wears the trousers magazine

best of 2009: wears the trousers meets tiny vipers

Jesy Fortino is worried about getting electrocuted. “I think I’m gonna die. I just have that feeling,” she says to an audience of four. It’s a stormy Sunday morning at Ireland’s Electric Picnic festival where, due to a scheduling mix-up, Tiny Vipers’ set has been bumped from a Saturday evening slot without explanation. She’s not impressed. But now the power has cut out mid-song and a pool of water has collected at her feet. Wrapped up and hooded, she pauses to warm her shivering hands and apologises to the dedicated few seeking refuge in her soothing folk. The crowd swells as her voice soars again, but even the sight of First Aid Kit singing along can’t redeem things for a weary Fortino, who clearly mouths the words “shitty show” at its conclusion.

In the artists’ teepee backstage, she just wants to retreat to the hotel. This is not the ideal time for an interview. In fact it’s a low-point on a 70-odd date tour of North America, Europe and Australia that she has booked herself, with little time off, in support of her second album Life On Earth. “It’s been crazy,” she says. “I’m getting a bit exhausted, homesick, burned out… But it’ll be okay.” As she glances down at her mud-caked plimsolls, with rain pummelling the tent and the sound of drum’n’bass reverberating from half a mile away, you can’t blame her for longing for home.

Fortino grew up in “Twin Peaks country” – between the small lumber towns at the foot of Washington’s Cascade mountains, where David Lynch’s enigmatic TV series was set. Having moved there from Texas at an early age, she was captivated by a “dark force” she felt in the surrounding forests. No more so than when she’d take LSD and wander through the hills, her imagination stoked by the eerie significance that places like the abandoned road behind her house would take on, particularly at night.

“I mean there were ghosts… So I used to make up stories. There were these two trees that crossed each other and I’d tell people that if they didn’t get back to the site before the sun went down that this huge wolf would come out and eat them. It scared the shit out of my friends!” she says with a laugh. “Some people said there were aliens. It was just a spooky area; a lot of people say they feel weird there. I guess when you go hiking alone, you get creeped out. It feels like mountain lions are watching you or something. I’m sure I draw a lot from the spaciousness or the whole mysterious qualities that come from it. There’s something about the woods at night that’s always going to stick with me.”

That Lynchian undertow is perfectly reflected in the artwork of her first album, 2007’s Hands Across The Void, which sees a torch-lit Fortino wading waist-deep into a shadowy swamp. The music itself is the stark, singular sound of timeless folk: just a voice and an acoustic guitar drifting meditatively between the introverted and the impenetrable. But being a musician was something Fortino took to by chance. Not long after moving to Oakland, California at the age of 20, Fortino worked nights as a baker. Living in a huge, windowless attic in a house with no TV, an antisocial existence eventually led her to pick up her housemate’s unused guitar.

“I’m not even sure why she had it, really. After a while she asked me if I could give her guitar lessons. I was like: ‘well I don’t know how to play either!’ I just kind of messed around until I got there. I didn’t even know how to tune it.” Elsewhere in that attic she found an old tape recorder. Not knowing what any of the chords or notes were called, Fortino catalogued song structures of her own by making instructional tapes and drawings of where her fingers should be positioned. “It’s kind of a weird, home-brewed system, but I get it – even if it takes 100 cassette tapes.”

By the time she moved back to Seattle, she felt comfortable enough to perform a series of gigs that a friend booked for her at a Thai restaurant. Though Fortino guarded her recorded material as something deeply personal, a friend brought them to the attention of local label Sub Pop. They agreed to release Hands Across The Void and the album was warmly received; but Fortino tired of it quickly while touring and took some time off to decide if she wanted to continue pursuing music at all.

“I don’t listen to it anymore; I just can’t. I mean, I’m really weird, so I have like… problems… with certain things. I didn’t really like the record so it was hard to come out and support it.” So before re-signing with the label, she waited until the songs started coming again and made sure that, this time, they were fine-tuned in front of audiences and recorded in live takes, rather than digitally assembled. “Now even if the shows don’t go great or whatever, at least [Life On Earth] is something I’m happy about. I’m definitely more laidback now. I’m just more comfortable with my own style, whereas before I was too self-censoring. Now there’s no more worrying about being weird. I mean I was younger, so… I’m more mature.”

Nevertheless, the time has come to take a step back and re-evaluate again. There is an option for a third album but once the touring concludes, Fortino just wants to get back to a normal life. “Returning to my day job will be a nice break. It’s easy work: not driving every day, all day, and being in unfamiliar places. When you’re on tour you’re working 24 hours a day. I mean it’s fun sometimes but it’ll be fun to have my stuff in one place and just relax, go to my job for fours and come home. I like it. Luckily I can go back to the same job in the same restaurant.”

These are not the words of an ego-driven artist. There is no tour manager or PR person; just a deathly shy and diminutive figure who, throughout the interview, has rather politely held the voice recorder on two outstretched palms still thawing from the storm. “When I don’t do anything, I start to get restless. I think I’d volunteer if I didn’t have to work!” She giggles one last time. “I just like to do something, even washing dishes. I don’t mind.”

Cian Traynor
Life On Earth is out now on Sub Pop Records. Keep up with all things Tiny Vipers over at Myspace.

FREE MP3: Tiny Vipers, ‘Dreamer’ [from Life On Earth]
FREE MP3: Tiny Vipers, ‘On This Side’ [from Hands Across The Void]


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[…] best of 2009: wears the trousers meets tiny vipers […]

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