Now/It's: An Interview with Tessa Violet

A quick Google search suggests that the average person will change careers 5-7 times in their life (according to career change statistics). To call that range curious would likely be an understatement, as the parameters of the case study are all but undefined. That being said, it is interesting to consider what propels a person to change course in the choppy waters of career outlooks. some people reference the adage (that BrainyQuotes attributes to the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony) “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s a bit of an anachronism considering that during Confucian times (when that ideal first arose), job choices were, in a word, limited. Now, there are whims and wants - some more realistic than others - and once thought passions that about face to drudgery. New opportunities pop up, and sometimes it’s simply too good to pass up. Such was the case with this week’s feature interview subject, Tessa Violet. She’s experienced a couple of “career changes,” and now finds herself squarely within the world of music. While she’s been writing songs for over half a decade now, her upcoming record, Bad Ideas is her first full-length release as a definitive artist/musician. She shares plenty of perspective on the relative newness of her latest endeavor, and provides a purview that’s well worth consider whether you’re switching career paths for the first or fifth time.

Now/It's met with Tessa Violet at Barista Parlor Golden Sound in The Gulch neighborhood of Nashville, TN.

N/I - Well how’s it going?

Tessa - It’s going well! Are you from here?

N/I - I am!
Tessa - A local!

N/I - I am a local. You’re from Oregon, originally?

Tessa - Yes I am.

N/I - So how long have you been in Nashville?

Tessa - Five years.

N/I - How’d you end up in Nashville? Why Nashville?

Tessa - I think it was a work thing. I just loved the city so much….

N/I - “Work thing” as in music?

Tessa - No. Like way long ago - my former life - I came through and realized that this is the perfect city. It’s the perfect size. It’s big enough that there are cool things to do, and there’s good food, but small enough that it’s manageable. And I like the climate here, I think it’s beautiful nature.

N/I - Really? You like the climate?

Tessa - Yeah! In Oregon it rains six months out of the year, but it’s cold rain, and then super dry and hot in the summer. To me, I like how lush it is here.

N/I - That’s good…. So you’ve been musically inclined for I assume a while - so when you came to town, were you writing your own music immediately? Or were you kind of feeling things out in terms of the transition period between your “old life” and the one you currently find yourself in?

Tessa - I think so. I started writing when I was twenty-three, and I moved to Nashville when I was twenty-four, but I knew I had been wanting to come for awhile, I just didn’t know when I would do it. When I came, it wasn’t so much a music [oriented] move. It was basically because I liked the city so much.

N/I - Well that might have more of an impact in moving [laughs].

Tessa - It might! I think it’s sort of been a slow transition into my musicianship, because it’s scary to say I’m going to be a musician, but if it somehow works out without saying it, you’re like “Great!” I knew I loved performing, always. And when I found songwriting, I loved it right away, too. I think figuring out who I am as an artist has been going deeper and deeper. I heard someone say “the more personal, the more universal,” and I’ve found that to be true.
N/I - That’s fair. So were you hesitant at all become more personal, so to speak?

Tessa - No. It came naturally.

N/I - So you’re pretty open to things like that?

Tessa - Yeah! It’s pretty fun. Songwriting feels like exorcising feelings from your body.

N/I - It’s cathartic.

Tessa - Right. You can’t work on a problem you can’t name, so to name something that holds such power over you helps fend off bad feelings.

N/I - That’s good. The culture of songwriting in Nashville is twofold - you have your approach to songwriting or you have the “Music Row” approach to songwriting….

Tessa - By committee….

N/I - Exactly. And three people get in a room and try to write about love lost, or something like that. It’s something that, again, with you starting a little later, relative to the world of songwriting, I would - without having gotten to speak to you firsthand - figure that it would be intimidating, but it seems that it’s not so for you.

Tessa - It’s not.

N/I - That’s good. And per your “past life,” you have experience being open with people, so it’s not totally foreign to you. Without getting too into your experience with vlogging and things that are enhanced through being offertory and “open” - has that helped familiarize the songwriting process?

Tessa - Maybe. I guess I’d say I’m not intimidated by being vulnerable with a crowd of people, and sharing personal stories, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve done something to that effect for so long, or if I did it for so long because I was already comfortable with it.

