Janky Keyboards and nylon string guitars, we delve into CARE/TAKING with Jess Cornelius

“I was writing on a janky 80s keyboard for some of the songs and that made it in, as well as fun synths and as much saxophone as I could get in there”

New Zealand-born, Melbourne-bred, and now Los Angeles-based Jess Cornelius unveils her latest single and video, “Back to the Mainland,” from her sophomore album CARE/TAKING.

“Back to the Mainland” is a woozy, baroque-pop track where Cornelius’ poignant vocals shine through a haze of synth and strings, encapsulating themes of resilience amidst personal and global turmoil.

jess cornelius interview with happy mag

Reflecting on the song, Cornelius reveals, “It’s my favourite song on the album because of its sonic and emotional breadth. It starts with a fingerpicked nylon string guitar, gradually building into a full-blown outro with fuzz bass, guitar, synth, and drums.”

CARE/TAKING is an introspective exploration of personal upheaval, weaving together ten intricate songs that navigate through global crises and personal transformations.

Unlike her debut solo album Distance, which chronicled her move from Melbourne to LA and the start of her solo career post-Teeth & Tongue, this new record finds Cornelius more rooted in her Californian life, yet still grappling with significant changes.

Join us as we sit down with Jess Cornelius to discuss her new album, life in Los Angeles, and the creative process behind her stunning music.

Happy: What are you up to today?

Jess: I just finished working at my kid’s preschool in Los Angeles. It’s a co-op school so all the parents do a workday every week where you’re running around outside after a bunch of bonkers little humans, getting covered in paint and shaving cream.

It’s cool but exhausting, and it’s also really hot here today, so I’m knackered. I’m supposed to be rehearsing but I can’t move right now.

Happy: Tell us a little about where you live now, what do you love about it?

Jess: I live in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in East LA. It’s on top of a giant hill which means the views of the city are incredible, but it really sucks for walking and biking.

There’s some really good Mexican and Salvadoran food nearby, but no really good coffee shops.

That saves me money though. I love LA for a million reasons, but I don’t love how you have to drive everywhere.

I have a cute little veggie garden and my partner and I have a little music studio upstairs, and an upright piano and lots of space to make music, so it’s a good spot to be.

jess cornelius interview with happy mag 2024

Happy: What’s the music scene like in LA?

Jess: It’s really strong. I think it’s a little more scattered and spread out than what I was used to in Melbourne, so it’s more like a lot of different little scenes, it’s not as focused on a few venues.

There is always a lot happening though, and SO many incredible working musicians if you’re looking to add to your project with new players or collaborators.

Happy: What are some of your biggest musical influences?

Jess: I grew up listening to Nina Simone and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen and Split Enz and Zeppelin.

Once I started making music I was just influenced by the other musicians around me – in Melbourne I loved seeing Sarah Mary Chadwick and Aldous Harding and Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Laura Jean.

Recently I’ve been listening to The Weather Station and Chris Cohen and Perfume Genius and Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore and Julianna Barwick.

Happy: How have your travels across continents (New Zealand, Melbourne, LA) shaped your music?

Jess: I think it’s made me more resilient and more adaptable in some ways. Musically I think it’s just opened my ears to a larger range of music and it’s been so interesting to see how in a bigger ‘market’ there is more room for underground stuff to have an audience, which is great.

Happy: Becoming a parent is a big life change. Did it influence the themes on CARE/TAKING?

Jess: It definitely did. Most of the songs are either about being afraid of losing something so precious – this constant undercurrent of fear– or about the relationship with my kid’s dad ending, or about the new love I found just after. All of it was a rollercoaster.

Happy: Tell us about working with Mikal Cronin on the new album.

Jess: Mikal is the best. It was really fun working together and inspiring because he’s so talented, but we also have the type of relationship where we can say what we really think and we don’t tiptoe around it.

So we did argue sometimes, haha. I think it showed that we both really cared about the project. And it can be intense working for hours in a room with just one other person.

We could only work on weekends and we made really thorough demos of most of the songs first (well I made basic demos, then we fleshed them out really heavily, then we recorded the songs again from scratch.) So it took a long time, but it was a good experience.

Mikal and I were also working on a songwriting project at the same time, called CRONELIUS. So we had a kinda intense creative period.

Happy: Describe the overall vibe you wanted to create on the new album.

Jess: I think I tend to gravitate towards pretty classic sounding songs so it was important to me to make sure the arrangements were really interesting and served the song but were also surprising in parts.

I was writing on a janky 80s keyboard for some of the songs and that made it in, as well as fun synths and as much saxophone as I could get in there.

Happy: “Back to the Mainland ” can you tell us a little bit about what this song is about, and what it means to you?

Jess: This was about being in a new relationship with someone who was struggling with mental illness and self-doubt and I just wanted to be able to show them how I saw them and fix it all, but of course you just can’t can you?

Happy: The song title “Dying” is hella intriguing. Can you share some thoughts on the song?

Jess: This was written while falling in love with someone new just after the relationship with my kid’s dad fell apart. It’s a love song. I was dying (before) and I didn’t even realise. This is how good it could be.

Happy: What makes you happy?

Jess: Writing short stories, pottering around in my garden, hanging with my kid and Mikal on our porch, and rehearsing the CARE/TAKING songs with the 5-piece band that I’ve put together for our release show.

Listen to CARE/TAKING below: