Broadly speaking, Miss Tess & The Talkbacks fall into the category of Americana, but they can't be boxed in quite that easily. Jazz, blues, country, and rock all play a part in their latest record Sweet Talk, the group's debut album on their new label Signature Sounds.
The roots group premiered the new compositions last night at The Living Room in Manhattan. A well-manicured and well-rehearsed quartet (plus the occasional pedal steel guitarist) conjured up visages from almost every musical sub-era between 1920 and 1965. The result was a sweet serenade, as fit for a performance on Ed Sullivan as a late-night appearance at Harlem's Cotton Club. Miss Tess led the act with poise and exuberance, only to be matched by her Talkbacks' musical agility. Notes on the Road spoke with Miss Tess before yesterday's performance.
Jordan Katz: What is your earliest music-related memory?
Miss Tess: I started playing piano when I was four, so probably some of the early lessons. I used to take lessons from a guy named Mr. Jones, and I remember going to his house after school.
How did you start to train as a vocalist? As a guitarist?
I started getting into singing, well, I probably started messing around with it when I was twelve. I didn't really take any vocal lessons until high school. I used to go to a music camp in West Virginia and I did a little bit of singing there. I probably picked up a guitar in high school and I started studying with a jazz guitarist when I was twenty. I would take lessons kind of on my own.
How did you first come to start playing with the Talkbacks?
It's always been my band, so I kind of run and led the band for the last six years. The drummer, Matt Meyer, has been with me the longest. I met him when I was living in Boston. Will Graefe [the other guitarist] has been with us about a year and half. The bass player, Larry Cook, is pretty new. He just started playing with us in July.
You attribute the name change from Miss Tess & The Bon Ton Parade to Miss Tess & The Talkbacks to entering "new creative territory." Can you talk about what prompted the change and what you mean by "new creative territory"?
When I first started the band, we had a jazz clarinet player in the band, so it was maybe a little more parade-y, if you will. He was a little more jazzy as well. We just got tired of people being like, 'What is that? Are you guys from New Orleans? Are you guys a Zydeco band?' We felt like it was creating a lot of confusion, so we decided to change it. As far as the new creative territory goes, I think there's been more country influence coming in. It's a little bit more of an edgy sound. The band just sounds different than when I started it, so we thought a new name would be appropriate. And "The Talkbacks" – that was the first thing we were all like, "Yeah that could work."
Is there any story that comes with the idea of "talking back"?
Well, I think there is some amount of sass in the music, which I like to play up, so it's kind of like 'talk back to me.' It's also kind of funny, because it's my band and I'm dragging these guys around the country, so I'm like the band mom. And then it also touches on the musical conversation element.
There are definitely rock influences on Sweet Talk, but you also seem to have some classic country weaved throughout. What were some of your influences in your creative process on this last album? Any particular artists you were inspired by?
I have tons of inspirations over the years. There is a song on there that's kind of a western swing song. I'm not sure if there is anyone really specific, but it draws from 40's and 50's country and jump blues. It was kind of a time period when everything was melding together – Ray Charles did a country album, some of the country guys were playing jazz tunes, there was all this crossover going on. I think, also, there's even some 50's and 60's. Some of the earlier rock and roll comes in, early Chuck Berry and stuff like that comes into it.
Is it correct that much of the album was conceived while the band was on tour? How did traveling play a part in your writing?
Not necessarily. I mean, there were some romantic situations that happened on the road that show up in some of the songs. I don't usually write on the road, actually. We travel so much that that atmosphere kind of affects our life. "Adeline," for example – that song comes from me reading about Virginia Woolf, her walking into water with rocks in her pocket and sinking to the bottom. And that's what she did in real life, and her real name was Adeline. And then Matt's like, 'Oh let's put a second line beat behind it,' so it kind of gets shaped by the band members as well, what they feel like putting into it.
What role did improvisation play on Sweet Talk?
Well, everyone kind of brings their own element. And the songs are captured on that album in a certain moment. You're not going to hear the songs in the same exact way every time. When I sing songs, I'll take the melody in a slightly different direction sometimes, or Will will play a less or more rocking guitar solo. I mean, all of the musicians are trained improvisers, you know, so a solo will be different. In essence, the songs are the same – we're not a jam band – but we keep it lively.
What do you think audiences get out of listening to your music live versus on a studio recording?
I think the best way to hear it is live. When we're recording, we're trying to capture the excitement of a live show. You really can't beat a live performance if people are good musicians, assuming they haven't been in the studio autotuning. So what you have on the album we haven't really messed with that much – it's almost live.
You are playing at the Living Room tonight. What's been your experience with New York audiences?
New York is an interesting place. You never know who is in the audience. It's not the same as playing in Lafayette, Louisiana, where we start playing and everyone instantaneously starts two stepping and knows how to couple dance. So it's maybe not as dance-y as the South, but it's been cool. I've enjoyed living here.
Photo credit Brian Geltner
What's in store for Miss Tess & The Talkbacks in the next year or so?
Now that we're off this epic two-month tour, I have to start writing new music again. So we have a little bit of time to relax. We've been talking about ideas. I want to write some songs about our experiences on the road. We've talked about it as a theme for the next album, but I'm not sure. I'm never really sure what's going to come out. I just start writing and I surprise myself.
Have you always believed you would become a musician? Are there other careers that you have you delved into?
I didn't think I wanted to be a musician until after college. I went to school for visual arts and graphic design. I really thought I was going to do graphic design, which is also a creative thing, I guess. But, then I started traveling around with my guitar and really seeing the country and playing music with different folks and laying songs. I think part of my love for being a musician is the touring and traveling, getting to see the world in a way that not a lot of people get to. I think being creative is essential to my being, and probably everyone's being, whether or not they tap into it.
Please visit Miss Tess and the Talkbacks at http://www.misstessmusic.com/