Though Seattle’s Jesy Fortino, a.k.a. Tiny Vipers, performs her songs solo with a guitar, she’s never been one to adhere to traditional singer-songwriter values. Over time, her music has effectively devolved, from slowly unfolding minimal folk to something black and desolate that may have more to do with Sunn O))) than Cat Power. Life On Earth is Tiny Vipers’ second album for Sub Pop, and it finds Fortino vacillating between a high, cracking croon and a deep, dark warble while she poses existential questions over a dooming analog score. The strangest thing about her music, however, is that while the songs get sparer with each release, they glow all the more brightly with a hidden, unnamable warmth. In advance of her show on Friday, June 26, at Le Poisson Rouge, Fortino talked with Decider about finding space in music, real chamber reverb, and mythical things in everyday life.
Decider: You sound more at home than ever over your new, bare-bones songs. What changed for you in approaching this record?
Jesy Fortino: I think I just grew up. I’m more mature than I was when I made the last record. I’ve played longer; touring makes you understand things a little better. I also wanted a simple analog recording. The first one was such a Pro Tools record. This one needed to be like a good live take. I like the limitations of recording on tape.
D: What appeals to you about working within such minimal songs?
JF: I don’t like loud, constant bombardment. I like something that gives you a little space, even when you turn it way up. Stuff like Arvo Pärt, where there’s room for me to use my imagination. You know, you listen to a song and the meaning changes with your mood. I like subtle things like that.
D: Have you intentionally pared down your own music over time?
JF: Yeah. When I started out, I was doing strummier, chord-based songs. It took time to develop more complex melodies. But it’s funny—I feel like my older stuff was more busy, but there was less going on.
D: You’ve said that you weren’t happy with the feel of working in a studio in the past. Were you hesitant to return to a formal setting this time?
JF: I was hesitant in general. I didn’t know if I was going to re-sign with Sub Pop or even if I’d continue to release music. I’d put everything on the backburner and was just hanging out at home jamming by myself. But then, on tour, I met Balmorhea and they got my spirits up. I went down to Austin to sing on their new record, and that’s how I found this studio. I was blown away—they use real chamber reverb there. I didn’t even know what that was.
D: You've credited engineer Andrew Hernandez with “interpreting” the new songs. What was his role?
JF: Andrew makes things possible. He sits back while I tell him abstractly what I want, then he tells me how to make it real. We both had that exploratory nature, where we’re not trying to make the record sound a certain way or make anybody happy. We’re just trying to see what’s possible with what we have.
D: There are a couple of short stories on your MySpace page that work “tiny vipers” into the narrative. Where did the name originate?
JF: I just like the way that it sounds. [Pause.] I used to play Dungeons & Dragons a long time ago, when I was a teenager. “Tiny Vipers” are a thing in the game. I guess I bookmarked it in my head to use somewhere, someday.
D: Is there an element of fantasy that informs your writing today?
JF: Not much anymore. You know, I used to be inspired by huge magical castles and dragons and fantasy worlds, and now I’m more inspired by mythical things in everyday life. It’s part of getting older, maybe. It’s definitely less dramatic. [Laughs.]
D: Lyrically, Life On Earth asks more questions than it answers. What draws you to that approach?
JF: I don’t know. A lot of the content is a mystery to me too. I’m not trying to get a point across. I’m just trying to put the pieces together to make the song approach a feeling. There’s a lot of uncertainty.