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(Credits: Far Out / Tess Parks)

Music

Far Out Meets: The return of Tess Parks

Tess Parks, the singer-songwriter from Toronto, Canada, is gearing up to release her second and long overdue solo album And Those Who Were Seen Dancing, the follow-up to 2013’s much-lauded Blood Hot. 

It is safe to say that Parks’ new record does not disappoint, and in my mind, it eclipses her debut. The material is heady and dynamic, and it keeps you on your toes. There are a couple of swaggering, guitar-oriented pieces, as there are more languid cuts that flirt with electronica and a variety of textures. Together they form a loose account of Parks’ life and career up until this point. 

I met Tess on one of those warm spring evenings in a pub in Stoke Newington, London, expecting to be there for maybe an hour tops, but we ended up spending around three hours talking about a myriad of topics, including her connection to The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Anton Newcombe, Neil Buchanan on Art Attack, and of course, the new album. 

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In truth, I didn’t know what to expect, as this was Tess Parks, Anton Newcombe collaborator and, in many ways, the contemporary heir to the throne that was established by California legends Mazzy Star. Even though she’s accomplished a lot over her career, the person I found sitting in the pub was totally affable and not as closed off as you might expect. 

Within minutes, we had dived feet first into a conversation about how she found herself in London, which is a far cry away from her native city.

At the start of our meandering discussion, Parks revealed that she first came to the English capital as a photography undergraduate at the celebrated London College of Communication, which she has mixed feelings about as, seemingly, so does everyone who enrols there. Nevertheless, whilst discussing her antics at university and the fact that she’d never tried fruit squash before coming to the UK, we hit upon the fact that she wrote the hazy second single from And Those Who Were Seen Dancing, ‘Happy Birthday Forever’ whilst living there in 2009. 

This point hits upon the first characteristic to remember about the new record, which Parks says “is like hopscotch”. It’s a real journey, and across the LP, you encounter all kinds of distinct sensations and emotions in what is best described as an artistic collage, a collection of lived experiences and vignettes augmented by her vivid imagination, creating a broad palette that invariably keeps you on your toes. 

It was fitting that this was exactly the shape that our conversation took. It bounced from one point to another but, looking back, it consistently maintained one underlying theme: positivity.

This wasn’t surprising at all. Looking at a press release for the album, Parks explained the album’s provenance: “These songs were pieced together over time in London, Toronto and Los Angeles with friends and family between August 2019 and March 2021. So many other versions of these songs exist. The recording and final completion of this album took over two years and wow – the lesson I have learned the most is that words are spells. If I didn’t know it before, I know it now for sure. I only want to put good out into the universe.”

And Those Who Were Seen Dancing achieves the objective. I relayed this message, floating a few similarities to acts such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Portishead to Parks, but then she surprised me by admitting: “It’s not what I envisioned at all.” Asked what she meant by that, she explained that her band thought that the songs “were demos” when she presented them, whilst also mentioning the impact the pandemic had on its creation and the final outcome: “We wanted to all rent out a studio and be in an environment where we were all recording, like, all day every day, but we didn’t get a chance to do that, (because of the pandemic) but what are you gonna do? There’s also the pressure of ‘Hey, it’s been eight years since you’ve released your own shit'”. 

(Credit: Katy Newcombe)

Parks then clarified, when reacting to this pressure, that the majority of the songs on the first album she released with the Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe, 2015’s I Declare Nothing, were technically her own material, thus negating this argument that she’d been creatively quiet for eight years.

Parks looked back very fondly on her collaboration with Newcombe, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I hope they one day reunite. Digressing slightly, I asked her if she’s excited about the forthcoming Brian Jonestown Massacre record, Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees, which drops at the end of June, to which she responded definitively: “Yeah, for sure! I will always be a fan.”

This brought me to my next question of how exactly she got into The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It turns out that it was via the closely linked Portland band, The Dandy Warhols. In high school, her friend suggested that she watch the iconic 2004 documentary Dig!, which chronicles the love-hate relationship between Anton Newcombe and the frontman of The Dandy Warhols, Courtney Taylor-Taylor. 

Looking back on that transformative moment, Tess recalled: “I had heard ‘Bohemian Like You’ on an advert, and I didn’t know what it was because Shazam didn’t exist for another like ten years after that, so I’d be like Googling lyrics, and going on all these lyric websites and never knowing the words… ‘In the Waiting Line’ by Zero 7, that was another one, I couldn’t decipher it.”

She continued: “So, Seb (friend) had told me to listen to The Dandy Warhols, but I didn’t… and then it turned out that the song that I liked from the advert was The Dandy Warhols. Then, I started going to Dandy Warhols soundchecks when I was 13, like they’d be playing what would be a 19+ concert, so they let me watch their soundchecks when I was a kid. They were like, ‘Hey kid, what songs do you wanna hear? Have a great time! Here’s a T-shirt.’ They were so cool with me. Years later, I ended up hanging out with them, playing a show with them, and being mates with them. It was cool.”

“And then I watched Dig! and always was like, ‘Woah, OK yeah, Dandy’s fan’, and I didn’t fully appreciate the musicality of The Brian Jonestown Massacre at the time, Dandy’s were just a bit more ‘friendly’ to a 13-year-old. Then, my friend played me ‘Open Heart Surgery’ (BJM), when I was in halls in Elephant and Castle, and it really hit me, like, it hit me to my core. I was like, ‘Wow, this song is incredible’. And then, you know, a few years later, I’m recording with Anton, so I was like ‘Woah! This is weird'”.

One can’t help but think that this early experience with The Dandy Warhols somehow set Tess Parks on her path to where she is today. It standardised being around influential musicians and steered her ship in the artistic direction that we know and love today. Even on her new record, the impact of ‘Open Heart Surgery’ can still be heard colouring cuts such as ‘Good Morning Glory’ and ‘Suzy & Sally’s Eternal Return’, and when listening, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

As she’s gearing up for the release of And Those Who Were Seen Dancing, Parks discussed the mix of emotions she’s feeling after a few years away, which is only natural. “I’m nervous to play,” she begins. “It’s been almost three years. It seems weird for anyone to be on a pedestal. For some reason, I’ve managed to be the only person in a room with a microphone a lot in my life… I think it’s ridiculous that somehow I’ve convinced everyone in a room to let me be the one with the microphone. It just doesn’t seem fair in this climate.” 

When discussing the colour scheme that And Those Who Were Seen Dancing comes in on vinyl, Tess surprised me by dropping in another reference that, up until that point, I thought only British kids would get. Describing the excitement that she’s feeling about releasing the new record on colourful vinyl, she expressed, “One of them looks really like Art Attack. I hope Neil Buchanan likes it too.”

This is Tess Parks to a tee, and it colours her new record. It’s a constantly surprising work, drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. At different points, it manages to be introspective, funny and atmospheric whilst retaining a common thread, her. Despite the fact that stylistically, one eye is firmly locked on the heady sounds of California, it is so much more than that. It makes us wonder what else she has in store in future.

And Those Who Were Seen Dancing drops on May 20th via Fuzz Club. You can order it here

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