Jesy Fortino is a shy musician. She prefers to sit quietly in a corner rather than take command of a room. This quickly became an issue in her early live performances, when Fortino — who records as Tiny Vipers — often struggled to be heard above the din of crowd noise. Her vocals and guitar, normally icy and arresting, were practically drowned out by boozy yammering.
On her records, Fortino has the ability to draw in listeners with dark, unhurried songs comprising fragile, moody textures. Her music is better suited for gothic cathedrals and spacious concert halls than rock clubs, but she has played several of the latter venues, experiences she now views as trial-by-fire character-builders.
In 2007, Sub Pop released Tiny Vipers' debut record, Hands Across the Void. Because of her label's high profile, Fortino was subsequently booked to play opening sets in front of audiences who had no interest in her patient melodies and slithery voice. At one Seattle show, she walked off the stage midset after the crowd began loudly chanting for headliners Minus the Bear during her performance. It was a move she attributes to hard-won maturity, although giving up is rarely considered a mature trait in a performer.
The 26-year-old says her decision to abort a set wasn't her way of pouting, though she admits to doing some of that. Rather, she claims it was more about accepting the fact that not everyone would listen to — let alone enjoy — what she does. Fortino's songs hover quietly, her melodies built on cautious, single-string plucks and her vocals swerving from tinny yelps to hoarse, vowel-swallowing cries.
Fortino found it hard to blame her songwriting for the crowd's impatience. But at some point — after two awkward stints opening for Jose Gonzales and the aforementioned Minus the Bear gig — she realized that her music simply might not be for the masses. So last fall, she went on a European tour with Damien Jurado, an equally subtle performer who draws a demographic expecting to hear softly sung folk music. For Fortino, those shows were eye-opening, informing her approach on her latest release, Life on Earth.
Like its predecessor, Life on Earth is rooted in spaciousness. Each song is given free rein to spread out and exhale. But where Void had a warm, campfire-like intimacy, Earth is the sound of one woman alone in a room, surrounded by chilly emptiness. This concept may sound bleak, but as those who have spent hours in deep meditation can attest, clarity of mind can be reached through solitude. Thus, Fortino delivers a bounty of lyrics that read like Hanshan's hermetic Zen poetry: "Life's not lived right/When you've only got someplace to go" ("Slow Motion"); "Tomorrow is only dying" ("Life on Earth"); "The secret to a language/That is spoken from the soul/Is silence" ("Tiger Mountain").
"These songs are songs," Fortino says. "With every one of them, I would finish writing them and be, like, 'This song is done. There's nothing more I can do.' It felt good."
For her newfound tunefulness, Fortino cites Townes Van Zandt as an inspiration. She found the legendary Texas songwriter inspiring for the ways he could be abstract and plainspoken all at once. And, like Van Zandt, she has written songs that will haunt you in the middle of the day — if you let them in, that is.