Tenderness: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Devotional noise-collage dance grooves.
File Next To: Omar Souleyman, U.S. Girls, Dorothy Day
Playing: #WL15 Night 3, Sunday Feb. 15 at The Garrison

Chrissy Reichert leavens her dance grooves with just enough sonic clatter to force you to take notice, but not so much you’d stop dancing. The Axe is Ready at the Tree, her first album as Tenderness, was a highlight of 2012, but the wait for a follow-up has gone on a little longer than expected. Over coffee at the Holy Oak, Joe Strutt chatted with Chrissy about a hiatus in Winnipeg, secret raver past lives, faith, and songs dipped in love. The new album will emerge in spring on Pleasence Records. [This conversation was subsequently collaboratively condensed and edited online.]

How did you become Tenderness?

How did I become Tenderness? Well, I’ve been involved with several little personal projects — the last one was Butcher Something, and that was more of an anger-induced/venting project mirroring where I was at in my life at the time. A few years later and a less bitter woman, I wanted to do something more emotionally supple, not so aggressive… at least not where the songwriting was concerned… so it just popped into my head…

It’s a superb name…

Yeah, it could be, “raw, like meat” or just… delicate… I’m vegan by the way.

I wonder how many times someone just did as a blurb or a caption, “Try a little Tenderness!”

I love that song. The General Public one, too — it’s such a good song.

So, how long have you been doing music for?

I’ve been doing music, on and off, since ’99. Started off doing raves, being a singer with producers — rave producers, house producers, techno producers…

So there’s this hidden cache of techno tracks on the Internet that you’re singing the hook on?

No there isn’t. Thank God!!! I don’t love techno and I don’t love house, but I just fell into it. I was singing my religious/devotional songs to a room of happy strung-out ravers… I did that for awhile and then that was just getting really boring. [laughs] So after, I got a four-track and I did my first recording project on a big old organ I had in the basement. I loved looping and over-layering the beats from it. That project was called Big Eva Edna, I just did several recordings and did a couple albums with that four-track.

After that, I started Butcher Something, when I got my first computer, 2007, and I was using Logic. I went to Trebas, several years prior to that (which I don’t recommend) and I was using the recording engineering skills I had acquired. The recordings were beginning to get all slick and everything… and then someone spilled wine on it at a birthday party and I could never, ever afford a computer again. So then I bought Eric Chenaux’s digital eight-track and got the sampler out and began recording. I love working with limitations. I love doing intricate production with lo-fi equipment. I’ll never go back to computers, hopefully.

In what way is the VHS tape involved? I think the first time I saw a videotape while you were playing I thought it was, like, chic set dressing, until you switched the tape.

That’s the Alesis digital eight-track…

Ah. It just records eight tracks onto a videotape?

Exactly. All the sequencing is done on the MPC-1000. I like using a lot of organic sounds like animals, water, wind, squeaks, thumps, clangs and bangs. I like to sequence the skeleton of the song using the percussive parts first and then play the rest live on my synth or pads of the sampler.

It’s funny you should say you scored your gear from Eric Chenaux…

Who sold it to Josh Thorpe. So I actually bought it from Josh Thorpe for like $100.

‘Cause there’s a tradition in this town of, let’s call them “song-singing” musicians working with the improvised and weird musicians.

Yeah… and you know who recorded a beautiful album with that eight track? Doug Tielli. I forget which album… I can ask Justin. [calls over to the counter] Hey, Justin! Do you know that album Doug created that has that crazy picture of his face on the album… Squirrel something?

[Justin calls back: “Swan Sky Sea Squirrel“]

Yeah… he recorded it on that eight-track, and I was, “holy crap, that’s beautiful! If he can record that on that machine, anything is possible and I don’t need a computer!”

So what got you involved with that scene of people, which is a very different scene than…

Ravers? Yeah, it was working at the Tranzac, my neighborhood and just having various tastes in music.

Were you involved with that world before you were working at The Tranzac? Or did you just find those people by being there?

