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interview: teeth & tongue

When I took on the role of lip’s music sub-editor, I found out that I wasn’t required to feature female musicians above male ones. And if I’m completely honest, I was relieved. The bands I was listening to most at the time were predominantly male, often with one female (usually a bassist or a keyboardist), and I wanted to be able to feature music that I enjoyed, rather than just that which was created by a woman.

Since then, several things have changed to make me reassess my stance, perhaps made further complicated by the fact that lip is ultimately a feminist magazine and that had to affect how I approached writing for it. Firstly, I started dating a guy in a band and clearly saw the gender divide in that ‘scene’. With the exception of a couple of rather fantastic women, the males are the ones making the music, and the females are the girlfriends, and even though I was previously aware of this division, I was never before so readily relegated to one side of it.

Then I saw Stonefield, four young sisters in a rock ‘n’ roll band who overshadowed the older male-dominated bands they were performing with that particular night. I got annoyed at how much attention was being placed on their gender by the media because it shouldn’t be a novelty; Hannah Findlay can out-shred just about anyone but this should be considered a feat not because she’s a girl, but because she is an amazing guitarist.

And finally, I started asking more poignant questions of female interviewees about the changing role of women in music rather than just about the (often-scary) idea of feminism.

Fortunately, this all happened before I spoke to Melbourne-based Kiwi expat, Jess Cornelius, about her project, Teeth & Tongue (which has just released a second album, Tambourine), who was able to provide many an insight.

‘Female music shouldn’t be a genre,’ as Cornelius aptly puts it. ‘I do understand the need to make comparisons and to categorise for the benefit of giving [people] an idea of what something sounds like. But it can be frustrating because I think when people make comparisons between female musicians, the scope’s a lot narrower…so you tend to get the same ones and it can be a bit close-minded, a bit limiting.

‘There are a lot of bands now where the rock woman is not necessarily at the front, looking sexy and singing. Women are playing drums and keyboards and covering their bodies and their faces and not having to look a certain way and just playing music. I just wish it were more balanced in that way where women weren’t an anomaly.’

Perhaps it comes as little surprise then that Teeth & Tongue is something of a solo project for Cornelius, although her collaborative relationship with Marc Regueiro-McKelvie has been a longstanding one.

‘Marc, who is on the cover of the record, is very much there for a reason because he did have a huge impact on the way the album sounded and he’s probably the longest running member. But in saying that, he wasn’t on the first record at all. The personnel has come and gone and that’s probably because I have always treated it like a solo project. Sometimes I’ll really want to write songs with a group of people and I love that process but more often than not, it’s sort of like, okay I got the song that I wrote and I’ve written the drums for it and I’ve written the bass line for it or whatever and it’s hard for other people to have to continually play my music!

‘I think the reason it’s worked so well with Marc is because I can’t play like him, even if I tried. And I can’t write parts for him because he has this entirely unique style. He manages to bring something to the project that I just couldn’t but the role others have played can’t be underestimated as well.

‘You never get rid of that influence. I think everyone who’s had anything to do with the writing or recording process, they leave their mark on that and it’s really really valuable and I wish that I could give something back to them. One day I’ll give them millions of dollars.’

In the meantime, Cornelius is refining the art of (her) songwriting.

‘Something has to be triggered emotionally for that song to be genuine and you can tell if I’ve tried to write something…that isn’t really coming from the right place, it’s quite obvious.

‘I still write about other people but I guess I have to really feel it. I haven’t mastered that art of knowing how to write really…I don’t know if anyone ever does really feel like they know how to bring on that creativity. There are definitely times where I think, god, I’ll never be able to write again, you just don’t always feel like you’ve got it in you. I would like to write less about my own experiences, but I don’t know that that’s an entirely viable option.

‘You’re doing whatever you can to make those stories have some kind of universal truth. You want the songs to resonate with people and even if it’s a very intensely personal story, you always want to find a way [of] expressing things that other people want to be able to express or that they can relate to. It’s such an interesting art form really, I definitely haven’t mastered it so far but you always have to keep trying.’

Teeth & Tongue is hitting the east coast for an album launch tour: Sydney – June 2 @ Good God, Brisbane – June 3 @ X & Y Bar, Melbourne – June 11 @ The Toff in Town. Tambourine is out now through Dot Dash / Remote Control.

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