N/I - That’s fair… You seem like a very independent person, not only as a musician - is it safe to assume you’ve written all the songs on the album?

Tessa - I just have one co-write on the album.

N/I - Okay, so 95% is written by you then. So the majority of what you do is independent. But you do have a publicist now, and I would imagine you have a “team” of some sort, now. Is that all an adjustment in and of itself?

Tessa - Absolutely.

N/I - How has that been?

Tessa - It's also vulnerable, because I did do everything myself for so long, so on one hand, it feels very validating an artist that people want to work with me - to have a manager and have a publicist. But on the other hand, I’m like “Arggghhh.”

N/I - I would imagine handing off on certain things might create some initial trepidations. Not because the people you’re working with aren’t going to do a good job, but if you’re not used to it….

Tessa - Absolutely. It requires trust to make things more smooth.

N/I - And with writing and performing, the other people help to create a proverbial bubble around you in order to continue doing so while they handle the other stuff.

Tessa - It’s awesome.

N/I - But you’re also doing the Patreon stuff, and that’s the inverse of that. Is that all you?

Tessa - Patreon is amazing. I relaunched my Patreon in Spring, because I finished the album and I knew that I was going to need some money to give it some legs [laughs] - to film music videos, and bring on a team if I needed or wanted to. So I asked my fans “The album’s done. I’m an indie artist. Here’s where I’m at. I want to play for more people. I want to play bigger shows. The way I do that is by getting it to more ears, and the way you get it to more ears is more money [laughs]. So I hope [they’d] like to be a part of the story.” And it’s been a huge response, to which I feel really lucky and grateful. I have a team that helps me run my Patreon…. They help run all the cogs, and I do the live shows and signing pictures and handwritten lyrics. We’re becoming a well oiled machine.

N/I - Sure. So you’re basically the CEO of Tessa Violet. It’s a well oiled machine, but you still sign off on stuff. Have you seen in-roads from the Patreon? Any unexpected outcomes outside of financing Bad Ideas?

Tessa - Something that I didn’t expect happened through the live streams. I do four live streams, and the streams are getting the same groups of people via Patreon, so I feel like I’m building a relationship with people. You know their names, and see them develop interactions with each other. That’s really special.

N/I - You’re fostering community.

Tessa - Yes! I’ve had a few people - on the last [live stream] I asked how many write songs, and a third of them did, and I thought that was so cool. Someone sent me their album. That’s been really unexpected and nice - to feel like I have a connection to these people too, and that it’s not one way.

N/I - It sounds like it. That’s the beautiful thing about the internet and crowdfunding.

Tessa - Do you talk to a lot of people who crowdfund?

N/I - A decent amount. For as many of the interviews that are musicians and performers, I’d say it’s a considerable percentage. I just find it interesting. Figuring out the tiers as incentives, in order to get people to subscribe to your content….

Tessa - It’s a subscription service.

N/I - In a sense. Do you feel uneasy about the difference in amounts people subscribe to? Do you worry about lower thresholds feeling like they might be left out? Did you have a hard time deciding on tiers? Or did your team help you lock those in?

Tessa - I did most of the tier work, but I definitely have some input from others. Going into it, I know a lot of people can feel uncomfortable with the idea of crowdsourcing. I think people are afraid of asking for money, or being perceived as begging.

N/I - The fear and difficulty that stems from toeing the line of crowdfunding versus begging.

Tessa - Have you ever read Amanda Palmer’s book? She’s the first one to raise one million dollars on one of the crowdsourcing [platforms] for her album. Her book’s called The Art of Asking, and it’s very much the idea of considering the feeling of how good it feels to give to someone. It feels great. And when you’re asking, all you’re doing is asking, and in turn giving someone an opportunity to answer. It’s an opportunity to help yourself and an opportunity for someone to give themselves some fulfillment. I don’t know how well I’m explaining it, but I give to a lot of people on Patreon, and I don’t feel weird about that. I give different amounts, depending on different tiers, and I buy merch, depending on how much I feel like spending or what I want.

N/I - That’s a good interpretation of it. It’s similar to trying to secure press as an entity. You basically just ask. The initial action of asking can be very intimidating, and to your point, buying merch is a solid parallel for Patreon - you would totally buy a shirt at a show….

