California Report: Tessa Schwartz, North Country Blue and CBA Youth Ambassador

I received this email from CBA Youth Coordinator/Honorary President Emerita and Darby Brandi which describes Tessa better than I can.

“Dave, a great interview subject would be the young fiddle phenom, Tessa Schwartz, who is stepping down as Youth Ambassador in October, and now applying for colleges. Not only is she raised in the CBA but she has been in the Schwartz Family Band and North Country Blue, is on the IBMA Youth Council, teaches at Manning Music School, leads many jam classes, is a Teaching Assistant for the CBA Academy, runs a middle school bluegrass program, and is a key player in the CBA TurnYourRadio.Online and Jam-a-thon programs. All pretty impressive in her very short life.”

Hi Tessa, thanks for taking the time for this. Before we get started, can you explain why the North Country Blue website lists you as “lead raconteur?”

I think my dad came up with that one, back when we started the band and were writing our little bios. I’m sort of the frontman of the band, but I do it in a way that’s almost the antithesis of a typical frontman in a bluegrass band. I have this awkward, almost painfully self-aware persona when I’m onstage. I’m very into stand-up and sketch comedy. When I introduce the band members and songs, I really think of everything I say like I’m performing stand-up. It’s a very involved process and I pay attention to each word I say onstage.

Your stage presence comes off as genuine and not overly rehearsed. Have you considered doing stand-up comedy?

Aw, thank you! I’ve definitely considered it. Back in middle school I really wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. That was my big dream. That and being a TV writer. But it’s just too impractical for me to consider. I’m perfectly happy just trying to be a funny person in my everyday life. For a while, I ran a meme page called Bluegrass Memes and I had about five thousand followers. That was actually a really big part of my life for a few years that I was proud of it. I was posting every day for about two years. It was totally anonymous. (And everyone thought I was a dude.)

I loved those memes. Your family has quite the California Bluegrass pedigree. How did that impact your joining the bluegrass fold as a youth?

Being the youngest Schwartz child definitely had an impact on me. Everyone knew my family, or at least my brothers. Growing up, everyone reaches a point where they have to try and define who they are out of the context of being so-and-so’s kid or so-and-so’s sibling. For me, that came when I started jamming with other people. I was maybe twelve or thirteen and I’d gained enough confidence to sit in a jam without my dad around. I could make friends with people on my own.

You’ve been involved in so many projects and bands. How on earth do you find the time for it all?

Haha… I’m just a very busy person! I’m notorious among my friends for never being free to hang out. I’ve always got something going on. But these are all things that I do because I love them. If I didn’t love getting up early on Monday mornings to teach middle schoolers about bluegrass I wouldn’t do it. I’ve had to let go of some things because I just don’t have the time. And I ask for a lot of extensions on homework assignments. My teachers know about all the things I’m involved with and they’ve all been very understanding.

Do you know where you are going to college and are you considering music as a career?

I’m a senior, so I’m doing my applications this year. I’m applying to around ten liberal arts schools in the Pacific Northwest and New England. I’m not considering music as a major or as a career. I saw both of my brothers do that and it’s just not for me. Music will always be a part of my life—part of why I’d love to be in the PNW is because of its old-time scene—and I want it to always be a fun, relaxing hobby rather than something I have to rely on to live.

Tell us about composing. Do you plan to keep at it?

I sort of got into composing accidentally. I don’t consciously try to write songs or to be a songwriter. If I think of something that I want to write a song about, I’ll try, but I won’t try too hard. I give up writing songs very easily and I’m okay with that. Know thyself.

North Country Blue playing a fiddle tune written by Tessa

Do you listen to any non-bluegrass or old-time music?

