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Quick Q and A with Miss Tess and the Talkbacks
 by Kathy S-B  ·  15 April 2014

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.

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

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.
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!

Quick Q and A with Emily Elbert
 by Kathy S-B  ·  14 April 2014

Emily ElbertEmily Elbert is one of those talents that doesn’t come around every day. I feel blessed to have gotten to know her over the past five or six years. At the time I was booking some shows for a wonderful bluesy singer-songwriter, Brooks Williams, who had some gigs in Texas where Emily was attending high school at the time. Emily wrote and told me how much she admired Brooks and wondered if he’d be open to having her open a show for him in Dallas. He listened to her music online and immediately said “yes.” Fast forward a bit and Emily started to make plans to attend Berklee, here in Boston. I asked her if she’d like to take part in a benefit show right before the semester started and she agreed . . . and she was one of the shining stars of that magical evening. Emily dove right into the music scene here in the Northeast like she had lived here her entire life. We had some fun road trips together — and met a lot of cool promoters and musicians along the way. So, yes, I have a very special place in my heart for Emily and am so grateful to have her, her music and her lovely family in my life.

I highly suggest checking out her website. Here’s a new jazzy video called “Evolve.” Allman Brothers may enjoy this version of “Whippin’ Post.” And one more original for good luck!

Tell us about your latest EP, Evolve. Are you approaching your songwriting differently than you did when you first started writing when you were a teenager?
Yes, I’d say so. When I wrote my first album, I was 16. The whole process was different. When we’re younger, I think we’re naturally better at exploring, going with the flow, feeling creatively uninhibited . . . being reckless in a good way. With experience we develop expectations for ourselves. So the challenge is to gain control over those voices in your head, to reconnect with that recklessness a bit, loosen up and have a good time. It’s a continual journey, for sure — but I’m learning more about myself as I grow as a writer, about what turns me on artistically, what I want to focus on, and what kind of message and energy I hope to share.
Do you feel your sound has changed over the years?
I think so. Because songwriting is such an intimate practice, it’s interesting to watch how different experiences change the lens through which you view the world. Personally, of course, the last 10 years have been full of change — leaving home, beginning college, falling in and out of love, traveling, etc. So there’s certainly been a perspective shift, to some extent, but I also think that the core remains the same. My biggest source of inspiration is unchanged — finding love in all of the twists and turns in life, connection, gratitude — that’s still what I’m most excited about. Musically, I feel similarly. It’s more complex, draws from a lot of different stylistic influences, but my musical foundation is still the same crew: Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles.
The video of Merritt Moore performing a modern dance to your song, “Michaelangelo” is truly beautiful. I understand that you met Merritt when you both were named Glamour Magazine‘s Top 10 College Women.
She’s a total gem of a human being, highly intelligent and creative. That was a very moving experience for me. And yes, we met during the awards process for Glamour. All of those women were incredible, and I’m glad that Merritt and I remained friends. When you write a song, you know that everyone will interpret it differently, so it was particularly moving for me to see Merritt take that piece and turn it into her own work of art. Would love to experiment more with that kind of collaboration.
What kind of music do you listen to these days?
Kind of all over the map. I’m excited about a lot of African and South American music, from the 60s through now. I’m drawn to a lot of music from the 60s, Woodstock-era artists, Stax, Motown, etc. As far as new bands, there’s so much fabulous stuff coming out now that is pushing the envelope. Some really radical women really doing their thing, like St. Vincent, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu. Songwriters like Tingsek and Emily King, more electronic-leaning material like James Blake and Little Dragon. I’m crazy about this hyper-musical flood of stuff coming from bands like Snarky Puppy, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Haitus Kaiyote, too. I’m really excited about the music of this generation.
Life on the road. What’s it like? What do you like about it and what do you dislike about it?
Kind of crazy, I don’t really know how else to sum it up. I just this month signed a lease in L.A., but I was there for 4 days, got furniture, sublet my room, and went back on the road. It’s been several years since I’ve spent more than a month in one place. That’s really beautiful in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot to be learned from traveling — lessons in adaptation, fast friendships, independence, etc. But it’s also challenging, because the people and places I feel most connected to I see very rarely, and I’m alone the vast majority of the time. I’m really glad to be touring, but I’m also really excited to have a home now. I’m striving for a balance there.
You’ve been to many far-flung places like Indonesia, Turkey, and Thailand. Have you played those shows with a band or solo? I’m wondering about the audience’s reactions in light of the language differences.
Mostly solo. Solo I’ve played in 15 countries, I think. Last year I took a band with me to tour in a few Southeast Asian countries, though. That was wild. Tremendously beautiful people, places, and culture. Independent international touring is definitely an adventure, from managing logistics to the actual on-the-ground travel. But honestly, I’ve never had any challenges with a language barrier in music. Live performance is mostly an energetic exchange, anyway. I’m crazy about it; it’s a very inspiring thing to be a part of. One of my most treasured experiences ever involved playing Bob Marley’s “One Love” in East Jerusalem, with Palestinians, Israelis, and ex-pats all singing along. Music reveals to us our common denominators. The language barrier issues just come into play when you’re trying to order vegan food, apologize to armed guards for hiking too far into their territory, negotiate a motorbike repair . . . that kind of thing.
Do you have any special memories about any of those exotic places? Do you have time to play tourist when you travel that far?
Each place has had its own set of special experiences. I try to be quite deliberate with building in time to experience local culture when I travel — it would feel disrespectful to just fly in, play, and bail. So dry and businesslike. But in creating room for exploration, trying to let the experiences crack you open, that’s when the good stuff comes out. It’s important. So, yes. I’m in Nevada this morning, in a gold-mining town. Played a long set after a long drive yesterday, but then met a bunch of local folks after the gig and got to talk about forestry and politics and Van Morrison.
How do most of your fans discover your music?
Mostly at live shows, on YouTube, though social media. It’s mostly a matter of continuing to make new music, and putting it out there for people to find and share. That, and playing live all the time.
What’s next in store for you?
Trying to figure out how to live somewhere! It will be a journey, I think, but I feel very positively about it. It’s good for my writing. And also lots more touring of course. I’m really excited to be back in the Northeast right now — I feel such a sweet connection with this part of the world. Then back west, all over the States for the next few months. Besides that, write, collaborate, record, release, repeat. Just trying to grow and make better music. And trying to figure out how to be more like Stevie Wonder. That’s pretty much the goal.

