INTERVIEW: Tessa Violet works through anger with “Games” and a mosh pit

Tessa Violet

Tessa Violet, courtesy Sarah Pardini.

Tessa Violet released Bad Ideas in 2019 and was set to take her second album on the road the following year. That didn’t work out because, well, you know. So instead, the rising singer-songwriter did some live-streams and stayed active with fans on social media. It’s something Violet knows something about, since she got her first world-wide big break as a Youtuber. That was more than a decade ago while she was working in retail after a two-year stint in modeling.

But that’s beside the point.

Since last year, Tessa Violet, 31, has continued to stay busy releasing new versions of some of Bad Ideas’ catchiest songs: “Bored” with MisterWives, “Words Ain’t Enough” with Chloe Moriondo and “Games” with lovelytheband. The latter song, released in April, came with a meta shot-for-shot remake of a scene in “Twilight,” no less. Another song, “Wishful Drinking,” went viral last year thanks to a TikTok trend.

For her final statement with Bad Ideas, Violet (whose full name is Tessa Violet Williams) is turning to “Games” yet again, with a physical pop-punk version produced by Matt Squire (Panic at the Disco, All Time Low, 3oh!3) released last Friday.

“I wanna mosh,” Violet said in a video interview from her home in Los Angeles, to which she had just moved back prior to the start of the pandemic.

She originally wrote “Games” about the experience of being gaslit by a now-ex. He’d lied to her and when she called him out on it he’d retort that she was just misunderstanding him. It turned out he was talking to other girls behind her back. The 2021 versions of the songs were her way of doing remixes. But Violet isn’t interested in club music. Instead, right before the pandemic, she saw PUP and fell in love with pop-punk

“I’ve never been to a punk show before, but watching it, … the energy of this is incredible. It’s infectious and it also feels like an incredible space to work through anger,” she said. “I think women especially aren’t given space to work through anger. We’re taught from a young age that to be mature is to move directly into compassion or understanding—to leapfrog anger. But it’s hard to actually get to that space without moving through the emotion. I’m just like, ‘I’m for this, and I am mad!’”

That was on a personal level, on a more universal level, the anger in the song became a response to the out-in-the-open injustices of the past year.

“A punk version of “Games”— I know that may seem kind of left field for me, but it feels very genuine to who I am right now and what I’m listening to,” she said.

Tessa Violet grew up in Ashland, Oregon, a tiny, wooded town less than an hour from the California border off I-5. It’s home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but has no music scene and is a three hours’ drive from any major city.

Her first dream was to perform in musical theater.

Tessa Violet

Tessa Violet performs at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco on Sept. 28, 2019. Gary Chancer/STAFF.

“My mom and I disagree about this: She’s like, ‘We had a car.’ But, in my experience of my childhood, we had a car like a third of the time so there was not much of going to big cities,” she said. “We would take the Greyhound to Portland, Oregon every now and then for vacation.”

She knew back then that she wanted to sing, but she only had the theater presented as an option. Her acting, however, was not up to par, she said, so she didn’t get past school productions. She felt bitter at the time.

“It was my first heartbreak because it was my desire,” she said.

A friend of her mother’s had suggested modeling as a career, something Violet wasn’t at all interested in until an agent told her the job came with airfare perks and that she had a “good look for Japan.” “And I was like, ‘I’m in, baby!’” she said.

During her modeling career she traveled through places like China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand.

Violet quit that after two years, quickly becoming disillusioned with how the industry treats models as a disposable commodity. Instead, she got a retail job at American Apparel and began vlogging on YouTube.

“This was before you could be a YouTuber as a career, but I felt like that was coming,” she said. “In like 2008, I was, ‘I think I could do this as a job. … I really think that’s going to happen for me and a lot of people.’”

Her following quickly took off. She directed and performed in her own skits and made unofficial, yet very popular music videos set to music by the likes of Mika. She won a YouTube competition and a large cash prize

That would have been that, but she never lost her passion for singing. A few years later, now in her 20s, she discovered songwriting. As the story goes, a friend left a guitar in her car. She taught herself a Death Cab for Cutie cover and was soon writing her own songs.

Since 2013 she’s turned her focus to songwriting. The following year she made and released her first album, Maybe Trapped Mostly Troubled. A year or so later, she moved to Nashville, not because of its status as a music capitol—she’d already spent some time in L.A. and New York by that point—but just to experience something different and have both the amenities of a big city and the community of a smaller town. She didn’t know anyone there at the time but went for it anyway. It’s a trait she said she got from her mom, who made similar decisions, like giving up a big city life to raise her daughter in Ashland, Oregon, only to bounce to New York, and then Maine after Violet was out of the nest.

Tessa Violet

Tessa Violet performs at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 2018. Matthew Eaton/STAFF.

After moving back to L.A. right before the pandemic, she kept herself mentally healthy and in the moment through meditation, which she said also helped her build confidence in herself. She also got in touch with her desires and learned how to talk and think about what she wants to accomplish.

“If you’re honest about what you want from your life and from people, you’re going to have an easier time in your life because to deny what you want, you need to constantly be hard and closed,” she said. “And to be open to what you want, you have to be willing to be brave. Because … then you’re also open to a ‘no,’ which people think will break their heart—and maybe it will, but you’re gonna learn a lot and get a lot more from life if you are … about your desire and intention. … If you’re a pessimist you protect yourself from future disappointment. But really, all you do is spoil the current moment, and the current moment is all we ever have. It’s all we’re guaranteed.”

Violet said when she was first getting into music and transitioning from being a YouTuber, she was met with some backlash, especially from within the music industry. As she’s proven herself as a musician that has subsided, but she’s never been ashamed of how she arrived where she did.

“I’m proud of having done that. I really think—not I think; I know—that I was on the forefront of that movement of being someone who shares their life through a video format,” she said.

She’s fine if some people still know her primarily through the past phase of her life and career. Even if some people continue to have a stigma around YouTubers expanding their careers in different directions, she said she doesn’t take it personally.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.

Even someone from that field who makes music that’s, say, less than stellar, she doesn’t look down on him or her. After all, who doesn’t want to be an artist? And everyone has to start somewhere. Some people, however, have a much larger platform because of prior success doing something else.

If she had discovered songwriting first, she would have arrived through a different door, she added.

“I am an artist and I always have been, and my platform, or my way of expressing myself, used to be through storytelling videos. Now I story-tell through songs,” she said.

From her experience, the people looking down on the art made by others are the ones who can’t convince themselves to make a similar jump in their own lives.

“I honestly think everyone should sing. It’s part of the human experience,” she said. “Your first release is not going to be good and that’s just a fact.

Tessa Violet

Tessa Violet performs at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 2018. Matthew Eaton/STAFF.

Since she didn’t get to tour, Violet splurged and spent her entire built-up tour budget on a massive livestream performance in May. She still hoped to play some shows this year, but that will come as an opener on someone else’s ticket, she said.

She’s also started working on her next album and even has some songs completed that she expects to make the cut, but she’s still searching for a through line to present itself. It took a while for that to happen on the last album, but once it came, Tess Violet knew exactly what she wanted to say.

“I have the sense the project hasn’t quite revealed itself to me,” she said.

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