Tony Cummings found out the rich and intriguing history of Germany-based songsmith TESS WILEY
Tess Wiley is an American singer/songwriter now based in Germany who was once the guitarist with Sixpence None The Richer and in recent years has released some fine self-produced albums and there's considerably more in the pipeline. A multi-instrumentalist and a singer able to handle everything from tender acoustic ballads to the rawest rock, Tess is a rare talent with a fascinating history. She spoke to Cross Rhythms about her past, present and future.
"I was born in 1974 in Dallas, Texas. My dad is the renowned musician Fletch Wiley, formerly one of the Disciples with Andrae Crouch, among many, many other projects, so I grew up with music. I used to think my dad worked at the airport because we drove him there so often for his tours! We moved around a bit - Houston, Seattle, San Francisco then Houston again, so childhood was a bit of a challenge for my delicate soul. I started playing piano aged five, then added violin and guitar; the singing was always there - before I could talk, even. My mom, if she were to tell the truth, is an author, so I got my appreciation for proper English grammar from her, prompting me to use such words as 'quite' ('Not Quite Me' - who names their album something like that?!), 'perhaps' and 'incandescent'. Probably makes me seem snooty, so I balance it out with songs about doo-doo for my kids. Gonna make a children's record one of the days."
From childhood the Christian faith was always part of Tess' life. "My parents were pretty charismatic Christians by the time I came along, so it only seemed natural. I question my faith now and then, and I can tend to waver away from it, but it's in me, I know who Jesus is and that he loves me, and when his Spirit opens my eyes and I'm able to let that sink in, there's no reason for doubt."
In 1995 Tess joined Sixpence None The Richer who had begun two years earlier as Leigh Bingham (vocals) and Matt Slocum (guitar, cello) and recorded the album 'The Fatherless And The Widow' when Leigh was only 17. Expanding to a five piece with the addition of JJ Plasencio (bass), Dale Baker (drums) and Tess Wiley (guitar) Sixpence recorded two projects, the album 'This Beautiful Mess' and the mini-album 'Tickets For A Prayer Wheel' and toured extensively. Tess spoke positively about her year with Sixpence. "They were a lot of fun. I saw them last spring when I toured the States. Leigh is just now starting to let her freaky personality show through on stage, and I'm so pleased about that! She's always cracked me up, but few people could begin to imagine how odd she can be. I learned a lot touring and recording with them, things I still think about and employ today."
The period Tess was with Sixpence was financially tough. The band became entangled in a mass of red tape when their label R.E.X. went bankrupt but refused to release the group from their contract hoping to sell them off as a final asset. JJ Plasincio left the band to join Plumb and then record as a solo artist and Tess also departed Sixpence None The Richer. She hooked up with eccentric producer Chris Colbert, frontman for cult-following bands Breakfast With Amy and Fluffy (also known as Duraluxe). In 1996 Tess recorded five of her songs with Colbert backed by various musicians including Colbert and Fluffy/Hoi Polloi bassist Troy Daugherty). Instead of releasing an EP, Flying Tart Records put out a split artist album, 'Fluffy Vs Phantasmic' (with, oddly, a bonus track from Joe Christmas). The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music reported, "The five Phantasmic tracks reveal a basic '90s female-grunge sound not too dissimilar from Courtney Love or Liz Phair."
So why did Tess adopt the Phantasmic persona? She recounted, "I had a hard time dealing with having my own name printed on t-shirts and stickers, so I began by calling myself Splendora, after a Texas town outside of Houston. Believe it or not, there was already a Splendora from NYC, and they kindly asked me to stop using "their" name (they did the Daria theme song for the MTV show which, through misunderstanding, gained me one of my biggest fans in England!). So then I adopted the name Phantasmic, I think from the Oscar Wilde play A Flea In Her Ear to which my folks took me for my 18th birthday. There's the word 'phantasm' in it and I thought that was cool. Then it just got silly - my being on stage, alone, saying, 'I'm Phantasmic, well, actually, I'm Tess, but my 'group', or whatever, is called. . .' During this phase I recorded with my then-boyfriend Chris Colbert. We decided to compile those songs with songs from his band Fluffy, plus several songs by Colbert, Zachary Gresham (of Joe Christmas, now Southern Hymns) and myself, entitled Xtra Fluffy. That was great fun - total improvisation, I played my first song on drums, we stole lyrics from gossip magazines. Eventually I switched to Tess Wiley & Her Orchestra, which afforded me a last bit of humility by mentioning other musicians alongside me."
