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.
- 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!
Emily 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.
My first introduction to Spuyten Duyvil was when they were selected as one of a couple dozen emerging artists at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, NY in 2010. My friends, Pesky J. Nixon, put on a pre-festival showcase of their own, lovingly called The Lounge Stage, and invited the band along to play. The minute they stepped over to our campsite, we all felt that we had known them all our lives. Instant friendship. And, man oh man, when they played their set that night — they were on fire. They continued the blaze the next day when they made enough of an impression on the entire audience to capture the honor of being asked back the following year for the “Most Wanted Wanted” set.
Spuyten Duyvil has gone on to become one of my favorite live bands. They exude ,energy, spunk, and sass. It’s impossible not to have fun listening to them and it’s impossible to keep from dancing and moving along with the music. I dare you. I double dare you!
To learn more about all the members of Spuyten Duyvil, visit their website. Here’s a video of the whole band playing “Here and Hereafter.”
- How long has Spuyten Duyvil been playing together?
- Mark: Gigging since 2007. Hanging on the porch, eating BBQ, drinking beer and pickin’ since about 2005.
- Beth: Although, the first time Mark and I performed together was back in the mid 80’s (!). I sang backup on one song for a fraternity gig he played with his slightly dysfunctional college band. That was followed up with our attempt at a blues band in San Francisco back in the 90’s. Much happier with our current efforts!! A little bit of learned and earned wisdom over the years has made for a far more genuine, creative experience for both of us.
- How would you describe your music?
- Mark: Amped-Up Americana
- How would you define “Old-timey” or “Americana” music for those who aren’t familiar with those terms. Spuyten Duyvil’s music has been called both.
- Mark: Well, we play both. . . . Sometimes in the same show and sometimes as dictated by context. If we are amplified and playing our full rotation, it’s Americana. If we are playing an acoustic, trad gig, it’s Old-Timey. That said, we always have some Old-Timey in our Americana sets. . . .
- According to the Internets . . .“Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA), is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”
- And Old-timey is “Old-time music is a genre of North American folk music with roots in the folk music of various cultures of Ireland, Britain, Africa, and Continental Europe. It developed along with various North American folk dances such as square dancing, flatfoot dancing, buck dancing, and clogging. The genre also encompasses ballads and other types of folk songs. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally centering on a combination of fiddle and plucked string instruments (most often the guitar and banjo).”
- So, both styles draw from the same roots, but are typically presented differently. Americana is more contemporary, electric and incorporates elements of modern pop music with a goal of reaching a broad audience. The Old-Timey is acoustic and much more traditional. Bands that are strictly Old-Timey generally appeal to a more specialized audience that is more focused on the historical context of the music.
- Do you have any musicians who you really look up to for inspiration for either their songwriting abilities or their musicianship?
- Mark: From a songwriting perspective, I love Johnny Flynn and the Wood Brothers right now. Both strike the perfect balance between the old and the modern. As for musicianship, what is the most interesting to me is ensembles and how they work together. Going back to when Spuyten Duyvil was just getting started, we drew inspiration from Crooked Still, The Duhks and Ollabelle.
- Beth: I would also add that we’ve been inspired by Buddy and Julie Miller too. The interplay between them in live performance and in their numerous releases is pretty inspiring. They are my model husband/wife team that have made amazing roots music together over the years.
- I remember hearing a story about how you and Beth happened upon Falcon Ridge Folk Festival many years ago. Was it quite by chance? Did you ever imagine that you would be headliners on that stage one day?
- Mark: This is in fact the very beginning. . . . In 1999, Beth and I, having long ago given up on the dream of being performing artists, were deeply involved in work and life and raising our one-year old daughter, Dena. We were up in Columbia County and had just dropped her off with Grandma for her first overnight away from mom and dad. We planned to enjoy our freedom with dinner and drinks in Hudson NY. In the late afternoon, we were eating lunch in the Good Earth and overheard our waitress waxing poetic about an amazing night of music under stars. . . . We looked at each other and it slowly dawned on us that. . . we could go! And so we blew off dinner and went to Falcon Ridge for the night. As soon as we sat on the hill, we knew we had found our tribe. We also realized that the performers were not teenagers. We became Festival regulars and this was the seed from which Spuyten Duyvil grew.
- Beth: Pretty sure that was the year we experienced Moxy Fruvious and Eddie from Ohio for the first time. Sweet!
- Once we started to play again and write songs, it was a pie in the sky fantasy with no realistic path from here to there that we would ever find ourselves on the main stage. When we were selected as Emerging Artists in 2010, I almost exploded in the car when I got to roll down my window and let the volunteer know that we were headed for ‘performer parking’. . . .
- When you write a song, do you think of the various musicians in the group and how their own particular sound will be incorporated into the song or do you just present the song to them and let them at it? ;-)
- Mark: Definitely the latter. I think a well-written song should stand up as a single voice with no instruments and that is how I tend to write. Only after I can sing the whole thing and feel that this would stand up with no accompaniment in the middle of a set, do I pick up an instrument and figure out what the chords are.
- Beth: Also, our Spuyten Duyvil compatriots play a pretty central creative role in the development of our songs. We try to rehearse with the band weekly. Everybody contributes with Mark laying down the base of a song and his/my vision for it. We generally avoid writing parts for folks.
- Are you always on the look-out for new songs to cover? Your renditions of “Shady Grove” and Abbie Gardner’s “Honey on My Grave” are outstanding.
- Mark: I am always listening to and learning trad tunes. In fact, we are planning to record and release a CD of acoustic public domain tunes sometime in the next year. Modern covers tend to come into the rotation from specific situations. We learned “Honey On My Grave” for a Tribes Hill Songbook project where local artists did a show covering each other’s music. We also learned a bunch of tunes like “Poor Pitiful Me” for Ethan (Pesky J. Nixon) and Robin’s wedding. Yes, we were the band. . . . Our only General Business gig ever ;-}
- Do you have any favorites among your original songs? Some that are the most fun to play?
- Mark: I love all of my children equally (I think that is what one is supposed to say. . . .). Actually, I really love to play Beth’s tunes (Bitter, Hell and High Water). They are ours, but I can approach them without the complex feeling I have for my own writing. . . .
- Beth: That’s nice darlin’. Thanks! :) I have to add that I love the way Mark will give me one of his songs to sing and together we find a balance between what he visualizes for the song and what I can do to make my vocals my own. I think everyone in the band loves that process of taking the material and exploring the most successful ways in which to find the personal connection . . . ultimately wedding one’s own artistic expression with the rest of the crew.
- What’s next in store for Spuyten Duyvil?
- Mark: Well, more touring. We are spreading our wings and beyond the Me&Thee will be hitting Tiverton, RI, New Bedford, MA, Rockville MD, Portland, ME and a return run to Chicago in 2014. We’ll be hitting a full schedule of summer festivals. We are also planning two CDs, the acoustic one I mentioned above for 2014 and a full Spuyten Duyvil record for 2015.
- Beth: Also, a special musical “jaunt” is in the works for Jamaica, if we can swing the logistics and rally enough participating friends and fans. Yah Mon! Wanna come???