Issue 21, Magazine

Tiny Vipers “Workin’ Woman”

Amelia Kreminski :: Thursday, September 10th, 2009 6:16 pm

Jesy Fortino used to be a big asshole. It’s a surprising truth—puzzling, even, when one considers her gentle stage presence as Seattle-grown singer-songwriter Tiny Vipers, her resonating, dark chocolate voice, and her melodious acoustic plucks. She may confuse fans with her general placidness and waifish modesty in public, but do not be fooled—Jesy Fortino is much more than just another sensitive folk singer with an acoustic guitar and a pure heart. Hers is an expansive tale, filled with intrigue, Dungeons and Dragons, shit-faced yuppies, and, yes, a dark past as a self-confessed asshole. But that’s why we love her: because, let’s face it—we’ve all been there too.

On a humid evening in late June, Fortino scampered onto the stage of New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge and plopped down on a barstool in a blue-white spotlight. The unclipped strings of her guitar stood out in silhouettes like Pippi Longstocking pigtails. “Hi, I’m Tiny Vipers from Seattle,” she mumbled quickly into the microphone, hurrying through the showman’s formalities into the first song of her beautiful, antique and enchanting set. She was touring in support of her sophomore album, Life On Earth, which she released July 7 on Sub Pop Records.

On stage, she is honest and calming, the organic tinkling of her guitar complimenting the warm vibrato of her rich voice in a fluid, uninterrupted set. Later, sipping an amber Jameson in her dressing room, she ruminated about her past.

“When I was a teenager, I was a big asshole. I was lame. You know what I mean?” she said with a wry smile.  “And the reason why I realized I was a big asshole is because I got really stoned with my friends. They convinced me to smoke weed finally and I realized how much of a big asshole I was until then. And I was like, You’re a big asshole. You need to fuckin’ calm down and mellow out and just be, like, nicer.”

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Fortino as anything but nice. She’s soft-spoken and relatable, and has cool, quirky musician habits like leaving tape recorders all over her house so she can record whenever inspiration strikes. Growing up in Seattle suburbia, she played D&D (tiny vipers is actually a D&D weapon) and would occasionally sneak out to the woods with some LSD.

“I think the first time I took acid was probably fourteen. Like the normal experimenting age, maybe? Maybe that’s normal? When I took it, I was kind of blown away by what it actually did. You have to accept like, I want to be in control of how I’m acting and who I am, but I took acid, and it’s like a battle between those two facts. It makes you look at yourself. Like, are you going to act perfectly cool, or are you going to let yourself just be how you are?”

Fortino still calls Seattle home, and works a day job at a local burrito restaurant and bar. “In Seattle, jobs are kind of hard to come by, so I feel really lucky,” she said. “There’re not a lot of cool jobs left. Seattle got overrun by condos and yuppies. All the independent businesses kind of disappeared. [My burrito place] keeps moving to adapt—moving locations and stuff.”

“So it’s a cool place?” I asked. “Do you like the people who come in?”

“The customers?” she answered, laughing.  “God, no. I don’t like them. I’ll go to wait a table, and they’ll be like [in a falsetto voice], You’re Tiny Vipers! Why are you working here? Aren’t you on Sub Pop? I don’t want you to wait my table! ‘Cause, you know, in the town you’re from, there’s more hype. And I’m like, Ugh, give me a break. Like, fuck you. It’s so humiliating—you know what I mean? They’re trying to be nice, but—but it’s like, Let me take your drink order because I’m tired and I don’t want to talk about it.

“Before I left, one of the last shifts I worked, where I was like, Fuck, I want to never come back to this job—these two yuppie fucking freaks were ordering all this fancy, top-shelf shit and they pull out these wads of hundred-dollar bills and they’re like, [in a falsetto voice] What’s a good tip?! What’s a good tip?! [And they’re] like, Here you go, keep the change and I’m like, Thanks… Yeah, and it’s a four dollar tip.”

It’s enough to make anybody an asshole.

But Jesy Fortino really isn’t one. She ends her shows with a quick and grateful, “Thanks!” and skips away almost before the audience has time to clap. She’s not one for fame—she just wants to play some music. She has a regular, sometimes annoying job that everyone can relate to, and an appealing amount of humility. So please, next time you’re in the mood for a burrito in Seattle, leave the girl a decent tip.