Phantasmic/Tess was a guest vocalist on 1997's 'Of Colour Bright' album by emo rock band Velour 100. The following year Tess recorded an album of disparate cover versions, 'I Light Up Your Life'. As well as Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" and the Misfits' "I Turned Into A Martian", Tess sang songs originating from Michael Jackson, Pat Benatar, Leslie Phillips, Nazareth and Level 42. One critic wrote, "All of these are performed in an '80s Deborah Harry style with some flourishes of post modern Colbertisms." It was at the end of 2001 that Tess released the album 'Rainy Day Assembly', recorded in New York City between June 1999 and January 2001. The Cross Rhythms reviewer spoke about the album's "wistful poignancy" and dad Fletch Wiley even made an appearance on one track. Tess has fond memories of the project. "'Rainy Day Assembly' was a very fancy recording opportunity, also very humbling for the very same reason. I recorded in a high-end studio in New York City and got to invite high-profile players. It was really unbelievable. A few years later the guitar player Gerry Leonard invited me to hear him play with David Bowie (!) in Bonn. And Paul Bryan, who produced it, always invites me when he comes to town with Aimee Mann, having since played with Elvis Costello, Alain Toussaint and Nick Lowe, among others. I still pull out records mixed by Kevin Killen or featuring other players on RDA and can say, 'I know him/her'!
The eye-catching photography and artwork for 'Rainy Day Assembly' was by one Christian Roth. By that time Tess' relationship with Roth was more than professional. She recounted, "When I played Flevo Festival with Sixpence (playing there and Greenbelt were the main reasons why I joined the band!), I met a photographer who interviewed the band for his first printed zine. He sent us a great package with photos of the band, the zine our interview was in (he called me 'Jess') and other goodies from the nearby town of Braunfels since Sixpence was from the German-settled New Braunfels, Texas. We wrote back and forth for a few years before he came to America for a road trip that started at Cornerstone Festival. We planned to meet up there, and he took more photos of me (I love to pose), and my stage outfit just happened to be lederhosen that I had recently bought from a German woman from New Braunfels! A few weeks later he showed up on my doorstep in Texas. I had very Americanly invited him to pop over should he wish to, although his main destination of LA and Austin, Texas lie c. 2,000 miles apart. Turns out his hosts there were not terribly available. In those three weeks we fell in love and married two years later. That was 13 years ago!"
Relocating by 2003 to Giessen in Germany, Tess had formed a band with guitarist Tom Potzas, bassman Christian Weiss and drummer Christian Pfaff. The following year Tess' 'Not Quite Me' album emerged. She said, "'Not Quite Me' was my first attempt at recording by myself, at least the first that got taken seriously. My German band and I did the basic tracks in a studio outside of Giessen, and the rest I recorded at home or in the practise room. There are spots where you can hear the headphone cable clacking against the back of my guitar, my mixer had to fight the echo on my vocal tracks that came from our large rooms with 10-foot high ceilings! One side story is that I got a case of food poisoning while recording the vocals to the title track. Unfortunately, the doctors didn't recognize it as such and decided to take my appendix out! That was rough since my stomach had to doubly heal, but the good news is that my appendix will never be able to bother me again."
'Not Quite Me' was released on a small, new label based in Hamburg, Tapete Records. Tess remarked, "All in all, the album was a very bold endeavour since I didn't have much of an idea as to what I was doing. Actually, I still don't, but it seems to be working, more or less."
In 2007 Tapete released Tess' wonderfully titled 'Superfast Rock'n'Roll Played Slow'. Said the singer, "Years ago my husband came up with the motto 'Superfast Rock'n'Roll Played Slow' and put it on a sticker for me. I think he got the idea because I used to play a sort of pop/punk style, and with 'Rainy Day Assembly' I more or less slowed everything down. When I recorded 'SFRnRPS' I had a one and a half-year-old son and had to use every free hour I could find to record the songs. I did almost the entire record on my laptop with my Mbox in my laundry room, that being the smallest room in the flat and least likely to echo! It was a lot of fun, though, sitting in a room alone, decorating the bare bones of songs I had come up with. I used my son's rattles and other toys, a kids' drum set (which I actually played), plus got someone in America to play singing saw on two songs, and on two other songs recorded an Iranian man I met here in Giessen playing santoor. Pretty wild, eclectic stuff, and it still came out sounding like me."
