Jennie Vee’s solo EP, Die Alone, caught our attention with its razor-sharp styling and contagious hooks. That sent us into the vaults to listen to Vee’s previous work in Canadian indie outfit, Tuuli, and The Vicious Guns. What we found was a vein of gold that we hadn’t mined before, covering ground from punk to poptronica. The treasure trail led us back to an inspired collection of songs that reflect influences from Galaxie 500 to The Ramones but are as thoughtful as they are dynamic. We caught up with Vee (as in Vicious) with some burning questions, in between listens to Die Alone.
What brought Tuuli together in a Toronto suburb and inspired you to perform together?
I had actually been living in England, writing and recording demos for about a two year period when I was a teenager, and those demos became the early Tuuli material. I mailed out my cassette tape demo to all of the UK music gurus and got replies from none other than John Peel and Alan McGee! That’s when it was confirmed that I was on to something. I’ve always had great confidence in my abilities as a songwriter: from the first song I wrote, I had a great penchant for melodic guitar work, hooks and structure, even though my young life up until that point had been awash in depression, anxiety and existential teen angst. I loved my time in England – both the Melody Maker and NME were still around, and growing up in a desolate mining town in Northern Ontario they were hard to get a hold of, so imagine my delight every week when I could run down to the shop and pick up copies in person every week. However, it proved very hard for me to find band members in England, despite the great response I was getting to my demo tape. That’s when I made the hard decision to move back home to Canada and assembled a stellar band with a few fellow misfits from up North – my mom was kind enough to house us in her suburban home for eighteen months as we practiced daily and plotted world domination.
What was the craziest thing that happened to you as part of Tuuli?
Tuuli lasted an incredible eight years and so many surreal things happened – from sharing the stage with Cheap Trick to Knox from The Vibrators joining us in London to perform “Baby, Baby.” I wrote the theme song for a Comedy Central series in the US, and we appeared in a Wall Street Journal commercial. Our first EP was released by one of my all time favourite cult labels, Sympathy for the Record Industry. When we signed a major label deal, five years after forming, we were still self-managed and acted as our own booking agent, as well. We also did two five-week tours of the UK, and I’ve seen many towns from Southampton to Scunthorpe – those tours were definitely the pinnacle of Tuuli.
Indie rock and punk were and are very male-dominated genres, but there is a long list of female groups who have made their own spaces: The Slits, The Runaways and Showen Knife come to mind. Do you find that there are additional obstacles for women who want to present their music to these audiences?
I shudder at these types of questions. How would I know what it’s like to be of a different gender in a band? What experience do I have to compare it to? Would men in a band get asked this question? All I can speak to is my individual experience navigating through life, relationships and the music industry. There are obstacles for everyone in life, regardless of gender.
Simon Price of The Independent once described The Vicious Guns as “Cindy Lauper meets Depeche Mode.” Presumably, this was a reference to 2010’s “Friends Aren’t Friends,” which brought synth and drum machines into the picture, but there was also a Vicious Guns remix of Erasure’s “I Lose Myself.” Was that a detour for you, or was there a current of electropop waiting to come out?
As a long time fan of the pioneers of electronica, my first demos were done with an old school Roland drum machine, despite the organic, raw, punk-rock nature of the guitars. New Order, Depeche Mode, Skinny Puppy, Ministry – I saw all of these bands live in my youth. Combined with my love of the layered guitar work of Echo & The Bunnymen and psychedelic noise of The Jesus & Mary Chain – as well as good, old-fashioned pop music a la Madonna and Michael Jackson – The Vicious Guns was a natural progression for me as a songwriter at the time. There are some politically-tinged lyrics on that record, as well, and several Manic Street Preachers references. I tend to include cleverly veiled homages in my music and sometimes very overt ones.
With your previous bands, the style was quite punk-inspired, but your solo work has more room to breathe and has more shoegaze precedents. Do you think that your songwriting is different in a solo context?
I’ve always been the main or sole songwriter in all of my projects, so this is just a natural progression and growth as a human, musician and writer. At different times in my life, different influences shine through stronger than others. In the beginning, the speed and fury of bands like The Buzzcocks and The Ramones were obvious reference points; then I delved into more of a Depeche-meets-Madonna-meets-the Manics vibe; and now I’ve arrived at a place where I stand firmly with all of my influences melting together. Technology has also played a part in my ever-evolving sound – I’ve sort of developed a soundscape for my new work with the use of specific guitar pedals and also plug-ins that have tied all the songs together sonically.
These days, record labels play less of a role in developing and breaking new artists. Do you find that releasing music independently gives you more freedom, or do you miss the support of the infrastructure that comes with a label?
I have to say that some of my biggest accomplishments, even going back to my first band, were done without the support of a big label or management, and I always had a very strong DIY ethic. When I started Tuuli, we had the age-old catch-22 dilemma of needing a press kit, but having no press we decided to forge our own and made a Tuuli “fanzine” filled with articles and reviews from other imaginary publications singing our praises – and we also threw in a few bad reviews! To keep it real! It was really only a brief period that we had a major label involved. Long Gone John from Sympathy (White Stripes, Hole, Rocket from The Crypt) was known for his “no deal” deals, and having him as an early mentor and supporter was a match made in rock-and-roll heaven.
After the warm reception for Die Alone, what are your plans? Will we see you in Europe again, soon?
Yes! I will be back in the UK and Europe in the late Spring. I have teamed up with my old friend Gary Powell from The Libertines, and his label, 25 Hour Convenience Store, will be releasing my record over there. I couldn’t be happier to be working with Gary!
You are also known for your work as a fashion designer. What are the things that inspire you, when dreaming up new ideas for Vicious Threads?
I tend to go in waves when it comes to focusing on which medium I choose to express myself with creatively. Sewing and designing has always been a part of my life: my grandfather was a Croatian immigrant to Canada and a master tailor, so I could sew as long as my foot could reach the pedal. When I first moved to NYC, I had just finished a job for 80s pop star, Tiffany, and was commissioned to create several pieces for Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign as part of her “Monster’s Ball” tour. However, I tend to get single-minded and obsessed when I create, and, although I will always appreciate having the skill to pattern-make and execute garments, music is my heart and soul. I had to literally put the sewing machine in storage and get back to songwriting when I was getting overwhelmed with requests and jobs in fashion. I was depressed and crying over my machine and I just stopped. I had also been going through a lot personally with relationships with family, friends and my partner, and I felt like I was just going through the motions of life – and I was here in the Big Apple, surrounded by people and opportunities, and I was just stuck. That’s when I allowed myself to pick up my guitar again, and it became my most prolific period yet. Without getting too detailed, I now associate that period of my life as a super low, and writing this EP and album has been me clawing my way out of it.
Jennie Vee’s Die Alone is available now on Bandcamp.
Photos: Katrin Albert / Clothing: Courtney Love