Back in the raver days, in ’99, I came from Winnipeg and was new to Toronto. I was putting up ads everywhere to try and meet other people to collaborate with. I put up one in a laundromat, and that is how I met Sandro Perri. So we worked on some stuff together. It didn’t really go anywhere; he was amazing but I wasn’t very mature then… and he’s always been an old soul. I also liked things super epic and barbaric (lacking the skills to do so) and he was more subtle and thoughtful. Back then I was way too restless. So I met him, he was sort of my first intro into a new world of music. I met Brodie West through an ex-boyfriend and then his wife, who gave me the job at the Tranzac. That’s when I started to meet lots of Tranzac-ians.

Doug Tielli’s in both worlds… his song stuff has such a different approach than improvisation and when he does it live, you see this band playing tunes is full of the most incredible improvising musicians…

I know, they are like the best musicians in the city…

And other people sometimes do that too, like Isla Craig or like…

… and like Anna Linda [Siddall]. She was incredible. There’s so many of them. I love Eric Chenaux, love Josh Thorpe. Toronto has the most incredible music community.

So how do you find this stuff, that worldview of improvised/experimental music, how does that feed into your own musical practice?

Well, I love dance music, number one. From when I was 15 years old hanging out… the only place I liked to go in Winnipeg was the one gay bar both men and women could go to. I was nuts for dancing and that desire has never left. Working at the Tranzac was amazing to see all these people improvise, but I always thought to myself that it had the tendency to be boring for the audience. It’s more like “musicians’ music.” I myself love it but I am a terrible musician and I suck as an improviser. When I would bartend, I would DJ in between the sets and usually play obscenely epic pop/dance music just to balance out the vibe. Pop/dance music can be too much sugar though, so I love the idea of those two worlds coming together. They need each other. I love to write and produce the basic structure and foundation of a good song and then to invite these wonderfully talented musicians to add surprises.

So, finding people who can take the structure and really…

…who hate the labour of doing the groundwork of a song and just want to seize the moment and have fun. I rarely have fun. I’m not that good at it.

And for live stuff, I’ve seen you play with Brodie and with Brandon Valdivia… are you trying to do more of that?

Yes, definitely. Andrew Zukerman is going to play a significant part on this next album. He is amazing.

That can feed into what you’re doing, his sort of insane collage…

Andrew is going to weave his magic throughout the songs and who knows what else. And Ryan Driver also. I did a recording with him a couple weeks ago. That was great. He plays balloon and synth. There’s another gem, whoah!

Are those guys going to play with you live?

We’ll see. I’m still finishing up. Once I finish up mixing the record, which’ll hopefully be February, I can send it off and then it’ll be ready… then we’ll see what works well live, so anything’s possible. So hopefully, I’d love to see Ryan play live. If he would like. A few girls singing would be fun, too. But not too many. Just enough.

You don’t want the 14-piece Tenderness band?

No, I like simple and sparse, stark.

And for other people that you collaborate with, Steve Reaume’s visuals are obviously something that’s important in the live set.


How did you come to work with him?

I was doing a show with Pachamama at Smiling Buddha and he was doing projections for them. He was Brandon’s roommate at the time. I saw his projections and I was like, “please… let’s work together.” He’s the best.

The stuff he does, how does that complement the music?

Oh my God, he’s so fantastic. First of all, it’s creating an atmosphere. With someone like Petra Glynt or Pachamama, he’d emphasize a psyched-out aesthetic, and with my stuff he’s seems to do some religious imagery like stained glass. I think he’s super-intuitive and really knows how to accentuate anybody’s music.

And he’s working like the other improvisers, just in a different medium.

Absolutely. He’s my favorite. I can’t actually see what he’s doing when I perform, but when I see photographs of past shows, I’m blown away. He’s going to do a video, too. He did one for Doomsquad, a really good one. Did you see that one? He’s extremely bold too. I love that.

So your record is almost coming out?

