Words and photos by Kealan Shilling
Styling by Brittny Moore
There exists rare musicians who, upon first listen, can leave us with a sudden enigmatic connection to their music.
Putting on the single “Cocaine Cat” and listening to Tess’ beautiful raspy voice layered over the dark rhythmic tones of BJM’s Anton Newcombe seemed to stall my thoughts. I closed my eyes and lay there, listening to the rest of the record on the floor. I wrote to Tess shortly after, curious when she might be coming Stateside to play, and what began as an internet conversation slowly turned into plans to meet up when she came to Los Angeles. We spent an afternoon walking around Los Feliz, taking pictures and talking music between her time spent playing shows in the desert and taking in the city.
What’s the first thing you remember attracting you to music as a child?
My dad played me all of the music that would eventually become my favourites. Oasis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin… He’d put on the radio and play along on piano and I’d dance around and sing along. The first record that really meant something to me was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? That was the first CD I ever bought with my own money and I remember calling my parents from a payphone asking if it was okay if I bought it. It felt weird to buy a CD like that when everyone in my grade was listening to more mainstream pop music.
You were born in Toronto, right? Can you tell me a little about growing up in Canada?
I really love Toronto and the neighbourhood I grew up in. Growing up I always felt out of place and misunderstood. I always managed to get bullied at every school or summer camp I went to. The friends I did make are people I am still friends with today, but some kids can really fucking suck. You gotta channel that shit. I spent a lot of time in my room reading and writing and learning to play guitar, so I don’t really mind, looking back.
How did you come to find yourself spending time in London and eventually Berlin?
I moved to London at 17, initially to study photography at the University of the Arts London. But I didn’t see the point in being in a classroom when I could be outside wandering around London taking photos. I studied the art that I was into on my own anyway, and still do. So I dropped out after first year. My passion was always music, I grew up wanting to be Noel and Liam Gallagher, so I started playing a lot of shows and just ended up staying. I’ve been there on-and-off for nine years now. I started going to Berlin frequently from February 2014 onwards, when I started to record music with Anton.
Can you tell me how you first came to meet and connect with Anton? And how that evolved into recording a record?
I was going to Berlin to visit my friend from London, Emeka, who had moved there. I had messaged Anton as a fan and he suggested we record some music together. He had heard about me from Alan McGee, etc. We recorded two songs and they turned out so good, so we decided to make a whole record.
That’s amazing, coming from being a fan to then recording together. I’m curious about your recording process with Anton. Do you write and then create songs together around your lyrics or do you and Anton just create music and then write lyrics for the songs?
It depends. I present him a lot of songs I’ve written as chords and lyrics and then he’ll arrange it and change things around and orchestrate them and really bring them to life. Sometimes he’ll have music ready and I’ll write lyrics for the music or we’ll write them together.
On the album I Declare Nothing, there’s a song called “German Tangerine”. Anything particular about German tangerines that has a special meaning to you?
I’ve always associated them with the holidays and Christmas time. I love tangerines. I love that song too, by the way. I wrote that song at Anton’s studio late one night sitting at the dining table. There was a bowl of tangerines in the centre of the table. It was just stream-of-consciousness writing.
What writers do you enjoy reading, look up to, or find inspiring?
Ahhh, so many. Fitzgerald, Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Alain de Botton, Eckhart Tolle, Rumi, Rilke, Thich Nhat Hanh, Paulo Coelho, T.S Elliot… There’s a lot.
I think your photography is beautiful, very telling of a musician’s life in your candid portraits taken around other musicians. Can you tell me how you got into photography? What camera or cameras do you enjoy shooting or travelling with?
When my grandfather passed away, I inherited his Pentax Spotmatic camera. I’ve primarily shot on that since I was 14. In high school I had a great photography teacher, Wanda Porter, and she was really encouraging. I’ve been using an Olympus Trip recently and my great photographer friend, Luis Mora, loaned me an Olympus Stylus Epic small point and shoot. I still like using disposables sometimes too. I got lazy for a while and didn’t like carrying around heavy cameras, but I’m making more of an effort again now.
Yeah, that’s always a tough decision to make leaving the house. Can I ask where you’ve you been drawing inspiration from musically as of late?
I’m constantly trying to make sense of losing people we love, whether it’s because someone has passed away or the end of a relationship. Reflecting a lot on recent travels and different conversations and experiences with friends and strangers.
And what do the next few months hold?
I’m currently in Toronto for the next couple of months and then heading back to London in January. Releasing a new record with Anton early next year.