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Tess Henley Talks On Getting Better, Music Competitions and Cartoon Crushes

I excitedly answered the phone to Tess Henley’s warm, soothing voice sitting on a hotel bathroom toilet, legs tucked awkwardly to the side in the middle of Manhattan while balancing a laptop, my phone, and recorder. Our conversation began light-hearted and easy, full of laughs and thoughtful pauses on Tess’s part, and strained efforts to disguise the fact that I was sitting in a bathroom on my behalf. Her interview persona (which I believe was her being herself) is as effervescent and simultaneously astute as her song “Better” and her EP of the same name. We discussed music, adjusting to uncertainty, Insecure and more in one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while.

What was the inspiration behind the “Better” video? A garage sale, 70’s jumpsuits, and inflatable pools; is there a meaning behind that aesthetic?

The song just has a throwback vibe to it so we combined different eras because it went with the music. Those jumpsuits were really fun except for the fact that it was like 90 degrees in these polyester suits. Aside from that, it was great to create this nostalgic, summertime video and some of the aesthetic stemmed from conversations with the Creative Director, Jessie Boykins III, about summertime and the simple things that I love or remember loving about summer.

One of [the things I loved] was my grandma’s house: she had a swimming pool and we would just hang out in her backyard every day with the pool and didn’t need anything else except popsicles and ice cream bars. The whole yard sale, garage sale bit was inspired by Los Angeles and that was something I had really come to enjoy about living here– those random little sales you can stumble upon. The video touches on consumerism and how things are sold to you constantly: everything is better for you, this [product] makes your hair better, and this product will whatever!

One of the best things [to do] is just have music and good company. The idea was to have this commercial shoot where we were being forced to sell whatever is better for people watching but then we realize that it’s not really how we feel and that’s when we start to smash everything. That was a long-winded answer! But the inspiration came from a lot of different places that influenced the look and everything.

So what flavors were these popsicles? What was your favorite?

Oh man, I have a sweet tooth so that’s a tough question! I think I liked firecrackers–those red, white and blue ones– and the classic ice cream sandwich. I honestly liked whatever was there.

I recently ate a zebra cake out of nostalgia and it was disgusting.

What is that?

It’s a snack cake.

Ohhh okay. I don’t know that I’ve had one before. I think about some of the things I ate as a kid like bologna, and I just don’t know how I ate one bologna sandwich let alone as many as I did growing up.

What’s your ultimate comfort/nostalgia food then?

Ohhh I love food so much. Hmm, I love nostalgia too. Anything that reminds me of a specific memory I’ll love whatever it is. Mac and cheese is obviously a winner.

Kraft or the Baked kind?

Baked is next level. Kraft is what I grew up on but oh wow baked is like…

I would take baked now.

I read on your Spotify bio that you’ve done a lot of music competitions; how did the competitive atmosphere compare to singing live or some of the other aspects of being a musician?

For the most part, when I would enter these songwriting competitions you would submit a song and then if they end up picking you great, and if not you probably won’t hear anything. I was in a couple of competitions where it was more involved and that definitely was different. 

I never feel like you should compare yourself in the arts or creatively. I think you do what you do best and in competition, it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to the way someone else does the things they do. Out of these songwriting competitions, the one that felt the most competitive was the Guitar Center Singer/Songwriter Program. There were ten finalists out of 10,000 and all the finalists were flown to LA for a week. There were mic events that we did throughout the week together. All ten of us would be writing in a car together and you could just feel the tension and the thought process: “Okay, we’re all competing on Saturday and this is it.” We’re all independent artists so you start thinking, “Oh, the prize is $25,000 and you get to record an EP with Dawn Woods.” 

You start to think about what you could do with that money and yeah it was really stressful. On top of it, the night of the finals you only got one song so you start putting pressure on it because this is the one shot to try to win. Fortunately, it worked out for me. I think I’ve moved on from that phase in my life and it worked out in my favor, but moving forward I just want to do what I do and not compare.

What do you do to calm any nerves or anxiety?

Being active really helps me. It is something that has always been a part of my life. It’s something I can do solitary and really zone out. I like to play sports, go to the gym and run, and meditating is always good as well as stretching and breathing. They’re things I do but they are also definitely things I should be doing more of. 

I recently started training with a friend. I never had a trainer before but I had the Nike workout app on my phone and I would go to the gym and sit in the sauna and calm myself that way. It’s highly meditative for me. I would do some type of cardio and a Nike workout app. It’s great for when I’m on the road since I don’t need equipment or anything.

What do you listen to while you do cardio?

