Ideas of Space: Tess Roby Emerges From her Chrysalis

Art knows Spring as the metaphorical time of rebirth and Tess Roby’s sophomore album Ideas of Space is no exception. Released on April 22, in the midst of the whimsical season, the timing couldn’t have been more fitting. Ideas of Space consists of 10 songs entirely written, performed, and produced by Roby; a vision she brought to fruition on her newly created independent label "SSURROUNDSS." The record is not only a conglomerate of Roby’s artistry but a celebration of  emerging herself from the chrysalis of her debut album, Beacon (2018); a moving meditation on griefBefore the album launch, I had the pleasure of meeting with Roby to ask about her experiences in the Montreal music community, her two albums, and about nostalgia.

My first introduction to Roby’s music was “Ballad 5”, from her debut release. It has since remained one of my favourites among her discography. On Bandcamp, the song is described as: “a song of love and loss in the humid Montreal summer— the sound of Parc Avenue in the blue light of dawn.” Although Montreal is never explicitly mentioned in the song, the lyrics paint portraits of the city with a sense of aching heartbreak and nostalgia. “No feeling like watching the sky turn a brighter blue / with you,” Roby begins on the song and then shifts her lens to a vignette of what can easily be of sitting on the mountain with a lover- an esoterically Montreal experience: “reflections of the busy street, too late to fall asleep. . . the time we spent together looking over the road / what a moment it was.” The swaying, dreamy synths and slow-burn drumbeat come to an abrupt halt when she continues, “now I hate everything about you.” It’s at this moment when the synths clarify with reality and begin to probe. Roby then wistfully laments, “only the way, only the way you were” repeatedly for the remainder of the song, each time seeming more poignant of a cry. Except with Roby’s choir-like vocals, the melancholy of a Renaissance-era style painting is evinced and makes the listening experience feel transcendental and ambrosial.

In addition to producing, writing and performing her own music, Roby is also a photographer. In her music, such as with “Ballad 5”, these photographic talents shine and she proves herself of not only being able of capturing and conveying moments in the photographic medium, but of also being able to intricately capture them in her music and song writing. “Lyrically my songs are non-descript and more so on the new record, moving back and forth between dreams and imaginative spaces, but particularly with 'Ballad 5' there were some moments for me when I was writing it, I knew exactly what I was seeing—It was that blue light of dawn on Parc Avenue. When I think of that song I always see this blue color of dawn,” Roby admits. When asked about the relationship between her photography and song writing she elucidates, “they don’t directly inspire each other but they both come from this really intuitive place and this way of seeing the world differently.” Roby directs all her music videos and emphasizes the importance that visuals have with music for her creative process. “For the 'Path' (Ideas of Space) music video, I had shot some footage with Hugo Bernier, my partner, in 2019 before the song was written. I had that footage in the studio with me while I was recording it and the visuals ended up inspiring the lyrics to the song and I thought that was a cool way of working.”

As much as “Ballad 5” is a song of heartbreak and nostalgia, it also moonlights as a love song to Montreal. “Surroundings in general influence my music... it makes so much sense that where you live would have some kind of influence on your songs and seep in,” Roby muses. “I moved to Montreal when I was 17 and I started playing music with people that I met at Concordia and it was a lot of having fun for a while” she contemplates to herself. “It wasn’t this, it wasn’t as serious” she adds, referring to the present height of her career.

Fast-forward to a 28-year-old Roby sitting on a windowsill at the Phi Center where her album launch is only a few hours and a sunset away. As the bustle of Old Montreal encompasses her, I could only wonder about her sepia-hued supercuts of earlier times in the city coming to mind. “I played my first show in Montreal at this now defunct DIY venue called '1601' with Doomsquad. It was an insane first show to play in Montreal. I feel like you don’t really get those crazy DIY shows as much anymore here but maybe I’m just older and not seeking them out as well,” a tinge of wistfulness lacing her voice. “As soon as I started playing shows, I found people and there was a real community especially with everyone with who I was going to university with at Concordia. We weren’t even thinking about it while it was happening.” Roby explains, “I do feel nostalgic for moments of my younger life and earlier years in Montreal where things didn’t seem as ominous or serious, and when there were a lot of playful expressions of being young. Then there’s the moments you have when you’re a teenager or in your early twenties when you’re free; I feel like I haven’t had many of those moments lately, maybe it’s because of the pandemic.” Except the glass is certainly half-full for Roby, clarifying that she is “never dwelling on them in a negative way.” If there is one thing that Roby emits from the get-go, it’s her warm humility; always awestricken when emphasizing how appreciative she is of being where her she is now and being able to connect with people who share a love for music- whether it’s for her own or otherwise. The down-to-earth Roby that one sees on stage, is the same one that greets you warmly off-stage and pulls out a chair for you to sit.

