I love the strange triangulations that take place on NC regularly. This time we have a Halifax librarian, novelist, and short story writer, Ian Colford, writing a profile about Tess Wiley, a Texas-born singer and songwriter, who makes her home and career in Germany. Ian is a longtime contributor to NC: stories, novel excerpts, profiles, and everything he writes has the idiosyncratic aura of a thoughtful outsider poking about in the culture, turning up half-hidden treasures. See this! he says. Amazing! he says. Ian has his own particular angle of vision; that’s one of the prerequisites for appearing at NC. And the music? Tess Wiley? Just listen. She’s to die for.
And while you’re at it, please take a look at our growing and heterodox collection of music posts.
An Accidental Meeting
I discovered Tess Wiley by accident. In late 2002 I was searching for music by a band called Rainy Day Assembly (I had downloaded a couple of their tunes from a free site). Thinking this band might have an album, I tried Amazon.com. They did not have an album (and, so far as I can tell, never have). But, oddly enough (given it’s an unusual phrase), my search returned an unrelated result, a CD called Rainy Day Assembly by an artist I had never heard of named Tess Wiley. Curious, I listened to a few of the song samples. I was impressed.
Rainy Day Assembly entered my regular rotation immediately upon delivery. I buy a lot of music and when I discover an artist I like, I buy everything they’ve recorded. Over the years this has led to numerous successes, but also some disappointments and a few miscalculations. A lot of songs, CDs, and artists have come and gone. But in 2013 Tess Wiley’s three studio albums, the most recent of which was released in 2007, continue to receive significant playing time. Unashamedly, I have become a fan.
Tess makes music that grabs the listener’s attention for all the right reasons. It is music that is memorable but never cloying, carefully crafted pop that does not follow a formula and is still revealing surprising details on the fiftieth listen. This is music for thoughtful, inquisitive people, not because it is revolutionary or especially challenging, but because it is immediately apparent that the driving force behind it is probing and untypical. The elements are familiar, but they are deployed in a manner that does not readily call to mind the work of anyone else. You can enjoy these songs for their tasteful arrangements and clear, ringing harmonies and go no further than that. But Tess’s music offers the curious listener the further choice to dig deeper, to find out where these songs come from, and to learn something about the person who created them.
Tess Wiley was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1974. Her father, Fletch Wiley, is a working musician who in the 1970s recorded with the gospel group Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. The family moved around, and Tess spent her childhood in Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco, before returning to Houston. With her mother a writer and her father a musician, there was little chance she would grow up without exhibiting a creative side, and she embarked early on her musical career, taking up piano at age five, violin at 12 and guitar at 14. She spent her school years writing songs and performing in a band, before capping her education with studies in classical piano at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
In 1995 Tess joined the Texas-based pop/rock band Sixpence None the Richer, touring and recording with them and contributing the song “Disconnect” to their second full-length CD, This Beautiful Mess. Her year with Sixpence was not an easy one. The band’s label went bankrupt and refused to release the group from their contract. Tess was one of the members who left the band during this period. For the next several years, working on her own and with producer and recording engineer Chris Colbert, she recorded and performed her songs under a variety of names (Splendora, Phantasmic and Tess Wiley and her Orchestra).
Adding an interesting twist to her biography, when Tess fell in love it was with a photo-journalist from Germany, Christian Roth. She met Roth while with Sixpence, when the band was performing at the Flevo Festival in the Netherlands. Roth attended the festival and interviewed the band for a magazine. After she left Sixpence the two kept in touch, meeting again when Roth visited the US to attend some musical events. Roth’s photos and artwork adorn the Rainy Day Assembly CD case. They married and in 2003 settled in Geissen, a university town in central Germany, which is perhaps best known for the Botanischer Garten Gießen, the oldest botanical gardens in the country. Tess has two sons and still resides in Geissen, though her personal life has become more complex lately.
Rainy Day Assembly (2002) was recorded in New York with the aid of American musicians. Her subsequent studio albums, Not Quite Me (2004) and Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (2007), were both recorded in Germany with German musicians.
Tess Wiley’s music is rooted in a North American pop sensibility, the inventive and richly detailed arrangements heavily reliant on acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards, along with the occasional electronic beat. Her songs carry unmistakable echoes of classic folk, 1980s alt-rock, even late 1970s post-punk. Her lyrics can be message-laden or brutally confessional. She is not afraid to be loud, to mix tempos, to juxtapose pop rhythms and loosely structured mood pieces. Even her most upbeat songs have a melancholy edge to them, and enough depth, ingenuity and unpredictability to keep them off the pop charts. Her independent voice and musical daring—perhaps her greatest artistic assets and two reasons why her fans are so deeply devoted and pulling for her to succeed—also mean that a mass following has proven elusive. I feel lucky to have encountered Tess early in her solo career, and to have followed her development as an artist and songwriter through three full-length albums that exhibit an astounding breadth of musical ambition and achievement. The wait for a fourth studio album has been lengthy (a “live-in-the-studio” CD with one new song was released in 2010). But 2012 saw the release of the EP Tornados. Based on this most recent output, how can there be any doubt that commercial success is on the horizon?
