As a member of Montreal’s creative circle centred on the Constellation label, Jessica Moss has spent over two decades as violinist for A Silver Mt. Zion alongside numerous appearances with artists ranging from Arcade Fire to Broken Social Scene, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Carla Bozulich through to Zu.
Remarkably, it’s only this year that Moss has finally stepped out with her first full solo album, an ethereal elegy to a melting world, 'Pools Of Light'.
Clash caught up with her as Jessica heads out on tour across the UK.
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Two decades in music, what keeps it fun for you?
Jessica Moss: Well I never take being on stage in front of an audience for granted — ever. Now, as a solo musician, I feel even more committed to respecting being up there. Maybe that’s part of why I still find it so exciting. Plus it’s not like I get to perform every night: there are long periods between performances where you just work, work, work — then, on tour, the rest of the day is just a slog…
But it’s worth it because every night you to get to go to work. Partly it’s about being discerning: I never want to be part of something half-assed; I never want to be part of something just doing it for the sake of doing it.
I think I’ve put myself into situations where I’ve been almost on the edge of fucking up all the time because everything is so hard. With Mt Zion we would write music that was often too hard for us — we didn’t ever want to do something verse-chorus-verse.
I see people who will just put out a record as if that’s the beginning and end of their intentions and I don’t relate to that. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 19 and it’s half passion — won’t give up, love it too much — and half privilege of circumstance.
It’s noticeable that you’re still working with Constellation, still a part of the Montreal scene after all this time…
I’m so lucky to have Constellation behind me — there’s so much wonderful there. The two guys who run the label allow for and attract a different level of seriousness which they make their business to encourage and support. The aesthetics that they chose in the first place — and I can tell you because I was there — are not that dissimilar to what they keep going now.
And Montreal, OK, there’s nothing utopic happening but, at the same time, by virtue of affordable rent; by smallness and tightness of the English-speaking community; there is knowledge exchange and skill share and support: it definitely exists, my people, my family.
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The act of creating with someone else is so beautiful...
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And yet this is your first solo record after all this time — How’d this come about?
It surprised me! Band work and communal creation: it’s what drives me in a lot of different ways. The act of creating with someone else is so beautiful, rarely easy but often transcendent.
People asked, over the years, whether I’d ever make my own music and I always said no. Then Mt Zion was on tour with Kevin Doria — he performs solo as Total Life and his band is called Growing — he would create this beautiful drone music and we really got along so we started a virtual collaboration.
I was really inspired by what he would send me: I was in our rehearsal space with all my gear, all my pedals, all my amps, but armed only with his drones. All this stuff started coming out and I came to understand that I had stories to tell that I could tell this way: that I could free myself from the constraints of thinking I had to make songs that had lyrics.
I had these narrative things on my mind, like we all have, the disaster of the world circling in my mind: it seemed like a really cathartic way to talk about it all — through music. We are at the stage of the world collapse, depending on how you’re feeling on any given day, beginning of the end.
We’re all overwhelmed; all trying to figure out how to walk through a day without getting crushed under the weight of it all.
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We are at the stage of the world collapse...
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Certainly, looking at the titles, I immediately thought of the…How to say it? The full-scale meltdown of our entire ecosystem, biggest mass extinction in history, climate change driven migration, the end of ice…
I love that you said that and we both just laughed — what else can you do? That’s happening: “goddamn it!”
The first side ‘Entire Populations’ is one piece of music in my mind and it’s very much a story, a journey, mainly by sea, taken by a refugee fleeing danger. I was walking around with images, as we all do, of drowning people trying to be safe and — if they make it — they’re met by horrible racism…I don’t have to go on, everyone knows what I’m talking about. I made that piece as if it was full of words, but without words.
The second side is two different stories about melting glaciers: ‘feeling love in a melting world’ is actually want I wanted to title the record, but I got talked out of it. ‘Glaciers 1’ and ‘Glaciers 2’ I was imagining, circling them, around-above-below.
The first solo recording I did was ‘Under Plastic Island’ (a limited edition non-label 2015 cassette) and it was about the island of plastic floating in the Pacific — in that journey I didn’t get to the glaciers but in this one I do. I’ve played ‘Entire Populations’ beginning to end many a time at shows but I recorded it as four sections with my dear friend Radwan Ghazi Moumneh — Jerusalem In My Heart — who very patiently recorded it the way I wanted.
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The process was long and meandering...
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‘Glaciers’, I did more in a collage way, a lot more editing, moving parts around. I performed it live for the first time a few weeks ago: my sister, Nadia, learned it with me and played the organ so we could perform it together.
The way I quote-unquote ‘wrote’ the pieces…It’s all ear and feeling — going into the practice space with my violin, plugging into my pedals, pressing record on my phone, then I would improvise while thinking about what I was wanting to express. Then I would leave, walk around listening to those improvisations and certain points would stand out and I’d think “yes, that really does explain what I’m trying to say,” or “that moves me.” Then I’d get rid of the rest and build them up.
The process was long and meandering but the parts that I would remember and wake up humming were, I knew, the parts I wanted to keep. It’s a pleasure to know that what’s on 'Pools Of Light' is exactly what I wanted to be on there.
I feel like such a sap but it’s really exciting that my carefully decided upon thing seems to make other ears happy not just mine. I don’t take a single second for granted, every moment — even if it’s a slog — is a treasure and I’m very lucky I get to do this.
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Words: Nick Soulsby
Jessica Moss is currently on tour in the UK playing the following venues:
23 Dublin DBD at The Mezz
24 Glasgow Stereo
25 Newcastle The Cluny
27 Colchester Arts Centre
* All dates in support of Zu, aside from the last date *when Jessica shall perform with Laniakea