Between shifting industry trends and evolving listening experiences, it’s becoming more difficult than ever for artists to reach an audience, even when global connectivity is only a tweet away. For Miss Tess, whose new album, The Moon Is An Ashtray, drops on February 7th, tempering expectations when releasing new music into the world is part of her recipe when cooking in the creative kitchen.
“With the sheer amount of stuff out there I think it’s amazing even one person listens to my music or comes to see me live,” she said in an exclusive interview with TrunkSpace.
We recently sat down with Miss Tess to discuss going analog, growth as an artist, and why it’s important to take a break from social media.
TrunkSpace: Your new album, The Moon Is An Ashtray, is set to be released in February. What kind of emotions do you juggle with as you prepare to release new material into the world? Is it sometimes hard to let material go and relinquish control over it?
Miss Tess: Actually I can’t wait to get it out there. We started recording a year and a half ago, so it’s been a long time coming. I don’t feel like it’s ever hard to let the material out there. I’ve listened to it so much, it’s time to give other folks a turn.
TrunkSpace: With so much music already under your belt, has the experience of making it changed for you since you first started out? Are there still firsts for you as you go through the process of writing, recording and then supporting an album?
Miss Tess: Every time I go into the studio I learn something new, and I’m always trying to grow and do it better next time. This album was the first time we had ever recorded something completely analog to tape. You only have so much room for recordings on the tape reel, so it forces you to be very decisive in the studio about what takes to keep. Also the recordings were mixed on an analog board, which can be a little stressful. You have no instant recall (like in digital) so if you want to tweak something you have to create a whole new mix. Luckily our producer and engineer, Andrija Tokic, is a whiz with that stuff and made it seem fairly effortless. He even did an actual tape cut to remove a section of a song, then taped it back together. It’s magic to me that music can exist on a piece of tape.
TrunkSpace: As you listen to The Moon Is An Ashtray today and compare it against, say, When Tomorrow Comes, where do you hear the biggest differences in the artist that you were and the artist that you are now?
Miss Tess: I don’t often listen to my older recordings, but sometimes a song pops up. I mostly notice how I’ve grown as a vocalist and a guitarist, and have more composure in the studio. I started recording 15 years ago, so that’s a lot of time for styles and techniques to change and develop. I used to be way more jazz/folk, but now while some of that still lingers, I’ve broadened my scope into country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll to make it perhaps even more eclectic. I like to think my singing has matured and strengthened, and I’m pleased with the fact that I’ve recorded several guitar leads. When I listen back to those, that’s the moment where I’m like, “Hey, that was pretty good.”
TrunkSpace: There are some great layers to peel away on The Moon Is An Ashtray, particularly when it comes to individuals and collective perspectives/expectations. As an artist, how do you manage your own expectations when it comes to your music and how it will be perceived once you release it into the universe?
Miss Tess: I release every album with the lowest possible expectations. That way you are always pleasantly surprised when you get a good review, or someone tells you they enjoy it. You can’t control anything really, even with the best team behind you to help promote. The industry is constantly changing and there is a staggering amount of recordings being released every week. With the sheer amount of stuff out there I think it’s amazing even one person listens to my music or comes to see me live.
TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with the new album?
Miss Tess: I’m proud of the songwriting – these are good songs and fun to play. I’m also proud of our recording band mates, some of the best in Nashville. Our friend John Pahmer was the MVP doing most of the keyboard and piano stuff, and really helped bring these songs to life. Getting to record with stalwarts such as Dennis Crouch (T-Bone Burnett’s right hand bass playing man) and Jack Lawrence (from the Raconteurs) was a great experience, and I’m really happy with how the recordings came out.
TrunkSpace: Since the start of your career, you have released new music at a pretty steady clip. Do you consider yourself to be a prolific artist? What is the longest period of time you have spent away from music?
Miss Tess: I don’t consider myself to be prolific. I don’t write enough to earn that term. I don’t think I’ve ever really spent time away from music. It’s always there. I’ve probably gone about three weeks max between gigs, since I created my first band in Baltimore in 2003 or so.
TrunkSpace: Where are you hardest on yourself as an artist and how do you overcome those self-critical insecurities?
Miss Tess: It’s easy to be hard on yourself with all the social media stats out there. It’s always been a bit of a popularity contest, and now we have concrete numbers with which to measure ourselves. On top of that everyone only posts their best side, so it can be misleading, distorting our realities and perceptions of how life should be. Also living in such a concentrated musical community as Nashville is, you see other people get really successful in what seems like a very short amount of time. It’s easy to compare yourself to this and think, “Why aren’t I doing better? I’ve worked my ass off for a very long time.” I have to imagine that whatever level a musician is at, they will still have doubts and disappointments.
To overcome these feelings I have to remind myself that I can only do my best, and make sure the art I’m creating is honest and that I am growing and expanding. I tell myself there are plenty of people who wish they could even get on stage and sing one song and I don’t take that ability for granted. Also, taking breaks from social media is important.
Part of the reason I keep doing this, is that I feel I haven’t reached my potential, and ultimately I am happiest having created something new. The challenge is always making art sustainable, and figuring out the business side of things can also be very discouraging, and the lifestyle of a touring musician requires a lot of sacrifices in terms of relationships, family, health and security.
TrunkSpace: Finish this sentence. “I wouldn’t be able to create music if I didn’t have…”
Miss Tess: A brain.
TrunkSpace: If you sat down with your 10-year-old self and gave her a glimpse of her future, would she be surprised by where her musical journey has taken her thus far?
Miss Tess: Yes, she would be very surprised. I wasn’t one of those kids who was infatuated with being a performer or a rockstar, though I did enjoy the piano and I was always mystified by singing into a microphone and hearing my own voice amplified and recorded.
TrunkSpace: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
Miss Tess: I wouldn’t. I would be worried it would affect me too much in the current time.
The Moon Is An Ashtray is available February 7th.