Small towns are a funny thing. Having grown up in one myself, where art is concerned, the subconscious makes you gravitate towards music and artists that derive from similar backgrounds. There’s no way to explain it, but it’s definitely there.
Hailing from Lockhart, Texas, which boasts a population of just under 13,000 people (coincidentally, a very similar population to the town in which I grew up), Natalie Ribbons and Jason Chronis formed the alliance of Tele Novella.
Following on from their 2016 release, House of Souls, Tele Novella brings us Merlynn Belle – the duo’s second full-length and first for revered indie label, Kill Rock Stars.
With Merlynn Belle, Tele Novella produce the kind of music to absorb whilst huddled around a campfire sharing war stories. Ribbons‘ storytelling is positively vague, uncompromisingly poignant and medieval-like, backed by a cinematic backdrop drenched in rich textual splendour.
It’s the sort of music that leaves you second guessing at every turn and in an age where most yearn to file artists under certain ‘genres’, Tele Novella are completely impervious.
People have called them everything from baroque-pop to country. While there are elements of both in Tele Novella‘s sonic arsenal, they don’t deal exclusively in either. If anything, Tele Novella present a warped campfire cabaret and to these ears, there’s no better person than Ribbons to spin a yarn through the crackling flames.
We caught up with Ribbons a week after the release of Merlynn Belle.
Sun 13: Can you tell us a bit about the story of Tele Novella?
Natalie Ribbons: “Certainly! In 2012, I was in a band called Agent Ribbons, and Jason was in a wonderful band called Belaire. Jason and I met a year or so after I moved to Austin and we fell instantly in love. Playing music together was a topic we had casually entertained a few times, but it wasn’t until Agent Ribbons broke up rather suddenly after a car accident that we got serious about it.
“I needed to scrape together some kind of group to replace my old band for the SXSW festival in Austin that year, and so the members of Belaire started to play with me. That was the beginning, and from there, things kept evolving. We won a contest that Dub Narcotic Recording Studio (K Records) held, and ended up winning five days of free recording time there, so we toured up to Olympia, Washington and recorded our first EP. It was released on Los Angeles label Lolipop Records, which helped us gain a strong following on the west coast. Later, we finally released a full-length LP (House of Souls) on a Seattle label called Yellow Year and toured the United States extensively, until we became very burnt out and needed a break from showbiz.
“Our drummer Matt left the band around this time, and I opened up a vintage clothing store, which kept me very busy. Whether or not the band would even continue to be a band at that point seemed rather uncertain! A couple years went by, when out of the blue, we were informed that PBR (yes, the beer company! (laughs)) wanted to award us one of several artist grants that they were randomly giving out that year. It was utterly unexpected and quite baffling, considering how inactive we were at that time. The grant was for a generous amount of studio recording time, which is funny since we had won a contest to record years prior.
“Anyway, we accepted the grant and started working again, only to realise how much we had desperately missed music! From there, we got pretty inspired and feel humbly grateful to be back at it, working with one of my all time favourite record labels, Kill Rock Stars.”
S13: Merlynn Belle is your first for Kill Rock Stars. How did it come about with Tele Novella signing to the label?
NR: “Once our record was completed, we were just so proud of it and didn’t want to subject something we loved so much to the harsh judgement and, usually, rejection that comes with soliciting ourselves to record labels. Unlike our first go-around, we only sent the record to a handful of people, many of them weren’t even labels!
“Most of my life I dreamed of working with Kill Rock Stars and always kind of felt like that was the label I should be on. I’ve never made music that was on-trend at the time, and I’ve never really fit into a widely accepted genre or scene. Kill Rock Stars embraces outsiders and idiosyncrasy, so it just seemed right.
“I emailed a link of our music to Slim Moon, and he replied within a couple days saying he was very interested. It was actually really magical speaking to him on the phone for the first time. It was a beautiful spring day and we had just had a picnic of Indian food on the banks of a river in New Braunfels, Texas. We were riding home in the van with the windows down when I saw that Slim was calling. He was so nice, and it was that day he confirmed that KRS would put the record out. I was all smiles during the phone call, and since Jason could tell the news was good, he was giddy too!
“Such a simple transaction, but a deeply validating and meaningful one.”
S13: How does it feel to release the album during the lockdown period? Artists I’ve spoken to over the last 12 months are a bit divided on releasing new material now or just wait until the pandemic is over. Surely it’s best to get your music out there as soon as possible, right?
NR: “Well, I don’t know if as soon as possible is where the emphasis needs to be, it’s more so about when the time feels right. Usually when things are extremely hard and complicated and you’re facing a lot of adversity, it’s good to take a step back, completely stop and check in to make sure you’re not forcing things along out of stubbornness, or because of a story that you told yourself about what needs to happen. It’s about how it feels. Does it feel natural? Do you have what you need to make it happen, and do you feel good about it? For us, the answer was yes – it felt good.
“There’s a few minor setbacks, but overall we were happy to put it out at this time and the flow of events was just right. We look forward to touring again and doing all the usual band things, but for now, we accept the way it is and have found ways to work with it.”
S13: In a world where people are trying to find pigeonholes for bands, I find that Tele Novella it’s so hard to pin down. There are obvious country influences but there’s almost like an open-ended soundtrack quality to it. What would you say about that?
NR: “I don’t know what you mean by an open-ended soundtrack, but I do absolutely agree that we are a challenging project to categorise. I have personally been asked to help with labelling what we are, and while I’d love to find the perfect snappy little descriptor, I also find it to be a hard task!
