Meet Tess Henley, Sweet Soul Singer and Songwriter with an Amazing New Album, High Heels & Sneakers (2013)
Every once in a rare while a voice comes along that not only sounds completely irresistible, but connects with you in ways that you are not even totally aware of. A few months ago, I had the good fortune to find myself on Tess Henley's Soundcloud page. I really liked what I heard there and opened a browser tab with her contact information to serve as a reminder that I needed to hear and write about her forthcoming album. The weeks flew by and before I could get in touch, something extraordinary happened.
The album was released and Kari Mateen who co-produced, engineered, and played on it, wrote at length about the making of the record. He said in part, "So yesterday Tess Henley put out a record that took 3 years to make. 3 f$&@ing years. that’s a long time. In today’s times when you might see 4 mix tapes from an artist in one year, she made a record. 3 years without a label. 3 years with money collected from gigs, contests, day shifts at a restaurant, and family friends that believed. I don’t know many people with that type of hunger. People are tested time and time again in the music industry. I have seen this girl go through most of what the music industry has to “offer”. And really it’s never going to stop. I don’t think life is ever easy. It just has these moments of peace." Read his complete post at the bottom of this article.
When I read the post (to borrow a phrase), every one of those word rang true, and it all made sense based only on what I had heard in her voice. Now it's your turn. Meet Tess Henley.
Tess Henley - High Heels & Sneakers
Before we go any further, I've got to say that "Daydreamimg", completely knocks me out, I can not get enough. It's a perfect storm of exquisite songwriting, singing, instrumental performance and production. Tess was already having some success in her native Seattle with a solid album and an EP, when Dice Raw from the Roots entered the picture. "After Dice Raw from The Roots heard her music, he took an immediate interest in the young talent, taking Tess under his wing. He brought her to Philadelphia – the epicenter of a soul sound all it’s own – and introduced her to fellow-producer Khari Mateen (The Roots, Jill Scott, J*DaVeY). Dice and Khari signed on to produce" (from her bio).
Tess says "Working with Dice Raw in Philly was an amazing experience. He brought together a great team of incredibly talented musicians, engineers, and fellow producer/arranger, Khari Mateen. Dice and his crew spurred my love for Philly. It has a special place in my heart now and it was the perfect home for this album...I wanted to kick things up a notch and take the steps to create something that really encompassed my creative vision...In general, this album is very personal and real to me. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite song because each song holds a different memory or meaning. I just hope my stories connect with and relate to listeners."
Here's who did what:
Tess Henley: Lead Vocal, Piano, Rhodes, Organ, Background Vocals
Khari Mateen: Cello, Guitar, Percussion
Joe Baldacci: Guitar
Spencer Doren: Bass
Jeremy Grenhart: Rhodes
David Thomson: Organ
Chris Stevens: Trumpet
Korey Riker: Saxophone
Ernest Stuart: Trombone
Michelle Bishop: Violin
Radji Mateen: Saxophone, Conga
Joe Baldacci: Drums
Anwar Marshall: Drums
Khari Mateen, Carson Henley: Snaps, Claps, & Funky Stuff
Music and Lyrics by Tess Henley
Horns arranged by Christopher Michael Stevens for Signs Of Life Music, LLC
Strings arranged by Khari Mateen
Background Vocals arranged by Tess Henley and David Thomson at Soul Sound Audio
Produced by Dice Raw, Khari Mateen, Tess Henley, Carson Henley
Co-producer: Tess Henley, Carson Henley
Time for some more music. This is the other single, the ultra-funky joint with horns, "From The Get Go".
When I listen to Tess, I hear a little Aretha, a bit of Stevie, a touch of Minnie Riperton, and even some Corinne Bailey Rae, and when she burns it down like on "From The Get Go" or "Heartless Queen", I hear the great Valerie Carter, singing with Earth Wind & Fire on her first album. The tuneful wordplay in "Gonna Fall In Love " brings Lily Allen to mind. While I'm at it, I'll also say that Tess reminds me more than a little of longtime blog favorites Chrissi Poland ("Going Back") and Annekei ("You Are The One"), high praise indeed. In an interview with the Seaspot Blog. Tess talked about her influences. "She recalls her parents introducing her to many types of music growing up: Carole King & James Taylor to Sade & Steely Dan. The introduction of Motown artists, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five & Donny Hathaway touched her musically & lyrically and when the Neo-Soul movement came about, the styling’s of Brian McKnight, Lauren Hill & India Arie sunk into young Tess."
One of the best things about High Heels & Sneakers is the songwriting. I've long held that songwriting is the most important factor of all in the making of the greatest records, because even if you assemble the world's best singers, musicians, and producers, you'll never make the world's best record without amazing songs to sing. And that's exactly what Tess brings to the table along with her wonderfully expressive voice and a real feel for soul and R&B music.
High Heels & Sneakers has a couple of ballads which show Tess's fantastic range with some super soulful songs that just overflow with emotion; "I'd Do Anything (A Song For Carly)" and "Going Back", which is another song that is totally stuck in my head (in a good way). You don't have to hear Tess say it to know that her songs are born of personal experience. Listening to "Going Back" you just can feel the loss, the vulnerability, the regret, but the sense of sadness is nicely laced with hope, even optimism as she resolves that she will love again, and that next time it will be better. That's some major league songwriting (and singing).
