1962: Clipper Cowbridge

1963: The Swiss Invasion

1965: Marilyn Kaye

1969: The Fold

1970: Yorgi

1971: Devon Shire

1972: Sandee Saunders

1976: Rockfinger

1978: The Spooky Bunch

1979: Decoupage

1981: Bleep

1984: Tiger Love

1985: Laryssa Foxxx

1986: Smasher of Things

1987: Suthrn Cuzn

1989: ~pianogirl~

1990: Razorflesh

1995: Breaker Bear

1996: Action Plus

1998: J Lounge

2001: Eesk

2004: Lazarus Project

~pianogirl~: Calamity on the Keys (1989)

WHAT DO YOU GET when you put two of Canada’s best-loved artists — dramatic diva Tessa Baskin, a.k.a. ~pianogirl~, and Nhoj Arpendahl of the industrial band Razorflesh — in the studio together?

The 1989 ~pianogirl~ LP CUps and Swirds (Clubbo Records)

Disaster, that’s what.

Although (or because) Tessa and Nhoj are a longtime couple, their sole attempt at collaboration melted down within minutes.

Yet the encounter wasn’t entirely fruitless — each artist immediately wrote a scathing hate song about the other. ~pianogirl’s~ bitter ballad “Tarantula” was released in November 1989. Razorflesh’s abrasively insulting “Hell Hog” followed in February 1990.

How did the two hatebirds manage to stay together? What did it take to reinstate domestic peace? And most important, who won: ~pianogirl~ or Razorflesh?

EXTRA! A rare candid interview with Tessa Baskin!



“Tarantula” lyrics and credits


I am continually astonished by the beauty and tragedy of the world around me — the perpetual poetry of trees, tears, traffic noise, sunlight, and screaming that makes up our daily lives. I am baffled and buffeted by the shock of the now, the dizzying possibilities of unexplored emotions and unvoiced expressions. In my art, I try to infuse each syllable, each note, each pause and breath with this rich balance of meaning and void, communicating and communing with my listeners in the fatal, piercing hope of what it means to be alive.”

— “Artist’s Statement” excerpt from liner notes of ~pianogirl’s~ debut album, Wisp (1988)

Tessa Baskin, AKA ~pianogirl~ (Clubbo Records)

Canadian chanteuse Theresa Louise Baskin, a.k.a. ~pianogirl~, displayed her creative talents at an early age: When she was three, her parents were forced to install a lock on their piano’s lid to prevent the toddler from sleepwalking to the instrument and pounding vigorously on the keys in the middle of the night.

But her mum and dad — a university psychology professor and a veterinarian at the RCMP Training Academy in Regina, Saskatchewan — encouraged their only child’s musical impulses, at least during daylight hours. Tessa (as she prefers to be called) commenced her rigorous classical training in piano and dance at age five, including weekly lessons with members of the University of Regina faculty. At 16 she was accepted into the renowned music department of Montreal’s McGill University.

McGill was both a revelation and a rude shock. No longer a small-town prodigy, she found herself surrounded by talents rivaling her own. The understanding that she’d never make it as a concert pianist came hard. Even harder was the realization that her particular vocal skills were ill suited to a career in opera. The final blow came when the 4’ 11-½” Tessa was rejected by the Ecole Supérieure de Danse du Québec as “too short and busty.”

City city bleak and gritty
Will you kill me, will you kiss me?
City city make room for me
Make them see me and adore me

— from “City Song,” on Cups and Swords, 1989

Faced with the indifference of her professors and peers, Tessa vowed to make them pay attention, first with a radical makeover in which color was expunged from her wardrobe and added to her hair, then via persistent assaults on the open-mic sessions of Montreal’s coffeehouses. She began calling herself ~pianogirl~ in response to the lack of response she initially encountered as yet another young, piano-playing singer-songwriter.

