Tess Roby’s operatic Beacon is a synth-laced tribute to family and loss
FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week Claire Lobenfeld speaks to Italians Do It Better artist Tess Roby.
Singer-synthesist Tess Roby has been surrounded by music since she was a little girl. Her mother, who was from New Brunswick, played Acadian folk music and her father, a Wigan native who passed away four years ago, was a musician, as well. The family piano lived in the kitchen of her childhood home in Toronto where, twice a year, they hosted a “kitchen party”: a gathering where each attendee brings over a musical instrument to play, dance, and drink with each other throughout the night. “It’s definitely a maritime thing,” Roby says over the phone from her place in Montréal. “Every Christmas, we still have one.”
Unlike the anything-goes communal atmosphere of a kitchen party, Roby’s debut album Beacon, released earlier this year by Italians Do It Better, was conceived in private. This included her brother Eliot, who she eventually invited to collaborate with her on the album and who plays with her live now. “I didn’t realize I was keeping it so secret,” she says. “When I did eventually start to show people, people didn’t necessarily know how to categorize the music.”
It is true that Beacon is hard to put a finger on. Roby, herself, notes that she was listening to a lot of Brian Eno and Cocteau Twins when she was writing the album, and that she has been compared to Kate Bush, Björk and Nico, and while echoes of all those artists can be heard in her music, there is no pantomime. Many songs have guitar that is reminiscent of mathier indie rock riffs, but they are just hints. It makes a lot of sense when she says that her main influence for the album was “trying to envision the landscape of England within the songs.”
What standouts most about the record is Roby’s vocals. They are deep and luscious, almost the opposite of her lithe synth work, but also a heady complement. Roby credits this to having spent eight years of her childhood as a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.
“That was a huge foray into the development of my voice, unbeknownst to me at the time that it was so important for what I would be doing now,” she says. “I pull a lot of my harmonies from my training, but I never wanted to continue to study music because of the theoretical side of things. I have a really good ear and I think being with the company for eight years really developed that ear, with regards to different sonic landscapes, different choral music and opera.”
All the of songs on Beacon are built around Roland Juno-106 that belonged to her father. In the four years since he passed away, Roby and her brother have been procuring the gear that remained in his studio. “Every time I go back to my house in Toronto, I take something, big or small, back with me. It’s this ritual I have,” she says. “I took the Juno and the drum machines that are featured on the album out of his studio, piece by piece. I had been with him when he was using them, but he never taught me. It was a slow process of learning how to use this equipment.” The album, she says, is a tribute to him.
For now, Roby is doing her first tour outside of Canada, supporting Carla dal Forno through early June. What she is really looking forward to, though, is writing more music. “I’m looking forward to making new music that has a distinctly different kind of concept, because this isn’t a conceptual album, it’s in some ways an ode or me going through all these different processes of healing and understanding [my father’s death],” she says. “I’m really looking forward to diving into new material that is more distinct to myself. It’s an important story and people really latch on to the fact that it’s this tribute, but the album is also about me and my forays into electronic music and making a whole album and growing my sound.”
Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s Managing Editor. You can find her on Twitter, but she won’t be there.