Jessica Venables is nervous. Which is completely understandable, given the fact that after several years of discovering the songwriter within her and transferring it to tape almost completely by herself, she suddenly finds herself having conversations with strangers about something that, up until now, has been the most insular of creative processes.
The something in question is a remarkable debut album, a 35-minute, ten-track collection of intelligent, affecting songs that sound for all the world like she’s been doing this for years. But this emotionally honest and musically rich batch of songs actually represents a sample of Jessica’s first foray into songwriting; this is only the fourth interview she’s ever done. And needless to say, her recording moniker and band name Jessica Says comes tailor-made for interviews.
It was the music lessons so many school students fear that brought her to this point. “My mum’s a violin teacher and my dad makes violins, and I think they wanted a family string quartet,” Jessica says. “I wanted to be a gymnast when I was little, but it was lucky that they didn’t let me pursue that, because I would never have gotten anywhere with it. I feel lucky that my parents prioritised music, because it’s something you can use forever, and use however you want.” Before long she was the lead cellist in the Melbourne Youth Orchestra – and already restless. “I was in that till I finished school, and then I left classical music forever. I teach cello now, but I don’t partake in that world. Being able to play is easy. But singing and songwriting is the challenge, and the more exciting thing.”
And so while taking on other gigs – most notably touring with New Buffalo on cello and backing vocals – Jessica started to put the songs she’d been inventing onto tape. Her debut album We Need To Talk started taking shape in a tiny North Melbourne home studio with her friend Geoff O’Connor. “I started writing songs when I was in Year 12 – I heard Joanna Newsome, and I hadn’t really heard music like that before, by someone who was obviously classically trained, but also was really lyrically driven. Geoff encouraged me to record things, so I started working on that slowly before I started playing with New Buffalo, and when I came back from touring with her I finished it off.”
We Need To Talk is a solo album in the true sense of the word; almost everything is played and sung by Jessica herself, layering multiple tracks of cello and vocals as the songs demanded. There’s a natural ease to the whole thing, though, that has you checking the booklet to confirm that this isn’t an artist hiring in a bunch of extra help. Which of course raises the question of how this is all going to work at live shows…
“It’s a bit different live. We’ve got a drummer playing with us now that’s made it so much better – he’s a very creative drummer, it’s not like we’re trying to turn it into a rock thing. But I can be a bit of a loose cannon, I suppose, so it’s good to have that grounding. And it also just makes it a lot more textured, because obviously I can’t have ten cellos. So then my younger brother Nick plays violin, sings and plays guitar, and a girl called Stella who I was in Melbourne Youth Orchestra with plays bass cello, and I play keyboards.”
So these songs are going to change drastically on stage, then? “Not really. I don’t think so. I guess there’s a couple of tracks on the album where there’s no keyboard on them at all, it’s pretty much ten layers of cello. I’m never really going to get that sound live, but I originally wrote those songs on a keyboard anyway, just playing them on a Casiotone and me singing, so they’ve translated fine.” But which is more rewarding, though – assembling a song in a studio yourself, or trusting others to help perform it at a live show? The answer: neither.
“I like the songwriting the best. I just record everything into my phone and trust my memory a lot… All I’m interested in in the world is songs, I think. But I’ve been getting to like performing more and more, especially after playing with New Buffalo and getting to do these big tours. So I get really excited about playing now, and not as nervous as I used to. Making the transition from classical stuff to playing in a pub, I guess your priorities become different in terms of what a performance is about. It’s not especially about accuracy now. It’s taken me a couple of years to get my head around that, I suppose. And I can’t believe you can stand up there and ask people to listen to you, it seems amazing.”
There’s a lot of what used to fashionably be called “confessional” writing in Jessica’s lyrics on this record – direct and personal, and often very pointed (“He thought he read me but he only skimmed, still I got one or two songs out of him”). She’s having none of such stereotyping, though. “I think everyone’s songs are personal… but I think humans are all pretty much the same. It’d be silly to think that your experience is so unique, so even if what it’s about is not exactly the same emotional experience as what I’m having now, it’s still pretty much all the same.” And of course, some listeners don’t even explore the lyrics… “Yes, it’s interesting how you can appreciate a song so much and know what the lyrics sound like, but not really have thought about them.”
We Need To Talk was actually completed back in May last year, but was delayed until now so that it could make its way into the world at, as Jessica says, “the right time.” But the intervening time hasn’t been wasted; as well as completing a uni degree, Jessica’s been thinking ahead. “I’ve written the next album and I’m ready to record it. But that’s going to be different. I think I was so self-conscious when I started recording this one that I didn’t really feel that comfortable about asking many other people to play on it. But the next one will be different. I hope so.”
Having a second record ready to be put to tape before the first one was even out is rare indeed, but for Jessica, songwriting is anything but a chore. “I just write all the time. It’s my favourite thing to do. I had a four-track for a while, but I was too lazy to learn to use it. So I probably place too much trust in my memory, but it’s all in my head. And on my phone. My house got broken into last week, and my iPod and laptop and camera were stolen, but luckily not my cello or my keyboard. And luckily I had my phone with me – that would be by far the worst thing to disappear.”
We Need To Talk, meanwhile, is occasionally like reading someone’s diary… “Yes, it is a bit Dear Diary… I don’t think I’ll ever be someone that consciously adopts other people’s perspectives in songs, because I’m a bit of a baby and I don’t really feel like I have the authority to talk about what I imagine someone else might feel. But then, at the same time I think the kind of people that will end up listening to Melbourne indie stuff will probably feel similar things. Unstable Ape asked me if they could put the album out when I had just the one song on MySpace. They’re guys in their mid-30s and I was 19 at the time, and I couldn’t possibly believe that someone older than me wouldn’t think what I was writing was just this little ex-private school girl having a sook or something.”
But when you’re willing to show your true self in your songs… “Do you think it’s my true self?” Jessica says, laughing. “I think I like the person in the songs better! I don’t know, I think writing a song that you’re going to show to other people is kind of like you’re rehearsing for your real life. It’s such a cliché, but you get to choose the kind of person you want to be and rehearse that person.” Playing a character, then? “Not really. Just playing a better version of yourself.”
© Anthony Horan 2009
Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1065, 1st April 2009