Formed in New Zealand and currently based in Nashville, Tattletale Saints - Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan - fuse jazz, harmonies, upright bass, and Americana into a sound that's as wide-ranging as it is appealing. With their self-titled sophomore album due September 2nd, the duo has added electric guitar and percussion to their sound, bringing full band arrangements to their well-crafted narratives, providing a new depth and fullness to the songs. In advance of the release, Vanessa McGowan kindly took some time to speak about their roots, the album and what’s ahead.
You and Cy met in New Zealand, played together in London and eventually settled in Nashville. That’s quite the musical journey.
Cy and I have known each other since we were sixteen. We met playing in a jazz group outside of high school in New Zealand. He then moved to London while I moved to Las Vegas to pursue a Masters in Jazz Bass. Eventually, we connected over My Space, which seems funny now, but was normal at the time. After I received my Masters, I moved to London and we started playing together in a different four-piece group, Her Make Believe Band. During that time, Cy was writing his own songs, but didn’t have an outlet, a band, for his material. So, we started Tattletale Saints about four to five years ago.
After London, we returned to New Zealand to make our first album [How Red is the Blood]. We were throwing around names of whom we wanted to produce it - we wanted someone who could capture the songwriting and Tim O’Brien came to mind, but we had little hope that he would do it. So we emailed him a show reel of us talking, playing and explaining why we’d love to work with him and he said yes. He asked us if we’d like to come to Nashville to record and we jumped at the chance. We came over in January of 2013 to record the album and along the way met friends who took us to gigs and hangs. We felt like we were in a music community with others who were on the same path and striving for the same thing as we were. So we returned to New Zealand, but felt we really needed to expand our touring and remembered the time spent in Nashville and booked a tour of the states. We started playing our music as well as playing with other people, and decided it made a lot of sense to stay. We love it here.
Your degree is in Jazz Bass, but your music is more Country-Americana. How did you switch gears to those genres?
I grew up listening to jazz, pop, hip-hop, and reggae, but Cy was into country, bluegrass, and American roots music. He has a much bigger understanding of the music and so he introduced me to older artists to listen to. I was a pretty experienced bass player and was working as a bass player for my full-time job, but the first time we played a country song….it was terrible. Playing country music is very hard to do well, so I had to listen to a lot of music in order to get a better understanding of the nuances of it.
Who then are your musical influences either with regards to playing or singing?
One of the first artists who blew me away was Gillian Welch and then also Bonnie Raitt, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn. I also listened a lot to Emmylou Harris for the way she sang backing vocals and harmonized. I sang, but being a good backing singer is a different skill than being the lead singer. I could hear what wasn’t working and I just didn’t know how to fix it. And that’s because I didn’t know how to use my instrument, my voice, which was very frustrating. But again, Cy encouraged me to listen to early music to get that sense of where singing comes from.
The new, self-titled album will be released September 2nd. Did the two of you write all of the songs together?
The way it works with the two of us is that Cy writes everything and we arrange them together. He comes to me with a pretty fully formed song - lyrics and chords - and then we work on different approaches to them.
Cy is quite a slow songwriter. He has the tendency to not write a song every day and he will abandon an idea if he thinks it isn’t going anywhere. He takes his time, but everything he finishes we actually use. For this album I don’t think he set out with any specific theme in mind, but his writing is very story centered around musings on either love, heartbreak, and life.
The song “If I Had A Dollar” is so beautifully done. It is one of those songs where the melody pairs perfectly with the lyrics to convey much emotion.
This song was almost ready for the first album, but it had some narrative issues so we held it back. Cy initially had the idea of using “if I had a dollar every time I’d been hurt,” but he was pretty certain it had already been a song because it seemed like too good of a phrase not to have been! We searched and found that it hadn’t been in a country song before, so he ended up using it.
“If I Had A Dollar” is about breaking up with someone, heartbreak and the amount of time it takes to heal. We had been playing the song as a duo, but adding the electric guitar and drums really intensified the emotion especially when we got to the bridge. It gave the song range and added shades of color.
In terms of building emotion, another song, “Kathleen,” which was on your previous record, is also on this new one, but is reworked to have that fuller sound as well.
It might be a strange decision to put the same song on two different records, but the song is so different now and it really shows the evolution of the band. On the first album, the song was done acoustic and sounds happy and upbeat, but now, with guitar and drums, the melody is heavier and darker, like the lyrics. It took a while to figure out how to present our music, but the kind of music we love leans itself more to a four piece and really represents what we’re trying to do.
In addition to keeping busy with the album release, and playing with other artists [Andrew Combs, Kelsey Waldon, Michaela Anne], will you be touring?
Tattletale Saints has been our main focus for a long time, but both of us always wanted to play in other people’s bands, which we do quite often. Cy plays lead guitar with Aubrie Sellers pretty consistently and I’m out two to three weeks a month with different bands. That’s the way it is right now and really, what we do individually is very good for us musically.
We blocked off time for our own tour which will be in October, when we will be touring the Northeast, places like Philly and New York. We both love our band and are happy to play music with others too; it’s nice to have both as we continue to build Tattletale Saints.
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