SINGER-SONGWRITER 3 WINNER MAKES DOING THE HARD THINGS LOOK EASY.
IN JUST THREE YEARS, GUITAR CENTER’S SINGER-SONGWRITER COMPETITION HAS COME TO REPRESENT A CHANCE FOR THE FINEST VOICES IN AMERICAN SONGWRITING AND PERFORMANCE TO PRESENT THEIR MATERIAL TO A GRAMMY-WINNING PRODUCER AND SEE IF THEY HAVE THAT EXTRA SOMETHING SPECIAL IT TAKES TO STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD. SINGER-SONGWRITER 3 WINNER TESS HENLEY, AND HER SOUL-TINGED “GOING BACK,” WAS PRODUCER DON WAS’S CHOICE TO BE THE WINNER OF A HUGE PRIZE PACKAGE, INCLUDING AN EP, PRODUCED BY WAS AND RECORDED AT L.A.’S HENSON STUDIOS.
Both the first pianist and the first woman to win the competition, Henley comes from a musical family, with a mother who is a professional singer and a brother, Carson Henley, whom she encouraged to enter the previous year’s Singer-Songwriter competition and who ended up in the final round of competitors. “I watched Carson through the whole process last year,” she says. “It was a great experience for him, and so when it rolled around again this year and I saw that Don [Was] was going to be the producer, I thought, ‘I really have to do this.’ I know his history and I felt like it would be a good fit. It just made sense.”
Having submitted a recording for Singer-Songwriter 3 and then nervously waiting to see if she made the cut, Henley was incredibly gratified to be told she had been selected and would be flown to L.A. to perform at the intimate Hotel Cafe. “I was so grateful to make it to the final ten, and then to be selected,” she says. “I really couldn’t believe it, because everyone was so talented, and everyone was so different in the finals. I’m honored.” Getting to this point has been hard work, but hard work she’s been preparing for from a very young age.
Starting Suzuki method piano lessons when she was 3 years old and helping her mom practice vocals, Henley says she always felt that music was going to be her life. “You know when you’re a little kid and you think, ‘I’ll be an astronaut,’ or whatever—being a singer was something I always thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ But I never really thought about how I would make it happen—the realistic side of it.”
It wasn’t until Henley was attending the University of Washington that she began to really think about the practical aspects of building a career in music. “I had recorded my first album [independently released, Easy to Love] my freshman and sophomore year,” she says. “Music was my passion and I’d really started to get into writing and performing. I was debating on what my major would be and, at that point, I made a switch in my major. I think it was my junior year of college and I said, ‘OK. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to major in communications and I’m going to focus on music as a career.’”
Having started playing at such an early age in a house filled with music was an opportunity her mother kept encouraging. “Being a singer and not playing an instrument,” Henley remembers, “she really wanted us to be able to accompany ourselves. She always said you’ll have a lifelong friend with being able to play an instrument. She was the one who really had us start taking lessons at 3, took us to all of our weekly lessons, made us practice every single day before school. If we didn’t practice before, we had to practice after school before we could do anything. It was just like homework. That was until my senior year of high school. It was our choice after that, but up until then, she was really the one who kept us with it, because you’re a little kid, and you’re not always into practicing your instrument. She was the reason I am playing music today. She never forced a career in music on us, but being able to play an instrument was important to her.”
That early practice has stood her in good stead, imbuing her with an ability to do the hard work, when necessary. “There are musicians out there who are just naturally gifted, and it just comes easily to them,” Henley says. “I wouldn’t say that everything comes easily to me. I think, especially with piano, it’s something I’ve always had to work at and I’m still working at it. I wish it were something where I was one of those people who can [grab] every instrument and just pick it up quickly. It’s something I’ve just had to work [at].”
