Tess Henley is full of soul and her voice exudes an old-school R&B vibe. It’s why she was chosen as the winner of the Guitar Center’s National Artist Discovery Program, becoming the first female to do so. Since then, she’s made her TV debut performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and recorded an EP, Wonderland. Henley’s passion for her music translates to her songs, and she’s only going to continue sharing her love to the world.
Cliché: Growing up, music was a big part of your family. Is there anything else you can see yourself doing?
Tess Henley: I think I always knew I would be doing something in music. When I was a kid, I loved singing and wanted to be a singer, along with a professional basketball player and interior designer, but I never really thought realistically about it. I thought I was going to do all three of those things. It was that kind of thing growing up, but it was always such a big part of my life. I think I always knew I’d be doing [one of those things], but I didn’t know what exactly which one it would be until I started writing music.
When was it that you realized you could do it professionally?
I wrote my first song my senior year of high school, and after, I wrote all through college. By the time I graduated, I’d been playing around Seattle, which is where I’m from. When I was in school, I was switching majors, and at the time, I was really involved in music, but I was in the early stages, trying to figure it all out and learn as I go. When I graduated from college, I decided to put everything into music. I didn’t know if it was going to work out, but that was when I put all my attention and everything into it. It was fight or flight at that point.
What did you study in college?
I majored in communications, but I started out in business and switched to architecture, because I do like design and have a creative mind in that way. Then I realized how demanding it was, and I was playing shows all around Seattle, so that was a turning point for me. I realized I was going to do music, so I switched from architecture to communications. If I was really going to focus on architecture, I’d probably not be able to do music, so that was the turning point for me in realizing that was the direction I was going.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I think it’s a cumulation of artists that I grew up listening to, which was a wide variety. Today, I’m still inspired by random artists in different ways. You don’t really think about how much they might be inspiring you in the moment, whether it’s someone like James Taylor and the simplicity of his lyrics, but still having that impact to somebody, or the tUnE-yArDs for example. Their musicality and being innovative with sounds—it’s just really random for me.
Do you tackle your life for lyrical inspiration?
Most of my songwriting is from personal experience, because that’s just things you feel and things to pull from. But maybe when there’s not a lot going on in my life emotionally, I try to pull from things I’ve seen in airports or driving around. I try to be observant of my surroundings. You can pick up song ideas in very simple ways.
What’s been one of the most surreal moments for you so far?
Being selected for the Guitar Center singer/songwriter program. That was really a life-changing thing for me. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think a lot of stuff that happened in the last year and a half would have happened. That was really a huge thing for me that came at a time when I really needed it. From that, I played on Jimmy Kimmel, opened for Culture Club and Boy George in L.A. and Berkeley, and planned a third national tour—I get emotional thinking about it, all of it combined in one year.
What are the differences when performing on a show rather than on stage and playing for the different environment?
I feel like there is a little more pressure. You get one song, and you want to look good for TV. You don’t get multiple times to run through it, and there are thousands of people watching. It feels a little more permanent than playing a live show, but there’s also a lot of excitement that goes into performing in that moment. I was really nervous, but it was definitely a highlight of my career so far.
What have you loved about touring so far?I’ve been really lucky to be able to tour with bands and artists that are just great people and are fun to be around. I think getting to finally meet fans across the country and hear their stories and have people fly out from different states to come to the show is something you can’t get online. And getting to see new things and places that I never thought I could see, for example. You’re tired the whole time, but you’re having a blast. You realize afterwards how fun it was and how you want to do it again.
You’ve also partnered with L’Oreal. What does that entail?
That was a really cool thing for me because I really do use a lot of L’Oreal products. This was for their mascara line, Voluminous Miss Manga Rock Mascara. I posted about it online, and they shared it, and it’s a really cool relationship to have formed. That was a random thing that came about, but it was really cool.
I know you’re busy touring, but what’s next for you?
I’ll be gone through December with Jon McLaughlin. It’s a 28-date tour. That’s the biggest tour this year for me, so that will keep me busy through the rest of the year. I have some projects coming out from now until the end of the year, and then I’m going to start looking ahead to the next album. I’ve been writing and figuring out production and planning ahead for that. The next album is on the horizon. I’m ready to get back into that phase of recording and getting creative in the studio.
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Tess Henley on her latest EP, ‘Wonderland’: Photographed by mindcastle