Some people automatically visualize artists like James Taylor or Taylor Swift when they hear the term “singer-songwriter,” somebody with an acoustic guitar who can command an audience’s attention with original music. But the winner of this year’s 3rd annual “Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter Artist Discovery Program competition is not primarily a guitarist, but a keyboardist/vocalist whose original music and captivating voice will no doubt hold the attention of audiences for many years to come.
Twenty-six-year-old Tess Henley of Kent, Washington, is this year’s winning artist, first beating out a field of some 10,000 hopefuls, and then nine of her peers in a final one-song-apiece showdown in Los Angeles by performing her song “Going Back” from her 2013 album High Heels & Sneakers. In what had to be an agonizingly hard decision to make, producer/bassist Don Was selected Henley to be the recipient of a lucrative prize package, which will land her time in the studio with the producer himself.
Henley’s sound and her winning song immediately bring to mind some of the giants of soul and R&B, as well as female music icons like Carole King, mostly because of her keyboard talents. Henley has been playing piano since early childhood, and grew up in a home where the music of the greats filled the air, courtesy of her music-loving father and mother, a professional singer herself. “I listened to a lot of Motown, really loved Stevie and Marvin Gaye,” Henley says, “but I was also into Donny Hathaway and really got into India.Arie. My brother Carson also plays keys and sings and we travel around the country doing shows together. He’s one of my biggest mentors, and I really look up to him for advice.” Carson Henley was himself a top 10 finalist in the Guitar Center 2013 competition.
While Henley has been playing, singing and writing for most of her life, she says she’s not one of those writers who can summon up the muse at will. “I try to write every day,” she says, “but I’m one of those types where it’s hard for me to force it. If something happens, it happens. I sit at the piano and try to come up with music more often than not, and when I’m not around keyboards, like when I’m on a plane, pretty much my only option is to write lyrics. I use my phone for voice memos for ideas when I’m driving, and come back to them later when I can sit down at a keyboard.”
For her achievement in the final round, Henley received a prize package that included $25,000 in cash from Guitar Center, as well as equipment from Martin, Korg, Fender and others. She also received studio time in New York City at Converse’s Rubber Tracks Studio, a podcast with noted radio personality Nic Harcourt, and, of course, some love from American Songwriter. But perhaps the best part is the four-song EP that Henley will be recording with the man who eventually judged her the victor.
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“When I found out that Don was the producer I wanted to be part of the competition because I love so much stuff he’s done,” Henley says. “Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, so many great lifetime artists – I just had to submit something to the contest. He’s been involved in the industry for so many years, and he’s just really cool and down to earth.”
The other contest finalists represented a cross-section of America from cities large and small, and included Ana Free from Los Angeles; Emily Elbert from Coppell, TX; Emmy Nash from Nashville, TN; Halle Johnson from Long Beach, CA; Jay Loftus from New York City; Michael McArthur from Lakeland, FL; Michael Akinlosotu from Laurel, MD; Tyler Stenson from Portland, OR; and Will Evans from Westerly, RI. Developed by Guitar Center to give emerging independent musicians a stage to expose their music to the world, the competition has quickly become the premier platform for helping aspiring songwriters achieve the opportunities and exposure necessary to build a successful music career.
Henley is also proof that, even if it costs a few bucks, you can’t win if you don’t enter. Including the Guitar Center prize, Henley has captured about $100,000 in songwriting award money during the past few years, money that has helped keep her afloat on not-always-lucrative road trips and time spent in the studio. “I’ve been able to do nothing but music for a while now,” she says,“and I’ve been very blessed.”