Quick Q and A with Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks are an edgy band.  Edgy in a good way.  From song to song you never know what kind of potion the band will cook up for the listener.  They are masters at so many different styles and when all is said and done, they’re just plain awesome.  Grooving modern vintage music is what they sometimes call their genre and that’s perfect.  It’s a little bit old and a little bit contemporary and it’s just fine by me.

To learn a lot more about Miss Tess and her band The Talkbacks, visit their website.

Here’s a video that gives you a good idea of what to expect from this rockin’ band.

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The description of your current music is most intriguing but oh-so-accurate. You’ve certainly got tinges of saloon jazz, country swing, early rockabilly and New Orleans second line.  If you could send yourself and the band someplace in a time machine, what kind of places would you go?  Who would you want to jam with?

I’d start in the ghettos of New Orleans in the 1910s with King Oliver’s Jazz band, and stick around a few years while Louis Armstrong came on the scene. Then I’d travel around from city to city to visit all the speakeasies during prohibition, catch a set by Bessie Smith, and make occasional detours to Mississippi Delta and Texas juke joints to visit some of the early bluesmen at work and catch the first sounds from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Next I would hop on a river boat, stop off in St. Louis and Kansas City for piano blues and ragtime, and straight onto Chicago to catch Muddy Waters. I would stick around Chicago long enough to see Peggy Lee sing with the Benny Goodman big band, and Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa. After that I would hit up 42nd street in New York City and stay up all night at the jazz clubs there and listen to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and my favorite lady jazz guitarist Mary Osborne. The 50s would be a busy decade split between Chess Records artist Willie Dixon in Chicago, the Louisiana swamp pop sounds of Bobby Charles and Fats Domino, the rock and roll of Big Mama Thorton, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and country sounds of Hank Williams and others at the Grand Ole Opry. In the 60s I would head back to New York for the early folk scene, with a trip to Jamaica to see Bob Marley and California to see Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. In the 70s I would hang out with Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Waits. Then I would mostly keep hanging out with Tom Waits while I made trips to England to see the Clash. I must’ve forgotten some people and I think I was born too late…

What was your mind set when you chose the cover songs for your latest CD, The Love I Have For You?  Were you looking for a certain sound that tied all the songs together?  Or was it a random selection based simply on choosing your favorites.

I think the sound of the recording band is the thing that ties the songs together really. They are a collection of songs we’d been playing live and had grown very fond of.

What do you find inspiring about the songwriters you covered?.  They’re all so diverse—Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Hank Williams and Ted Hawkins.

The most inspiring element in these artists, other than the fact that they are all brilliant musicians, is the fact that they made sure to make music their whole lives. They’re all what I call “lifers” and you can tell they are spiritually connected to what they are doing.

Ted Hawkins is probably the one that is the least well-known.  How did you discover his music?

I first heard his music while I was on a solo cross country trip at age 22. Someone I met at a hostel in New Mexico gave me one of his albums to listen to on my travels. I was reminded of him recently when my drummer stumbled across “Sorry You’re Sick” on an episode of This American Life, which he played in the van incessantly until we all learned it.

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 How would you describe the difference between your two bands—the Talkbacks and the Bon Ton Parade?

The Talkbacks has more of an edge – a little less jazzy and more of a country and early rock ‘n’ roll flavor. The saxophone/clarinet has been replaced by an electric guitar.

How much time do you devote to figuring out arrangements of your songs (original and covers)?  Do you and your band members come to rehearsal with ideas firmly in mind or do you just let loose and see what happens?

Sometimes it takes years! We usually play a song through at a rehearsal or two and work it out until we think it’s ready for a test flight. Sometimes it’s hard to see how a song feels before you play it in front of an audience. We play so many live shows a year that each song really has a chance to evolve and grow. Some changes happen on stage totally spontaneously and if it feels good we keep it!

How much are you touring these days?  Do you have any favorite touring stories?  Have you met some memorable people on the road?

So many shows, so many stories. We play about 130-150 shows per year and I’ve been touring since 2006. We’ve made a lot of friends out there and since we travel so much, we’re able to keep in touch with a lot of them. I feel like I have several “homes” all around the country, which was one of my goals as a traveler. The folks around the country who are willing to take in a traveling musician and get to know them are always very kind and interesting. I’ve now been to all 50 states and have seen some incredible scenery including the mountains of Colorado, the desert of New Mexico and Arizona, the Mountains of southeast Alaska, and the Mississippi River.

What are your plans for the year ahead?

I will be working on another album’s worth of original material and continue to tour, including another driving trip to the West Coast and back this summer. We are also working on plans to get the band to Europe, which will hopefully happen soon!

 Photo by Mike Spencer