Tessa - To support them and just to have something.

N/I - Something tangible, and [Patreon] is that same exchange in a digital environment. I think it’s a great thing and a wonderful equalizer in terms of helping independent artists.

Tessa - Absolutely. I would not be able to do what I’m doing were it not for Patreon.

N/I - And you get to actively interact with people who support you, as opposed to having a label behind you, in which they might scrub you from the Internet until they decide on the best time for you to “reappear.” So with the Patreon, you kind of put out demo polls and things like that - did that impact Bad Ideas at all in the production phase?

Tessa - It didn’t. Creating itself is a very private experience for me - and not everyone on the platform is like that - but I don’t invite fans into the creative process. In many ways, I don’t invite anyone into that - it’s a private experience for me. So the demo poll you’re talking about are songs that have already been written, and I’m showing them the demo after the fact.

N/I - I see - so fans hear the demos after they’ve been “demoed” for lack of a better term.

Tessa - Yes. I would caution other artists against - although there’s something very cool about creating something as a big team - but I think it would become challenging to try and invite a large group of people into the creative process, because then I would wonder if I would start creating to be liked or to be validated by people who already like me, instead of having art being a reflection of what I want to say.

N/I - It certainly could pose some sort of identity crisis if you have yet to realize what your purview is, or who you are as an artist. That’s a highly rational caution. Is writing for yourself the first thing that gets you writing?

Tessa - Yes. Absolutely. When I don’t write for myself, I don’t write very good songs [laughs]. And long term - no one’s going to hear my songs more than I do, so I might as well be a fan of my own songs.

N/I - Make sure they’re something you like. Are there any thrulines or continuing themes in Bad Ideas?

Tessa - There are. There is a story - it starts with “Crush,” which is the song out now. It starts as this bright idea - in the song it’s not like “I love you, I want to be with you,” it’s more of a “Wouldn’t it be exciting to have something between us?”

N/I - More so the prospect.

Tessa - Yeah. And “Bad Ideas” is the second song. I think the whole album is the madness of understanding choices that are short term - that give you a high - long term lead to desolation. And seeing that, but being unable to stop it.

N/I - So the instant gratification that puts you past a point of no return?

Tessa - Yes.

N/I - I’m just trying to track along with that. How do you approach writing about that?

Tessa - I didn’t know what the project was going to be when I started. I took a year off last year from being in the public eye - I made like two videos. I had a really hard year, just went through a breakup - a bunch of stuff. I started writing this album, and I had written a good bunch of songs - almost enough to have an album - and I brought it in to my producer Seth, and we were working through them, but we hadn’t quite landed on what we wanted the album to be. During that time, I met a guy, and I remember one morning, my eyes popped open and I thought “I’m going to ask him to spend the night tonight.” I had never done that before [laughs]. I was like “I’m definitely going to do it,” and immediately thought “That’s a bad idea. I’m going to do it anyway.” And two days later, I wrote that song “Bad Ideas.” It starts out as such a flirtation - “We’re going to have so much fun.” and then it lands on this idea of “Oh my gosh, bad ideas, I know where they lead. I have too many to sleep. And it feels so good to be wanted, but it’s just a distraction from loneliness.” And I brought that song in to Seth, and it was a song that came together in a day, and we figured out that was what this album is. It gave it a direction, and all the songs just kind of fell into place after that.

N/I - So I would imagine it’s pretty experiential?

Tessa - [Laughs] It is.

N/I - Is that unsettling to revisit certain experiences? Especially if they’re not the best ideas, so to speak. Or are you able to compartmentalize? Or do you marinate in all the feelings while you’re writing and see what comes out?

Tessa - Marinate in the feelings, for sure. It’s a snapshot of my life in that year, and now it’s a new year - I’m not entrenched in it the way that I was when I was writing it. At the same time, I really feel that with everything we feel - you’re not the only one feeling it. The more personal, the more universal. It’s fun to be able to share something that’s such a snapshot of who you are, and have people be like “Oh my gosh, I know that feeling.” It’s cathartic. So I don’t think I’m scared of it. But maybe I will once the more personal songs start coming out.