarily a big market for pure rock and roll music or alternative rock the way that the UK embraces that. There’s not a Brit Pop sound to Canada at all; it is appreciated but by way less people. More people like Drake, basically. It’s not really a rock and roll city the way that London is. London became very dubstep by the time I moved there, it was very electronic. It’s weird.
DL: I have spoken with other artists about how the places with the most hard-up living conditions and lack of artistic subsidies are most often the places producing the most artistically rewarding music. Do you think that art subsidies hurt critical artistic expression?
Tess Parks: I’ve never had a grant but they are available. I applied a few years back and didn’t get it. Maybe if I applied now I would, I don’t know, but it might tarnish all of the things that I have carefully put together. You kind of have to do it in your own way. I wouldn’t do anything that is commercial.
DL: Where do you usually write your songs?
Tess Parks: I’ve had a bit of a drought. Sometimes I don’t write for a while or I’ll write a line or two and then I won’t write for four months because I am uninspired or am too happy to write or haven’t traveled in awhile and then I’m seeing the same shit everyday, and it’s all the same. As soon as you go somewhere new or something different or meet new people, you write. I’ve been writing here in Austin. I think it’s when i’m in transit or a state of transition, that’s when I’m writing, or when I’m very sad. I wrote a lot of songs when I was severely depressed or when I was a teenager I would write some really good songs. Like “Cocaine Cat,” I wrote that song when I was 17. The best stuff happens, you write it down in 3 minutes and that’s it. That’s the song. I have almost been too happy in my life but then at the same time very bored because everything is very good.
DL: We spoke with the Veldt, from North Carolina.
Tess: They are on a label from Toronto called Optical Records! I didn’t get a chance to meet them!
DL: The Veldt were extremely appreciative of Anton Newcombe. Apparently, he was told that they were a difficult group to work with and he responded “I love difficult.” Do you see yourself as a difficult artist?
Tess Parks: I think I am internally, I try not to project that. I wouldn’t say difficult as much as complex. I have dark thoughts, if I share them with some people, they wouldn’t get it, you know? I’ve heard so much about the Veldt from friends. I listen to music anymore unless it is put on for me; I don’t actively search for music the way that I used to. I was in a restaurant earlier and a song was on, i was like “woah, what is this?!” I find it really hard to type a band i’ve been told to listen to into youtube, it’s just so fucking easy that I can’t bring myself to do that. Even if you have the best pair of headphones, there’s nothing romantic about searching on Spotify. I’d rather hear something in a special way rather than look on Mixcloud for a special mix. It’s too much typing shit up to find it; i’d rather it come to me.
DL: Do you think the cancellation of Levitation 2016 could have a positive side for psychedelic music?
Tess Parks: I dunno, I have mixed feelings about it. I wanted to come here and get excited about music again, walk around and hear music, just to find it and happen upon it. I didn’t expect to queue up to places and not get in or to have to choose between things and not being able to catch small glimpses. And I really wanted to see Brian Wilson, which is a bummer, obviously, but if people got hurt at the ranch or the campsite, it did end up being a really crazy storm. I hope that everyone had a good time regardless. Obviously, it’s the best that could have come out of it but it would have been a very nice time for everyone to be in the same place all at once.
DL: Austin Psych Fest has been growing steadily, do you think that the popularity of this festival could compromise the art?
Tess Parks: Everything grows exponentially, once it grows there’s no turning back from it. There’s awareness to things, maybe it even becomes un-cool at some point, but if people like what is being produced by this genre than it doesn’t really matter. Nothing ever hits an expiry date. The Beatles, it’s not like people are ever going to stop listening to them unless the internet breaks down and all records and tapes are gone. It’s like Mozart, it exists everywhere. Mozart wasn’t even recorded music, it was sheet music and it’s just grown, it doesn’t stop. It’s like population growth, there’s every going to be a short fall of anything.
DL: Will you be working on a followup to I Declare Nothing anytime soon?
Tess Parks: Yeah, later this year we are hopefully going to do that.
DL: the Black Angels and the Brian Jonestown Massacre are largely cited as two of the most influential psychedelic bands of recent years. Would you agree?
Tess Parks: I would agree with that but at the same time, when you are amongst it, when you are living at the same time as those bands, you don’t realize the true impact that they are having. My friend, Danny Fields, he used to do A&R for Elektra Records. He used to look after the Doors, he found the Stooges and MC5. He looked after the Romanes. He told me a story about seeing the Beatles when they came to New York at Carnagie Hall. He said “people were just screaming and I couldn’t hear the band.” I was like “wow, you saw the Beatles!” but he said “well, at at the time it didn’t seem like anything, I was just co-exisiting with them.” It doesn’t mean anything.
by A Love That’s Sound.
Artwork: Marie Ingouf.
Writer/Interviewer: David Lacroix.
Photography: Bev Davis, Ruari Meehan & Lilly Creightmore.
Thanks also to the Reverberation Appreciation Society and Levitation.