HOW TO DESCRIBE BOSTON-BASED GUITARIST and singer Miss Tess?
A self-proclaimed “Modern Vintage” troubadour whose alternately plucky and sultry performance style draws heavily on acoustic swing, jazz, ragtime and hokum blues, this award-winning chanteuse and her dextrous backing band The Bon Ton Parade are making a name for themselves up and down the East Coast — in part because what they do is at once hard to pin down and yet comfortingly familiar.
This past February, famed Ga. singer/songwriter Caroline Aiken (a fixture on the Atlanta contemporary folk scene for decades, and the longtime Entertainment Director for that city’s Annual Dogwood Festival) found a succinct and fairly clever way of summing up the many stylistic lines Tess and company straddle, when she opined, “If Billie Holiday and Chet Atkins had a musical baby, it would be Miss Tess.”
It’s a strikingly accurate analogy.
There’s more than a little bit of Old-Time country in the subject matter of her clever and witty originals (not to mention plenty of nylon-stringed acoustic guitar soloing), but there’s plenty of jazz-inflected, heartstring-tugging torch songs in the mix as well.
Miss Tess’ take on R&B-tinged balladry from decades past places her band right at the center of the growing resurgence in the music and fashion of pre-1960s America — yet she’s not afraid to throw some other, decidedly more timely influences into the hopper as well.
A fan of everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Led Zeppelin, she’s apt to cite Tom Waits as an example of a songwriting hero whose work reflects a sincere affinity for the past, as well as a strong desire to forge ahead and create new standards for future generations.
“He has managed to maintain a career and not ‘sell out,’” she recently told an interviewer. “He’s also been very smart in protecting himself as an artist. On top of all this, he has a family and actually seems happy!”
Miss Tess notes that neither she —nor her bandmates— are encumbered with children, which makes touring the club, coffeehouse and festival circuit much easier. It’s on small stages and in smoky rooms where they have won over a growing number of fans with their intimate, direct shows.
That sense of intimacy and lack of artifice likely played a role in her winning the Fall 2007 Open Mic Shootout at Decatur’s iconic listening room Eddie’s Attic — a feat which found her nabbing a slot as a featured performer on the 2008 Cayamo Music Cruise alongside the likes of superstar headliners Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett.
With a soaring voice, a captivating sense of style, no small amount of talent on the guitar, and a versatile band of killer players (on sax/clarinet, bass guitar and drums), she’s an artist on the rise in the world of retro Americana.
I caught up with Miss Tess the day before she hit the road for a 16 date tour that would eventually bring her as far South as Savannah (for a two-night stand at downtown’s Jazz’d Tapas Bar).
Tell me a bit about your parents’ interest in music and how that played a role in your choice to pursue this as a vocation.
Miss Tess: My mom learned how to play the upright bass while I was in her belly. Apparently, I kicked every time she played it. They’ve always been in bands. They’d have band practice at the house, and friends over to jam. I’ve learned a lot of tunes from them, and they’ve always been really supportive of my choice to be a musician.
You’re only in your mid-’20s, and yet you’ve obviously developed an affinity for anachronistic forms of jazz, swing and even Tin Pan Alley song craft. This puts you squarely in the minority for folks your age. How difficult has it been to find kindred spirits who have both the desire and the chops to play these styles today -- as well as the schedule that allows them to tour?
Miss Tess: Yes, I am in the minority. Strangely, I’ve never had a problem finding musicians willing to play the stuff, especially in Boston. It’s just fun music and everyone gets to showcase their chops. They get to do more than stand in the back like a piece of wallpaper, ya know? It’s interactive. Going on the road is not easy, but so far, there have been no complaints from the band. No one’s got babies, so I guess we’re just going for it.
At the present time, are you all able to make this your only job, or do you and the band have to maintain other careers to help finance your touring?
