Jesy Fortino as Tiny Vipers (photo from the Burn to Shine DVD website)

Jesy Fortino as Tiny Vipers (photo from the Burn to Shine DVD website)

[Note: I first posted this piece on US acoustic performer Tiny Vipers on the Fishrider Records blog back in September 2009, shortly before I hosted a ‘Pop Lib Presents…’ Tiny Vipers show in Dunedin]

I’m not that big on acoustic music. The visceral punch of guitars/bass/drums is usually more my thing. But the soul needs soothing from time to time.  Tiny Vipers is exactly the right meditation medication for that.  The new album “Life on Earth” is one of those rare albums that draws you in to a mesmerising world of plucked acoustic guitar and haunting vocals.  Everything about the album is sparse and spacious but also luxurious – how can dark silence decorated at such a languid pace by golden notes and silvery tones sound so rich and warm and inviting?

Jesy Fortino is Tiny Vipers. Although on the two Sub Pop label albums to date occasional others have guested ghostly guitar, piano or noise accompaniments.  It seems odd that Sub Pop – more usually associated with that visceral punch music above – is increasingly home to some of the quieter, gentler artists of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. Fleet Foxes, Grand Archives amongst others.

Jesy Fortino draws the inspiration for her dark art from the damp and dark forests of Washington State in the far Northwest of the USA. She was brought up living in the woods amongst secret-holding trees near Seattle – Twin Peaks country in every sense – and the tales of spirits, ghosts and hauntings that go with forests, long winters and lack of sunshine.

So it is fitting that her music is singularly haunted.  While you could draw some superficial comparisons to recent artists like Joanna Newsom and Grouper what I hear draws deeply on more distant stuff – through the hypnotic drones of solo Nico and the wounded heart of Townes van Zandt and early ‘70s acoustic Neil Young right back through the blues and British and American folk, generations old.

Despite the reliance on the traditional folk elements of guitar and voice, Tiny Vipers is way out on the border of what would be accepted as “folk music”.   The lush guitar tones and the gentle way that phrases and melodies are organically looped with hypnotic repetition while sometimes changing subtly over the course of a song often gives the music an ambient/ experimental feel.

The songs – which are often non-linear meditations on life and experience – are not cheerful. But neither are they at all depressing. There is something dangerously uplifting about the songs and music on “Life on Earth” which is way deeper than surface meanings.  There is neither rage against anything, nor bitterness or despair.  Just an oddly satisfying meditation on what is, what once was, and what may never be again.

There’s a video of a spine-tingling version of “Development” from the “Life on Earth” album and some live MP3s here.

There’s a lovely video shot of “On This Side” (from the first album “Hands Across the Void”) done for the Burn to Shine DVD series here.

Jesy Fortino explains how her upbringing in the woods near Seattle has helped shape her music: “There’s this force that’s really mysterious and dark and always right there next to you. It keeps you on your feet, like you never know what could happen, or how different things become at night in woods.

“Growing up here was very mysterious because I wasn’t used to the woods. I really did think there were ghosts and spirits that lived here and the kids who lived around here also believed in them. There’s a lot of places you weren’t allowed to go. There’s a lot of mines – mines shafts – and we’d stay away from that area probably for that reason. But we’d be like “oh, that’s because there’s a ghost – we’ve got to check it out, investigate, collect evidence”

“I felt a need inside me to be in  mysterious surroundings. I really like dark spaciousness, where you can go off and it feels like there was nobody there before you. I feel like I seek that a lot. In art too. I feel like, I like to create spaces where it feels dark and empty. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain I guess.”

“So when you do finally move into a city with people, they’re like “what the hell are you talking about?” They just don’t share the same experience. After a while you keep it a secret – “I’m just not going to talk about that stuff”, you know?”


[Transcribed from Seattle Music Scene 2008 Part 2 (@2m 40)]

UPDATE: January 2013. Jesy collaborated with Grouper (Liz Harris) in a project called Mirroring. An excellent album ‘Foreign Bodies’ was released on Kranky in 2012. One of my favourite albums of 2012