I know… I took a year off in Winnipeg. So, yup, it’s coming. Gonna mix it all by February 7th, and then send it off. That’s the goal. It’s coming out on Pleasence.

Tell me about Winnipeg… I’m originally from Winnipeg.

You are? It wasn’t for me. [both laugh] Do you like it?

I’m here.

If I lived there, I would fall into a Netflix oblivion.

Did you fall into any cool culture stuff while you were there?

The Aboriginal community was cool. I did note-taking at the University, and I met this blind woman who was doing an Aboriginal health and wellness course and so, I got to be in circles and it was really amazing. People were wonderful, really warm. That experience and the big open skies were my favorite parts of it. But it can be super-racist there, too, you know that, right?

Yeah. But… when I was there last year, it felt like Aboriginal culture was a lot more… announced than it was when I was living there. More, “hey, this is here.” Like it existed as a culture and not just people you didn’t look at.

Yeah, yeah… I know. And everybody sort of looks out for each other. It’s hard. You still really see the effects of colonialism though… you don’t see that here. So much. Not the way you do there. When I went to Winnipeg, I just thought I’d geek out, and have some peace of mind for a bit. Have a good space to do music in, but then I stopped doing music when I was there because I sensed it was not the right time. It was a time to experience something else. Purging perhaps.

So is the flipside of that isolation in Winnipeg that in Toronto sometimes there’s too much going on, and sometimes too much familiarity? Like, you couldn’t go to Holy Oak and anonymously have a cup of tea without running into eight people. Do you ever feel like in Toronto you’re too much connected with that kind of stuff?

I think it’s really good ‘cause everybody’s in the same boat… everybody wants a bit of peace of mind, so I don’t feel obligated to stop and have a full conversation with everybody, and I don’t think other people feel that way. It’s cool to just say, “hey.” You don’t have to be engaged all the time… there’s a good amount of personal space that way. But I’m so grateful, so grateful for those “hello’s.” I missed those daily greetings.

The only time I would say there’s too much in Toronto is that I feel like we all do too many shows. I’m not criticizing, but I’m saying it would be nice to see… I would like to do fewer shows in my own city. I think, as a friend, you should only have to see them play twice a year. Is that crazy? ‘Cause otherwise you’re going to burn yourself out.

I’d like to play two shows a year in my own city and make them really good. Just ‘cause less is more. And then, really work on a live show. ‘Cause I really feel like I kinda threw those last couple ones together a little bit. It would be really nice to work out something really solid.

Sometimes people wanna play ‘cause they wanna work their shit out to figure out how they’re doing things… and that’s fine. I think casual shows are important, but then there should be “event” shows, and there should be places like The Music Gallery, and there, that’s your event.

Exactly. That would be ideal. And to have an appropriate setting for the sound, too. ‘Cause you get asked to do a show at the Great Hall or this and that, and these are awesome venues, but sometimes they’re not ideal for every type of music. For me, this room [the Holy Oak] would probably be the best, ‘cause it’s small. Maybe somewhere carpeted. Carpeted, small… boom! Low ceilings? That would be the best, a basement somewhere. That’s my dream show. [laughs]

I don’t know if this is something you want to talk about in an interview or not, but I’d love to talk about your lyrical stance and your worldview and the role of faith in what you’re doing.

Yes. I have no problem talking about that.

‘Cause I think it’s something when people casually listen… people get awkward around that stuff.

I totally get it. It’s awkward.

So to put that into a question: what is the role of faith, and how did it inspire your lyrics?

[pauses] Okay. Well… I’ll just try and be brief. [looks up as song playing in the café ends] I’ll just wait ’til the music plays… [laughs] It’s so personal!

So, when I first moved here, I moved here with my fiancé. He was Jewish, I was gonna convert, la-la-la. But I was sort of: “what am I doing here? I’m converting to another faith because his mom wants me to, so we can get married. What does this mean?” So it caused me to do a whole exploration on faith, and I said a prayer: “who are you?” And Jesus was the last thing I would expect, and, without getting into the details, I had a Jesus Experience. And that never left. My life got more complicated and yet more simple as the years go by… and the more I understand the faith, the less money I seem to have — but the more authentic I feel.

