Feature: Tusks’ Stripped Sessions Evoke Haunting Intimacy with Raw Grace

Tusks dwells in intimacy and vulnerability on her live EP’s raw, stripped-down performances. Her haunting rendition of “Last” evokes a breathtaking experience of suffering and beauty.

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To be alive is to indulge in the full range of physical and emotional experience: To accept pain with joy, celebration with mourning, resistance with surrender. Tusks’ hauntingly poignant “Last” embraces this totality, evoking the breathtaking experience of suffering and beauty with raw, stripped-down grace. Overwhelming and awe-inspiring, it is true breathtaking musical moment.

Dissolve (The Live Sessions) - Tusks

Dissolve (The Live Sessions) – Tusks

Atwood Magazine is proud to be premiering the live session video for “Last,” taken from Tusks’ Dissolve – The Live Sessions EP (out August 10, 2018). The musical project of London’s Emily Underhill, Tusks crafts expansive, atmospheric, and emotionally-charged music reminiscent of Daughter, The xx, and Sigur Ros. Self-described as “evolving dark pop,” the artist’s 2017 debut album Dissolve (One Little Indian Records) is a cinematic journey through turbulence, vulnerability, and change. The record seamlessly incorporates acoustic and electronic instrumentation into its evocative portrayal of these themes, blending naked guitars into ethereal, padded soundscapes that threaten to swallow us whole.

Out tomorrow, Dissolve – The Live Sessions strips four of Dissolve‘s most potent tracks down to their core. Performed on piano or guitar with some cello accompaniment, these renditions reveal another side of Tusks’ musicality and artistry; at times, they feel like completely new songs altogether.

“The idea was to recreate the tracks in quite a raw state – I always get carried away with the production and it’s nice to have the chance to strip the tracks right down to their skeleton,” Tusks tells Atwood Magazine. “I started playing the stripped-down versions of ‘Last’ and ‘Toronto’ when I was having technical issues while touring in the US last year, and I actually ended up falling in love with those versions – especially the stripped version of ‘Last.’ I think that takes the track in such a different direction to the original.”

Tusks © Harvey Pearson

Tusks © Harvey Pearson

Alongside the new EP come three live session videos directed by Tom Ewbank: “Paris” was teased in June, and “My Love” in July. Both videos find Tusks at the piano, bathed in a cloudy pink mist and accompanied by Jack Sugden on cello. Overlaying the musical performance are shots of dancer Danu Sunth, who manipulates her body in response to the evocative, melancholy sounds.

Tusks explains, “When we decided to do live videos with the EP I really wanted to work with Danu Sunth again after working with her for the ‘False‘ video. She has such an incredible energy and every time we work together I feel like we’re on the exact same page. It’s like this crazy synergy where she’s able to instantly narrate the emotions in my head through her performance.”

Dissolve - Tusks

Dissolve – Tusks

“Last” is the final third of Tusks’ video trilogy. Whereas its studio version relies on shifting dynamics (in the form of overdrive and electronic manipulation) to create tension, the live version of “Last” indulges in silence and dwells deep in the bowels of intimacy. Unlike the preceding videos, Tusks performs “Last” alone. The black-and-white video sees her standing at the microphone with her electric guitar, words slowly falling out of her mouth as she sings a song of hopeless surrender:

You taint my life, but what are you
So afraid of?
I can’t keep on bruising myself
For your lies
When I’m too restless to follow this
I can’t escape (Your pain)
You break me down (But I’ll grow)
I can’t escape (Your pain)
You break me down when I follow you

This is Tusks in her most emotional, vulnerable, and honest state. We see her more clearly than ever before as she gives herself over to the music, giving us a chance to truly hear her lyrics, and to feel their meaning. Out tomorrow, Dissolve – The Live Sessions promises cathartic, beautiful, and sometimes painful moments of depth. The human experience is truly breathtaking when laid bare, and Tusks has captured this beauty with stirring strength.

Stream “Last” exclusively on Atwood Magazine, and dive deeper into Tusk with our interview below!

Watch: “Last” – Tusks

DISSOLVING WITH TUSKS

You mention part of your impetus for these recordings was to “recreate the tracks in quite a raw state.” What is it about that raw state that you find attractive?

Tusks: I think stripping back the production and instrumentation makes the melody and lyrics of the song the main focus which for me seems pretty raw. I’m not the most open person and I try to hide my lyrics and vocals in layers of production, so when it’s all taken away it feels vulnerable to me. I think that and the fact that it’s being played live in one take makes it attractive because it’s really human – it’s imperfect and relatable.