Solely by listening to Ideas of Space, one could already assume Roby’s air is one that is uplifting. A sense of immediacy permeates the record with its more ambient leaning soundscapes in comparison to Beacon’s more opaque synths. On the former, sparse backdrops are adorned with airy textures and creates a vast space around the listener; which also lends itself to the label name of "SSURROUNDSS," alluding to Roby’s old Myspace bio: “surrounds sounds.” The album opens with “Century” a track that seems as if it's a letter written from Roby’s present to past self. The song’s very first lyric is “the first step into a quiet house. . . why did you leave here for so long / and not return? You feel at home here / you feel at home.” Hints of homesickness and a lack of familiarity often underlie nostalgia but on Ideas of Space, Roby addresses “the difference between / house and home”; the very fact of being able to distinguish the two, pointing to her newfound sense of not just being at home, but feeling at home. These lyrics starkly contrast those found on Beacon, such as on the titular song where she hopelessly pleads, “can we go back to that time? / back to that life?” When Roby does reminisce on her new record, for instance on “Cloud Cover” she asks, “how could you forget that we were one at one time? / everything dies.” The difference being that this time around, the lyrics paired with the soothing ambient soundscape, offer an overwhelming sense of acceptance. Towards the end of the song the lyrics conclude, “all this time alone, it has taught me one thing / how to feel alive”; letting the juxtaposition of the lyrics speak for themselves. Or on “Walls Surrounding Water,” a track where Roby’s acceptance and growth is further documented. Of writing the song, she states, “lyrically [she] didn’t know it was about [her late] father, and about the strength that it takes to move through grief.” The song sees another instance of Roby reminiscing, but again with a resounding peacefulness. “I remember walking with you / following no path” read the first lyrics of the song, and “kindred spirit, in the mirror / leave it to you” read the last; the spiritual imagery gracefully fading away as the sonic textures mimic the placid ripples of water. On Beacon Roby looks out for answers but on Ideas of Space, any sense of anguish is washed away.

“With Ideas of Space there was a lot of looking in— turning the hard situations, the traumas one experiences in life, and gaining confidence by working through those,” Roby remarks. These trains of thoughts are evidenced on the album covers. Beacon features Roby laying supine with the space consuming her whereas on Ideas of Space, she stands boldly with her hand outstretched, affirmatively taking up the space. When asked if whether this was intentional she reveals, “so much of this stuff happens unconsciously and the threads and all the connections… I only see them once it’s all done. I love that about being an artist, having an unconscious knowledge and power. It’s like the sublime y’know?” She marvels, the mere conversation of art transfixing her. And now, with her new album having been released, Roby is able to bask in its light. “I feel a lot different, I feel very calm. Have it breathing out in the world makes me feel lighter. I just know that now I’m at the beginning of something new.”

And the sublime it precisely is. Witnessing Roby perform songs off of Ideas of Space, and a select few from Beacon, later that night in an intimate room at Phi only adds to her artistry. Ripples of water, textural clouds, soft bursts of light and dreamy footage all project onto the stage as Roby invites the audience into her realm. Hearing Roby’s stunning vocals sung live was especially a treat. Yes, even on the recorded versions of her songs Roby’s vocals are dimensional and the flecks of her vocal range shimmer in the light of different registers; a crystalline prism reflecting the dispersed, multicolours of white light. But when performed live? Somehow even more so. Roby’s music summoned an omniscient force into the room that at times, seemed to overcome the artist herself; and I saw her being a vessel for the power of music and becoming transfixed all over again.

Check out Tess Roby's discography here!