Tess Hirst PRS (1)

Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music (Popular)

Year of Graduation: 2012

Top Career Achievements:

  • Holding the vinyl of our album the first time
  • Performing at Ronnie Scotts
  • Hearing our music on BBC Radio 2

Providing thought-provoking lyricism and drawing inspiration from observations and the environment, Tess Hirst is a London-based vocalist who previously studied on our BA (Hons) Popular Music degree programme.

In recent years, Tess has collaborated extensively with bassist Daniel Casimir. The duo released their debut album ‘These Days’ via jazz re:freshed to much critical acclaim in 2019. The work fuses traditional jazz sounds into beautifully composed compositions, narrating their way through a political and cultural landscape.

Most recently, Tess has participated in Marsden Jazz Festival’s Chronotope project, which commissioned several musicians to record incredible performances in a number of stunning locations around Marsden Moor.

Below, Tess describes how she has managed to develop her artistry in light of COVID-19.

How did studying Popular Music at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for a career in the wider industry?

I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for this industry and I still feel very much on the peripherals. It's a constant navigation job. There are few people who tell you how to open certain doors so when one opens for you - tell a friend!

Studying music at Leeds Conservatoire gave me three important years to explore the type of music I wanted to perform and write. It was a chance to meet and play with some of the best musicians. 

I had always written lyrics and melody but I suppose, while I was at Leeds, I put them together.

What attracted you to Leeds?

Even aged 18 years old I knew that London was always going to be my home and the city I would spend most of my time in. I saw my university choice as a chance to move away from the capital and experience something new. The small size of the conservatoire was attractive to me in comparison to bigger universities/conservatoires. I didn’t fit into the ‘classical’ or ‘jazz’ box and Leeds Conservatoire offered an alternative.

When did you first begin working with Daniel Casimir?

Technically, Daniel and I have been working together since I was 16. We went to the same school and hung out in the music department (although he's a year older!) We were in the same bands. We are grateful to our music teacher who instilled in us a work ethic that we carry with us today. When we had both finished our degrees and came back to London, Daniel asked me to write with him on a project that would eventually become his debut EP ‘Escapee’ released by jazz re:freshed in 2017.

Since then we’ve released our full length album ‘These Days’ (2019) and ‘These Days in These Ways’ (2020) also with jazz re:freshed.

It has been a pleasure to work so closely with Daniel on these projects. I consider him a close friend and mentor - but don’t tell him that.

Your album with Daniel ‘These Days’ received critical acclaim. What do you attribute to its success?

Thank you! You can never know how anything will be received once it's released. There are a few things that helped us before:

1) We were quite rigorous in our preparation. Most of the music was written and rewritten to make sure it was the best we had in us. Nothing was rushed.

2) We had a concept that we carried through the album that felt authentic to us and our musical partnership.

3) The concept was inclusive by nature. We only set out to observe and document the times we were living in. Hopefully allowing people to interact with the subjects discussed.

The jazz sector has traditionally been a male dominated space. Do you think the situation is changing?

I wouldn’t like to comment on jazz specifically.

The gender disparity in music needs to be addressed by all stakeholders across all genres; artists, venues, labels, radio, agents and educational institutions to name a few.

Representation on and off stage is one aspect but inequality runs deep through the systems and economy too. 

Further, what is the experience of womxn who make it into the room? Can we look at gender inequality through the intersections of race and class? I would welcome a widening of the conversation.

I am very lucky to work with colleagues like Daniel and organisations like jazz re:freshed who champion womxn artists and for whom equality matters.

We all have work still to do. I would be interested in hearing about how Leeds Conservatoire practice gender justice. I think institutions have an important role to play.

Your lyricism has often been described as thought-provoking. How do you utilise your platform as an artist?

I have a passion for story and words; written or sung.

I don’t know if I have much of a platform but writing an album is definitely a chance to have a voice. Where possible - I try to say something.

My environment is one of my biggest inspirations. It's observational.

See something, write something. When you have this perspective your inspiration is all around you.

You’ve recently received support from the likes of the Help Musicians MOBO Fund and PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music. What will this funding enable you to do?

I am a very grateful recipient of the MOBO Help Musicians and PRS Foundation Women Make Music Funds. This funding will allow me to record my next album.

My new album is centered around a single narrative from start to finish. I hope to celebrate an [extra] ordinary womxn who is able to transform a seemingly hopeless situation into a story of empowerment.

What’s coming up for you in terms of projects, performances or releases? How have you managed to keep creative and develop your artistry during COVID-19?

I managed to write the majority of my new album during the first lockdown and I’ve spent recent months refining and rewriting it with Daniel who will take a producer role on this project. We were due to go into the studio to record in December but with all the new uncertainty I’ve pushed it back to next year.

We were also due to perform at SXSW, Love Supreme Festival, We Out Here Festival and the Jazz Cafe this year but due to COVID-19 they were cancelled.

Even though the industry is on hold in a sense I think that there is space now for new opportunities, new ways of working and a new perspective. I welcome change.

We have just taken part in a video project with Marsden Jazz Festival's new project Chronotope. We performed some of our work outside as a duo in the Marsden landscape. It was a new experience and unlike anything we had done prior.

I’m hopeful and excited about what is to come. 

What advice would you give to someone wanting to study music or wishing to break into the industry?

Honestly, I don’t have advice on how to break into the industry. There are no set rules as far as I can tell. I wish there was more transparency on the way things are done but that’s something we can all work on.

I would say find and follow your real passion. The thing that sets you alight, that scares you a bit - do that. Do it well and do it kindly. Your best, which is different for everyone, will always be enough.


EDITOR'S NOTE

We agree that institutions have a huge part to play in in ensuring equity – and as an organisation we are committed to taking action on this. Here are just a few steps that we are currently taking:

A couple of years ago we launched an initiative called ‘Elevate’, which seeks to empower, promote and support women through a programme of activities and initiatives across the institution.

In addition, we’ve become a PRS Foundation Keychange partner – and made a commitment to ensure that our annual flagship festival, Sounds Like THIS maintains at least a 50:50 gender balance each year. We also have a partnership with Brighter Sound and have hosted events as part of their Both Sides Now programme – which supports and champions women in music in the North of England.

Most recently, we have set up an EDI Change Project Team, comprised of 4 members of staff. This is part of the conservatoire’s investment to look at longer term action to tackle inequality within the organisation. As part of this, we are taking a review of all our structures, systems and policies to ensure we are removing barriers to progress in these areas and working to create a more equitable landscape for our students and staff. This includes working closely with our Student Union’s Liberation Officers, to ensure we are listening to the needs and experiences of those most impacted by discrimination.

These are just a few of the initiatives currently in place, but as an organisation we are committed towards long term change and becoming more reflective of our immediate community, ensuring that we champion diversity in all of its forms. We recognise our position and platform as an educator and the important role we have to play towards real change, across our whole organisation and in the wider industry.


Find out more about Tess and her work via her website.

Alternatively, follow Tess on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Purchase a copy of ‘These Days’ by Daniel Casimir and Tess Hirst here.

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

Are you a Leeds Conservatoire graduate? Reconnect with us here

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