A regular on the local circuit, Tess Guthrie is an artist with a fiery passion for meaningful music that hits your soul – time and time again. Since becoming an online sensation last year after releasing a sort of song and speech hybrid about women in abusive relationships, Tess has been busy refining her craft. We chat to the Torquay-bred, Melbourne-based muso.
Hi Tess! Thanks for featuring in Forte mag! How are you and what have you been up to?
Cold! Just got back from QLD a couple of days ago, which was the last leg of the WUTOur before heading back to Melb for the final show at the Gaso on the 18th of July. I was on the phone to 4zzz in Brisbane for a chat about the tour yesterday (bloody lovely humans). Managed to consume my body weight in fried tofu today after hanging out at Three Phase (rehearsal studio) in Melb – dying to come down to the Surf Coast though because I miss the beach in winter. Weird but truth.
You released your debut single ‘WUTO’ a little while back! Congrats! How’s it been since the release?
Gahhh thank you so much! It’s been fairly hectic in a delightful way. I was stoked with the reception when it came out (Forte were an amazing support through the whole process) and sharing it on tour up the east coast with a whole stack of lovely people I wouldn’t have otherwise met was extremely special. Particularly the pelicans in Byron Bay and the 150 beautifully silent and engaged legends at Sofar Sounds in the Gold Coast. Still not sure if it was an elaborate dream sequence or my actual life but I’m just going with it.
Talk us through your creation process of your music.
Hmmm it usually starts with a strong feeling of some kind. When I’m feeling lots of feels I tend to find myself reaching for a guitar fairly instinctively. When there’s no guitars around the voice memos can get a bit out of hand. I typically find myself messing around with different chord shapes or patterns and mumbling what seems to be alien gibberish over the top. Until quite by accident some sort of word or phrase comes out. Most of the hooks for songs I’ve written pop up that way, then I try and structure the rest of the song around that and get a bit more deliberate with the words (and migrate towards English rather than random mumbles) and try to think about what story surrounds the hook lyrics that came up. That’s how WUTO came about anyway. Sometimes I have a stronger idea of a concept that I want to go with or a story I want to tell and try to build hooks around that but that’s a bit rarer for me. Typically it’s feeling — > hook —> story.
You’re known on the local touring circuit, performing many local gigs including Geelong’s Nightjar Festival earlier in the year. What do you enjoy about performing locally (or just in general really)?
Oh man that’s nice of you. I love playing in the places in grew up because of my emotional connection to the spaces I think. And also i just have this sense of pride about the calibre of music initiatives coming out of the Surf Coast and love being a part of that. It’s also great to run into the people I went to school with around Geelong and the other awesome people in that area (although someone from my primary school came to the show in Brisbane which was extremely unexpected and lovely so you never know when those legends are going to pop up).
What do you think of the Geelong/Surfcoast music scene in general?
I think there’s a stack of creative people in the area and I’m a huge fan of the local festivals and events that showcase that. I’d love to play more shows down there particularly with the band after we finish this tour – it’s not every area where you can play a show and then walk across the road and go to the beach or a market and hang out.
Backing up a bit, we know you first gained substantial recognition back in 2011 after winning the Apollo Bay Music Festival’s young songwriters award. Prior to that, how did you make your way into music?
Hmmmm honestly.. writing a series of terrible songs which progressively became less terrible. I started writing when I was about 10 (profound topics like ‘breaking your ankle’ and ‘when your sister is pestering you on msn’). The weirdness probably peaked while writing a song about whaling for a school project and playing it with my mate Anna to our 14 year old classmates with a brutal slideshow of whale-butchering in the background. Won more marks than friends with that one. I eventually started playing with my friend Jared who increased my net coolness by probably 156% and I started writing for bands, including our school band Square One which did fairly well in the Unearthed High comp – so that helped things along too.
Back in 2018, you captured our attention (and that of many others) with your quirky, clever song to help a mate leave her dickhead boyfriend, but also in the name of spreading the message of domestic family violence. What did you hope to achieve by this direct song that many can, unfortunately, relate to?
I think I wanted to highlight a fairly complex issue that, as you said, is unfortunately extremely common. I wrote it from the perspective of a friend looking at a mate who I really love and seeing a situation where they were not being treated with the respect they deserve. There’s a bit of internal conflict that goes on there because on one hand your brain is just screaming “your partner is an ass hole and you’re so so wonderful and their behaviour is not okay!” and equally it’s sooooo important that there’s no blame being directed at the person experiencing abuse. Because it was simply not my friend’s fault she was being treated like shit, and it’s never ever someone’s fault when they’re experiencing that.
Seeing a mate in this kind of situation can leave us desperately wanting to help, but wanting to do it in a way that gives love and support for as long as it takes so that our mates can feel empowered rather than blamed. So I wanted to write a song that navigates through these complex feelings while we’re trying our best to be there for a friend. And I wanted to do it with candidness but also trying my best to capture the subtleties of that. I also have a lot to learn still in terms of refining my own way of talking about these issues from a feminist perspective. It’s also important to note I’m commenting from a perspective of privilege as a white, able bodied, cis woman so hearing diverse intersecting voices on these issues is paramount.
Nevertheless, I think releasing that song was the most rewarding thing I’ve done in music to date, just because of the stories that I started to see getting shared in all the comments and some dms from people saying they’d felt supported by it or called out some behaviour they’d recognised in their own experiences, or the conversations it sparked with their loved ones. I think in general it’s so important that we have each other’s backs and start to talk about and examine the kinds of abusive behaviours that are normalised in our society. So if I can use the medium I’ve got access to (which happens to be music) to highlight some of those things and make some people feel even a bit more supported then that’s a huge win as far as I’m concerned.
Where do you see your musical passion heading? Any upcoming plans for the second half of the year?
I’m really keen to develop the live set with the band and explore more of the musical palette in that sense. Writing for a band tends to change the way I make songs and I”m extremely excited to be working with Ollie, Jake and Libby who are all extremely talented musicians in their own right. I’m also pumped to be planning for the release of a couple more songs, one of which is called Fairy Lights and takes a bit of a deeper dive, commenting on rape culture and internalised victim blaming which are also topics which matter a lot to me. The song also represents a bit of a shift towards a heavier sound which I’m excited about.
Thanks for chatting! Where can we find your music or see you next?
@tessguthriemusic on Insta and Facebook would be fun – come stay in touch if you’d like and I can tell you about new releases and shows down on the coast and Geelong – but for now I’d love to see you at the Gaso on the 18th of July in Melbourne if you’d like to come say hello.