It is so easy to become immersed in the universe that Tom Stephens has created for his musical project Tesse to exist within. There is a sense of poetry and observation on every front. Every sound, texture and visual teasing at its own little story.
Tom was kind enough to answer some questions for us about his latest release ‘My Madeline’ and the things that inspire him as a creative.
First off I just want to begin by saying a huge congratulations on the release of ‘My Madeline’. It is an incredibly rich and poignant offering both from a sonic standpoint as well as lyrically. Could you give me a little insight into how a Tesse song (or this Tesse song) makes its way from conception through to construction?
Thank you, H! The process seems to be always different depending on the song. Oftentimes a melody will kick things off, or sometimes just a single line and I’ll build the idea from there. It’s usually always dictated by a particular feeling or mood. I’ll pick up a guitar and try to fit the melody to a progression. Sometimes it begins with a drum groove. I love approaching songs from different instruments, seeing where they can be taken when a particular instrument leads the charge.
In 2017 I bought an iPad and started experimenting with GarageBand. I watched a video of Steve Lacy from US band The Internet using his iPhone to record songs and it inspired me to give it a crack with the iPad. It was a real game changer. I began a new songwriting process where I would record entire beds of songs with all the instrumentation before any vocals. I found that this has really freed up my melody ideas and allows me to try different things vocally that I wouldn’t normally with just a guitar. I demoed all the songs from the new record in their entirety on the iPad. When it came time to record the songs in the studio we would drag my GarageBand session into ProTools and work from it, kind of like beefing up the demo one track at a time. This saved a lot of time because there was no need to record scratch guitars or vocals, they were all there ready to go. A lot of the magic of the demo is able to be retained. The original tempo is kept, which is a big thing. We were able to reamp a lot of the guitars keeping the takes from the demos. I feel like there’s a big difference in delivery between playing a guitar part in the studio and playing it at 2am in your undies in your room at home. You can really take a lot more time with it and try different things.
‘My Madeline’ was inspired by the guitar riff. It gave me a certain feeling that then placed me in that reflective headspace to write the story. Restaurants, RSLs and cafes are the worlds that the song takes me to.
The textures on ‘My Madeline’ really do seem to sit in this beautiful cohesion. During the recording process were there any sonic influences that you found yourself coming back to or referencing?
Thank you, always trying to find the great balance! King Cass McCombs, particularly his record, Mangy Love. The drums are super present and punchy, the bass tones are big and bold. Everything has a perfect spot and there’s so much space. Big Thief, Jeff Tweedy. I love his treatment of guitars. The last Tesse record How It All Unfolds was recorded live to tape, all of the elements had a feeling of falling together, it was loose and off the cuff. I wanted this record to feel more deliberate in terms of arrangement and hit harder through the headphones sonically.
It’s been a little while since the 2018 release of How It All Unfolds and the 2019 collaboration with Georgia Mulligan. What did you learn from the last release rollout that you have taken into this one, and how are you enjoying the process so far?
I’ve learnt to just let the songs do their thing. Once they’re out in the world they take on their own identity and journey, I can’t always be there to watch over them like a protective parent.
I’ve also really loved diving into the visual world. I’ve become obsessed with photography and visual language in the last 2 years which has really influenced how I view the presentation and delivery of my music. A song can have a whole new life when the visual language is attached to it, I find that really exciting.
I really love the Tesse universe. The imagery, sounds and accompanying visual media all feel incredibly deliberate and crafted whilst still maintaining a feeling of authenticity. Who are some of your non-musical influences?
That means a lot, I’m really trying to create a world that people can identify and relate to. There’s so many influences. Gerald Murnane, an Australian author. He claims to have never left something like a 100km square radius of his house. He values his own personal experience and inner landscape above anything else, I find this very inspiring. The idea that if we turn our attention inwards there is so much to unpack and explore.
Emmet Gowin – American photographer famous for making photographs of his wife. His work placed a similar emphasis on his own experiences and relationships. I love a quote by him that says: “There are things in your life that only you will see, stories that only you will hear. If you don’t tell them or write them down, if you don’t make the picture, these things will not be seen, these things will not be heard.”
Raymond Carver – short story writer and poet, I was turned on to his work by a favourite photographer of mine; Todd Hido who shot one of his covers. A master of the character profile, his worlds are so rich and real created with such simple and matter of fact descriptions.
I feel inspired to make art of all kinds after reading his work. He inspires me to look deeper into the everyday and peel back the layers.
Of ‘My Madeline’ you said; “‘My Madeline’ isn’t about any one specific person. I wrote it with the kind of person in mind who always has their fists up and is pushing back against life. They care a lot and sometimes too deeply. So much of our everyday experiences and occurrences are unfair and a struggle, but there is power in letting go when we feel disoriented and powerless and seeing it as a source for growth.”
How do you go about jumping into the mind of another when conducting ‘character study’ of sorts, and is that generally the type of writing that you find yourself drawn to currently?
I’ve always been drawn to that style of writing. I find that when I’m channeling through another character, my own personal experiences and observations seep in as well as whatever it is that originally drew them to me. I feel like this makes the material more engaging and relatable to the listener. Creatively, the possibilities are endless because I’m not just relying on my own experience which often feels like it needs to be extraordinary for someone to care enough to listen.
I’m trying to provide a voice to stories or experiences from people that wouldn’t normally tell them so publicly.
Alongside the release of the single came an accompanying music video directed by Olivia Costa, which is both gorgeous and kind of unsettling. Like a lot of your work, there is something about it that feels acutely Australian to me. There is a beautiful unspoken sadness to it that feels like it’s lingering just under the surface. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the concept behind the video and what it was like to make?
Thank you, yes Olivia is amazing. She’s a big fan of the Swedish director Roy Andersson who makes incredibly stark films about the monotony of everyday life. The music video gives space to the unheralded moments in life; a celebration of the mundane, mediocre and monotonous.
It was a lot of fun to make. So many characters on set, I was fortunate to have such a great team working together.
That’s cool that the Australian feeling translates. With my art, I attempt to invoke Australian images and experiences unique to here because it’s what resonates with me and my experience. There’s a big thing of Australian artists writing songs about LA or Paris, when I believe there is so much depth to unpack here.
What are three songs you are currently loving?
What is your favourite lyric that you’ve ever written?
Our ticket took the loss again
two becomes 50 million, maybe next week.
Slot machines are transforming, now it feels like there’s a slap to all I see.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written and why?
The melody is just incredible to me, so simple but so transcendent and evocative. I love the way that the song is so repetitive but has a constant movement.
“Loving hand turns burning sand to water.” Beautiful.
If Tesse was a Cake, what kind of cake would it be and why?
I reckon a real good carrot cake. Sweet but birthed from the savoury. Divisive, but hopefully when you know you know.
Tesse’s latest single release ‘My Madeline’ is out now – available to Stream/Purchase here.