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Tiny Vipers Returns With First Album In 8 Years, Shares Synthetic Hymnal 'K.I.S.S.'

"I was learning so much in school and becoming a more confident problem solver, but I was losing my identity as a musician," Jesy Fortino says of her time away from Tiny Vipers.
"I was learning so much in school and becoming a more confident problem solver, but I was losing my identity as a musician," Jesy Fortino says of her time away from Tiny Vipers.

With a reassuring voice that howled over an acoustic guitar, Jesy Fortino made records as Tiny Vipers about emptiness and absence that were severely intimate. She channeled both Neil Young and Stevie Nicks in "Landslide" — two songwriters who knew a thing or two about being bummed out, but would try to find something hopeful in the mess. Tiny Vipers' last album, the devastating Life On Earth, came out eight years ago and for eight years I have howled into the void for a follow-up.

There's new record coming soon, which is cause for celebration if you love sad music. But Laughter recasts any assumptions you might have about Tiny Vipers, if any and perhaps re-affirms the themes that were always underneath.

"To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day," wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Due May 5 on Ba Da Bing Records (the label will eventually reissue her first two albums on vinyl), Tiny Vipers' Laughter does away with voice and guitar almost completely, instead focusing on keyboards and synths. Her new music recalls electronic music pioneers like Florian Fricke, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, but filtered into the dank space of the Terminator soundtracks, or Zomes' lo-fi modal meditations. Recorded to tape, you can hear the hiss and spools unwind as wandering melodies dissipate — it's still severely intimate, just reconvened as synthetic hymnals.

The signs of this shift were there. Fortino's 2013 collaboration with Grouper's Liz Harris, as Mirroring, blurred acoustic songwriting with narcotic ambient music. She sang on tracks by The Sight Below and Orca. Tiny Vipers itself re-emerged briefly in 2015 with the Ambience 3 7" and CD — its title and artwork nod to Brian Eno.

"K.I.S.S." is the first single from Laughter, and the only one to prominently feature lyrics and Jesy Fortino's voice. The ponderous keyboards are bedded by whirring drones and murmuring flirtations with industrial noise, as she sings, buried underneath the sound, "You think you won't let this world harm you / You think you won't let anyone down / You've listed away your own heart." Her voice has become sown into the drone.

Absence, it turns out, is still on Fortino's mind, as she tells NPR. She left music to go back to school and when she returned, "Laughter came out of this awkward place of losing myself."

NPR Music: It's been eight years since the last Tiny Vipers full-length, and a couple since Ambience 3, which signaled the ambient move. What have you been up to since then?

Jesy Fortino: After Life on Earth, I toured for a couple of years then I returned to Seattle to study civil engineering at the University of Washington. I am now a civil engineer working on the Waterfront Program in downtown Seattle.

What drew you to synths for Laughter?

While I was in school I had a keyboard I set up so that I could mess around late at night on my headphones.

The synths were a surprise because the thing I sought out on those early Tiny Vipers records was your voice. Why is your voice absent or obscured on Laughter?

The songs were recorded in my apartment during the years where I was only home late at night and I could only play keyboards on headphones. In hindsight, the absence of a voice reflects my time in the engineering program. I spent those years absorbing lessons, listening, and concentrating. Laughter came out of a place that was exciting, but also fragile and nebulous. I was learning so much in school and becoming a more confident problem solver, but I was losing my identity as a musician.

Before returning to school I had about a 7th grade education, so I was also losing my identity as an uneducated person. I did not realize how often I used the excuse of being uneducated to not fully arrive as an adult in my interactions or as an active participant in my community, until I lost it. The shift in my identity from an uneducated musician, who sort of lived outside the technical workings of society, to a civil engineer whose ethical responsibility is to enhance human welfare and the environment was empowering, sobering, and unflattering. Laughter came out of this awkward place of losing myself.

What are you singing on "K.I.S.S."?

K.I.S.S stands for "Keep It Simple Stupid." As I mentioned before, I went into the engineering program feeling like an uneducated person who was not smart. The engineering program that I was a part of was competitive, so I spent two years in pre-engineering, competing with other students.

Tiny Vipers' new album, <em>Laughter</em>, comes out May 5.
Tiny Vipers' new album, <em>Laughter</em>, comes out May 5.

I didn't know if I would get in, I didn't know if I was delusional and wasting my time. I often felt like an impostor who did not have the aptitude to be there and that I was going to get weeded out at any moment. I was terrified of the word stupid because I felt stupid every day. Math was hard, chemistry was hard, physics was hard. None of the subjects came naturally, not like music did, and every quarter was a struggle. "Keep It Simple Stupid" is a term used to remind us that although two people might have arrived at the same correct solution to an engineering problem, there are stupid, messy ways to get there. It wasn't enough to get the correct answer. How many steps did it take you? How scalable is your process? How easy is it for others to follow your work?

Laughter will be released May 5 on Ba Da Bing Records.

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