Sometimes it’s nice to workout without music but I usually do and its usually all over the place. I will curate (queue up) specific songs and listen to them on repeat. I listen to certain songs over and over because they create energy. I’ll listen to them on the treadmill and it will get me on the zone. Then I’d jump over to Brazilian music, or a slow folk song it really depends on my mind. 

There’s this song called “Runner” by Sam Dew and its a good running song! Which I think he might have intended…

What are you listening to lately?

I’ve been listening to the Kirk Franklin album lately, some Brazilian music and even some James Taylor. Sometimes I’ll go back to what I was raised listening to and loved growing up and I will just dive deeper into the discography. Aretha Franklin has so many albums that I haven’t heard and so I’ll just be in the mood to hear her and I’ll pick a random album and just listen to that.

I first heard “Better”, while watching Insecure. What does it feel like to have one of your songs playing on such a popular show?

Well, I also love that show. The music has always been really strong and people make playlists of all the music from all the seasons. I loved it! Being able to watch the show and then hear the song was amazing.

I saw you mentioned the show on your Instagram as well; Were you Team Daniel or Team Lawrence? Or Team Issa please get yourself together?

Issa has got to work through some things. I can relate, I don’t blame her. I do want to see Lawrence win and I don’t know if that’s with her or if I just want to see him win in general. I understand the complications of everything. The fact that Daniel knew that she had a boyfriend is hard for me to get on board with. It’ll be interesting next season. I feel like this last season was a set-up for the next one in a way.

Your EP “Better” is perfect for summer drives and days at the beach; did you have any imagery in mind when you were creating the sound and feel for the EP? What were your influences for the album?

I definitely knew when I came to LA that I wanted to write songs that I could move to and were feel-good. Being in Los Angeles was a change in scenery–waking up to the sun and all the flowers and palm trees– and I ended up writing songs that were nature-inspired. There’s a song called “La La Land” on the EP and that song was specifically written about when I came to Los Angeles, how I felt initially, and how I grew to appreciate [the city].

The EP also has this throwback feel to it, a mix of old and new. I worked with Jesse Boykins III on all the music and we created 20 something songs. As we were recording and watching these songs form– these songs kind of just came together because they sonically fit.

“Same Girl” really resonated with a lot of people, it really speaks to longing for someone who probably isn’t the best for you or has hurt you before. How did you manage to succinctly convey that feeling when so many people don’t have the words for it?

Do you remember The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan? I loved that movie growing up and there was a scene– I swear this is going to come back around and make sense– where she is doing a secret handshake with her driver/butler and the song that comes on is one that I’ve always loved. It’s called “Soulful Strut” and that is actually “Same Girl.” “Same Girl” is the lyrical version of “Soulful Strut” and “Am I The Same Girl?” is the original song. I heard the lyrical version and loved it even more and I really relate to the lyrics. Relating to the lyrics and being in that position before made it mean something to me. That’s where the song came from and I’ve always loved it.

Is there anything that has really excited you lately? Music and non-music related.

I love Stranger Things. I’m only on the second episode of this season but I felt like the first episode was really stepped up on the look of everything. It’s a little more artistic in their shot choices and the writing and how it transitioned from one scene to the next. Big Little Lies I need to catch up on. Handmaid’s Tale is so dark and twisted– I’ve been so sensitive lately so watching that kind of stuff is not good for me but it is a good show. 

You know on Twitter and in the news stories it will say “sensitive content view or go back.” I’ve definitely hit go back more in the last year or so and have had to stop and be like, “Wait let me think about this twice. Okay, I’m not going to read it.”

I recently moved into my first place by myself. I definitely am enjoying having my own space. I’ve been in there for a few months so I’ve gotten most of the decorating done. My excitement from decorating kind of faded but it was really fun. I was all over LA at garage sales and yard sales looking for the gems.

Is there a reason you’ve been more sensitive or is it just who you’ve been lately?

In the last few years, I’ve been through some extremes. I was really happy about certain things, I was growing and progressing in ways that I hadn’t experienced before and being around people that lifted me up and made me feel confident. I also had some hurdles in my personal life– my grandma passed and one of my good friends from home passed away in the last three-four years and my sister also got married. It was just these extremes and it messed with my emotional state and sensitivity and I realized that I had to be more discerning. 

The Better EP came out of all of that and a lot more music did as well and when you’re in a challenging time you can create something beautiful out of that. The music for me was the take away for all of that.

Has your home state of Washington influenced your sound and the kind of music you make?

My parents really were the ones who introduced me to all different genres of music at a young age. Having a wide range of different sounds and voices, studying classical piano since age 3—that being such a regular in my life—just exposed me to a lot of different music and that played a big part in the music that I make today.