In recent times Tess has demonstrated an impressive work ethic. She said, "I've actually worked on several different projects since my last solo record. I started a duo with my friend Elo von Knorre, whom I met and played with in our church. We developed such a 'fan' base, that we decided to make a record. Things, like babies being born, kept delaying the project, and by the time we got around to it, it had blossomed into something bigger than originally planned. In the end, we had a full band, strings, horns, organ, even clavinet! My dad helped out a lot, Paul Bryan also wrote a string arrangement. I sometimes think it got a bit over-produced, but it's a very ambitious debut, particularly considering that we produced and paid for the whole thing ourselves. I also recorded the first German song I'd ever written ('Licht Leuchte Auf'), plus I translated 'My Fortress And My Shield' from my 'Not Quite Me' record, which was not all that difficult since it's from Psalm 42 - just had to look in the German Bible and adjust it a bit.
"I'd also been asked to sing with a jazzy/electronica group from Bochum called Leland P. They would send me songs and I wrote the lyrics and melody. The record should be released this spring, too. Their music is in English, and it's a good experience for me to perform in such a stylistically different group. My favourite song I've done with them is called 'Where Does My Hope Lie?' - also the band's favourite song. I wrote the lyrics a long time ago about feeling like God somehow didn't approve of how I was living my life and distanced himself from me, waiting for me to get my act together. Certainly more my human interpretation than reality, but it made for a great lyric!"
Tess continued, "Another CD I was asked to sing on is by Gregor McEwan (Houses And Homes). He's a German singer/songwriter but writes in English. I sang harmonies on that. I'm also working on my new record, which should also be released in April, 2012. There's no title yet, but I'm really excited about the re- introduction of volume into my music. I got kind of quiet on the last record and now I'm finally using the vocal ability I'd been working on in high school while singing along with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. There are some soulful/bluesy songs on it but also the cute, poppy Tess people expect, I suppose. My favourite songs are: 'How Much I Love You', a soul song written for my boys, 'Rescue Me', and song I wrote for the soundtrack of a German movie I had a role in (release c. April 2012) and 'Good, What We've Got', about the difficulties of staying faithful once a marriage reaches a certain age and staleness."
With all this recording Tess still manages to find time to play live. "I often play alone in small clubs, restaurants, coffee bars, art initiatives. If the money is enough then I invite my guitar player along, sometimes my background singer or my drummer, who often plays a tea crate. When my new record comes out, I'll hopefully play more often in bigger ensembles, in a few cities even with a full band. It's awfully hard to be able to pay a band, and at my age I like to compensate my fellow musicians. It's nice, though, that they enjoy playing with me so much that they sometimes play for free or very little."
Tess is an artist with little time for the way the music industry and some fans have divided up music between Christian and non-Christian elements. She commented, "I think the divisions are lame. I never really knew much about the Christian music scene, having, at best, listened to Amy Grant and Petra while growing up. King's X opened my eyes really wide, and the fact that they were from Houston, Texas was, 'like, totally awesome' for a 14-year-old. Then I joined Sixpence None The Richer and was blown away by the whole indie scene. I came to see the drawbacks quickly, though, when recording 'This Beautiful Mess'. The record company wanted more mention of Jesus and more obviously Christian lyrics. I witnessed a lot of, um, bullshit - 'scuse me - and wanted nothing to do with it. Christian business people are, in my experience and that of my husband, more often unscrupulous than their secular counterparts. Plus, I feel, as many will agree, that the bar is simply too low among Christian artists, and that leads to lower-quality art. People are so excited for a band or artist to be believers that they don't need for them to prove ability before consuming their product. But, of course, there are a lot of great artists in the scene, and lots of great believing artists outside the scene, too."
Tess and her husband go to a Free Evangelical Church in Giessen. She said, "It's not actually all that 'free' since it's a bit stuffy by my standards, but, to be perfectly honest, I'm one of those people that would probably almost always have a hard time fitting into a church. I don't like big groups of people, and rules, although I was born a goody-two-shoes, tend to stifle me. But I do my best, and I know God wants us to spend time with each other and encourage one another."
One difficult lesson that Tess has learnt down the years is that no one is a perfect Christian, She said sadly, "Everyone screws up. Nobody really totally walks the straight and narrow line. The ones that seem the most spiritual and always used to stress me out and make me feel badly about myself as a Christian are usually the ones with the most to hide. Humility is the first and last thing I look for in a person. Whoever feels the need to prove themselves is trying to hide something. That's why I like to be wide open about my problems. I've realised over the years that people see me as a commanding and self-confident force, which was so weird to find out because I see myself as an insecure, worthless bag of bones. I've made it my mission to not hide my sins. Anyone who condemns me for them should speak up so I know whom to avoid."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.