Miss Tess struts her stuff, onstage and on a new record
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Miss Tess, a Maryland-born singer-songwriter now based in Nashville, has always drawn from a broad palette. Her covers have included Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," Bessie Smith's "Baby Doll," and the Gaskill/McHugh standard "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" (the last inspired by a Peggy Lee recording). On her 2013 seven-song EP, "The Love I Have for You," she tackles Ted Hawkins, Hank Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, and Neil Young.
But there's another impressive songwriter in her catalog: herself. Over a half-dozen releases in the last decade, you'd be excused for confusing one of Tess's finely turned gems for one of the many standards in her book. Take "Everybody's Darling," from 2012's "Sweet Talk" — breezy, fast-stepping Texas swing that might have come right out of Bob Wills's book, if not for the gender reference, and a hooky sentiment that could as easily be that of a lonely homegirl or a peripatetic working musician: "I'm everybody's darling/but no one's sweetheart."
Or consider the melancholy waltz "Lie to Me," from the forthcoming "Baby, We All Know" (out July 8), in which the singer yearns for a love she knows is an illusion: "Lie to me / tell me how life could be . . . Your voice is a symphony."
Miss Tess — who spent the mid-'00s in Boston after coming to study at Berklee, moved to Brooklyn in 2010, and performs at Atwood's Tavern in Cambridge Thursday — takes her songwriting seriously. Reached by phone in Nashville, she's just back from an annual island songwriting retreat at Lake Winnipesaukee, sponsored by Club Passim's Iguana Music Fund. (The group is drawn from present and former Boston-area musicians, like Rose Polenzani, Sean Staples, and Session Americana's Dinty Child.)
"We write all day, and get together at night and share songs," Tess says.
A song like "Ride That Train," the new album's rousing opener, emerged from a songwriting challenge. "We were all trying to write Creedence Clearwater songs," Tess says with a laugh. "But mine ended up being more in the vein of Chuck Berry's 'Promised Land.'"
Inspiration is often oblique: "not so much a genre, but a feel," or a particular groove. "Take You, Break You, Shake You" was inspired by Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful." The 12/8 feel of "It's So Easy to Tell" is "my own version of 'Blueberry Hill' . . . Fats Dominoland." And "Lie to Me" was a song she'd been working on for a few years, a "last waltz" to end the album. She credits partner Thomas Bryan Eaton's nylon-string guitar for the song's special texture: "We took it a little Willie Nelson."
The "swanky groove" of "Little Lola" ("lookin' you up and down like she knows ya'"), written with Eaton, was inspired by doo-wop hitmakers the Coasters (think: "Charley Brown"). "We put a little Creedence in there," she says of the guitar sound. "I guess that's where the Creedence went." As for the lyrics: "It's about my neighbor's cat, actually — I had this idea for the groove, and I started singing it to her."
Over the years Tess's music has gradually morphed from jazzy swing with horns to the current guitar front line. That's due in part to her partnership with Eaton, who can alternately lay down a country-fried pedal steel ("Moonshiner") or rip a gritty, detailed blues solo ("Take You, Break You You, Shake You"). He's encouraged Tess to step forward more often with her own evocative 1920s Weymann archtop, and the disc's freshness is partly due to their twining guitar harmonies.
Tess pushes her voice as well as her guitar on the disc. Producer Dan Knobler (Rodney Crowell, Tift Merritt) points to "Shotgun Wedding," which could be some lost Wanda Jackson barnburner. "She has such a distinctive and powerful voice, and she sings with such control," Knobler says. Recording "Shotgun Wedding," he recalls, "I told her, Just go for it! I think it was fun for her to sing from a completely visceral level."
The arrangements are fleshed out with barrelhouse piano and organ, as well as harmony vocals and a touch of country fiddle. With their sharp rhymes and lithe structures, the songs are immediately catchy.
From a songwriter's standpoint, Tess says, she found the ballad-tempo "Going Downtown" the most satisfying to pen. She pictured a bar at the end of the block on a deserted street, maybe the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, "and you see the neon that says 'Bar.' I get such a strong image in my head when I'm singing it. I'm always curious if people will get the same image I do."
Miss Tess and the Talkbacks
At Atwood's Tavern, Cambridge, June 23 at 10 p.m. Tickets: $10. 617-864-2792, www.atwoodstavern.com