Miss Tess: Everyone in the band is somehow making a living as a musician. Some of us teach lessons, and all of my band mates work on other projects as well. I occasionally take odd jobs like dog walking or landscaping, which help me eat, but for the most part, I’m working my ass off doing this.
The music you play and sing is so firmly rooted in immediately definable traditions, that I imagine it must be a great challenge to feel as though you’re mining your own territory, and not just inadvertently channeling the work of icons from decades past. Do you see your role more as one of continuing these traditions for posterity, or of updating them and helping them to evolve?
Miss Tess: I can’t not do this music. I don’t try to copy what’s been done before, but I’ve been exposed to so much of this style, I feel like it’s in my blood. And I can relate to those working musicians from generations past. I like sad songs that sound happy. I see myself as making the good bits of traditional jazz and blues available to anyone who hears it. People who are familiar with the style enjoy it, but I also feel like new people appreciate it too.
Let me read you this note that i recently received from a new fan: “I happened into the club last night late on my way home and heard your final set. I was mesmerized by the style that you and your team brought to that type of jazz that once was. Having grown up in NYC in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, West 52nd Street music means something to me; it rings true to my ear and brought back very pleasant memories of another era, bygone. The sound, the accompaniment and frankly your beauty and style captured me. I was in the back facing straight on the stage wearing a powder blue shirt with you my focus. Don’t let that music become quiescent my dear, it’s an important genre that many cannot appreciate only because/they haven’t been properly exposed to it. You have the ability to transcend that for us. I will see you again in the future I am certain. Brava!”
I use traditional styles as a basis for songwriting because it’s what I know and hold dear to my heart. However, my themes are current and my influences are broader than some suspect.
I imagine that playing this sort of music affords you the chance to gig in a lot of vastly different situations, from restaurants and bars to festivals and parties (and even cruise ships!), whereas if you were playing a more contemporary style you might actually be limited in your engagements. Do you and your band have a favorite kind of place to play? If so, why?
Miss Tess: I think my favorite places to play are in big theaters with bright stage lights. In these situations I feel energy in the room, but it also kind of feels like I’m totally alone. I feel I’m able to totally immerse myself in the music and listen to everything that’s happening. I also like when people are able to hear and appreciate the lyrics of the song, as I spend a lot of time perfecting them.
Is there any one particular group of people who seem to have rallied around what you’re doing? Do you have more younger fans or more older ones, who may remembers this style of music from their youth and appreciate that modern-day artists are continuing to work in that vein?
Miss Tess: I feel like we have a rather eclectic range of fans. I once played an outdoor show in Baltimore and looking out into the crowd, noticed children, contemporaries, adults and a 90-year-old woman wrapped in an American flag, all of whom were dancing. Maybe that was just Baltimore. However, those middle-aged and older folks who are familiar with this style, do appreciate it a lot and say things like, “How can it be that you are so young and are into this style of music,” or “I’m a big Dan Hicks fan. Do you ever listen to him?” I also feel like fellow musicians really dig what we do. Unfortunately, they’re mostly busy with their own gigs!
You’ve said in a past interview that one thing which attracted you to this type of music was its inherent honesty. Can you elaborate on that -- specifically in contrast to modern music?
Miss Tess: I feel like people back in the day were tougher, and had to go through “real deal” things like World Wars, the Depression, poverty and actually earning a living. Swing itself was invented to give the people a distraction from all that was wrong with the world, to give them hope. What’s more honest and genuine than that? Not to say that people do not currently experience hard times, but a lot of people in my generation could easily choose to play video games for the rest of their life and live off their parents. It seems jazz and blues musicians from the ‘20s and ‘30s had no choice but to play music. I mean look at some of those blues guys — Blind Willis this, Blind Fred that. That’s the only thing they could do for a living, ‘cause they couldn’t see a darn thing.