So then, everything after that experience, I felt like I just don’t want to sing about anything else. It’s an endless thing to explore, and it’s very inspiring to try to make it somewhat challenging through music. To actually have a prayerful life and have a relationship with God is such a beautiful thing. To look beneath these words and really enhance the mystery, the mysterious side of God and the powerful side of God, as creator, the supernatural bizarreness of God. And the terribleness, and the beauty, and the wonderment.

I just think of it in terms of the Creator of the Universe, and enhancing that beauty. It’s like: there’s the sea, there’s the sky, there’s the creatures in the world, and there’s our bodies. And then there’s a broken spirit, in a flawed, fallen world. God’s love.

Did you have any people who have expressed Christianity through art that you’ve related to?

Yes! But not solely through art, but just their lives in general. I love the writings of Kierkegaard, C.S Lewis, James Baldwin, Henri Nouwen and Simone Weil. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, Hildegard of Bingen, the list goes on. I love early Black gospel where you can’t deny the joy you get from listening to it. Supernatural.

Yeah, musically, almost inevitably, gospel gets people [gestures], no matter what their stance on the concept is, the spirit just gets…

Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s the thing… I went to this church when I was in Winnipeg, it was like, half-Jamaican, half-Aboriginal, and I just came across it, and the worship got so weird and so strange… it was the best, right? And I just thought, “man, I’m so full of shit ’cause this is like the real deal.” Everything I do is so calculated and written… one day, I would love to be that free with it. They are just raw, as it is… nothing moves you like that. That’s the highest calling in music, really.

Did you have a problem when you started, like: how do I come at this in a, well, not even non-threatening, but non-cliché way that people would get into? Did all that stuff worry you?

No. If it is coming from an authentic place, and true desire, then I’m not worried about it… things work themselves out if you’re true to yourself. If people are offended by me because of my faith that is okay, if they are offended because I’m an asshole, that is not okay. From a Christian viewpoint, there’s the world that we live in that is broken, fallen and under the reign of an oppressive system. Then there is God’s Kingdom, the flip-side to that, a transcendent world so to speak, before it was overtaken by the powers of darkness. The next world. The world of light and love and goodness. I believe in this world and it is always fresh and always new. I only worry about it becoming cliché when I am out of God’s presence and rely on my own strength, which happens frequently and when that does happen, everything in my life will suck. Do I sound crazy? If you take this for what it is, then it shouldn’t be… lame. [laughs]

You seem pretty secure with your beliefs. But do you ever feel awkward when you’re going to play a show or have people hear your music, like maybe they’re going to be turned off by it?

No. Definitely not. Because after it’s been written, it’s gotta be dipped in love. If it’s dipped in love, it’s got that seal of approval of coming from the right place. And if somebody doesn’t like that, it’s okay. Y’know? But I’m definitely not trying to push it on people.

You’re not pushing it, you’re not burying it.

Yeah, I don’t wanna bury it. For sure. I can’t. ‘Cause that would be… I don’t wanna be ashamed of it. I know there’s perverse stuff going on within Christianity right now and I see why anybody would be turned off. Jesus was humble and very strange, but full of love. I definitely hope that shines through. This Fox News, pro war, Western Christianity perversion is not the real Jesus. That is a distorted Jesus.

Is there anything else that you thought, if you were interviewed, that someone should ask you?

Noooo…. I always thought about Prince. I remember I loved Prince…

I had Prince down in my notes here…

Shut up! Really?

Especially what you’re doing with your vocals, the pitch-shifting and stuff.

Yeah, he’s like, inspirational. But as I kid, I always wanted to read interviews about him but he never gave them and I always thought, “that’s really smart.” So I always thought, “If I ever do music, I’m never going to do interviews”, because then you can just…. stay outta the B.S.

— Interview by Joe Strutt