Vintage sound for a modern world
05:00 AM, May 22, 2013
If you go
What: Miss Tess & the Talkbacks, with Thomas Bryan Eaton opening.
When: 9 p.m. Friday.
Where: Lovin Cup Bistro & Brews, 300 Park Point Drive, Henrietta, near the Rochester Institute of Technology campus.
Admission: $7, students $5.
Miss Tess recently bought a new couch for her Brooklyn apartment. Yes, it really is new, not some new-to-her, ancient, worn-fabric rack that someone’s uncle died on. And yes, she makes her coffee with an oh-so trendy Arab press. And yes again, she was out jogging which no one did in the 1920s when she came up with “People Come Here For Gold,” a new song that she describes as her complaining about the dating scene in New York. “Money,” she says, “is a big factor in everything.”
But it is still fair to describe Miss Tess as an anachronism. Music that sounds as if it should be played on a gramophone, which you can probably do if you buy the vinyl version of her new album, Sweet Talk. It’s vintage guitar jazz played by contemporary musicians with modern-day brains. They were Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade when they first started coming around here. Now they are Miss Tess & the Talkbacks and will play Friday at Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews.
Miss Tess was looking for a change when she moved from Boston to Brooklyn 3½ years ago. The neighborhood is in flux. Her apartment building was populated entirely by West Indian and Jamaican immigrants until about a year ago. Now, here come the artists. “People are trying to move to cheaper areas,” Miss Tess says. “A few years ago, everyone lived in Manhattan, it was all artists and musicians. And then, of course, it got all gentrified and expensive, so everyone moved to Williamsburg. And now that’s too expensive so people moved to Bushwick.” An eastward migration, Miss Tess says, that can only end “with everybody in the ocean.”
“Home” is a relative term for a touring musician, but Miss Tess appreciates it when she is there. “Simple domestic things excite me,” she says. “Finishing the living room, cooking.” And indulging in her new, 21st-century obsession, making smoothies. “This morning,” she says, “was pineapple, banana, yogurt, blueberry, strawberry and chia seed.”
All of this does affect the music. “I don’t know if it’s the city itself or the musicians I’m surrounded by, but the music is slightly edgier, maybe more like rock and roll,” she says. “Slightly more aggressive in that way. And I did write a couple of songs about New York.”
Miss Tess certainly didn’t start out like she was born in 1920. She took 10 years of classical piano lessons but stopped in high school, where she enjoyed her share of kicks. “I was a big soccer player, actually,” she says. She listened to punk rock, but also to the older music favored by her parents. She was a late bloomer in the music biz. “I was 23 before I started putting out albums, so everything that would have been really embarrassing maybe didn’t happen,” she says. “Instead, when I was 16, I was in my bedroom by myself.” By then, she’d left the compositional confines of piano to the improvisational flexibility of the guitar: “I was, like, ‘Oh, I can make stuff up!’ “
The news of the day in this modern world does intrude on her muse. As a Boston native, “I was just kind of mad,” she says of her reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings. “All I could think was, ‘Stupid teenagers, what the hell? Why would you do that, it’s so messed up?’ ” The day was a range of emotions. “I was happy seeing everyone come together as a community,” she says. “I think that’s the only positive thing to take from that.”
But neither the anger generated by the attack, nor the inspiration from seeing so many people step up to help in the crisis, has inspired a song. “My songwriting doesn’t really relate to current events,” she says. “I’ve never written about politics or something that happens major in the news. It’s depressing. I don’t want to depress people. I want to make them happy.”
Perhaps the 21st century is poison for a guitarist who plays a 1920s-era Weymann Archtop named Mary. That apparently was the woman who owned the guitar in the mid-’30s, based on the name on some handwritten music and concert programs that Miss Tess found in the case when she bought it. Now Mary is the lead followed by Miss Tess & the Talkbacks.
“All of us really value quality music, that’s the biggest thing,” she says. “We’re people maintaining a high level of live music in particular. Real people talking about the real world and playing their instruments well and putting on a show.”
She finds that quality in the old stuff. Like the antique coffee table she bought for the living room, “it looks amazing and it’s just made better.” Lately, she says, she’s been listening to more vinyl records. “I like how it sounds, I like the process of listening to it,” she says. One of her most-recent compositions, “The Love I Have For You,” is influenced by Hank Williams (born 1923, died 1953) and Doug Sahm (born 1941, died 1999).
But again, times are changing. “It keeps creeping up,” she says. “We’re going to record this new EP, and of the eight songs we’re picking from, the oldest is from 1972.” Some of those vinyl records she’s listening to include a Ted Hawkins album, Watch Your Step. It’s a relative baby, released in 1982.
And now, that brand-new couch has crept into her life. “Function is kind of the biggest priority,” Miss Tess says. “We’re not obsessed with being vintage, it’s just an aesthetic. I know a lot of musicians who are obsessed with being authentically old. We are influenced by old things. It’s just reflected in the current times.”