“The world doesn’t like it when you can’t put something in its proper cubby, so this is often a huge setback for us. We just have to carve out our own little niche and hope that our fans will find us there. It’s kind of medieval outsider country, kind of baroque-pop, kind of indie-folk. I’m puttin’ my money on you writers to find us that smart little turn of phrase to help us lure in the curious ears!”
S13: Can you tell us about the recording process of Merlynn Belle?
NR: “We really wanted the simpler, less fussy approach of recording to a Tascam cassette 8-track, and we also just loved the way some of our demos sounded on cassette. However, we did not necessarily want a lo-fi recording, or for it to sound messy or noisy. We ended up working with Danny Reisch in his studio here in Lockhart, and he came up with a really interesting chain of fancy vintage compressors and effects, along with some nice vintage microphones to get a rich, clear sound going to cassette tape.
“It was a pain in the ass to do overdubs on that thing, so we avoided it at all costs! There’s very little editing/overdubs on this record and most of it is purely one take for each instrument on each track. We also left a lot of minor mistakes on the recording, pretty much every song has several funny little things about it, but it’s part of what makes it feel so human.”
S13: There seems like a common thread of loss. Words that Stay, Never and One Little Pearl feel like direct references to loss and the grieving process. Was this the major theme that you explored before making the album?
NR: “Thanks for taking the time to listen to the lyrics so closely. Loss and grieving are one of many threads on the record, it’s true. But it’s not about one kind of loss. Never was written about one of my best friends in this world after her brother very suddenly and tragically passed away. It’s sort of a friendship lullaby about how much I love and admire her strength in the face of her loss. We reveal so much about ourselves when we lose something important to us.
“One Little Pearl was written after I returned home from my grandmother’s funeral, and it’s a meditation on the strangeness of all the stuff that we leave behind when we go. Words that Stay is the complex story of a friend, and while you could sort of say there’s a theme of loss in it as well, it’s more about realising something that was hidden before.”
S13: A Lot to Want feels like the most optimistic song on the album. What was the ideas behind this one?
NR: “I would argue that It Won’t be Long and Paper Crown are the most optimistic!”
NR: “A Lot to Want is actually a little bit about loss again! But not entirely. This song was the first one written for this record, as well as the first one we recorded. It was written when I was feeling like a wounded dog from working so hard to ‘make it’ in the music industry. I had felt continuously disregarded and of no value to society, and I was on the precipice of giving up. In writing this song, I was hoping to make peace with the fact that I had gone about it in all the wrong ways, made all of the mistakes, and now the best I could hope to do was try and be a better person because of my experiences and move on.
“It has an optimistic feel because I knew I still had so much to live for and to offer this world, and that maybe it was just a lot to want. If music could be demoted in my priority list, I could make a new life for myself yet. Heh, I guess that’s not quite how it worked out, though. By song ten, I’m in love with music all over again!”
S13: Crystal Witch is the most ambiguous song on the album, I think. Lyrically, it feels kind of like a fantastical old world story. Can you tell us a bit about the song?
NR: “This one is indeed presented ambiguously, or in the style of a fairy-tale, though it’s about a real person. It’s a timeless story and that’s why it was more fun to write it like this. A shadowy figure that values things over people, and that moves through the world in selfish pursuit. The end of the song is a banishment spell against such people.
“It seems to me that humans as a species will forever be gullible enough to be coerced by the shiny, sparkly and self-serving egos that deceive them, no matter how many foreboding tales we write in hopes of remembering. But I wanted to include this little banishment spell just in case it can protect those who listen to this record.”
S13: There are plenty of lyrical gems on Merlynn Belle but I think Desiree has the finest sequence. “When you are young you think the world falls at your feet/And so it does, I still believe/That It’s just me.” There’s optimism and heartbreak wrapped up in 20 seconds. Was that the thinking behind this song?
NR: “I started the idea of this song as far back as, I think, maybe 2008? A friend of mine is a director and he was writing a script for a movie he hoped to make in this incredible old historic abandoned house in the city I lived in at the time, Sacramento. I was always extremely fascinated with that house, as were many of the residents in our town.
“He reached out to me about writing a song for the movie and told me the story of the characters, which I now cannot honestly remember! I wrote some pieces of the verses back then. Most of the lyrics were written last year, and I just wanted to capture the ecstasy that is longing for something that you can’t have anymore, be it youth, a moment, an old lover. There’s such beauty in the misery of wallowing in all things lost to time.”
S13: How much do you think residing in a small town Like Lockhart has influenced your music?
NR: “It has undeniably changed my perspective and imbued our writing and aesthetic with its scent. This is a very dear, very special place and I am meant to be exactly where I am right now.”
S13: Have you any recommendations for local bands that we should be listening to?
NR: “Look out for RF Shannon. He’s always been a great talent, but his new work is on to something extremely unique and special, and I believe his next record is going to make a huge splash. Another artist we love is Natalie Jane Hill, and she has been recording her new material with Jason in our home studio. He is using our world famous patented cassette 8-track technique on her music, and it sounds amazing, albeit very different than what we do! Her voice is just something else, I am amazed by her.”
S13: I know it’s hard to predict at the moment but provided it’s safe to tour at some point this year, are there any plans to tour in the U.K. and Europe?
NR: “We desperately hope so! I was banned from the U.K. for ten years in 2008 and haven’t had the opportunity to go there yet, so I am looking forward to showing my mug at the Heathrow airport! On my very best behaviour, of course. Perhaps I’ll tell you that story another time.”
Merlynn Belle is out now via Kill Rock Stars. Purchase from Bandcamp.