Tessa Baskin, AKA ~pianogirl~ (Clubbo Records)

It was around this time that she began spending time with fellow McGill student John Arpendahl, a shy, slightly-built composition major who soon transformed himself, Tessa-like, into the pierced, tattooed industrial music auteur Nhoj Arpendahl of Razorflesh.

Baskin’s big break came when she opened for venerated folk singer Morgyn McFargyll at Montreal’s famed Yellow Door Coffee House. McFargyll was impressed by the younger woman’s unbridled intensity. So the following year, when McFargyll and the other founding members of the Medea Media Movement staged their first all-female concerts, she tapped Tessa as an opening act on the festival’s small Melpomene stage.

Meanwhile, Tessa convinced an acquaintance at CKUT, McGill’s radio station, to help her record a six-song demo. Tessa shopped the results to every independent record label she could locate. Of the 63 labels she solicited, only Clubbo responded.

Clubbo had been contemplating a Canadian roster for some time. Canadian broadcast content rules require radio stations to play at least one-third Canadian-created music. As Clubbo saw it, this “bonus” airplay was a huge promotional benefit, enabling even the faintest of hits to generate a profit in the Canadian market.

Clubbo’s Bas Carlton attended the MMM Fest in Calgary, caught Tessa’s set, and promptly offered her a two-disc deal. (Not entirely coincidentally, Clubbo signed Razorflesh several weeks later. Nhoj Arpendahl’s debut Razorflesh disc, Lickspittle, was released shortly after Tessa’s Wisp.)

“Hyper-passionate songs swollen with lurid imagery. Provocative lyrics peppered with wry observations about sexual politics. Discursive song structures whose unpredictable twists and turns undermine phallocentric songwriting norms. Had I been born with ovaries, perhaps I, too, would be enchanted by the relentless whimsy of Tessa Baskin’s music.”

— From critic Byron Jenkowitz’s Record Rants review of Wisp

wisp LP by ~pianogirl~ (Clubbo Records)

The following year Carlton, always keen to maximize the label’s investment, encouraged Tessa and Nhoj (by now a cohabiting couple) to try a collaborative project. It was the first and only time they would work together on music.

“I heard yelling, and some breaking glass noises,” recalls former downstairs neighbor Marinda Belford. “But I knew Nhoj sometimes has sounds like that in his music, so I didn’t really think much about it. But then I heard this really big noise, kind of a big thump-kerjangle, and the whole building shook.”

As Belford later learned, the “thump-kerjangle” was the sound of an overturned upright piano.

Q: The two of you have never made music together. Do you think you’ll ever collaborate?

A: Maybe. I don’t know. It’s funny, you’d think that if you put the intense darkness of Nhoj’s music together with the passionate colours of my music — spell “colours” with a “u,” please — that you’d come up with something even greater than the sum of the parts. But when you put two people with so much passion and intensity together in a room, the passion and intensity start feeding back on themselves, and the fire goes out. So we’re still trying to figure out the best way to be creative together.

— from “Portrait of a ~pianogirl~: An Interview with Tessa Baskin,” RockFile! magazine, June 2004 [read full interview]

The couple barely survived their creative collision. Only an unusual peace offering by Nhoj — a baby ferret named Fennel — persuaded Tessa to speak to him again the following week. Fennel became the couple’s constant companion, even going on tour with both acts.

The second ~pianogirl~ album, Cups and Swords, featured the coda to this argument: the hate song “Tarantula,” which Tessa admits was written in reaction to Nhoj’s initial peacemaking overtures. (It’s also rumored that he subsequently wrote the Razorflesh hate song “Hell Hog” in response to being rebuffed.)

The release of Cups and Swords marked a turning point in Tessa’s career. Following a marginally successful tour supporting the disc, Clubbo chose not to renew ~pianogirl’s~ contract, so Tessa formed her own label.

But Clubbo came to regret its decision: Thanks to all that Canada-centric airplay, ~pianogirl~ eventually became one of the country’s most successful artists. She has released a dozen records on her own Drowned Legend label, most recently the critically acclaimed song cycle Silent Motet.