7 Jul 2024

Jess Cornelius: 'It’s not like there’s a huge canon of rock musicians singing about parenthood, you know?'

From The Sampler, 4:00 pm on 7 July 2024
Jess Cornelius

Photo: Bandcamp

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One line in Jess Cornelius’ artist bio jumps out: “I had a kid… it made me think about death more than I have in my entire life”.

Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, she says, “When I had a child it was this undercurrent of, ‘I could lose this’. I have to do everything to not lose this, but some things are out of my control.    

“You have to accept that unknown and that lack of control.”

Cornelius has gained a reputation for lyrical candor, with lines on her new album Care/Taking dealing with pregnancy, breaking up with the father of her child, and death.

In ‘Tui is a Bird’, (Tui is also the name of her four year old daughter), the chorus goes “Some days all I think of is the size of my love and what that means I could lose”.

“With songs, they’re only ever half-truths”, she says. “No song is like you’re writing a letter to someone, where it’s not for public consumption. It’s like writing a short story based on some true things in your life, but it’s still fiction.

“That can be difficult, because if parts of it are very explicit, then other lines can [have people asking] ‘what did you mean by that?’”

She grew up in Ngāruawāhia, moved to Wellington as a teen, then to Melbourne aged 20. From 2008 to 2016 she fronted Teeth and Tongue, a vehicle for her songwriting with a rotating cast of backup musicians. 

Jess Cornelius

Photo: Spotify

Then six years ago Cornelius left Australia, and headed to California, releasing the first album under her own name, Distance, in 2020. 

“I felt like I’d taken Teeth and Tongue as far as it could go. I didn’t feel like there was anything keeping me in Melbourne. 

“The idea of moving to the States and roughing it had really freaked me out before, but then it just felt like I was ready for this adventure. I thought I would live out of a suitcase and tour constantly, because you can do that there. 

“What actually happened was I moved here, met someone and had a baby, and now I’m completely entrenched in LA. Things don’t happen the way you plan.”

A song on Care/Taking called ‘Cloud Postcard’ contains the lines “All my life, I've been moving away/ Australia, America/ Every decade, I keep getting further/ But not because of lack of love for you”.

As it turns out, it’s addressed to her parents.

“I haven’t lived in the same city as them since I was 18”, she says, “and haven’t lived in the same country since I was 19, but we’re really close.

“The song’s really about becoming a parent, and then realizing, oh, it’d be really hard having your kid this far away. You don’t think about that in your 20s or whatever." 

And how did her parents respond to ‘Cloud Postcard’?

“I think mum said that it made her sad. To their credit they’ve never guilt tripped me into moving home.”

Another track, called ‘When I Was Alive’ concerns environmentalism, or as Cornelius puts it, “how we’re destroying the future of the human race”.

It’s another thing she has in common with her folks. “Mum won’t buy anything that comes in plastic. My dad’s covering the roof in solar panels. They’re very focused on that. 

“It’s hard being in the States, because that kind of focus is more difficult to come by. The culture is different. The culture of waste is different. 

“I’ve always wanted to write about it, but it's always felt didactic and preachy, or something. I really wanted to be able to let it be somewhere in the songs, just for myself really, so that I’m getting it out and processing it, but not hitting people over the head with it.”    

Care/Taking is full of lyrics that balance vulnerability with wry wit, and don’t shy away from tricky subject matter. The songcraft is superb, and the specificity of subject matter makes it something really special. 

Not everyone agrees though, as Jess says, “I read a review recently that said some good things, then said the downside of this record is its lack of universality, and its specificity, which might alienate some people. 

“I would hate to be too universal, and wishy washy, and at the end of the day you have to write about what you want to write about. 

“It’s not like there’s a huge canon of rock musicians singing about parenthood, you know? You get tricked into this idea that it has to have certain subject matter or it won’t appeal to people. But loss, and fear, and mortality, it’s all universal, you’re just focussing it.”