Based in the East Bay but hailing from the midwest, Tess Stevens grew up on poppy melodies, melancholy lyrics, and bands with side-swept hair and positive messages. Inspired by pop-punk titans turned stadium kings, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and more, her music is a time warp with a twist of honesty and raw energy. With songs inspired by her struggle with mental health, “Patient 139” was born out of hopelessness and chaos but has blossomed into a battle cry for audiences in the midst of a pandemic. Tess has taken to Instagram Live and Tik Tok to connect with fans all over the globe and share the record.
She teamed up with Jacob Light and Gideon Berger at Modern Tone Studios in Lafayette, California to record and produce Patient 139 in February, 2020. It was mastered at Nada Recordings in New York by John Naclerio (My Chemical Romance, Brand New). Tess has been singing and playing guitar since she was 11 years old and has always dreamed of making records that help kindred spirits find themselves and realize they’re not alone. “Patient 139” was influenced by rock and roll titans Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Blondie, and more, but the sound is all her own.
In her new video “Tourist” Tess Stevens braves the Las Vegas desert heat and juxtaposes the two sides of modern life, the overly sensory and the isolated. And in our current climate it’s hard not to have felt these two extremes on an almost daily basis. Taking cues from 90’s power-pop like Letters to Cleo and early 00’s emo-rock ala My Chemical Romance, Tess gives us a fun, upbeat, and honest take on the human experience, and what it means to constantly work on yourself. Off of her recent EP “Patient 139”, an album that takes on mental health struggles in a raw and personal way, “Tourist” is perhaps the best, most hook-filled track. “I feel like a tourist” is a little ironic in the lockdown era, but maybe it’s more truthful than we realize, don’t we all feel like tourists in our daily lives right now, in our new normal? Watch the “Tourist” video below and check out our exclusive interview with Tess Stevens:
Hi Tess, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Thanks for having me! You know, staying home, staying safe, wearing my mask. It’s the in-vogue thing to do these days.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Tourist”?
I wrote Tourist my sophomore year of college when my band and I were playing these electric little gigs at the bars in our college town. The only place I ever felt real or like myself was on stage. And Tourist is about the feelings I have off stage. Not belonging is a common thread with a lot of us who lean into rock and roll as teenagers, especially punk rock. And that out-of-body feeling of waking up and trying to change everything just to get back to where you feel normal is the Tourist mentality. Walking around like you’re visiting your own life every day…it’s the worst kind of vacation.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
One night after we played our biggest gig ever (like 200 kids in a sweaty bar, the best kind of show) I got off stage and as soon as my feet touched the ground I was like “something is off, something doesn’t feel right. Can I go back to 10 minutes ago?) and I thought about all the places I could go to try and recreate that feeling, and nothing ever matched it. So I ended up feeling like a tourist, visiting music in and out of school and work and family stuff. And I’ve always hated that. Tourist is the anti-feeling of comfort and happiness. It’s a disconnect, discomfort, and this malcontent that I can never get off my back.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
I’ve always loved the desert, maybe my obsession with The Killers has gone too far, but Las Vegas has always been a place of interest for me. The stark contrast between the strip and the wide-open 109-degree land that surrounds it. There’s all of these little towns that literally have two tumbleweeds and a brothel in them. One of those is called Pahrump. And it’s exactly how it sounds. There is nothing, I mean nothing except a (closed due to COVID) brothel and a road that leads you back to the Strip.
I was out there with my dad for two weeks when my house-bound mind was starting to run off the rails. We stayed at the Flamingo and I got to swim in the pool and light some money on fire. Ultimately, the idea for the video had been running around in my head so one day we went to Pahrump. It was 109-degrees and of course, like all respectable punks had to wear a black moto jacket and black everything else. The shooting was chaotic because it was literally me, and my dad with a camera and my little sister holding an umbrella and water when I was about to pass out. A real family affair! By the end of it I was covered in dust, had scrapes and bruises everywhere and had wrecked the hell out of this Gibson Les Paul Special that we borrowed from one of my dad’s friends (of course, all could be polished up), but it was amazing. Such a fun time and of course I have it forever now on video. We’ll just forget about the part where I got some mild heat poisoning and my sister took embarrassing photos of me and my guts in the desert.
The single comes off your new album Patient 139 – what’s the story behind the title?
It’s funny because the 1-year anniversary of writing that song just came by. I had a complete breakdown and was 5150’d by the state of California. I was put in room 139 in the mental hospital and cried for about 8 hours straight once I realized where I was. That number kept looking back at me so I got a marker (they wouldn’t let us have pens because apparently people can hurt themselves with them) and wrote down “Patient 139 / sits in 4/4 time / craving peace of mind / and a pen” and that started the song, the title, the passion to get the EP recorded. I had to get that feeling of being back on stage again, this time without self medicating and without pushing down who I was.
How was the recording and writing process?
