Miss Tess Interview: Songwriter’s Showcase
Recently I had the pleasure of catching up with Miss Tess to discuss something that has always fascinated me: songwriting.
The Songwriter Showcase is something I’ve begun recently at my blog, Songbirds & Seagulls. I’ve been a writer since I was 6 years old, and while I find it extremely easy to write prose or poetry, the thought of writing a song is completely foreign to me. I have tried to sit down and force myself to write a song, wrestling to find a melody, but the melody never comes. Try as I might, I just can’t do it. Trust me, if it were just a matter of a strong will or a stubborn mind, I’d be the next lady Bob Dylan. But alas, I am not.
Of course this has created an obsession. I am completely fascinated by songwriters. I want to ask them ever so politely to lie down on a slide so I might examine them through a microscope. I want to get them drunk and coax from them all their secrets, because I am convinced that if the right person’s mouth were t murmur the right words, I could join their elite ranks and wrap myself in the term songwriter as though it were a flag around my flesh.
Until that day comes, we have Songwriter Showcase. This first interview was with Miss Tess of Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What was the first original song that you began performing?
Miss Tess: It was a song called “One Rainy Day” about walking in the rain.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Please tell us about your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? Do they come at the same time? If not, how and when do you decide to combine the two?
Miss Tess: Usually the melody comes first and then I work through the chords and song form. Lyrics are always hard for me. I usually just mumble through the melody until they start to take shape and the song grows wings.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you think your songwriting improves over time in a linear fashion, or do you think some songs are just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Miss Tess: I do think it improves with practice, but every once in a while you get a random inspiration and it comes in all at once. It’s like it was floating around waiting for someone to grab it. The key is learning to be open enough to see the ideas.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Yes! That is so fascinating! I just interviewed Katie Powderly, and, though her interview is not yet published, she said almost the exact same thing! I can’t remember her words exactly, but she said something along the lines that once in a while a song will appear like a butterfly beside her that only she can see, and she feels it’s her responsibility to catch each one in her net before it flies away. As a huge music fan, it’s a terrifying thought that your songs might just fly away. Do any of them fly away before you can “grab” them? And, if so, do they ever come back, or are they gone for good?
Miss Tess: Yes, they can go away, which is why it’s important to always have some way to write or record them. If I get a good idea and I don’t have paper or a recorder, I force myself to sing it over and over until I remember it. Sometimes I will dream a song. Having the discipline to get out of bed to try and remember it is a challenge, but I often feel like those are the most perfect songs.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Miss Tess: Idea-wise, heartache is the biggest one. This is followed by all kinds of stuff depending on experiences and environment. In my recent case I’ve been inspired by bicycles, Ferris wheels, Coney Island, living free, and the hustle of New York City. Other inspirations come from fellow artists, or simply wanting new material to perform on the road.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you ever get that sense about a song that tells you “this is a good one?” Have you published every song you’ve ever written, and, if not, how do you decide which ones are keepers? If one isn’t a keeper, do you ever revise it over time, or do you just scrap it?
Miss Tess: If I don’t think a song is good, I won’t finish writing it. I think every idea can turn into a good song if it’s shaped right. That being said, some songs have to have life breathed into them by being performed. Sometimes it won’t come into full fruition for a few years after it’s written. If I like the idea and am struggling to make it good, sometimes I’ll bring it to friends and fellow musicians to see what reactions I get or have them contribute to the creative process. Not every song gets on an album, but most do.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Would we recognize any of the names of the folks you turn to when you’re stuck on a song?
Miss Tess: It’s not just songwriters I turn to, but all kinds of people-band members, friends, parents, roommates…In terms of getting inspiration from other songwriters, I mostly meant that I see live music all the time just to see what folks are doing. However, I do have a lot of songwriting friends in New York. Some of my favorites are members of Lake Street Dive, Anais Mitchell, and Aoife O’Donovan.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Songbirds & Seagulls: What advice would you give to beginner songwriters? Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful over time? I know there isn’t a formula for writing a great song, but surely you could impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Miss Tess: Stay true to yourself and don’t sing about things you don’t know about. People respond to things they can relate to. I’ve realized one of the biggest hurdles is the blank page. Don’t be afraid to write stuff down. Always carry something to write on or record with, because you never know when an idea will present itself. Read all the time.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Miss Tess: I’ve had many-some dead, some living. I’ve spent countless hours reading about other artists. Some of my mentors I hold in the highest esteem I’ve never met: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Waits, Willie Dixon. I look to different people for different things: performing, songwriting, leading a band, and maintaining artistic integrity. I grew up in a musical family and have had lessons in guitar, piano, and voice at various times in my life.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you been writing any new songs recently? If so, do you have any plans to record again soon?
Miss Tess: My newest song, which will be on our upcoming studio album is called “People Come Here for Gold.” It’s about living in New York. We haven’t set a date for release yet, but it’s been recorded and mastered and will most likely be out sometime in June. It’s called “Sweet Talk.”
Buy Miss Tess’ music here: http://misstess.bandcamp.com
Check out Miss Tess’ website here: http://www.misstessmusic.com
See Miss Tess live here:
3/3 – Jenkins House Concert: New York City
3/6 – Hill Country: Washington, DC
3/8 – Balliceaux: Richmond, VA
3/9 – Dogtown Roadhouse: Floyd, VA
3/10 – Jack of the Woods: Asheville, NC
3/11 – Barley’s Taproom: Knoxville, TN
3/13 – JJs Bohemia: Chattanooga, TN
3/14 – Mockingbird: Tallahassee, FL
3/15 – Will’s Pub: Orlando, FL
3/16 – Satchemo’s: Ft. Lauderdale, FL
3/17 – Ella’s: Tampa, FL
3/20 – Jack’s BBQ: St. Augustine, FL
3/21 – The Pourhouse: Charleston, SC
3/22 – Hannah’s Haus: Beaufort, NC
3/23 – Taphouse: Norfolk, VA
3/24 – The Bottling Works: Romney, WV
Photo courtesy of Brett Moen
clementine cox march 6, 2012
© clementine cox 2012 (oh your darlin’ publications, vol. 2)
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use is a violation of all applicable laws, though I encourage you to share and distribute widely, as long as quoted content links back to my original site, http://songbirdsandseagulls.tumblr.com.