Early jazz and blues came out of necessity and I can hear it in their playing. Some of them got treated so poorly, not to mention all the racism issues. So much soul, so much feeling, because so many came from hard times. I think that’s what makes it so real. There are, of course, soulful modern people who I have a lot of respect for, but I do still find myself appreciating those most who have some sense of tradition. Tom Waits is one of my favorites.--------------------------- Here's a clip of Miss Tess' solo debut at famed NYC club Mo Pitkins': ---------------------------
You grew up learning classical piano, but now have switched to mostly guitar. What precipitated that switch, and could you still see yourself fronting a group of this sort if you were behind the keys as opposed to holding a guitar?
Miss Tess: I stopped taking piano lessons when I got into high school because it wasn’t “cool” and I got involved in other things. But I did eventually pick up a guitar and strum some random chords every now and again. I dreamt of being in an all-girl punk band. I took the guitar with me when travelling (it’s much more portable than a piano) and learned the bliss of not having to read music from a page. Yeah, I think that really sold me on guitar. I’m slowly working on getting my piano chops back, and would probably lead the band in a similar way if I played piano.
Were you surprised to have won that Open Mic competition at Eddie’s Attic that netted you the slot on that cruise ship festival? What was the contest like, and what sort of performers were you up against?
Miss Tess: I was kind of surprised and excited. There were many very interesting and pleasant-sounding songwriters in the competition. The contest was structured like the NCAA finals, single elimination. You play one song, the other person plays one song, and the judges hold up a one or a two. Hopefully you have more numbers. I usually am good about getting positive attention when I’m in the midst of many singer-songwriters, because so few people do what I do and do it well. I played the mouth trumpet. I think that’s really what clinched it.
How did the cruise gig itself go? Were you well received? Did you get to meet or mingle with any of the bigger name headliners there, and did any of them offer you any feedback on your own performance?
Miss Tess: The cruise was a smashing time. People definitely dug what I was doing, for some it was probably a welcome change from your typical singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, midweek I got the worst flu of my life — I felt miserable and couldn’t talk at all. Luckily, it was after my performances, but needless to say it hindered my networking abilities and I was having visions of getting Emmylou Harris or Patty Griffin sick. Then they’d hate me forever. I got to shiver under the covers while everyone else enjoyed the private beach party in Jamaica.
This is your first Savannah gig, correct? Have you ever visited the city before?
Miss Tess: Correct. I’ve never been to Savannah. I’m looking forward to it.
We have an Old-Timey vibe to our historic downtown/Bohemian district, and it seems that acts like The Wiyos, The Two-Man Gentlemen Band and Christabel & The Jons have gone over well here in the past. Do you feel like your group is part of a growing wave of anachronistic Americana acts that is gaining strength, or is that movement perhaps being overestimated?
Miss Tess: I’m never sure about these things. However, I do feel the shift in the music industry as a whole. It’s kind of giving the music back to the people, and allowing more of these sorts of acts to emerge, or reemerge. It seems to go in cycles. For example, the Squirrel Nut Zippers had their heyday and broke up, but now they’re back. I think there’s always a subculture that appreciates these older styles, but interest from the public fluctuates to and fro. My aim is not to be a fad that wears out.--------------------------- Here's a clip of Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade playing live at Cambridge, Ma. venue The Lizard Lounge: ---------------------------
What can audiences expect from your show? Do you do any standards, or do you focus solely on your own compositions?
Miss Tess: For all-night engagements, as in Savannah, I will definitely throw in a few covers, like standards or maybe a tune or two by Bessie Smith or Tom Waits.
I read that you’re also a big fan of both Led Zeppelin and the Pixies. Any chance we’ll ever hear songs by either of those groups “Bon Ton-ized”, and if so, which ones by both would you pick to rearrange in the style of your current group?
Miss Tess: I actually have been thinking about songs we could cover that fall outside of the realm of jazz and blues. The latest one I’ve thought about was “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks. I think that might work out well.
Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade
When: 9 pm, Sept. 12 - 13
Where: Jazz’d Tapas Bar
Cost: Free for 21+