The colourful, quirky Tessa Violet channels her love of music into a unique electro-pop sound and ambitious aesthetic.
Tessa Violet is part of a new cohort of artist approaching their careers – and indeed the music industry – with an independence that’s shaking up the established model. With tools such as social media and crowdfunding at their disposal, rising young artists are able to connect with their audiences in groundbreaking new ways; creating symbiotic relationships that sustain and enrich all parties involved.
“A lot of the success of ‘Crush’ was because of the initial support I got through Patreon,” Violet explains. Set to be the first single from Violet’s sophomore album Bad Ideas, the video has now amassed almost 40 million views on YouTube, the platform where her content first began to gain traction. It’s a left-field ditty that showcases Violet’s ability to write simple, sweet pop tracks heavy on the relatability factor and elevated by clever and unusual arrangement and production.
“‘Crush’ was definitely so much bigger than I could have imagined,” she admits. “And I have a pretty big imagination! As an independent artist – I have no label – it was built on the traction of the fans I already had who were excited about it, and it was amazing.”
Facilitated by the manner in which social media levels the playing field between artists and their fans, Violet’s relationship with her listeners is certainly unique. Singer Dodie Clark – a friend and prior tourmate of Violet’s – broke down in a previous interview how quickly the internet has changed this dynamic, and what that means for artists. Both Clark and Violet find themselves at the forefront of a paradigm shift: in 2019, pop stardom is an entirely different beast, even from just a decade ago.
“I think I’m pretty accessible to my fans,” Violet agrees. “I love Twitter, I love Instagram – it’s fun to see familiar faces online! I feel like there are fans in cities that I’m familiar with and I see them at shows. There were two girls in London, Ciara and Liv, who I’m like, ‘yeah! I’ve seen you for many years now!’
“I feel so awed that I got to play two headline London shows,” she continues. “They both sold out. When I was in London two years ago, I played to 50 people in a living room!” Violet pauses, laughing in a manner that’s almost disbelieving. “It’s wild.”
Since “Crush”, Violet has released a further two singles: last year’s “Bad Idea” and, most recently, the bass-driven “I Like (the idea of) You”. Each track arrives as a project with multiple components, encompassing both the sonic and the visual element. Violet’s personal aesthetic is obvious from first sight of her daffodil-yellow curls, but there’s a substance to her style that permeates every release, starting with the striking cover images shot by photographer Brian Gahan.
“I found him on Instagram,” Violet says, when asked how they came to work together. “I was using his pictures to describe his aesthetic to people, and someone was like, ‘why don’t you just contact him?’ I forgot that was a thing I could do! I reached out to him and he was like, ‘great, let’s do it!’”
Gahan’s striking, surreal portraits are a perfect complement to Violet’s similarly modern and mesmeric sound, but they’re also not the tracks’ only accompaniments. It’s only to be expected that – as an artist whose career trajectory began with her opening an account on YouTube – she would deliver exciting visuals along with each release.
On this front, Violet certainly doesn’t disappoint. Though she values her independence as an artist, her videos tend to be mutual efforts in which she is quick to credit the input of the respective directors: Isaac White (“Crush”) and Jade Ehlers (“Bad Ideas”, “I Like (the idea of) You”).
“They’re both incredibly talented, incredibly versatile, and incredibly collaborative directors, which has been great,” Violet enthuses. “I have a real strong sense of what I want, what I think is cool, what I think is right for the song. I like when music videos are a reflection of how [the song] feels, not a narrative of the lyrics, ‘cause I feel the lyrics already tell the story. I like the music videos to be visual representation of what the song feels like; I think it asks an audience to then think deeper about the lyrics.”
Violet laughs about how, when first connected with Ehlers, the director thought she had “such a strong sense of vision” that she wouldn’t be in need of any external input. It’s not at all difficult to see how Ehlers got this impression – the results of Violet’s often low-budget ventures are, put simply, stunning.
“Crush” is an inviting romp filmed in a grocery store – “they let us shoot from closing ‘til 6am” – whilst “Bad Ideas” is a hypnotic, Pantone-hued dream. “I Like (the idea of) You” is perhaps Violet’s most ambitious visual thus far: a sleekly choreographed dance routine in which, to her credit, Violet looks perfectly at home leading her coven of backing dancers. A commenter perfectly encapsulates the end result, describing it as “sexy in a non-male-gaze-y way and more like a dancing-in-front-of-my-mirror kinda way”.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Violet agrees, before adding, “I hope people like it! It definitely put me way outside of my comfort zone, but turned out fantastic.”
Defining her own comfort zone – and the ways in which she’s been willing to push beyond it – has been, for Violet, one of the most satisfying parts of being an independent artist. She can choose to bring on board the collaborators who will help realise her vision, but is able to keep herself firmly at the helm throughout.
“There was no A&R – no outside voices saying, ‘you should be this’, or ‘this will perform better’,” she explains. “Maybe that will hurt me in mainstream marketability, but I think it’s also allowed me to be more pure to my own artistry. I get to make the music that pleases me, without second-guessing ‘is this okay?’ because there’s been no other voice. I’ve been able to be an island.”
Counter-intuitively, the approach that Violet makes sound so insular seems to have worked totally in her favour thus far. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that, despite not being caught up in the industry machine, the Oregon-born artist isn’t shy about being a huge music fan herself.
“I love pop music that feels inventive and smart, and that is not chasing trends,” Violet says, her enthusiasm palpable as she begins to reel off artists that tick these boxes for her: UPSAHL, daysormay, Sasha Sloan, Lauren Aquilina, Orla Gartland. “I try and listen to New Music Friday every week,” she adds, “Even just 30 seconds of each song, to see if there’s anything popping out at me to find new artists. I love Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Release Radar curated algorithmic playlists to keep up with people!”
Violet agrees that her hunger for music from artists she admires feeds into her own appreciation of what it means to be successful. Indeed, she understands so well that she’s conducting this interview from the corner of a Nashville parking lot. Why? Because it’s been rumoured that, any moment now, Taylor Swift is going to show up alongside a recently painted mural (spoiler: she did, and Violet’s signature bob is easily visible in photos of the crowd).
“I know how I interact with people I’m a fan of – they become a part of your life over many years,” Violet explains. “It’s fun to be that for someone else; to get to feel a part of something. A friend said to me the other day, ‘wow, your dream’s coming true,’ and it is!’”