To Begin at the Beginning …
We become fans of musicians, actors, painters, filmmakers, authors, playwrights, for many reasons, but usually because we sense an affiliation of some kind, and/or a deep appreciation for what the artist is trying to say. The artist is expressing something that we, if only we possessed the tools, would express for ourselves. I came upon Tess’s album Rainy Day Assembly not long after it was released, and after listening to the CD more times than I can count, I am intimately familiar with the songs it contains. Because it can be both challenging and totally accessible—keeping the listener guessing while at the same time drawing us in—it continues to hold a fascination years after I first listened to it. My attempts to identify where the songs come from have failed: their antecedents remain obscure. Sixpence None the Richer is a pop/rock band with several hit singles to their credit and a reputation for making music that is both brainy and catchy. There is a relationship between them and the music Tess Wiley is making in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though hardly a direct one. Recorded from 1999-2001 and released in September 2002, Rainy Day Assembly seems in some respects to drop out of nowhere, a product of stark originality that feeds 1980s and 1990s pop influences through a subversive and mischievous aesthetic filter. With their mix of pure pop ambition and occasional structural eccentricities, songs like “Small Things Define,” the title track, and “Out of My Head” seem a distillation of everything she has accomplished since and serve as a perfect introduction to her music.
I realized, of course, that I had got my hands on something special. In 2002 Tess Wiley was making music for grown-ups at a time when much of the music dominating the airwaves was for kids. By the time the fourth track, “Breathe,” was over, I knew I would be listening to this album often.
Her second album, 2004’s Not Quite Me, places more of an emphasis on linear pop structures and downplays some of the delightful eccentricities that make Rainy Day Assembly a unique listening experience. Taking their place is a more straightforward approach to crafting harmonious sounds and radio-ready songs that have a broader appeal. Naked pop rhythms abound, such as in the title track and the sinewy and seductive “How Does Silence Feel?” But Not Quite Me is a Tess Wiley album, and there is something different going on. This becomes apparent on “Let it Come,” when toward the end of the song the instruments fade into the background, vanishing behind a rising swell of voices, a rich wordless chorus. Overall, despite the jaunty closing cut, “This Shadow,” and a track titled “Happy Now,” the album weighs in on the meditative, melancholy side, with an abundance of minor keys and lyrics that do more questioning than celebrating.
In 2007 she released Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow, which leaves behind the electric polish of Not Quite Me in favor of a simplicity and rawness in its predominantly acoustic arrangements and occasional whimsical flourishes that give the album the spontaneous feel of a demo. The primary instrument here is Tess’s voice, which is front and center throughout the recording, and exhibits an expressive range that is nothing short of remarkable. There is a quality to her voice and her approach to singing on this album that on a few songs seems to leave her utterly exposed, dangling somewhere between tough and vulnerable. As you listen you begin to suspect that maybe the toughness is nothing more than an attempt to mask the vulnerability. To this point in her career Tess’s lyrics have included confessional elements and at times can even be described as self-critical, but here the self-doubting becomes explicit. This is most noticeable in the sublime “Idle,” in which she admits:
No matter how much I protest,
No matter how much I am blessed,
I’ll always have to prove myself to me.
I can’t let it go. I don’t know what they might think of me,
And I know I shouldn’t care, but I can’t let it go.
I don’t know how I should feel.
Question & Answer
IC: You come from a creative family. What music were you listening to growing up?
TW: I heard a ton of jazz and classical, of course: Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Mahler. But I was drawn to the radio like any other kid. My first “favorite song” was “The Tide is High” by Blondie. I can remember telling my mom that when I was four. I’m sure she was thrilled. Later I loved Billy Joel, Whitney Houston. My dad got me the Amy Grant cassette tape “Unguarded” to finally give me something else to listen to than Whitney’s debut! I wore both of those tapes out in the end. My very first purchase with my own money, oddly, was the first Skid Row LP. That was the beginning of my “metal” phase, although it was probably more glam. Dangerous Toys, Mr.Big, but of course: Guns n’ Roses.
IC: Tell me about your earliest attempts at making music.
TW: I recall having fooled around on the piano early on, and when I turned five my parents signed me up for piano lessons. My mom would tell you I started singing before I spoke in full sentences, though. “Tender Shepard” and “Create in me a Clean Heart” were in the early repetoire. Apparently, at my recitals even age 5 or 6 I would improvise when I made a mistake or forgot how the song went, until I could find my way back into the piece. Unfortunately, my improvisational skills may have been nipped in the bud by too much classical music, too much reading notes and not being free with it. I do have one of my first recordings still on cassette tape. My dad brought home a synthesizer to try out, and I recorded a piece that had an A-B-A form and found two different sounds that fit the different moods. A bit ahead of my time at 7.
IC: Who were you trying to emulate?
