Singer-Songwriter Tess Henley’s Life and Musical Journey to ‘Paramount’
Her songs have been featured on popular television series such as HBO’s Insecure, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Apple TV’s Mystic Quest. Washington native Tess Henley has released her new album titled Paramount, and it’s the perfect music project to end the year with.
Henley was selected as the winner of Guitar Center’s “National Artist Discovery Programme” in 2014, which led her to release the Wonderland EP and make her television debut on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show the next year.
She went on to take a much-needed creative break before releasing the Better EP in 2019. This five-track EP with executive producer and artiste Jesse Boykins III skyrocketed her career, which led to her music being featured on the television shows mentioned.
Now, she is back and better than ever. Paramount sees her mixing a good bag of pop and soul that touches on breakthroughs and breakdowns.
Henley explains: “The never straight line of building the things of paramount importance – fighting for them, gaining them, losing them, redefining them, learning from them, loving them. That is Paramount.
“Songs for the heart, from the heart... guided by self-discovery and self-love. Paramount is for healing.”
We caught up with Henley to find out what it was like growing up in Washington, her early beginnings, how she ventured into NFTs, and what type of television show the Paramount album would look like.
Hi Tess, how has 2022 been for you?
Hi. Like many people during these times, 2022 has been one of the more potent concoctions. It has been a year of change, but maybe more so transition. I went through a lot of change when I made this album, and I feel like I’m going through another significant transition again.
What I have learned about these times for me is that they inspire positive evolution and a lot of new music.
Tell us about what it was like growing up in Kent, Washington, and how it has shaped you as a person and artiste.
Growing up in Kent gave me the variety of a burgeoning suburban metro interwoven by farmland, skirted up against the mountains with plenty of parks and lakes to keep in rotation. I was involved in just about every activity and sport that I could fill my time with.
Each year, each season, there was something new going on. Every day, my family commuted all around the greater Seattle area for classical piano lessons, basketball training, soccer practice, speed training camp, jazz band performance, swim meets.
Because of that, I met and became friends with many different groups of people. The diversity in my surroundings and interactions shaped me greatly, as a person and as an artist.
What were your earliest memories of music, and when did you realise you wanted to be a musician?
Technically, my first experiences with music were when my mom was performing in her band while pregnant with me. My earliest music memories are of my mom singing to me and teaching me lullabies (or songs she liked that she sang as lullabies), or (me) starting classical piano lessons at three years old.
I wanted to be a music artiste around the same time I wanted to be a professional soccer player, basketball player, fashion designer, and I think there were a couple others. Big dreams, hoop dreams – I had ‘em all.
Though I remember at a very young age having an innate feeling about music in particular that it would be part of my life in a bigger way.
Who would you consider your top three inspirations in becoming the artiste you want to be and why?
My inspiration is constantly changing. Whenever I see an artiste who explores their creativity without bounds and carves their own space in that exploration, that is inspiring.
In my formative years, Stevie Wonder was a big inspiration. His immense musicality, range, songwriting, and talent captivated me.
How did you first start finding your sound, and what was that process like?
Intentionally, my mom did not put me in voice lessons when I started singing and performing during elementary school. She felt that I could better establish my own style without it being shaped or manipulated through training.
That helped give me some freedom to find my voice. I started writing songs towards the end of high school and recorded my first album in college – that was an exploration in my sound as well.
When my mom heard that I wanted to record an album, she helped find a local Seattle producer, David Thomson, on MySpace (!!). We worked for quite a few years together. I learned a lot from him early on about recording and vocal creativity in the studio.
You took a four-year hiatus after releasing your first EP, Wonderland – what did you discover during that time?
I was working constantly during that time – writing, recording and beginning to truly dive into producing my songs.
The biggest discovery was realising I needed to make changes personally, in my music, and everything surrounding it.
And that those changes were a lot farther reaching than I could have imagined, and when I started to make them, while extremely challenging, I began to see a new, exciting phase. It became a renaissance time in my life – a big rebirth.
What were the concept and ideas going into Paramount?
Paramount came to be during of a period of time where I simply needed to write for my own sanity. I wasn’t thinking conceptually in the moment but as I made my way through the final emotional outpouring of songs, there was a noticeable connection between them and it was one of trials in life, love and relationships.
“Paramount” is also the name of a song on the album. The idea of the “highest point” or the “most important”, everything it takes to get there, including lowest points, the lessons in learning or redefining what is important to you… it encompassed the stories and themes in the songs I had written, thus becoming the album title.
What are the most challenging aspects of creating this project?
The music came together pretty smoothly. The most challenging part by far was the life experience I went through to write the songs. The wait between making the music and releasing it was very testing in its own way.
How do you feel your sound and creative process have changed since you started in the industry?
My sound and process are ever-changing. With each project, I land somewhere new or different. It’s one of my favorite parts about making music. But whoa, I’ve come a long way from when I started.
You’ve released several NFTs, something that’s not yet really common. What was the thinking behind that, and what do you see as the power of NFTs for musicians in particular?
Right around the beginning of the pandemic, I got very sick with mono – quarantining for a month before Covid quarantine started – with all the time on my hands, I ended up challenging myself to produce songs at home on my own.
NFTs had been on my mind as a new avenue to explore. There’s a lot that enticed me about them… the creative freedom of a new forum, the independence without politics or games, the community of people who truly love art and music, the revaluing of music in a way that has been lost by many arenas in the industry today.
You have performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and have your music featured on massive television shows like Insecure and Grey’s Anatomy. What would you consider the most exciting thing that has happened to you as an artiste?
One of the most exciting things that has happened to me as an artiste is when I’m in a studio that has a presence to it with gifted musicians and engineers, and you can feel the magical synergy when everyone plays together.
The flow state of recording, performing and writing. Hard to beat that in my book.
If Paramount was a television series, what would it be and why?
Insecure meets Euphoria meets Twin Peaks meets The Simpsons meets Survivor.
Sometimes I felt like Issa. Sometimes I felt like Rue. Sometimes the imagery and sounds took me to the dim, foggy, green Pacific Northwest of Twin Peaks. Sometimes I felt like Homer (doh). And sometimes I felt like I was fighting for immunity every week to not get kicked off the island.
Credit: Sean Barclay
What’s one thing you want people to take away from your music?
I hope people can feel something positive when listening to my music. I hope it makes them feel good. Comforted. Energised. Hopeful. Not alone.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years' time?
I’d like to see myself looking back five years to this time and have an “in retrospect” moment recognising much I learned, how much I evolved as an artiste, producer, writer, and as a person, how things worked out, how the things I stressed about didn’t matter, how beautiful this time has been, and how I’m grateful to be where I am now.
I have a lot of ideas and things I’d like to do. To be happy, healthy, with my people, and continuing to live out those ideas is where I’d like to see myself.
Cover Credit: Maggie Joy
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.