Quick Q and A with Antje Duvekot
 by Kathy S-B  ·  13 April 2014

There are certain songs that transport you back to the time and place when you first heard them. It’s an auditory memory that lingers, sometimes for a lifetime. For me, the first time I heard Antje Duvekot’s song “Judas,” I was driving to work. I admit it. I am radio flitter and it’s gotten worse now that I have satellite radio. In this instance, I was listening to the old WERS Coffeehouse program and it came on the air. There was something magical about the song — the wistful voice, the amazing lyrics and the way the gentle guitar picking riveted its way into my heart and soul. I had to find out who was singing this song and sat in the T parking lot until I heard the DJ announce her name. I became a fan that day. It wasn’t long before I got in touch with her agent and asked if she could make a special appearance opening for Ellis Paul at the me&thee . . . it was February 2006. So that came to pass. The audience went wild and it’s been a thrill to watch Antje mature into the artist she is today. It only took one song for me. Here’s an interview that I did with Antje which will give you some insight into this amazing singer-songwriter.

To learn a whole lot more about Antje, visit her website. This video gives you a great introduction to Antje and her music. And here’s a lovely video of “New Siberia.”

Antje Duvekot

You’ve often expressed how you write songs as a kind of therapy to get through times of difficulty. Does the actual writing of the songs help elevate your mood and take you out of yourself or does the songwriting keep you in that sad territory?
Yes, it really does help to elevate your mood. I would compare offloading your troubles onto a song to sharing those troubles with a friend. The writing brings with it a feeling of release very similar to talking with a friend. Only with the song you are also aware that you are creating something permanent and so, while you’re getting whatever it is off your chest, you’re simultaneously experiencing the uplifting rush of chasing beauty and poetry, of ‘making’ something. It’s kind of a constructive use of sadness because you’re basically turning it around. It’s like saying “oh yeah, sadness, you’re here. Fine. I will make you beautiful and into a statement about the human condition and I will share you with people. Take that, sadness!”
What would you say is the saddest song you’ve ever written?
“Phoenix.” It’s about my mother who abandoned me for inexplicable reasons when I was young. Most of my songs feel like they apply to the human condition as a whole. That one feels like I wrote it exclusively for myself. It was hard to feel like there was anything constructive to be gleaned from that situation. And so, unlike my other songs, which tend to encapsulate struggle and always hope, this one is just plain dark. It’s been called self-indulgent. but I really don’t care. Writing this song to her is something I had to do. I even entertain the fantasy that she could hear it somehow and know how angry I still am and that I could not just ‘let it go.’
And let’s go for the reverse — do you have any happy songs in your repertoire?
A lot of my songs are celebratory actually. Just in a more realistic subtle way than your average ‘happy’ song. Like my song “Merry Go Round.” It talks about how there would be no love and light if there wasn’t the contrast of darkness and struggle. To me that is happy! LOL. I hope this doesn’t come across wrong . . . because I actually consider myself American at this point . . . but I grew up in Germany and I feel like, culturally, Germans embrace the wholeness of the human experience with all its light and darkness a lot better than they do in the States. There is such an emphasis here on happy happy happy and on an almost sterile expression of positivity at all costs that it is hard to bring up the heavy stuff without being considered a downer. i think this pressure for constant positivity is making our culture sick but that’s a discussion for another day.
New Siberia is your latest recording. How does it compare with your earlier works?
It’s similar. My vocals sound a bit different on New Siberia than on the other records because I had sinus surgery in between and so the singing is a little less nasally on New Siberia than it was before. But the topics and the musical production are in the same vein as the previous albums.
This is your second album produced by Richard Shindell. How would you describe him as a producer? Does he have a special flair that he brings to the studio?
Richard just has an amazing ear for music. He is a great singer, great guitar player and great producer. We had a lot of fun making these records.
Since you first came onto our radar, we’ve seen you start playing more and more instruments. You’ve added harmonica and piano to your live performances. Are you a self-taught musician?