Henley’s work ethic spills over to her songwriting, though she does say that came somewhat easier to her. “My mom told us, ‘If you’re really able to be in the music industry, I would highly suggest you start writing your own songs, because that’s where the longevity is.’ After I kept writing, I realized that it was one of those things that was more fun than I had thought it would be. It is really difficult, but something about it, to me, does come easily sometimes. At the same time, it can be really frustrating and difficult. It is something that I’m always working at, too, to become a better songwriter. I guess when it makes you feel something inside, that’s the fun part and that’s why I like songwriting.”
Despite the seemingly planned-out career, make no mistakes that Henley isn’t serious about why we all play music in the first place. “I really feel like for me music is therapeutic,” she says. “When I need to just sit down and play, sometimes that’s the best thing for me. If I’ve had a bad day or a bad week, that’s what really helps me get through things. Whether it’s playing and performing or going to a concert and seeing somebody else perform, that puts [me] on such a high, especially as an artist. It inspires me to become better and makes me want to go home and write, because you see the impact that music has on people.”
Last year, at the start of the Singer-Songwriter competition, when we talked with Don Was about what was important to him in evaluating artists, he mentioned two primary considerations: the capacity to make honest, authentic music and the value of a great song. As he put it at the time, “There’s no great arrangement, there’s no great beat that is going to turn an okay song, a song that leaves you cold, into a song that gets under your skin. So, the one tool that I think is indispensable is to have great music to offer.” That’s one factor that he and Tess Henley have in common.
“You can’t deny a good song,” says Henley, speaking of her writing. “I can’t force. I really have to feel the song for me to want to actually finish it. I sometimes start a lot of songs and then I feel, ‘This doesn’t mean much to me. I need to move on.’ It has to be real to me or some observation I’ve made. I have a hard time writing if I can’t relate to it.”
Despite having already spent a few years pursuing a music career, with a certain degree of success, Henley has bumped into some of the barriers and roadblocks all up-and-coming artists encounter, and, naturally, wrote a song about it—”Who Are You?” “In the music industry, I think you’ll always have highs and lows,” she says, “and you hope that your highs are higher than the lows. There are always going to be people who want you to be something that you’re not, or they say they’re somebody they’re not. I guess that was my frustration, having to deal with that and stay strong and stay true to who you are, and not question. I do feel like it can be a selfish industry, but things like this Guitar Center [contest]—it’s a blessing to me. I feel like it keeps my career moving, and really saves me. Sometimes when I feel like I’m out there and don’t know what I’m going to do next, not sure which way to go, something usually happens like this did this year. It saves me some time [laughs]. I feel like my whole career I’ve been able to have things like that happen, maybe just at the right time, when I didn’t expect them to happen. In the end I’ve been able to grow as an artist and I think you deal with a little less crap than you did maybe the year before. That’s always a good thing for me, just feeling like I don’t have to work as hard to get the recognition.”
Henley is understandably excited about going in the studio with Was and working on an EP. That excitement and the pressure to have great songs in the studio has tapped a new wellspring of creativity. “Sometimes, you obviously have writer’s block, and [when that happens] I won’t write for a while. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue you just write a bunch of songs in a week and you don’t know where [they] came from. That’s kind of how things happened. I gave Don 20 songs to choose from and I was thinking—this is back in June—I’ll give these to him and I’ll keep writing and see if I can come up with anything better. I kept writing here and there, and I wasn’t really coming up with anything I loved. Then in the last couple of weeks I finished a few more songs. I ended up adding them to my top five songs that I would want to maybe record. We’ll see what Don thinks, but it’s funny how things can just kind of happen and you’ll come out with songs you didn’t expect at the last minute.
A project about to go into production, a stack of new songs and the chance to make a bit of a bigger splash are all important to Henley, but she still remembers why she started and why she continues. “It’s very gratifying,” she says, “and it makes you feel like you have a purpose. I feel that music is so important to everybody’s lives. People who aren’t even into music may not even realize how big of a role it plays. It just moves you inside in a way that a lot of [other] things don’t.”