As Maple Glider, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Tori Zietsch makes viscerally intimate, hypnotic folk music that attempts to find meaning in a world of emotional extremes. Written largely while Zietsch was staying in Brighton after a period of traveling in Europe and Asia, her stunning debut album, To Enjoy Is the Only Thing – released on June 25 via Partisan – is a reflection both on the immediate experience of a breakup as well as the artist’s religious upbringing, grappling with themes of loneliness, loss, and the fragility of human relationships. Produced alongside Tom Iansek, the record’s skeletal palette has touches of Sibylle Baier and Lana Del Rey, built on wistful finger-picking with subtle instrumental flourishes that gently elevate Zietsch’s ethereal delivery and poetic writing. Standouts include the haunting ‘Baby Tiger’ and the heartbreaking closer ‘Mama It’s Christmas’, but the biggest outlier in terms of production is ‘Good Thing’, where the album’s simmering tension is relieved with a strikingly cathartic chorus. “I guess that’s how we learn/ By setting fire to things that bring us life/ Before we’ve got to watch them burn,” she sings. “And so I’ll say goodbye/ Because I’d rather kill a good thing/ Than wait for it to die.”
We caught up with Tori Zietsch for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, the experiences that inspired her debut album, and more.
How do you look back on your upbringing?
There is definitely a lot that I’m still processing just in terms of the religious aspect of it. Only as an adult – and now, really, for the past couple of years of my life – have I been able to talk about the fact that I had a religious upbringing and acknowledge it, because I think I really like to separate it from my identity; I felt so distinct from the values and the ideas that were shared within that religion and that were ingrained in me as a young person. But I have a really remarkable mother – she’s not a part of the religion anymore, and she’s always been someone kind of nudging and saying how she really feels even throughout it all, even at times where I think she didn’t really feel free enough to live the life that she actually wanted to because she was also quite restricted for a lot of years. So, I’m lucky to have had that, because it’s really inspired a lot of my own thinking and helped me to be able to navigate my way out of that and form communities and new ideas and not be so narrow-minded in my thinking. It was weird, but I formed my love of music at that time as well, so that was pretty special.
I read that she was the one who was driving you around shows when you first started playing gigs around the age of 14. What do you remember about these shows?
I was so lucky – I had a really great music teacher, and she was like, “You should play this event that’s happening, just do it.” And I had friends and we had this band and we just started playing. We played in this one venue that was called The Tree House and it was this hip pizza bar place, and we were teenagers, like, “This is where all the older people come and eat dinner,” and it was so weird having 14-year-olds there [laughs]. I think also for my mom, that was a time when she could socialize and form a different kind of community as well. But I got very comfortable performing from a young age and started performing with other people before I really went into performing solo. It was really nice getting all of those shitty gig experiences out of the way early on. [laughs] I didn’t form that much of an attachment to it or anything.
How did that come later on? Why did you feel the need to express yourself musically and start writing your own songs?
Just like, not really having safe spaces, and not really having many people to communicate with, just in terms of – you know, Mom was different, but there was also a level of, like… Dad or people in the religion that, if you were to share how you really felt, they would kind of guide you in a different direction or not really listen but try and pull you back in. So, I don’t think I ever really connected or felt like I could be completely myself in that situation, and music was a really good way of being able to just get all of those feelings out. And then my parents were like, “Oh, she’s just writing silly songs,” but not actually trying to change those ideas. But also, it helped me to connect to people; it meant that I could play music with other people that were outside of that and have something that I could share with people that wasn’t – because there weren’t that many people that I could be like, “Hey, I’m part of this religion, what do you do?” [laughs] So that was a big part of it for me, just making friends.
There’s almost this degree of separation where you’re allowed to say things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise. What was it that you felt the need to communicate?
It’s changed a lot over time. I think in the beginning there was a lot that came out about home life, actually, and my parents’ separation, navigating that world but still living together. Working out family dynamics and relationship dynamics with all kinds of people I think was the biggest one, and that, I think, has been a common thread throughout my writing: how to communicate through people and how to understand what it is that I’m feeling and feel comfortable to express that in a space where there’s almost this degree of it being like, I can say it’s not me, almost, even though it totally is. And then I can go on stage and I can play that song, and then I can be like, “This is me when I’m playing,” without having to be like, “These are my deep, personal, intimate thoughts.” These are the kinds of things that I don’t really feel uncomfortable often sharing with people, but music gives me that space to really kind of unravel, in a way, and let go of that pride and those things that hold me back from being able to have those conversations with people.
Was that part of the inspiration for creating this project? I know that you had been making music before going by Maple Glider, and I’m curious what you wanted to represent with this shift to the new moniker.
I had been playing in a project where it was a collaboration, and we were kind of veering off in different creative visions, and I think our personal goals were quite different. And I had started writing songs where I felt really connected to music really strongly, and it emotionally affected me to write and I wanted to keep doing that. Because that’s how I started writing, and I think I drifted into this other place of just playing with things and working with other people that I had missed this element of just letting stuff just fall out. And Maple Glider, I wanted it to be my own. I wanted it to be fun, and I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted to do with it. I wanted it to be me, but I also like having a pseudonym because it’s a place where I can take myself to and absorb it and perform, and maybe not bear as much of the emotional weight of having it be your own name. Which sounds funny, but I liked the idea of having something else that was my music, and having my name for me as a person who encompasses more than just my music career.
With To Enjoy Is the Only Thing, I understand that you wrote most of it while you staying in Brighton in the UK. What led to you moving there?
