Watch Soulful Singer Tess Henley Collab With Don Was in Exclusive In-Studio Video & Interview
Don Was has produced The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Mayer, and Bonnie Raitt, so when he takes on a little known artist, it's a good idea to listen up. Enter the silky smoothness of Tess Henley, a vocalist-pianist whose classy brand of soulful R&B could hold up in any era of Was' storied career.
Feb. 10 brings us Henley's Wonderland EP, a four-song teaser of her potential. Was agreed to produce it after picking Henley out of the myriad entrants of Guitar Center's Singer-Songwriter Artist Discovery Program. For a sampling of Wonderland, check out the exclusive in-studio video below:
And that's not all: This week, we caught up with Henley and Was. The pair looked back on Henley's recent network television debut, their common inspirations and what's coming next.
So Don, what did you think of Tess' Kimmel performance?
Don Was: What I took away from the performance is confirmation of what I felt from the Guitar Center things, in the studio, and listening to the finished record. Which is that she's a world class singer who absolutely does not need any of the distractions that technology fuses into records. She can sit down at the piano and sing and it stands out; it's a performance, which is really what we tried to capture in recording. I wouldn't go so far as to call it anti-technology, but the technology is not only not a texture on the record, but the lack of it is a texture. It was really meant to demonstrate that Tess is an artist who really stands on her own. There's real serious musicality going on. We're thinking of things like (Stevie Wonder's) "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life," a record like that. I played her the Laura Nyro-Labelle record "Gonna Take A Miracle." These are just records where the music leads and does everything. It's the rare artist who can step in and do that. The Kimmel performance is icing in the cake, proof that she's got it all going on.
Tess, how do you think things went?
Tess Henley: I had a lot of fun. I don't always get to play with a full band and singers. My brother played organ and my family flew in. It was a really special day. Friends came out. You try to not think about how it's your national TV debut and millions of people are watching and you get one take. It was really exciting.
I've read online about how you two met, but how about a firsthand account?
Was: It was through the Guitar Center contest. I was a judge for that. Guitar Center probably received a thousand entries, people uploading videos. And they narrowed it down to the top 300. And I watched the top 300 and from that I picked finalists. Tess really stood out even among the last 10. She was wonderful. There was a final at a hotel café where everyone got up without a band and they had to play their own songs. She was a standout -- you did "Wonderland" right?
Henley: Actually I did "Going Back" from the last album. It was another ballad.
Was: She was great. She had all the goods. Wonderful singer, wonderful writer, wonderful musician.
Don, you said when you first heard Tess's voice you already envisioned the album you guys could make together. Describe to me what that vision was.
Was: It was very stripped down, very warm, real sounding. Documentary as opposed to Star Trek. The record sources were the Laura Nyro-Labelle and "You Are The Sunshine Of Your Life" -- records with no frills, just people in the room playing. We got a group of musicians, real incredible musicians -- James Gadson played drums on the EP. He was in the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and he played on "Express Yourself" and he played on the Bill Withers record and with Marvin Gaye. He has a warm and natural sound, an incredible feel. If you sit in the room with him, he's got an incredible feel. It was capturing the sound of that. Everyone played live; Tess sang live. It was kind of an old school record making.
Now that its done would you say it matches that vision? Did anything comes as a surprise?
Was: Can I tell you something? I listened to it yesterday 'cause I knew we were gonna talk about it today. And I turned to Rachel -- my assistant -- who was there at the sessions and I was like, "How did we do that?" It really went beyond my wildest hopes for the sessions. Sometimes magic just happens. You can't really legislate that. There's no producer in the world who can make that happen. All you can do is try to set up a situation where if lightning strikes the room, you've got the tape rolling. And lightning struck. It was a really charmed session, and she was amazing.
Tess, I'm interested in your lyric writing too. There are a lot of themes of love on the EP; did those come from first hand experience?
Henley: Yeah I'd say most of my songs I write from personal experience. When I feel like I don't have any inspiration in my personal life, I think about others that are close to me and maybe what they're going through or even just people I've come across, acquaintances. But mostly it's just my personal experience. And this EP is pretty much all about those experiences in my life.
I know you've been making music for a while now -- can you briefly go through your back story up until you came to work with Don?
Henley: My first album (2008's Easy To Love) I wrote and recorded in my freshman and sophomore year of college. I put out an EP after that (The Appetizer), in 2010. And then I went to Philadelphia to record my last album (2013's High Heels & Sneakers) with Dice Raw from The Roots crew. As an independent artist, you're always figuring out how you're going to fund your next album. I've gotten lucky with these projects to have something come my way and help out financially. That also happened with the last album. With Budweiser's Superfest contest, they partnered up with Myspace… I actually got the call that I won that the day before I flew out to Philly. And I actually didn't have the money that I told the producer I had to record. So that was good knowing I would actually be able to pay for that album. And then at that point, I was just trying to figure out again what I was going to do to fund the next album. I heard about the Guitar Center program; my brother was in it the year before with John Shanks, who was the producer that year. I knew I had to do it.
You mentioned your musical family -- wasn't your mom in a band, too?
Henley: Yeah, she was a singer in a band for over 30 years. She's really the reason why I got into singing. I would practice with her in the car. She was in a cover band, corporate and wedding events. I was singing a lot of the songs that she was singing in her band -- Bonnie Raitt, a lot of Motown, soul music. She really influenced me a lot.
I can see how you and Don became kindred spirits.
Henley: When he played me the Laura Nyro album… it's weird because I wasn't so familiar with Nyro. Throughout the years people would come up to me and mention her and I'm like, "Gosh I've never really…" -- you don't hear so much about her. When Don mentioned her and he played me that album, I just kind of got the chills. It was so my style! [Laughs]. I really loved the simplicity and the backgrounds and the writing. We were totally on the same page.
So do you have any plans for a full length coming up?
Henley: [Laughs] I'm always kind of thinking about what's next. I would love to do a full length. I'm definitely writing and I have songs for another album. Hopefully I can start working on that in the next year. Right now the release for the EP is next week. The Kimmel thing happened, I went straight to Sundance, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, one week left!" So I'm just kind of focusing on that but at the same time you always have to think about what you're gonna do next… So hopefully sooner rather than later.