TW: That didn’t start until later on when I actually started making my “own” music, it was with a band of high school friends. They had a lot of idols: Bob Mould, REM, U2. To be honest, mostly stuff I wasn’t interested in. I can’t exactly recall what I was listening to in the 9th grade (other than the classic rock radio station), but soon after I discovered indie. Throwing Muses, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads. Then our bass player found out about The Frames. They were on the listening booth at the local music store, promoted by Glen Hansard’s part in The Commitments. That and very early Green Day consumed us for a while.
As far as singing, I can’t really say I ever tried to emulate anyone, honestly. I’ve always felt that the influences I had were more things I internalized, and what came out of me didn’t necessarily reflect those sounds. Maybe I’m just a true original?
IC: What prompted your decision, at the age of 22 and after only one album, to leave Sixpence None the Richer and embark on a solo career?
TW: Well, ahem, I was 20 at the time, so – ya – really immature. The problem with Sixpence in that phase was that they were going in circles, no one seemed to be pushing them out of the microcosm they toured, and no one in the band had a whole lot of gumption to take things further (it seemed). I was antsy, plus they wanted to move to Nashville, which at the time seemed like a hellish idea. I can’t explain why. Maybe because it represented country and christian music, two genres I didn’t want to have much to do with. I didn’t see the singer/songwriter aspect of it, and I didn’t see myself as a singer/songwriter then, anyway. I was punk! I was indie! I was alternative! I was way more Austin than Nashville, so that’s where I decided to stay. In addition, a certain someone in the band was in love with me and frustrated that I was dating the sound guy. We butted heads, both in our stubborn ways, and I basically got kicked out. There you go.
IC: What was it like, at 25, to be recording your first solo album in NYC?
TW: The entire NYC experience was pretty mind-boggling. I knew it then, but I keep having flashes of, “OMG, I can’t believe THAT person played on my record, too, and now he’s playing with David Bowie/Aimee Mann/Sam Phillips/Solomon Burke/Elvis Costello.” The list goes on and on. At the time, the most amazing thing was to have Jeff Buckley’s drummer play on it. It was definitely one of the fancier studios I’ve been in, and being able to say that Kevin Killen mixed the thing still provides me with credibility from those who know.
But on the other hand, I was an awfully shy thing for a long time in my life, and it absolutely intimidated me. I didn’t really find my true voice anyway until a few years later, but I feel like I sound a bit stifled. It’s a shame. I kind of wish I could re-record the vocals to it one day.
IC: Has your approach to songwriting changed over the course of a career that now spans almost 20 years?
TW: Holy moly – 20 years. Can’t believe I can say that. Yeah, I’d say I’m trying hard to be less precious about it. I try to think less, not use such “big” words or be so grammatically correct (although it is a desire of mine to promote good language!) I also start more often with lyrics. I try my best to write down everything that comes into my head, hoping to be able to use it later. Sometimes something doesn’t make sense until later. And in any case, if I don’t write it down immediately, it’s gone, gone, gone. So frustrating.
IC: You moved to Germany in your twenties and just as your career was getting underway. Musically speaking, how do you view that move today?
TW: Hmm, musically speaking, it wasn’t the best idea. I used to joke that the Beatles kick-started their career in Germany, but of course, they were in Hamburg, not Giessen, which I like to refer to as Germany’s armpit. That’s not really fair anymore – a lot of music has been coming out of this town for a while now, and the city planners are starting to finally get a bit of a grip on aesthetics. It’s changing. Slowly. And I get out more, I have a manager with a vision, and I’m MUCH less intimidated than I was before. I shot myself in the foot every day with my “humility”. Was a waste of time! But better to learn late than never, eh?
IC: Does your career have a defining moment?
TW: I think that’s on the immediate horizon.
IC: What are your hopes for the new CD?
TW: That it provide that defining moment.
I really hope to be able to find a good niche for myself. I don’t want to become a huge star, which is good, because I imagine I’m a bit too old for that now, but I simply don’t want to be on the road constantly. I have two wonderful boys who need their mommy close to them as much as possible. I hope to enter the songwriting world more, possibly write with and for other people. I love to sing, and I enjoy performing, but there’s something enticing about hearing what other people do with my creations. Plus I imagine it must be nice to stay at home and let the checks come in.
This Beautiful Mess (Sixpence None the Richer)
Rainy Day Assembly (full-length CD)
Not Quite Me (full-length CD)
Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (full-length CD)
Tess Wiley – Live (live in the studio recording)
—Tess Wiley Photographs by Apolonia Wieland at Bang Bang Photography; you can watch more Tess Wiley videos on her Youtube channel, TessWileyMusic. Her new CD, Little Secrets, is due out this fall.
Ian Colford has been publishing stories and reviews for a long time. This profile of songstress Tess Wiley is his first venture into music journalism. His short story collection, Evidence (2008), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction and ReLit awards, and his novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) recently won Trade Book of the Year at the 2013 Alberta Book Awards. Most of his disposable income goes on books and the rest goes on music. Recently he has been mourning the death of Ray Manzarek by listening to too much of the Doors. He works as a reference librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.