I actually had already moved from Melbourne; I was living north in Australia. And I was really craving travel, wanting to get out of Australia, and I had that feeling for quite a long time. But the music projects that I had before were sort of keeping me tied here for some time, so that kind of dissipated and I just had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, be wherever. I ended up really randomly falling in love and just going on this wild trip of just being like, “Okay, let’s just do this, let’s just take a break from music and see what happens with life.” And whilst I was traveling, I started feeling the need to come back to music and do some writing again, and that’s when I decided to move to Brighton. It was really random.
What are your memories of your time there?
It was winter when I moved, and I moved in with this beautiful woman and her son, actually, for the first couple of months. But it just was freezing and quiet and gray, and I spent most of the time inside – first I was looking for other work and more permanent accommodation, so I was just frantically in that zone, but at the same time just couldn’t stop writing music. And then after that, I have these beautiful memories of spending time riding my bike by the ocean pretty constantly, which was really beautiful, and picnics on the beach. Seeing bands, just going to heaps of gigs and seeing all this music that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to see in Australia. It was incredible how connected everyone was on that side of the world. [laughs]
It’s quite surreal thinking about it now, because it did take me a long time to wind down into it. But I did have a lot of beautiful memories there, amongst a lot of emotional experiences as well, because I was kind of coming out of a relationship and reflecting on a lot of experiences of my childhood and processing a heap of pain at the same time.
Before returning to Australia, you went through this breakup, and you also spent some time traveling through Portugal and Spain. How did these experiences make their way into the album?
Portugal was really beautiful but really intense. That was where my breakup happened, but I had such a beautiful time as well. I have a strong emotional attachment to that. And then I went to Spain and had a really beautiful time with one of my closest friends who was living there, so I had this intense elation at seeing her and then also this big grieving because I’d literally just come out of a breakup. [laughs] So it was really heightened happy experiences and really low sad points in the same space. And then after that I came home and did more writing, and that’s where ‘Baby Tiger’ and ‘Performer’ and other songs started coming out. So for me, the music starts before Brighton and journeys through all of that and then back to being in Melbourne at home and just before recording it.
Given that it comes from a very intense emotional place, what was it like opening up your process to collaboration?
You know what, it was just easy. Tom was so good. I really felt instantly comfortable with him and with sharing the songs. I think I had a lot of trepidation before working with him about my validity as a musician, and felt often like maybe I wasn’t a good enough musician or didn’t have as much knowledge as I needed to. I had this whole inadequacy sort of thing for a while, but working with Tom, he really just helps me to accept myself as a musician and accept that the work was good, and hand over these songs that I had written back to me and be like, “What do you want? Does this feel right to you? Am I allowed to play with this song in this way, or is this wrong?” And just having that open dialogue about, whatever decision I made was the right decision because it was my music, was so nice. Because I don’t think I’ve ever given myself that before, that I was allowed to just feel what I wanted and it didn’t really matter. And his arrangements, I think, are so considered and so thoughtful, and really gave these songs more depth, and I really appreciated that because I really love the album that we were able to make together.
Do you feel like your self-perception as an artist has shifted as a result of that collaboration?
I feel a lot better. I just love making music so much that it really doesn’t matter what the outcome is and what other people think of it. [laughs] And I think most of my apprehension was around working with other people and feeling like they would think I wasn’t a good musician, just these silly thoughts and anxieties that you can develop I think in any situation, whatever work you’re doing. And now I feel a lot more confident and comfortable in collaboration, which I think is something really beautiful that I’ve been able to take away from that experience. Recognizing that as a musician, I also have things to offer other people as much as they have to offer me, and that’s going to be I think a really important thing to take on in this career. Because people are such a big part of the human experience and, of course, a part of music and, and that’s what makes things so beautiful and enjoyable.
From all the songs you’d written, which I understand are a lot more than what ended up on the album, you chose the ones you felt best represented this period in your life. What were the most difficult ones to leave behind?
I don’t know if they were difficult to leave behind, because in my mind, I was like, “It’s fine, there’s a time for all of these songs. It might not be now, but there will be a time.” And I don’t know if I really believed that; it was just a way of making a decision. There were definitely songs that are a lot more personal – that sounds hilarious because I know there’s a lot of personal songs. [laughs] There are songs that are a lot more intimate, maybe, because I’m still very much working through them and those feelings. And there are probably more songs that are wrapped up in religion, my body shame, those sorts of feelings, that were songs that I decided to leave at least for now, because I wasn’t quite ready. I think I needed to do a bit more work with myself before getting to that to that point, in a recorded sense especially.
The final track, ‘Mama It’s Christmas’, is one of the most personal and heart-wrenching songs on the album. I love how the final line in the chorus goes from “I’ve got ribbons to wrap him in” to “I’ve got all my love to wrap him in,” which, to me, suggests that even as we age, the innocence of family love is never quite lost. Why did you decide to close the album with this song?
That song really set the tone for where I wanted to go with my songwriting, and is a song that is personal deeply and still feels like quite intense to share at times. I liked the idea of leaving the album on that note, because it sort of says to me, like, “This is it, this the music.” There’s been a heap of different feelings, but this is almost one of the hardest songs to be able to share, and I find it really difficult still sometimes to talk about this song in interviews. I think I haven’t collected all of my words yet for how to speak about it, because it is such a personal song, and it almost surmises itself, like it’s all there. I like to often open or end a show with that song, because it really gets me into that space that I need to get into to really perform.
The fact that I’ve been able to play it still and retain the same emotion and really have the same kind of release is really meaningful to me, because it drives me to keep pushing myself to those places in my writing, where it does provoke an emotional response, or it does get a heap of that out there. And I want to keep doing that because I love that about music. I love how it does that for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.