It’s an arduous road, but Tess Roby is learning to walk a more independent path as an artist, partly due to circumstance and partly by choice. Either way, it’s been both challenging and rewarding for the Montreal musician, who released her sophomore album in early 2022, the cosmic pop suite Ideas of Space.
The pandemic forced Roby, like most musicians, to work online and by phone with most of her collaborators, including Joseph Shabason (woodwinds), Eliot Roby (guitar), and Ouri (cello). The only person she managed to work with in person was Austin Tufts, who thus became her main collaborator, playing drums on and mixing and engineering Ideas.
Ideas marks Roby’s first self-released album and the debut release on her label, SSURROUNDSS. The imprint’s also home to October’s Postcards from the Sun to the Moon, the debut LP by her band Dawn to Dawn, with Adam Ohr and Patrick Lee. The project allowed her to explore her long-time desire to make the kind of house, techno, and trance music she loves, phosphorescent jams like Postcards standouts “Care,” “Stereo,” and “Ecology.”
“It was really exciting to me and really fun. I felt the kind of melodies I make and sing and play on the keyboard fit that genre perfectly. It felt really compelling to have all that [electronic] equipment at my leisure.”
Postcards also allowed Roby to express different moods. “My solo lyrics are quite serious, contemplative, and poetic. In Dawn to Dawn, they were more playful. I don’t really write love songs or romantic songs, but it was fun to make up these imaginary stories. They were much more coy and playful and sexy.”
Despite their differences, Roby’s works are unified by her interest in the duality of light and dark; it even seeps into Dawn to Dawn’s name and music. The trio wrote by both day and night. “These songs had such distinctly different qualities. There was this softness with the songs that were written in the day and this edge with the ones that were written at night. But they worked together on the album.”
Though Roby’s projects share a throughline, it’s largely unintentional. “There are all these subconscious themes that come out that you don’t understand for a long time,” she explains. “It takes a lot of reflection. It makes it hard to explain to people because I haven’t had enough time to process and reflect on my work.” Moreover, she adds, “Sometimes the ideas get rushed, and the wrong things come out. That said, I feel like I’m entering a new chapter in my artistic life now that these two albums I was working on for so long have come out. It feels like a very fresh chapter.”
Along with running SSURROUNDSS, Roby’s new chapter also finds her producing music and directing art and music videos. Taking on these roles alleviates costs, and she does have help from a small distribution and publicity team, but the increased workload’s still a struggle.
“The hardest thing is keeping your mental health in check. It’s really hard and a lot of work. It’s not for everyone,” Roby cautions. “A record is such a personal thing, especially then you think about how emotive the music is and how much unpaid labour you put into this record, and you don’t even know if it’s gonna succeed. But it was totally the right thing to do,” she says. “I’m super proud of myself, looking back.”
Starting her own label in particular has forced Roby to learn about the music industry, especially its financial side. “I put tons of work into learning the music industry and asking opinions to advance my career and make it financially viable. Music has value, and musicians are people. Music is a viable profession. It deserves to be nurtured and protected.”
The more Roby learns about the music industry, the more she realizes how “backwards” it is. “You realize … it’s built on all these things that from many years ago that don’t make sense anymore. It’s helped me to grow as a person and a small business. I feel really happy that I’ve carved out this space for myself that I couldn’t find in the Canadian music scene.”
Whether the music industry improves, plateaus, or worsens for everyone in its fragile ecosystem remains to be seen. But through the dark uncertainty, like Roby appears on the cover of Ideas, bathed in light in a display of calmness, openness, and even optimism, she always holds onto the hope.
“My first album was working through grief,” Roby says of 2018’s Beacon, which followed her father’s passing, “and my second album was working through issues with mental health and confidence.” But now she’s thinking about her third album and carrying into it a strong sense of self. “Now I feel like I’ve worked through some really big things, and I have this clean slate to start making a record that’s potentially more joyous. I’m still figuring it out, but I’m very excited to be at this point right now.”
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