Photos by Rick Clifford
In the summer of 2014, Jessica Moss had Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra's shared practice space all to herself. As a permanent member of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, as well as an early member of the community surrounding Montreal's Constellation Records, Moss had been here many times before, but it was the first time she stepped into the space on her own. The emptiness manifested in some profound realizations. Overseas, the Gaza-Israel conflict had intensified into another full-scale Gaza War. Her mind kept returning to the sky.
"I had become obsessed with the idea of the sky being a place that we in privileged areas of the world can just think of as a peaceful place—a place to sort of gaze into and lose yourself and have your thoughts," Moss reflects over the phone from her home in Montreal. "I just started thinking so much about what it would be like to live in a place where the skies were not safe—where you couldn't count on anything safe being up there and at any moment violence could come from the sky, and I found my way into making this solo music by expressing my thoughts in that way."
From the seed of that experience, Moss delivered a self-released cassette titled Under Plastic Island in 2015. But May 5 brings a first full-length release of new work, Pools of Light, via Constellation. Consisting of two side-long, multi-track pieces titled "Entire Populations" (portions of which we're debuting videos for here) and "Glaciers." It's an evocative, stirring release that constructs powerful widescreen visions out of methodically looped violin phrases and minimalist vocals.
But if the subjects and images in Moss's work are right in plain view (in a press statement, Moss cites the Syrian refugee crisis and the declining environment), Pools of Light isn't busied with subjective opinions. Deploying vocals only in sparse, abstract passages, Moss is content to let her music facilitate a space for reflection and dialogue. By allowing what few signifiers she deploys, the entire record breathes in kind, and listeners are forced to bring their own feelings and associations to the table. Part of this is owed to a hesitancy to rearticulate views already expressed by others, but it's far from a refusal to engage with the issues. Instead, Moss transcends the trappings of echo chamber politics by seeking out commonalities and building hope out of mutual resonance.
"On the most micro level within our little worlds, there's still value in going out and seeing music and being in a room full of your people or people that could be your people and just looking around and feeling, 'Okay, I'm not alone, there's more of us than there are of them, let's metaphorically or physically hold hands somehow. Keep going,'" Moss insists. "Because it certainly can feel pretty fucking hopeless sometimes."
Moss established herself as a vital player with a hand in some of North America's most well-adored independent music including Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra , as well as contributing on seminal albums like Arcade Fire's Funeral, Broken Social Scene's Feel Good Lost, and countless collaborations with the likes of Carla Bozulich and Fugazi's Guy Piccioto. But this recent project marks the first time Moss has stepped out for a solo venture. Here, the only things providing Moss company are her violin and scores of loopers and effects pedals at her bare feet. But if Moss's music was forged in solitude, only part of its gravity can be felt through headphones. The dialectical force driving her work snowballs live, where Moss's extensive, note-for-note compositions meet the precarious nature of toe-turned pedal adjustments, unprogrammed samples, and room feedback. In the space of Moss's music, there's a persistent mandate on the present, and Moss skillfully transforms that into multitudes of dramatic import.
For Moss, it all circles back to a mantra she originally considered for Pools of Light's title but since preserved as a statement of intent for placement on the back cover—"Feeling Love In a Melting World." The hope, she says, is that by engaging with the present and opening as many doors to it as she can, she'll reach a collective "third place" with as broad an audience as possible.
"My intention with this idea of going around and performing by myself is to maybe give back and create those collective moments where we can reflect with each other. I don't need to be saying, 'there's climate change, we're in trouble,' because we all know it, you know? But we can maybe be together and get some energy and feel something good so we can hopefully go through another day living our best lives, which, hopefully, can in some ways equal 'what can we do to make it better?'"
Tom Beedham is a freelance arts and culture writing living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.