Jess Cornelius

The Turning Wheel (Sacred Bones)

Contact Sam McAllister & Patrick Tilley about Jess Cornelius

A lot has changed since Jess Cornelius began writing the songs that would comprise Distance.


For starters, she moved halfway around the world from Melbourne, Australia to Los Angeles. At the time, Cornelius — who was born and raised in New Zealand — had a few new songs and the idea of finally making a record of her own, excited to start fresh after several years as the primary songwriter in the Melbourne-based outfit Teeth and Tongue.


But the distance that Cornelius addresses over the course of these ten songs is hardly a geographical one. Instead, the album — her solo debut on Loantaka Records—finds a deft songwriter analyzing the space between society’s expectations for her and her own dreams; between the illusion of love and the reality of disappointment; between a past she is ready to let go of and a future she could have hardly imagined.


As Cornelius puts it, “A lot of the record was about me deciding to continue this nomadic lifestyle of being a musician. I wrote about coming to terms with that reality. People would ask me if I was going to have a family and a lot of the songs are about me being ok with not pursuing that path. It was about coming to terms with the choices I had made.”


She adds with a laugh, “And then two years later, I’m knocked up and married. I couldn’t have imagined that.”


Distance is a living, breathing document of a songwriter in the pursuit of living life on her own terms. Given the chain of events that occurred since beginning the record, it feels like an album Cornelius had to make, in order to begin the next chapter of her life.


While the sonic tones and textures on the album evoke certain classic staples of Americana, soul and rock and roll, Cornelius’ lyrics anchor the songs to a deeply personal place. As she says, “I am a fan of classic songwriting but I would hope that the lyrics are not of any time historically but rather this time of my life as a woman.”


As a result, the songs showcase her gift for delivering a devastating line over the most soothing of sounds. On “Body Memory,” the last song she wrote for the record, Cornelius intones over a calming electro-rhythm “When we met I used to make you laugh/then we lost the baby and it broke my heart,” adding later: “My body has a memory and it won’t forget.” Similarly, on “Here Goes Nothing,” Cornelius parries with a messy affair, noting “Nothing kills lust like real life,” with a hint of a sneer, reveling in the kind of adroit summation that would take a lesser writer an entire album to try to attain.


Despite this command and perspective over situations, Cornelius is not afraid to be messy, to let her uncool side hang out, with unabashed honesty. On “Banging My Head,” she wonders if she’s “a fucking idiot” or “a fool,” blasting through a straight-ahead rock and roll number, at turns evincing shades of Edie Brickell and eighties Iggy Pop. On “Kitchen Floor,” she’s mapping the space between the bedroom and the front door over a Roy Orbison tinged rave-up, lamenting the coming pain: “This is gonna be a hard one.”


But Cornelius is not only concerned with the distances between herself and others. “Born Again” is a stirring meditation on aging where she plots the distance of her whole life over the course of four minutes, while “No Difference” — which NPR Music described as set in a location perfect for “the questions of womanhood, aging and vanity that Cornelius seeks to answer” when it was released as a single last year — examines the distance between our own personal heaven and hell, and our ability to navigate that space.


And on album closer, “Love and Self Esteem,” Cornelius once again lets loose with an economical bit of soul searching: “Sometimes I don’t know the difference between love and low self-esteem.”


Similarly, the album’s sounds and tones were also selected with great care. Cornelius says it was important for the album to reflect the local music scene of her new home. With the help of producer Tony Buchen — another Australian transplant who approached Cornelius after a show at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theater — Distance became a roving affair, recorded in a string of Los Angeles studios with a changing cast of friends and local musicians.


The album features contributions by Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), harpist Mary Lattimore, Emily Elhaj (Angel Olsen), Stephanie Drootin (Bright Eyes), Jesse Quebbeman-Turley (Hand Habits), whistler Molly Lewis and special appearances by Justin Sullivan (Night Shop, Kevin Morby) and Laura Jean Anderson.


The playing on Distance is delicate and emphatic, but hardly the bloodless precision of a collection of hired guns. It sounds like people in a room playing together, which Cornelius says was the intention. “I wanted a break from [my] past ways of recording. With this album it was important to just go into a room with people and get a sound. It’s something I hadn’t done before personally, so for me it was new.”


The journey over Distance is a celebration of this newness – new beginnings and new perspectives on endings, from the chaos of a vagabond lifestyle to expecting a child just weeks before the albums’ release and researching the most accessible ways to tour as a mother in the coming years. This is the distance Cornelius covers over the course of the albums’ ten songs. The result is an album where listeners get to hear a songwriter in the midst of a transformation. Giving weight to her prophecy: “One of these days I’m gonna be born again.”