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Teeth & Tongue, the Australian group helmed by the talented and ubiquitous songstress, Jess Cornelius, has had quite the groundbreaking year. Coming off the immense success driven by their 2011 album, Tambourine, and their engaging follow-up, Grids, the band toured with Courtney Barnett, an Australian tour-de-force with banter just as witty as her songs. The sound has never emerged stale or stagnant as the band has continued on their journey. Now, Teeth & Tongue is preparing to release their latest album, Give Up Your Health, filled with vulnerable storytelling, lush synth production, and unforgettable melodies.
Cornelius’ voice is commanding and mesmerizing, recalling a diverse blend of female vocalists as influences. She grew up listening to greats such as Nina Simone, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, the Talking Heads, and Lucinda Williams, along with some ’90s New Zealand hip-hop artists. Later, her tastes turned to Sonic Youth, The Chills, and Straightjacket Fits, but she’s unsure if these influences permeate Teeth & Tongue’s unique sound: “I think sometimes the artists who influence you and the ones who actually come through your music as obvious influences can be two different things.”
The process for the album’s creation was arduous, yet more than worth it. Cornelius endured hardships throughout the creative process, though it brought her to a most intimate state of being with her thoughts and lyricism. She traveled the globe to Iceland, where she was able to find a creative haven and make music her way. “It’s funny because yes, I did go and do this residence with the intention of writing an album, but only one of the songs I wrote there actually ended up being used. I did it because I wanted to see what would happen if I shut myself away and spent an intense period of time just writing, rather than working and socializing and doing all the other things I normally do between songs,” she says.
The solitary nature of her songwriting process this time around wasn’t cumbersome, but rather, illuminating: “It was definitely an interesting and pretty challenging process. I wrote quite a few songs there, but because I was so isolated and lonely they became very inward-looking, introspective songs, and when I got back I decided I didn’t want to make an album like that this time around.”
After her Icelandic jaunt, Cornelius experimented with different sonic techniques while crafting Give Up Your Health. The music sounds like it could fit within a few separate eras, with synth beats and dance rhythms permeating many ballads. “I guess we were quite conscious of the sound we wanted to achieve with this album, but I don’t know that we had any particular eras in mind. I mean, you always want the songs to seem timeless in a way, and not be instantly identifiable as coming from a certain decade, because that can date [things] so quickly. But we’re definitely more influenced by the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s than we are by the 1930s or ’40s,” she explains.
Cornelius has described the process as being more about keen observation and a stream-of-consciousness, inspired by poet Eileen Myles. She cobbled together nearly 40 songs in their initial state between the last album and this new release, but wasn’t satisfied with many of the results. “I guess I chose to persevere with the ones that were a little more interesting to me at the time, and they tended to be the less introspective ones. But the album is still really personal. In fact, it’s probably more personal, because it references quite specific situations and experiences rather than abstract ideas.”
This album absolutely feels more personal, more raw, and it comes from a place of pure truth. Many songs feel like advice-giving ballads for listeners, a direct story to tell. Cornelius didn’t have a specific theme in mind when crafting the album or consider the response, when it was illicit anyhow. “I didn’t have a theme or concept in mind in terms of lyrical content. Not at all. I guess with every song I’m just trying to deal with my own problems and anxieties and satisfy my emotional curiosity. So thinking about how someone else will respond kind of doesn’t come until later,” she states.
Lyrics on Give Up Your Health are haunting, lingering in consciousness beyond their closing notes. “Once you start changing/ It’s hard to stop changing” and “When we met/ We both had a lot to forget/ You came with a warning/ I came with a messed up head” showcase a deliberate life of experience and stories to tell. When asked about the scenarios that prompted these lyrics, Cornelius is curt: “Some of them are so personal I actually can’t bring myself to publicly talk about what’s behind them. I guess it doesn’t always seem that way because you can frame things in the universal. But I did try to avoid censoring myself too much in the songs. ‘Dianne,’ ‘Do Harm’ and ‘Are You Satisfied’ are probably the ones that kept me awake at night.”
While some songs are plucked directly from life experiences and dusted off, others are augmented and aggravated. “Sometimes things get a little warped or exaggerated or down-played or flipped around to another person’s perspective. But it’s all my own personal bullshit,” Cornelius explains with total honesty.
When it comes to deciding which elements and layers will be present on an album, Teeth & Tongue go song by song. Whether it be minimal instrumentation or a barrage of electro-pop textures, they’ve explored their sound with no limits. Give Up Your Health features a thread of continuity weaved throughout: “We obviously used a lot more synths and electronic instruments than I have in the past, and we wanted to carry that through the album to make it cohesive. But some songs just need less, I guess,” she says.
As for the future of Teeth & Tongue, the band is poised for more critical acclaim, more tour circuits, and a further exploration of their own sound. It’s all a surprise, and Cornelius depicts the band’s future with perfect candor. “It’s totally reactionary, but I almost want to make a folk album next. I want to learn how to play nylon string guitar properly, but, that’ll change.”
Standout Track: “Dianne”
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