I'd love for you to explore the differences, or how you feel the live version of each song differs from its album version?

Last: This version of “Last” actually came about really quickly last minute while I was touring America. I was having loads of technical issues and wasn’t able to perform the track in it’s normal way so I wrote this alternate stripped down version so I could play it in my shows across the US. I think this track is the one that differs from the original the most. It’s taken in a totally different direction musically and I think it highlights the lyrics more.

Paris:  I wanted this version to bring the cello part out as a main feature alongside the piano – and then I played around with the vocal melody a bit because of the absence of the pitch shifted vocals in the chorus.

Toronto:  This was probably the most similar to the original – it’s the same guitar and vocal part just with everything else stripped out.

My Love: I think this has ended up being my favourite of the session tracks – somehow it’s more uplifting than the original? Maybe not haha – it’s all pretty melancholy but there’s something more bittersweet about this version for me.

Dissolve is full of intimate moments, as well as opportunities for creating intimacy and vulnerability (I can imagine “1807” and “Ivy” also being incredible, performed in this fashion). Why, aside from them being fan favorites, did these four songs end up being the ones you transformed and stripped-down?

Tusks: These were the songs that I thought would benefit the most from having stripped back versions – either because there’s loads of production on the original, or because I thought it would be interesting to change around melodies or bring other instrumentation into focus like the cello parts. I thought they’d complement each other on an EP together too with a mix of piano and guitar.

As we're nearing a year since Dissolve's release, I'm curious how the album's songs have grown on you over time; how has your relationship to these songs changed over the past year?

Tusks: I change a lot – especially if I’m touring and playing the songs every night. I’ll fall in and out of love with different songs all the time. It can be hard sometimes though when you’ve spent most of the last two years hearing the same tracks over and over through writing, recording, mixing and touring. I’ll always love them but they’re from a kind of low point in my life and I’m really excited to start focusing on new music.

We're big fans of director Tom Ewbank here at Atwood Magazine! What was your experience working with Tom, and how do you feel he helped to capture and evoke the nuance of your vision?

Tusks: Tom was great to work with – he really understood my vision of how I wanted the sessions to look – especially the cuts of Danu dancing over the shots of the cello and piano which was the main focus. I love the overhead shot that he got at the start of “My Love” and the wide angle shots with the lights and smoke over the piano and cello. I’d also like to shout out the team at Big Jelly studios for being so helpful and accommodating during the sessions and helping us make our creation possible.

Your “Paris” video offers an especially breathtaking performance that dwells in the depths of music; there's a long instrumental break in the middle that says so much, with so little. How did you go about crafting that moment?

Tusks: I was really keen to use the actress Danu again, who we’d cast a couple of years ago for my video for “False.” She’s got such an amazing way of performing and I swear is the most emotive person to watch – she just gets things instantly and brings so much to every video. The collaboration between her and the music performance and the way Tom has shot and cut the video is really special.

Seeing you at the piano in “Paris” and “My Love” helps the listener a great deal in understanding your identity as song-weaver, so-to-speak. Has this been your primary method of introducing these songs to audiences, or are these performances a more unique offshoot of Tusks as an artist?

Tusks: Piano was my first instrument but I’m using it less and less in favour of guitar and synths these days. Most of my gigs now are more guitar based with maybe one or two songs on piano but never really as a main feature, so it was nice to have a bit of a throwback to it in the session.

Your “Last” video differs from the other two in its black-and-white nature, in addition to you being alone onstage with your guitar. Moments like this remind me of an artist's “acoustic set,” if you will - those intimate moments where the rest of the band leaves the stage, and the opportunity for one-to-one connection is greatest. How does this intimacy factor into your music?

Tusks: I think those moments are really special and it’s nice to have a mix up between instrumentation and dynamics in performances and albums/EPs. I think it suits the song more too.

In addition to continuing to push Dissolve and the new EP throughout the year, how is your new music coming along - do you find yourself continuing in the direction of your debut, or are you already branching into new territory?

Tusks: So I’ve just started recording the second album this week which is really exciting. I think the new music definitely still has a Tusks vibe but it feels really different to me – there’s a lot more energy and a different focus both musically and lyrically and I’m loving creating it all at the moment.

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:: stream/purchase Dissolve here ::

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Dissolve (The Live Sessions) - Tusks

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📸 © Harvey Pearson
director: Tom Ewbank

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Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com