For Miss Tess and her band, the Talkbacks, it seems the best name was one that didn't mean much of anything too concrete. The Brooklyn-based singer and her band make swinging, jumpin' modern vintage music that nods to the traditions of saloon jazz, country swing, early rockabilly, and New Orleans second line.
In their earlier incarnation, they were known as Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade and that, says Miss Tess, proved both too small a box and too confusing. They were consistently labeled a zydeco band or a New Orleans band. "When I conceived of the band in Boston back in 2006 or so, we had a horn player and we were a little more jazzy," she says. "The last couple of years we change the sound a bit. We're a little more country influenced. We had two electric guitars. We've been thinking about a change for a while and we finally settled on a name. With a name like the Talkbacks, it is what it is."
That's a good thing because it's not easy to define Miss Tess and the Talkbacks.
Their latest, 2012's "Sweet Talk," includes 10 originals and a smoldering cover of "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, " the Ink Spots classic. The originals include the bawdy cabaret of "Don't Tell Mama," the waltzing "Save Me St. Peter" ("Walking on water is a hell of a stand / With no solid ground and no helping hand."), the dance hop, swamp rocking of "People Come Here for Gold," and the burning jazz blues of "If You Wanna Be My Man," which easily could have been sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, two of her idols.
Miss Tess, who adopted the name friends called her because her real name "does not flow" also lists Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits among the artists she admires. Both have that ambitious stylistic range. Waits, she notes, "was able to take some of those older jazz and blues influences and kind of twist them around and do his own thing. "That's just what Tess and her band do again and again.
"I think we do bring new sounds to the table," she says. "I'm trying to figure out how we do that. I think our ears have been informed by different things than the people who were living back then. There are other elements uncontrollably brought to the table that make us different. We're not actively trying to copy anything. We're making fresh arrangements, kind of taking the feeling and style from some of this older music that we like. "
She says lately the band has taken a turn towards more of a groove. "The newer stuff has been more early rock and roll, some Chuck Berry influence, some Doug Sahm," she says. "I think lately we've been interested in dance music, something with a beat, a groove, something that makes you want to shake around."
Miss Tess grew up in Maryland and went to school in Baltimore intending to be a graphic artist. She took piano lessons at an early age and dabbled in guitar, though she didn't start learning it seriously until she got into college. Her parents played music in a variety of styles including big bands, swing, folk, jug band, and blues groups. She listened to punk, grunge, and alternate rock, and then got into rockabilly, old country, and early blues after she moved to Boston. It all fits.
She was always traveling, taking road trips for months at a time and one day driving away from the mountains after a Colorado bluegrass festival and having written a few songs during her sojourns, she decided music was her art. She went back to Baltimore and put together a band. Eventually, she moved to Boston, took a few classes at Berklee, and one a slew of local music awards. Later, came the move to Brooklyn. Her first album was recorded with mom and dad playing with her.
In Boston, she found the vintage archtop guitar she plays most of the time. A friend suggested she get a guitar more suited to her style and she found it on Craigslist. The seller lived a few blocks away so she went to check it out. He had a bunch of guitars, but the archtop grabbed her eye. She went back and visited with it several times. “It had such a sweet tone,” she says. “I became obsessed with this guitar.” Eventually, she plunked down the $825, a big chunk of change for a student working a temp job. The guitar came with its original case papers showing it was first owned by a woman in the 1930s. "I said, it's meant for me," she says.
Though she lives in New York, Miss Tess says she finds it hard to write there. Too many distractions. She's done a writing retreat in New Hampshire, staying in a cabin for five days and doing nothing but writing songs. She's started to work on new tunes and says she'll return to her New Hampshire version of Walden again. "It was great. I was really productive," she says. "I get a lot of inspiration in New York. But having a place to meditate on that and just write songs is really helpful."