I also think that I’ve been affected by the weather. When I started writing is around the time I realized the weather was playing a role by affecting what I wanted to write about. When I moved to LA my music really changed because it was easier for me to write sad, emotional songs when I was living in Washington. It can be gray and rainy but I really like the rain– just not all the time. I was there [in Washington] recently and it was really nice. The summer and fall are really beautiful there but when it is gray and rainy that can weigh on you a little.

Washington is known for a vibrant punk music scene, did you ever dabble with that?

Seattle has a pretty rich musical history in general with punk; Nirvana, Jimmy Hendrix, Heart and now Macklemore– I was just trying to think of current names. But yeah there’s a lot of punk and rock and it has been a staple in Seattle. I like rock and think that it has probably played a part [in my music], but probably not punk. I listened to The Beatles, Aerosmith and other rock bands growing up.

You grew up with music surrounding you at a very early age; was there ever a point in time that you didn’t want to do music?

When I was younger and was taking classical piano lessons, there were definitely times where I wouldn’t be playing today if weren’t for my mom. She made my brother, sister and I practice every morning before school and it was kind of like homework for us or learning a language or something. There were definitely times where I didn’t want to practice but once I got over those hurdles I realized how important it was and how therapeutic it was for me. I never expected to pursue music as a career. It’s a crazy industry and is not easy by any means. There were times when I was really not sure if I could do it, not that I didn’t want to. 

Where do you hope to be in the next five or so years with your music?

I would like to put out more albums and music in general in the next five years. I just want to put out as much as I can and to grow as an artist, producer and musician– especially as a producer. I learned a lot producing this music and there is a lot more to learn. Eventually, I’d like to score an animated film. I think that would be fun. 

So are you a big fan of animated movies?

I am! I’m not really a tough critic when it comes to film or tv. I’m usually satisfied easily. I can be okay watching reality tv or a really great artistic film.

A children’s film or adult?

Like Pixar or DreamWorks or something. Think Frozen or Trolls or even Shark’s Tale.

What is your favorite animated movie and what do you think of The Lion King?

I haven’t seen it yet but I loved The Lion King growing up! Another movie with great music and I haven’t heard the music yet for the new one and I’ve been meaning to listen to it. I’m trying to think of [my favorite animated movie]. That’s tough. I loved all the Disney movies growing up.

Okay, let me ask you this, who was your cartoon crush? Did you have one?

Oooo. Aladdin was definitely on the list. The prince from The Little Mermaid. I was Jasmine one year from Halloween and there was an Aladdin video game that I used to play all the time [on Nintendo 64].

Why was it so important to you to remain an independent artist earlier in your career?

I realized after the fact that it was important. I’ve learned a lot through being an independent artist and having to get creative business-wise. How am I going to record when I don’t have the money to or if I don’t have the resources that someone at a major label would have? You learn to be resourceful and [learn] a lot more about the business. I would much rather learn all of that than not know and put that control into someone else’s hands. 

What do you do when you’re unsure of your next step or if you’re making the right choices in regards to your career and life in general?

Before I started working on this project I was very uncertain. I was the poorest I’d ever been and I didn’t want to do the same things I had been doing because I didn’t want to get the same results–as great as those things felt in the moment I wanted to progress but I didn’t know how to do that. I basically pressed refresh on everything in my life. Musically, I wanted to experiment more with sound and I wanted to experiment more with writing. I got into producing the music and that was a whole new world for me. Physically, I wanted my aesthetic to change. In my personal life, I was being more conscious of what I was putting in my body and the things that were surrounding me as far as my living space and the people in my life. I was reassessing everything and through that, I was able to understand the things that I didn’t want to do again and set a new standard for what I did want in the future. That included physically writing out my goals, what made me happy and really taking a deeper look at everything and what I wanted for the future and what I needed to change to get there. 

I started saying “no” more. I stopped worrying about what everyone thinks and trying to please people. When I tried to elevate my life, everything kind of elevated with it and the certainty eventually became a little more clear. It definitely took a long time. That might just be me. Patience is the challenge. That was the hardest part. In those moments where I was uncertain and I thought, “I’m not going to get an answer today,” I started to say well hey, I’ll just focus on the little things: I’ll go to the gym, I’ll eat something healthy that makes me feel good, I’ll listen to music that makes me feel good, maybe write a song, and try to take the pressure off of the uncertainty that I’m feeling.

Stream the “Better” EP today for more relatable musings and feel-good jams.

By Mikala Everett