Miss Tess and The Talkbacks / special guest Emily Elbert at the me & thee coffeehouse
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, yet somehow maintains a unique and personal sound.
In their earlier incarnation, they were known as Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade and that, says Miss Tess, proved both too small of a box and too confusing. They were consistently confused for 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 jazz influenced," she says. "In the last couple of years the sound has evolved, something that naturally happens when you spend so much time on the road with a band. We've become slightly edgier and there is some more country and early rock n' roll coming through. We now have two electric guitars. I'd 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 last album, 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 early idols.
Miss Tess, who adopted the name friends called her because her last 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 with top notch musicianship to boot.
"I think we do bring new sounds to the table," she says. "I'm trying to figure out how we do that. Our ears have been informed by different things than the people who were living back then. We're not actively trying to copy anything. We're making fresh arrangements, kind of taking the feeling, style, and soul 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."
On Oct 29 the band will release "The Love I Have For You", their second on rootsy record label Signature Sounds [Lake Street Dive, Eilen Jewell, Chris Smither, Erin McKeown]. The 7-song album features six covers and one new original and pays homage to some of Tess's favorite songwriters. It was produced by Miss Tess & The Talkbacks and recorded and mixed by Devin Greenwood (Norah Jones, Anais Mitchell, Amos Lee) in Brooklyn, NY. Miss Tess explains how the band chose the 6 songs to cover: "Each artist we covered has held a special place in the history of our lives, as well as in the history of American music. These folks are all musical giants who dedicated their lives to music, and for that I hold them in the highest esteem."
Miss Tess grew up in Maryland and went to college 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 was almost out of 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 and has been there for almost four years. Her first album was recorded with mom and dad playing with her, and she has been steadily recording since. By the end of 2013 she will have nine albums under her belt.
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 special".
Steeped in jazz, James Taylor, and Jimi Hendrix, Emily Elbert has carved out her sound on the road. Armed with a global spirit and do-it-yourself passion, the independent songwriter has played over 700 shows throughout the U.S. and in 15 countries worldwide from Peru to Palestine, and Turkey to Thailand. The Boston Folk Festival notes, "Emily is among the most glowing of the upcoming generation of American singer-songwriters, if 'upcoming' even applies to this phenom any longer."
As a teenager, Emily dove headfirst into writing, singing, performing, and recording. At age 17, she co-produced and self-released her first original album, Bright Side. Soon after, she set her sights on attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and was awarded a four-year, full-tuition scholarship. Now at 24, Emily's music has won awards in the U.S. and U.K., and garnered accolades from publications like The Washington Post, and Glamour Magazine. YouTube videos of her performances have attracted more than 1.5 million views from music lovers of all ages and nationalities. She's played festivals ranging from Indonesia's Java Jazz Fest to New York's CMJ Music Marathon.
Known for her strong melodies, straight-to-the-heart vocals, and intricate guitar work, Emily has performed at some of the best listening rooms and clubs in the country. These include the Highline Ballroom, Brooklyn Bowl, Hotel Café, Club Passim, The Cactus Café, The Tin Angel, City Winery, The Living Room, Rockwood Music Hall, and The Kessler Theater. She has also opened for artists including G. Love & Special Sauce, Leon Russell, Richie Havens, Tuck & Patti, Crystal Bowersox, Kaki King, Jorge Drexler, Kate Voegele, Joan Osbourne, Ryan Montbleau, Livingston Taylor, and Patty Larkin. Recent honors include being awarded the Chairman's Young Artist Scholarship to 2013 Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop & Festival in Montana, being selected as the First Place Winner of the 2012 B.W. Stevenson Memorial Songwriting Contest, as well as a 2012 Timberland Community Eco-Friendly Artist. She was also named to the top five of the Mountain Stage/NewSong contest in 2010 and Glamour Magazine selected Emily as one of their Top Ten College Women, 2010. She's a winner of Scotland's 2009 BurnSong International Song Contest and was named the Best New Artist of 2008 by WUMB-FM Radio in Boston. She was a member of the prestigious Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, and the The Dallas Morning News selected her as Local Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Emily co-produced and self-released her debut album, Bright Side, in 2006 and her second album, Proof, in 2010. Her third CD, a live recording entitled Alive, In Love, was released in May 2012. Evolve, a four-track EP recorded at Mason Jar Music in Brooklyn, will be available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and CDBaby outlets on November 5th, 2013.
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