Growing up, Miss Tess was always around music, from older jazz and blues to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. She listened to her parents’ large record collection, and the varying styles helped influence her style, even from a young age.
When people ask her what style of music she performs, she finds it hard to answer them.
“I like a lot of older styles, and I think I’ve been influenced by a lot of the music out of the ’50s and ’60s. I have strong affinity for when music was kind of all blending together.”
She finds such spirit and soul in the music of that time period that it inspires her. Despite that, she’ll get into something completely different every few months, which ultimately leads to a little piece of that music will infiltrate her psyche and become yet another thing that influences her.
What ultimately brought her to having her “aha moment” in music? Road tripping to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. When she left school, she would work, save up money and go on big road trips for months at a time, road tripping with her guitar. When she was driving through the mountains after the festival, “it” hit her.
When Miss Tess first visited Charlottesville, she busked on the Downtown Mall ahead of her performance. She did this ahead of a few performances in town to get people hyped up for the show.
“I’ve always liked outdoor spaces where people can walk around and experience life in the city center,” she said.
When she’s on tour with her band, there isn’t much time to explore the cities and towns they play in. In Charlottesville’s case, Miss Tess enjoys visiting because she can see some of her friends, like the members of Love Canon and David Wax Museum.
“It’s cool sometimes to go to a town [to see] friends you haven’t seen in a while. It’s nice.”
Festival season is another opportunity for artists to hang out with friends they might not see when they’re out touring. It’s also the time to relax and have fun amidst tour schedules that take them across the country. Looking ahead to the summer months gives musicians some hope. Especially when they’re tired of winter, like she is.
“We travel so much that it’s hard to catch music from friends sometimes,” she said. “It’s great when a bunch of people are together having a good time outside and listening to good music.”
Festivals also give artists the opportunity to have some fun, with backstage jams and special collaborative projects that come to fruition at festivals.
Sometimes, collaborative projects don’t happen at festivals. Sometimes it’s happenstance. That’s what brought Miss Tess together with Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price.
“We actually lived together! It was the response of a Craigslist ad. I met her the day that I moved to Boston,” she said.
Miss Tess attended Berklee for a few semesters, but didn’t realize what an amazing singer Price was until they moved in together.
“We eventually put a band together in Boston called the Sweet & Low Down. We did a lot of ’40s and ’50s rhythm and blues, old swing kind of blues, rock ’n’ roll tunes. We got to do a lot of singing together that way, along with just messing around playing songs at the house,” Miss Tess said.
Both women came from musical backgrounds, listening to a lot of old jazz music, courtesy of their parents. Tess is sad that the band isn’t together any more, but it’s hard, given the geographical distance between them.
The New England region has another soft spot in Miss Tess’ heart. She does a songwriting retreat in New Hampshire every year with people based out of the Boston music scene. She and Price were there together one year, where people were writing songs and wanted Price to sing.
“I was like, ‘Screw that, I’m gonna write a duet with Rachael!’”
Thus, “True Flood,” from “The Moon is an Ashtray,” was born.
“The song is kind of in the style that our band used to be: the ’50s and ’60s R&B. I was just sitting around my little campfire working on the bassline, and I worked out a harmony by myself,” Miss Tess said. She asked Price to come to her campfire and sing the song with her, so she did.
As a whole, “The Moon is an Ashtray” has a different feel to it than Miss Tess’s other records. She worked with Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville. She says he’s a “super-analog guy,” and the album was recorded to tape from Tokic’s old console.
“He’s got tons of vintage gear and really cool sonic perceptions. He really did a lot to help shape the sound of the album, along with my other co-producer, Bryan Eaton. [Eaton] also plays in my band. Between the three of us producing the album together, we were able to experiment with them in this amazing studio with a lot of interesting keyboard and electric piano sounds and farfisa. That, combined with being in Nashville and being able to bring in incredible musicians to help play the music, I think made this record stand out from the other ones.”
She added that this record was under a lot of sonic involvement, with a lot of vintage, warm sounds coming through, mixed with some mild psychedelic elements.
Miss Tess and Tokic have different aesthetics, which helped make for a unique album. “He’s got an indie aesthetic, whereas I come from more traditional roots influences. I think the combination between those two aesthetics made for something really interesting.”
In previous interviews, Miss Tess has mentioned her love of the metaphor “The Moon is an Ashtray.” She got to thinking about metaphors because of Pat Pattison’s “Writing Better Lyrics” book.
Sometimes, it takes her more than a year to finish a song. When it comes to the title track, she said, it “tumbled out in a few hours.”
“It was interesting for me to try different techniques. His chapter on metaphors was like, ‘Take two ideas that are unrelated and smash them together and see what happens.’ The day after reading that, it just popped into my head,” she said, adding “Moon! Ashtray! They are kind of related in a circular nature. Then I started thinking about how the full moon is kind of crater-y and dusty, and it does kind of look like an ashtray. I just thought it was so fun to think of two words that I had never correlated with each other before.”
She got excited about the totally new idea, which got led to her thinking more about its actual meaning: “The kind of idea that the moon is a romantic image. It’s not really that great when you get up close. Or the idea that it’s kind of like false romance, facing reality and being a little bit through life.”