Tiny Vipers' NW roots run deep through her music
Tiny Vipers — the stage name of musician Jesy Fortino — releases a new album on Sub Pop with a party at Fremont Abbey on July 18. Here, Fortino talks about how the landscape around her childhood home in Issaquah influenced her music.
Special to The Seattle Times
On the Internet
Listen to Tiny Vipers at www.myspace.com/tinyvipersss.
Tiny VipersWith Damien Jurado and W Lazarus, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; $8-$14 (206-701-9270 or www.fremontabbey.org).
Jesy Fortino sings and plays acoustic guitar under the name Tiny Vipers, but her music might best described in non-musical terms.
"I like mysteries, something that you can't see, you can't understand, something far away that implies lots of space," Fortino says. "Like 'Twin Peaks.' It's a simple mystery story but there's infinity around the plot because you don't know who did it. I love it. I think it's perfect."
When Fortino was in second-grade, her family moved from Texas to Issaquah, close to North Bend and Snoqualmie, the tiny Washington towns where "Twin Peaks" was filmed in the early '90s. Much of her childhood and teenage years was spent wandering the densely forested hills around Issaquah's Tiger Mountain, Hobart Road and Highway 900.
Now Fortino, 26, is sitting upstairs at Caffé Vita on Capitol Hill, next door to where she spends her days working at Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen. Her small frame barely fills the chair, but her stature is larger, face curtained by brunette bangs and lit by attentive, green-blue eyes. At the base of her throat is a tattoo of what looks like a pixilated microscope.
"Especially growing up around there, it has a special meaning," she says of the cult TV show. "There's so much mystery, especially in those dark woods. When you have this town and it's surrounded by those dark mountains and you really feel confined to that town and the people there, it makes you feel weird. I always imagine the woods looking down on what's going on. Especially at night, big black mountains and a slightly lighter shade of black in the sky kinda kept a constant presence of something other than people."
Fortino admits to being enthralled by darkness and light, "not just metaphorically." Themes of shadow and illumination weave throughout her new Sub Pop album, "Life on Earth." It opens with the line, "Do you recall when the world was still young/Just a small town, just a small town." Songs emerge slowly over the album's 60 minutes, like they were always there in the twilight. They're almost Biblical in their whole-cloth creation of a world entirely of Fortino's devising — though Fortino cites a more relevant literary touchstone.
"I love 'The Lord of the Rings.'" Fortino says. "Tolkien's, like, the master of it all. He does that thing where he implies so much space — it's not there, there isn't a world like that, but he implies that there really is and that it's very old. He knows exactly where to place details to make the world seem infinite."
Fortino creates a similar sense of age and space with her music, though she's concerned more with mood than narrative and seems to prefer open-ended questioning to resolution. She forsakes standard verse-chorus construction for a more linear, stream-of-melody approach.
"The music is more about working through feelings and expressing feelings, I guess," she says. "It's more abstract." Still, thanks to the production — just Fortino, her acoustic guitar, and resonant reverb — it evokes the image of one young woman singing against the weight of a failing, falling world. In that it's both harrowing and heartening.
"It's, like, kind music," she says. "I don't use it to try to hurt people or make them mad. It's definitely there to make you feel better. I try to think about that a lot — especially when shows go wrong and I'm like, 'Why am I doing this?' It's hard to keep an eye on why. But I do want it to help the world. I always wanna help. I don't necessarily think the music's gonna do that but I definitely want it to make people feel better. If they feel like choked out by horrible things, lame things, I want them to feel like they can put those things away for a while if they wanna listen. But it's not like music you'd put on at a party to dance to."
Which is why Fortino chose the Fremont Abbey — an austere, offbeat, seated venue — as the setting for a show marking the release of "Life on Earth."
"It's like a church but it's not all weird and religious," she says. "I just feel like it's a little more special than having it at another venue because it's a place people don't normally get to go or see."
That much of the wilderness of her youth has been paved over is troubling to her; though there's a sense of sadness to the music, it's far from depressing. "I don't think it's dark, it's just serious," she explains, and she's smiling as she says, "There's no humor in it. There's humor around it, in my life, but there's no humor in the music. The rest of my life is pretty not serious."
Jonathan Zwickel: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published July 12, 2009, was corrected July 15, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Tiny Vipers concert is on July 19. The concert is on Saturday, July 18 at Fremont Abbey.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 12:19 PM
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When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.