Writing took place over several years. Tourist and Counselor are two older songs that I’ve had in the pocket for a while, while Patient 139 and Westwood are the newer ones. I started writing music when I was 11 so going back through all the songs to figure out which ones were special enough to record was an interesting job. I worked with Jacob Light at Modern Tone Studios, an amazing place with a network of incredible musicians. I gave him 10ish demos and we whittled them down together. Tourist and Counselor took on a couple of new structural changes as well as adding a last verse to Counselor. Largely the writing was done before going into the studio, and we just fine-tuned everything from there.
Recording was incredible. I finally felt like a real person again in there to tell you the truth. After you’re stripped down to nothing at a mental health facility and flung back out into the world, your gut has to tell you where to go. And mine said to get to the studio and stop fighting the inevitable which is, making music. Jacob produced, recorded, and engineered the record. He also played lead guitar and introduced me to drummer Gideon Berger, who quite frankly is one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen. The three of us became a little pop-punk trio in the studio and it made for an amazing experience. I played rhythm guitar and Jacob taught me a lot about developing guitar tone and style, which me with my own amps and punk attitude did not do on my own. I also learned a lot about my voice and pushing it to be more versatile. There were some hard hours in there but we recorded the whole record in 40 hours and then it was off to mastering with John Naclerio.
What was it like to work with John Naclerio and how did that relationship develop?
Well, Jacob connected me with John for mastering the record. Nada Recordings is amazing and he and I worked together remotely. First off, when I heard his name I freaked out because if you know anyone who is a My Chemical Romance fan you’ll know that they recorded their debut album “I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love” in John Naclerio’s mother’s basement. He’s long out of there now, with an incredible studio in New York. My friend Paul who is the lead singer for a band called Live Well, recorded with him there. Small world. John’s a punk vet for sure, and my biggest question for him was, “Do you like it?” and he said “This record and these songs are amazing.” I just about died then. He’s a great guy and works so fast.
How much did he get to influence the album?
Since the record was done when it got to him, not much haha, but his blessing gave me a lot of confidence. Jacob really ran with my stuff and helped me get it to the next level by recording it with some amazing new tools like this telephone mic, and routing guitars through interesting pathways to get the tone right. I learned so much from him and his lead guitar playing is tremendous.
What aspect of mental health did you get to explore on this record?
When I was a kid I knew something was off about me. I had all of these really intense emotions all the time and my struggle of doing everything at once and having natural talent at everything led me down a path of perfectionism that ended up making me crash and burn several times. I think I just ignored everything for so long that I literally had to nearly die to get myself help. I think there are a lot of kids out there that can relate. I wanted to explore the experience of crashing, not just those every day feelings. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the hospital and things started to make sense. My intense emotions about music were never in questions, but the intense emotions about living were.
The bands that saved me as a kid always were transparent. I learned about my panic disorder through Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day and I learned that it was okay to have depressed feelings through Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance. All the bands I like give the message of “if you’re fucked up, it’s okay because we are too and we will get through this.”
And it’s so crazy that you know, a decade after those bands kept me on track, I’m now helping others too. I have this little emo army on Tik Tok, and they are the sweetest, kindest kids. They send fan art and cover my songs, and are stoked on music just like I was. It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
Everything comes from a very personal place. I always used music as a form of therapy when I didn’t have access to an actual therapist (go to therapy everyone!) and the writing down of the thoughts and feelings was one of the things that kept me going. For Tourist, the book Fight Club was a source of inspiration for sure, that in and out of body feeling that’s described in the vein of two personalities is really similar to how I feel in my bipolar disorder – mania and depression.
I also listened to so much Green Day that I can’t help but hear it in my work. Hey Billie Joe I love you! But other than that, it all comes from these really hard-to-reach places in my head. These thoughts and feelings only come out in music, and once they’re in a song or on paper, I can let go of them and move forward. More than anything I want people who feel like me to know that the journey to health isn’t linear and that they’re not alone. Every day I struggle, but I know that those struggles are important on my journey.
What else is happening next in Tess Stevens’ world?
Ah! Well I’m super excited to be recording with Jacob at Modern Tone Studios again. We’re doing a Johnny Cash-ified version of “Hang Em High” by My Chemical Romance. The kids on Tik Tok loved when I covered it so I wanted to make something for them. I can’t wait to be in my fringe leather jacket, black rosary, desert cowgirl fantasy.
I’m also writing my first full-length record. It may be a concept record, who knows? But it’s in its very infant stages. Like my therapist says, “Tess you gotta slow down and take time with things, it’ll be worth it.” I’m done rushing, and hopefully when things are written someone will pay me to record them (wink wink for any labels out there, call me!).
Since the video is out now, I’m excited to see what everyone thinks, too, and of course I’ll be on Tik Tok @tessfstevens, making the kids laugh and sing. After all, making music that inspires and helps people is the only thing I want to do. I can’t wait to make more and hopefully when it’s safe for us to have shows, I can’t wait to meet everyone and play live!