Interview with Miss Tess

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Miss Tess SOUNDS like she belongs in Brooklyn. A New York City borough that has a great mix of culture but is one when it comes to toughness is what Brooklyn is all about. Miss Tess’ music is all encompassing roots music, but it all sounds fresh, polished, and intelligent.  One look at Miss Tess on stage and you can tell she means business in a very ear-pleasing way.

Her latest release, The Love I Have For You on Signature Sounds Records, is an EP with only one original, but includes six covers from artists all over the roots-music field: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Ted Hawkins, Randy Newman, and Hank Williams. Miss Tess handles all of them immaculately, making them sound her own. Is she alt-country, neo-swing, jump blues, R&B, rockabilly, or electric folk? Yes, it’s all Miss Tess.

Originally form Maryland, her childhood was immersed in music thanks to her parents. “They were always in bands and having folks over to the house and jam.” She did not play much music in high school, opting to attend punk shows in the Washington, DC area as a fan. “It wasn’t until I moved to Baltimore that I started performing on my own. I went to a few open mics, eventually putting together my first band called Sipping Sugar.”

Her first album came in 2005 with Home, which had her parents backing her up on saxophone, clarinet and bass, recorded in their living room. This was followed by the 2007 release of jazz standards (along with two originals), When Tomorrow Comes. Extensive traveling in her college-age days also helped her to soak up musical influences like a sponge. “I had told my mom that I was just going to keep driving around the country and be a vagabond with my guitar. Moms aren’t usually too keen on that idea, so she suggested that if I wanted to pursue music, I should go somewhere to actually make some connections.” Tess used some inheritance money from her grandfather to study at Berklee, studying ear training, harmony, and music business. Though only there for three semesters, she did form a band in Boston that played the folk/roots music circuit. “In my five years in Boston, I won a Boston Music Award and was nominated several times.” This stay included the recording and release of 2007’s Modern Vintage, recorded at the studio of the late Mark Sandman (of Morphine fame) with her band The Bon Ton Parade. Also recorded and released during this time was the album Live On The Road as well as the critically acclaimed Darling, Oh Darling (both from 2009), 2010’s The Waltz Set EP and 2011’s double-disc Live Across The Mason-Dixon Line.

Tess soon made the trek to NYC along with some fellow bandmates, which made a name change to the Talkbacks, due to the previous name being confused by writers and reviewers as a Zydeco band. Tess’ sound was becoming less horn-driven and more basic with two guitars, bass, and drums. “I think that it’s a very classic set-up for what we’re doing. I think of us as a rock-n-roll and blues band that has been able to tap into some great American roots music, including swing, country and jazz.”

The band was soon signed to Signature Sounds, and released Sweet Talk in 2012. The album included 10 originals as well as a cover of The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire.” Tess’ songs pay extensive tribute to the great female blues, jazz, and cabaret singers. Titles include “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Save Me, St. Peter,” and “If You Wanna Be My Man.”

While Tess is primarily recognized for her vocals and songwriting, one should not second-guess her guitar abilities. Her rhythmic chops are tight as a drum, and she can hold her own throwing in an occasional lead during a live performance. “Most of my licks I ripped off from a guitar player from the 1940s named Mary Osborne, a protege of Charlie Christian, and some Chuck Berry, with some of my own sass and rhythmic tendencies.” One can also hear Scotty Moore and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in her style.

And her axe of choice? “My archtop is a great old guitar, a late 1930s Weymann. After I bought it, I had a vintage Johnny Smith pickup installed, which gives it a really sweet tone through a tube amp. This has been my main guitar for the last seven years, though I just bought a new Fender Telecaster Carbonita to mix it up a little.”

To fully enjoy Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, one has to see the band at a live performance. With the current lineup of guitarist Thomas Bryan Eaton, bassist James Gascoyne and drummer Matt Meyer accompanying Tess, the energy given off from the stage will make the audience sweat from head-bopping and dancing just as much as the band. One of the band’s fortes is what it calls “Show Me Your Freebird!” Knowing how hecklers love to call out the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic to irritate bands, Miss Tess has turned it into a challenge. She asks for fans to send her requests of songs that they would not expect her to perform, and they will play it at an upcoming gig and post it later on YouTube. Songs have included “Heat of Glass” (Blondie), “Man Eater” (Hall & Oates), and “Knot Comes Loose” (My Morning Jacket).

Other projects currently on Tess’ hands is her side project called The Sweet & Lowdown with Rachel Price of Lake Street Dive. The future is also wide open for Miss Tess and her band. Not only are they extremely popular in New York City and Boston, but also get enthusiastic response from festivals such as the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, and have a European tour in the works. The band is currently recording a 45-rpm single, and are working on the next album. “I want the next album to be a little more rock-n-roll, so we’ll see what happens. I’m not always sure where my muse is taking me.”


Cover Photo Credit:  Shervin Lainez

~ Matt Merta

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