(originally published in Bootleg Magazine March 2008)
By Jenica Jones
Imagine the sultry jazz halls of the 1930s and 1940s, people listening to the mysterious voice spilling from the microphone. This was the feeling Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade delivered at her show at the Juggling Gypsy. Prior to her performance Tess was completely at ease being interviewed in the bohemian hookah bar, and she brought a natural sense of humor to go along with her stories. She described her music as being inspired by 1920s through 1950s jazz, blues, and country.
“But it’s not a replica of that music,” she was quick to add. “We definitely add our own flavor to it.”
Indeed, she sings about subjects that a modern generation can relate to, although the elegance of her voice sounds born in another era. It captures you like a thread of smoke, seeping into skin, and remaining long after you’ve gone.
Miss Tess described her latest album, Modern Vintage, as being “closest to my heart.” She said that it is the first album that has truly captured the direction she’s sought. Although much of the album is themed toward love, the lyrics are fresh and original.
“I’ll take an experience and kind of build on it,” she said. The result is that she puts an interesting spin on classic ideas, which end up very relatable. “The lyrics are modernized,” she said, shifting in her seat and laughing as if her music was the most familiar thing in the world. “We’re not singing about dial-up phones.”
The Maryland native picked up her first guitar at sixteen, an “electric with a snake painted on it” and handed down from her sister. Her dad taught her to play a few power chords, but she said that she didn’t start seriously investing time in guitar until maybe about six years ago. Both parents were musicians; however her mother played upright bass while her father played saxophone and clarinet.
“They infused a lot of that into my blood, once I got over being too cool for anything they liked,” she said. Her parents are one of the reasons that inspired her deep-rooted connection to what she describes as honesty and soul present in older genres of music.
“You’re definitely more inclined to pick up instruments if you’re raised in that sort of environment,” she said.
Tess began playing music at age four, studying classical piano, although somewhat begrudgingly. For a little while she took vocal training after piano lessons, studying under an opera singer. She also attended the Augusta Heritage music camp with her parents where she learned a lot about swing music. Later, Tess attended Berklee for three semesters.
“I’m glad I went to Berklee and I’m glad I quit,” she said. “Some classes were really great, like stage performance with Livingston Taylor. That made me think a lot about the presentation of my material. Some classes were filled with amateurs, which made me wonder how they got such a prestigious reputation. Overall, I felt pretty stressed and A.D.D. there, and I couldn’t focus enough on my true passion — performing. I decided I would rather learn by getting real world experience at gigs, and take private lessons from the plethora of music teachers in the Boston area as needed.”
Real world experience became something that she mastered – spending a semester abroad in Australia, riding trains around, and it was where she first began writing songs. It was also the first place she performed with her guitar, and when she returned to the States, she took a month and a half driving around the country on her own, followed again by a three month road trip. Discussing her experience, it was clear she had done a lot of growing up on the road, speaking with almost detached remembrance.
“It’s funny,” she said, “When you travel by yourself, you have fonder memories of it when you finish. While you’re involved with it, it can be really cool. And I definitely met a lot of great people and saw a lot of great things, but after a certain time, it kind of gets old of ‘nobody knows you’ and you have to constantly prove yourself. It’s like, ‘I just want somebody to know me.’”
Back in Boston Tess has been working on making herself known in the local area. She plays mostly in Cambridge, at a place called Toad every Sunday when she’s in town.
“There are a few good rootsy joints that like our kind of music,” she said and noted The Lizard Lounge as a favorite and that it has a “nice speakeasy kind of feel.” Tess was emphatic about the effects the fast-paced city life in Boston has had on her music and that the atmosphere drove her to improve herself.
“I feel a healthy pressure up there,” she said. “I met a lot of musicians that are just so incredibly good. It really forced me to step up my game.”
At twenty-six she’s doing that. Recently Tess, accompanied by her band The Bon Ton Parade, has been on tour with Christabel & The Jons. Becoming animated talking about the touring experience, she reminisced about staying up late and playing music with the other band.
“We have a lot of the same interests,” she added. “This is the first serious road trip I’ve done with more than one other person, and it’s harder because you’re responsible for more people and more people have different interests, but it is a lot of fun.”
The two bands swept through the South, showcasing sweltering harmonies, which together makes for a rare find among bands touring today. With such ethereal vocals and finger-picking confidence, it seems as though Tess would never get nervous. Yet she does if she’s playing a really fancy gig.
“But it’s never a crippling kind of nervous,” she ensured. “Sometimes it helps, it gives you a little more adrenaline when you go on stage.”
Tess and the Bon Ton Parade was full of adrenaline at the Juggling Gypsy. The full house seemed to dig her quaint, old-time style. In the set list, she included a Tom Waits song along with the bulk of her new album.
“Sometimes, in a way, you’re more confident doing covers,” she said, “because it’s proven that it’s a good song. It’s hard when you write, because your perspective on your own stuff can be very limiting until you see how people react to it.” But if the Juggling Gypsy is any indication, her performance was prodigious. Tess’s crooning voice created the perfect backdrop for the bohemian atmosphere, as well as a great beat to engage attendees to dance. Band mate Alec Spiegelman delivered a series of exceptional solos on both saxophone and clarinet, and when Tess’s voice recombined with the instrumentation, the mixture was tantalizing. True to her grassroots style, Tess’s connection to the audience was personal.
“The only thing missing was a spin of the upright bass,” an onlooker said, excited to see the venue with such a vivacious crowd. Indeed, Tess’s performance was overwhelming, her vocals sending chills through the room. The intensity of her voice combined with the electric chemistry between the band led to a perfect performance.
“You can’t request an encore before the last song,” she said with a laugh as the crowd requested more. But Tess continued to play. It must have been one of those nights that really make playing music worth it. In today’s culture, there are countless musicians vying for acknowledgement, and Tess’s music stands out as a breath of fresh air in a landscape that delights in achieving mainstream recognition.
“I think the thing I’m going for, the time I’m investing, might have more payoff in the long run,” she said. “I’m not trying to be a pop-star.”
Catch up with Miss Tess and her band The Talkbacks.