You can’t always get it right,
With even the best advice,
Sometimes you gotta find out for yourself.
My failure to recognize
What now seems so black and white
Is blamed on an anxious heart I know well.
I had never been so confused,
Feeling loved, then feeling used,
It was never right enough before it was wrong,
Asking questions deep down I knew
Date nights ending in sour feuds,
What took me so long?
And somewhere I lost it,
Lost sight of me,
This ain’t who I am or who I wanna be.
I’m going back to where I started,
Back to when innocence was open hearted and,
I’ll love again, I’ll love smarter,
But I’m gonna love the next one,
I’m gonna love the next one harder.
Listen to "Going Back"
Tess has been recognized for her songwriting with numerous awards and competition wins. Again from her bio: "Henley’s single “Boy In The Window” from her 2010 EP, The Appetizer, earned a 2011 Independent Music Award for Best R&B Song, won the 2011 International Song Competition for SoulTracks.com (the largest soul site in America), was awarded top 3 honors in the prestigious John Lennon 2011 International Songwriting Competition and was featured on the soundtrack for 2012’s Hello I Must Be Going...Opening for Jill Scott & Anthony Hamilton as the winner of Budweiser’s Dallas Superfest Contest, Tess went on to win the $25,000 Grand Prize as the contest’s overall winner, beating out thousands of vocalists (September 2011), including the eventual 2012 winner of NBC TV’s 'The Voice'."
Let's hear one more from High Heels & Sneakers.
Listen to "You Are The One"
In the last decade the multi-talented members of his Roots, along with their producers and friends have made Philadelphia once again the center of the soul, R&B, and hip-hop universe. How fortunate then, that the supremely gifted Tess Henley could come out of the Seattle music scene, connect with the Roots, and come to Philadelphia to make High Heels & Sneakers with them. Tess Henley's voice blows me away and I totally love this record.
I had already written the first sentence (at the top of this article) before I saw the following. In an excellent interview with the Seattle based website, Another Rainy Saturday, Tess said "I hope my music is something they can listen to and don’t get sick of. (laughs) I hope it’s something they can connect to. Music inspires me and it helps me when I’m going through a tough time, or it’s really emotionally-driven to me. I hope my music can do that for other people." Mission accomplished.
Bonus Video: Here is a live version of the song that won so many songwriting awards. This is "Boy in the Window" - Live at The Showbox Market, recorded in June, 2011.
Photos courtesy of Tess Henley
Khari Mateen's Complete Facebook Post, 5/08/13: So yesterday Tess Henley put out a record that took 3 years to make. 3 f$&@ing years. that’s a long time. In today’s times when you might see 4 mix tapes from an artist in one year, she made a record. 3 years without a Label. 3 years with money collected from gigs, contests, day shifts at a restaurant, and family friends that believed. I don’t know many people with that type of hunger. People are tested time and time again in the music industry. I have seen this girl go through most of what the music industry has to “offer”. And really it’s never going to stop. I don’t think life is ever easy. It just has these moments of peace. I don’t like to walk in other people shoes. But it's good to look at the facts. She is really talented. I don’t like comparing people- we all have our own experiences that make us who we are. Now if your reading this and your saying - awwww khari there are a bunch of people out there that have taken a long time to make a record and struggled to "make it". Well I would have to say to that...Here is one more person. One more person that can be appreciated, given a chance, respected as a artist in a time when most artist need a co-sign to feel like a real artist, or even have a chance to make it.
See the first time I saw her she was in the studio in Philly, Larry Gold's A room. I was checking out what they were cutting and I was like, she can sing and I left and got back into my world. Now- when your working on a record things are not just smooth and easy- there are some bumps in the road. And one day I find myself in the room with Dice, Tess, and her brother Carson (dope singer as well) and I'm about to take over this project. Why? Because there is no way a artist can leave Philly without getting something dope. And at that moment I knew there was an opportunity to bring people together, and make something thoughtful. You have to understand it's not life or death for some people. For me music is my life, if a person likes what I do or not. Music makes me feel alive. I saw in Tess that she wanted her music to live. So I worked on the record with some of Philly's finest musicians. Not all of Philly's talent but the people that played and were apart of this record are the back bone of this rich culture of Philly music. Check the credits and look some of these people up, you will see.
In life sometimes you have to take less to feel more. Sometimes you take a chance. If you don't, well that's just another thing you didn't do. There isn't a lot of answers, and the world turns and people forget, move on, find the next best thing. I know when I listen to this record, I will remember the time when. When Tess was just crying one day about how many times she was singing this one part. over and over, wanting to get it right- and me wanting it to be RIGHT. About her family member that took her life, and out of something so devastating she wrote a song that stops your heart, it makes you just want to go hug someone. Going crazy and making a video dancing in Questlove's studio because we were cutting for 16 hours everyday. Me editing sessions for hours, me at the top of my lungs - DICE!!! We got to finish this fucking record. AND MAKE IT GREAT. I don't really give a shit how much money we don't have! Sometime you cross a threshold where nothing else matters but to see it through. Yes, now I'm working on new projects and going through new struggles... But like I said it never stops. So I want you to do something. Listen to this moment of peace.
It's called "High Heels & Sneakers" by Tess Henley.
Tess Henley's Website
Tess Henley's Facebook
Tess Henley's Twitter