Kent's Tess Henley wins singer-songwriter competition

Kent musician bests 10,000 US songwriters to win competition; Recording a 4-song EP is among her prizes

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comApril 11, 2014 

Tess Henley performs at the finals of Guitar Center’s Singer-Songwriter competition last month in Hollywood.


Kent native Tess Henley calls beating out nearly 10,000 other musicians to win Guitar Center’s Singer-Songwriter competition “incredible,” but she doesn’t use the word lucky. After all, talent runs deep in her family.

What else can explain that her older brother Carson also beat out almost 10,000 others to make it into the top 10 of the very same contest in 2013?

This year, Tess Henley and nine other finalists performed live at the finals of the talent competition on March 1 at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. But it was Henley who most impressed the judge: Grammy Award-winning producer Don Was.

As the winner, Henley will record a four-song EP with Was. She also receives digital distribution through TuneCore, gets recording time at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio in New York, pockets $25,000 and takes home new musical equipment.

“It’s a huge honor. I’m really excited. The money is a nice cushion. With the gear, I can do more recording at home,” Henley said.

Was said he selected Henley because she has a true voice and a strong sense of who she is.

“Not only that, but when I listened to her perform, I could envision the complete record we would make together. She has a true gift,” Was said.

Was has worked with The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Elton John, John Mayer and more. He founded the band Was (Not Was) and continues to play bass on records and in concert.

But Was doesn’t have a sweet spot for the Henley siblings. In 2013 Carson Henley was selected by a different judge – producer John Shanks.

Tess Henley, 26, is a graduate of Kentlake High School. She trained under the Suzuki Method for piano at age 3. Her mother was a singer in a band and encouraged her children to follow her musical path.

“None of us would have stuck with the piano if she hadn’t been on us to practice every day and took us to all our lessons and recitals,” Henley said. She also credits her mother for introducing her to singing, but said her father’s music collection was influential as well.

“Between the two of them, we listened to a lot of different styles of music,” Henley said.

Though both Henley siblings have different styles — she’s R&B/soul and he’s rock/soul — they backup each other at shows on vocals, keyboards and percussion.

“That’s how we started out — playing the bars and clubs in Seattle,” she said.

Henley also relies on her brother for business advice and they write songs together.

Henley has opened for Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton and plays her own solo shows, heavy on college appearances, while building her profile as a songwriter.

Being a singer-songwriter allows Henley to have more independence than if she were just one of the other. “If you can do both of them, you have even more power and independence to do what you want as an artist. You have a say in what your sound is.”

Henley said she is melody driven. “That’s usually what comes first, but I’m also picky with lyrics. When I hear a song with amazing lyrics, it just kills me because it’s so good.”

Henley’s single “Boy In The Window” from her 2010 EP, “The Appetizer,” earned a 2011 Independent Music Award for Best R&B Song, won the 2011 International Song Competition for, was awarded top honors in the 2011 John Lennon International Songwriting Competition, and was featured on the soundtrack for 2012’s “Hello I Must Be Going” starring Blythe Danner.

Dice Raw from The Roots and Khari Mateen produced Henley’s debut album, “High Heels & Sneakers,” released in May 2013. The album features 14 songs, including “Daydreaming,” which won the 2013 People’s Choice Independent Music Award.

Henley is expecting that the EP she’s making with Was will come out in the fall.

“I’m really excited for what’s next,” Henley said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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