Yes. My perfect day consists of having nothing on my schedule and of exploring instruments and sounds. One neat thing about experimenting with new instruments is that the different timbres and moods of different instruments seem to bring forth different types of melodic ideas. To me creativity is like being a kid again and just playing without a specific goal in mind. Just letting yourself wander in any which direction you may want to go. Sadly there never seems to be enough time for creativity. This is, in part, because creativity is pretty much infinite. I’ve never met a creative person who has hit the limits of exploration.
Do you have the discipline to regularly practice to keep up your chops?
Um, no. I prefer the distracted unfocused exploration mentioned above. . . . any musical chops I have built up in the process are purely incidental.
Likewise, do you set aside time daily or weekly to write?
I would like to but I find it really hard to make this time in between touring and the demands of running my own business. often writing takes the back-burner. The summers are slower for me as far as touring goes and so I tend to dive into creativity during the summer months. But during the year there can be several months on end when i don’t do a creative thing. Maybe cause it feels frustrating to submerge yourself into a creative flow just to have to leave it shortly thereafter for lack of time.
Have you done much co-writing?
A little bit. Melody comes harder to me. Lyrics easier. and so I most love to work with musicians who let me write the lyrics and bring great melodic ideas. But i’ve collaborated on lyrics as well . . . okay, not very often. I find it hard to ‘co-think’ lyrical ideas because they are so personal for everyone whereas collaborating on melody and music is more neutral territory and super fun to do together.
Are you a musician who looks forward to the next tour as soon as the current one ends? Or do you prefer shorter mini-tours so you can go back home and recharge your batteries?
The latter. I am actually a creature of routine and habit and I enjoy quiet walks in the woods and spending time with a small group of close friends. Some people enjoy high levels of stimulation and novelty. I am not like that at all and so the touring lifestyle really doesn’t suit me when you get right down to it. However, I love creatively connecting with people and creating a space for people to access their emotions. I love performing and singing . . . but I don’t love all the driving and the constantly changing environment. But the traveling comes with the territory.
I’ve seen some of your artwork and have to say that I’m quite impressed. Did you study art? What’s your favorite medium (oil paint, pastels, colored pencils, etc,)?
Oh wow thanks. I just dabble. I like all those mediums. I just like creating.
Didn’t you paint a guitar before? Do you still have it? Also love the table you painted to honor Brother Blue at Club Passim.
Oh yeah, if you go to Club Passim you can sit at the table I decorated as a memorial to Brother Blue, long time Passim patron. The guitar went to my sweet friends Dave and Hillary Kohler in my last Kickstarter campaign.
Your bio states that your biggest influences are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen. Have you ever had the occasion to meet any of them?
Nope, but I am currently on tour with John Gorka another one of my all-time folk heroes. On this last tour out west we kept running into a road named Tehama road and started singing Pete Seeger’s song “If I had tehama. I’d tehama in the morning . . . I’d tehama in the evening” We got an inordinate amount of joy from this as is only possible when you’ve been in the car too long and are giddy out of your mind
How do most people discover your music? Has streaming music helped or hindered your career?
I don’t always know how people find me. I do get a lot of people saying they discovered me on Pandora. I really love Pandora because they allow people to sample new artists without just giving the artist’s entire catalogue away for free. Streaming services trouble me because they allow people to listen to your entire album catalogue but pay the artists basically nothing and so if everyone used these services, which they are increasingly doing, it makes it hard for us artists to keep making records. Making a studio album costs around $20,000–30,000 so if people are increasingly obtaining the music for free it doesn’t work out anymore. That is why models like Kickstarter have sprung up that help artists fund the record making process. Fan funding is becoming a bit of a necessity because of the change to the industry.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a singer-songwriter?
Someone recently sent me a picture of a tattoo they had gotten of a lyric from one of my songs. They said the song got them through an incredibly difficult time in their life. It was a beautiful tattoo and it made me stop in my tracks to realize that my words matter to others in such a real way. So that’s pretty much it right there.
Are you planning your next recording project? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Yes! I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for my next studio album soon (speaking of). The album will come out in September. I’ll keep people posted on my Facebook page and website.

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