You Should be Listening to Jess Ribeiro

Why isn’t the world listening to Jess Ribeiro?

Her brilliant 2015 LP, Kill it Yourself, was recorded with ex Bad-Seed Mick Harvey; she’s best mates with Angel Olsen, and she’s sung for everyone from Nick Cave to Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. In other words, she’s right in the thick of things. So why the hell haven’t you heard of her?

Previously a conjurer of alt-country and freak folk apparitions, her new record LOVE HATE presents a demented pop sensibility that sits sardonically alongside all of Ribeiro’s Melbourne contemporaries. I sat down with Jess to talk about the record, her space in Australia’s musical narrative, and failing to rip off Sonic Youth.

Having worked with Mick Harvey, do you get overwhelmed following in the footsteps of his other collaborators like PJ Harvey and Rowland S. Howard?

No! imagine that. I would never compare myself to them, they’re a lot better than me. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know who Mick Harvey was when I wrote him a letter asking him to produce ‘Kill it Yourself’; he’d produced a PJ Harvey album I liked and I assumed he was her husband. He got back to me and slowly the pieces came together. I thought, ‘Oh shit! He’s that man.’ I don’t know who I thought he was, but he’s that guy that used to play in that band. At the time I was doing backup singing for a Nick Cave concert, so that was a shock realising he used to be in the Bad Seeds.

‘Love is the Score of Nothing’ has a wry pop sensibility that departs from the broken beauty of ‘Kill it Yourself.’ What caused this change of attitude?

Just a change in my own life; going through a different phase. I’d ended a very long-term relationship and I was looking at the stages of grief, but then I stumbled upon this idea of the cycles of love in Arabic and French literature. One of the stages is lust, desire and fantasy, and one is a love that’s a lot more universal, so it’s a bit of a cynical take on that idea.

Are the singles representative of the album as a whole or are there some weird folky left turns in there?

There are a few turns. There’s a light and darkness to the record. The fact that it’s called LOVE HATE is about the fact that this light and dark are inseparable and inside all of us. So it’s interesting that the singles have some schtick to them, that they’re a bit tongue-in-cheek. There’s one particular song on the record that I recorded in Berlin with Alexander Huck from the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. It’s called ‘Goodbye Heart’, and that’s more ‘Kill it Yourself.’ But you might listen to it and say, ‘Jess, it’s got that little cynical thing happening again.’ Who knows?

LOVE HATE uses such a different musical vocabulary to your previous work. Were you less self-critical because there’s less space for comparison?

The purpose of this new record was to have fun and actually enjoy the process. I recorded it in New Zealand in ten days with my friends Jade McInally and Dave Mudie. And we worked with a producer called Ben Edwards who’s got a completely different personality to Mick, so it was a really different environment. And I’m process based, not outcome based. For me, it’s about the journey of making something rather than trying to sell 50-million records.

The song ‘Stranger’ has quite a sardonic energy but is still sincere and self-assured. How’d that happen?

That song just started off as a chord. I had a crush on someone and I’m rubbish at premeditating things, so that song happened quite organically. Was there a strong vision at the beginning? No. But there was a strong feeling from the beginning because I had a crush on this guy. I had two chords in a weird tuning and I was listening to a Sonic Youth song that I like, and I realised, ‘this is as Sonic Youth as you’re ever going to get, Jess.’ I took it to the band and for ages it was just an instrumental, but I had a bit of a melody for it, and it just evolved. Songs have their own plan. You plant the seed, and after a while you go, ‘Woah! How’d you become like that?’

How much space do you put in your music? You have a real knack for saying a lot with a little.

I was speaking to a producer about that today and he said, ‘Jess, you have to be as simple as possible. It’s the simplicity that cuts through.’ And you can’t be judgemental. Because you’ve got to make a lot of shit to make good fertiliser. Don’t stand in your own way, make things. Some of it will be good, some of it will be really terrible, but it’s all important. You just have to keep making them and the quality will come. And that’s never-ending.

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