One piano player. One percussionist… As classically trained musicians, Rasa Daukus (piano/keyboards) and Will Larsen (percussion/drums/electronics) began working together as music undergraduates playing a repertoire based on 20th century piano and percussion. Tess Said So combine piano, percussion and electronics with non-classical sounds and techniques, infusing their sound with pop, jazz, ambience and minimalism.
With I Did That Tomorrow (2014) they introduced their unique creative partnership, a vibrant collection of tracks that defied the apparent limitations of their chosen format. The same improvisational spirit, bold elegance, and impeccable musicianship that made such a resounding first impression shone just as brightly on their 2016 follow-up Scramble + Fate and now we are about to be treated to it once again with imminent release of Piaf’s Boyfriend, an ode to people they met while recently on tour.
The new record which will be available on CD & digital beginning May 31 finds the duo at the top of their game as musical storytellers with Rasa’s sparkling piano lines leading the way accompanied by Will’s versatile and highly expressive percussion. In this interview kindly furnished by Hayden Berry of Preserved Sound, Rasa & Will talk about writing an album that captures the personas of different people they met or who left an impression on them along the way.
What defines the sound of Tess Said So?
Will Larsen: The combination of piano and percussion is at the heart of all of our work. When I say percussion, it can be anything from a drum kit, orchestral and traditional ethnic instruments, to found, homemade and experimental sticks and surfaces. Electronics also play an important role in our overall sound palette.
How is Piaf’s Boyfriend different to your other albums or previous work?
Rasa Daukus: This is the first album that we’ve recorded with me playing a keyboard instead of a concert grand piano. We were after something more intimate and wanted to play with the sound and character of David Klavins’ Una Corda, using Native Instruments software.
The drums often have tea towels over the skins, creating a duller, fuzzier, less immediate sound to complement the Una Corda. We also recorded with plugins that emulate Abbey Road desks and tape machines from the 1960s, producing a warmer, more analogue sound than our first two albums.
Will Larsen: I also really played a lot with the electronics and effects on this album, to create another layer beyond the percussion and piano. These include subharmonics to add warmth and create a more cinematic depth to the music, delay and echo on the percussion and piano to create repeating patterns, recordings of us both played backwards, and recordings of 1960s cosmonauts talking to ground control (listen to West of the Sun, a piece about a man we met who regularly flies himself to Russia in his own plane).
The mix is also very wide and has an extreme front to back sound. For instance the piano might sound very up front, close and warm in a particular track while some of the percussion (particularly the very large, deep drums) sounds as if they’re being played far away. The piano is nearly always surrounding and enveloping the listener.
The result is a more eclectic stylistic mix that allowed us to play with the individual personalities of each track.
Does Piaf’s Boyfriend have a particular concept? Did you approach writing it differently?
Rasa Daukus: We spent a lot of 2017 touring our live soundtrack, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, during which time we thought about writing an album to capture the different people we met, who helped us or who left an impression on us along the way.
It’s a little like Elgar’s Enigma Variations in concept – each track represents a person (and most of them don’t know!). It’s really an ode to people we met on tour.
In terms of the writing, the main difference in this album is the time we took. We came up with the concept as we met people on tour and started sketching some ideas. But it wasn’t until we were back in the studio – a year later – that we were able to get back to the sketches, reflect on the music and our memories, and fill the pieces out.
What significance does the album titles and cover have?
Will Larsen: Each track title reflects the person the track was written for. The album title is about someone we met at a festival in Malaysia, who told us that as a boy he imagined himself as Piaf’s boyfriend.
The album artwork is by the amazing Scottish photographer Kerry Lytwyn, who came to one of our shows in Edinburgh and who’s also the subject of one of the tracks