All the time. I’d say the majority of what I listen to is sort of bluegrass-adjacent. Three of my most favorite artists are Aoife O’Donovan, John Hartford, and Anais Mitchell. Circling the drain, you could say. But I step out of folk music a fair amount. Just to name a few more artists: Emily King, Rapsody, Gabriel Kahane, the Roches. And I’ve been on Joni Mitchell and Queen Latifah kicks lately.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

Anyone who’s talked to me knows that I’m a big bird nerd. I feel a little self-conscious calling myself a Birdwatcher with a capital B since I know very little about birds in a scientific sense, but I do watch birds. I absolutely love birds and Dungeons & Dragons, Pokémon, really nerdy stuff.

As a bird nerd, what are your favorite bird songs?

Tom Diamant was kind enough to let me be a guest host on his show, Panhandle Country, on KPFA and I just played an hour’s worth of bird songs. One of my favorites is Gillian Welch’s Winter’s Come And Gone, which isn’t really about birds but it does mention them. It doesn’t take much for me to hear a song and go “BIRD!” I’m like a little dog smelling a treat. I don’t know what it is about them that I’m just obsessed with. There’s a wonderful book called Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, one of my favorite authors, in which she describes birds as “like precious stones, but alive.” I just love that.

I notice some bird related tracks on NCB’s EP titled Flight. Can you talk about that release?

Sure. We recorded that album in early March of 2020 — literally the last possible moment before the, well, you know. We got the chance to work with Sharon Gilchrist, who produced our first album and is just one of our favorite people ever. The title of the album was kind of serendipitous. I had written Birdsong, Ida had written Birdwatching Stanley. Suddenly we had all these bird things going on. And it was sort of “taking flight” for us as a band, too. We were growing up. We were a lot more independent than we had been when we recorded the first album.

Who have you studied with?

I’ve studied with various teachers over the years, but three of my most influential teachers have been Chad Manning, Megan Lynch Chowning, and Kimber Ludiker, who I’m currently taking lessons with. My very first teacher back in 2009 was Catherine Manning.

Are your students generally peers or across all ages? 

My students at this point are all younger than me. When I started teaching my middle school band class, I was only a freshman, and all my students were in seventh and eighth grade. But now that I’m a senior I can feel a little more like an authority figure. I love little kids. I worked at a science camp this summer with preschoolers and they’re just the most fun to be around. I find them so much less stressful to be around than teens. Same with adults. I think teenagers are very scary to be around even when you’re a teen. 

What shows, events, or venues are most memorable for you?

For me, the most memorable events are the ones in my hometown. Whenever I have a gig in Berkeley I invite all my friends and family. And it’s just this wonderful thing to be sharing this very important part of my life, of my heart, with them. We played a show recently at the Back Room in Berkeley, and three of my friends from school came. I’d just look out into the audience and see them smiling at me. It’s such a warm, supportive feeling. That’s actually what Rowboat Lullaby, one of the songs I wrote on the new album, is about. It’s about sharing the music I love with the people I love, and hoping they’ll love it too.

Can you talk some about your work with the CBA Youth Academy?

The last time I worked at the Youth Academy was in 2019. I was an assistant to the fiddle teachers there, Tatiana Hargreaves and Emily Mann, and I was helping them out with the band and fiddle classes. It’s just such a wonderful experience. Not only are you teaching alongside these incredible musicians, but you’re interacting with young musicians from all over California and beyond. It’s a little weird to think of them as the next generation of California bluegrass since they’re only a few years younger than me, but that’s what they are.

North Country Blue has quite a Bay Area following. Can you talk about the band and plans for the future?

I don’t know that we know what’s going to happen when Ida and I graduate. I’m going out of state, and Ida might too. We’re not thinking too hard about the future right now — there’s just too many unknowns. It also just makes us too sad. We just played our last gig with Megan before she goes to UC Irvine. It was a really emotional affair. I’ve been playing with her since I was in fifth or sixth grade. That’s the thing no one tells you about being in a kid band — eventually you all grow up and leave each other. It’s tragic.

But you’ll always have those memories and relationships. Do you have any upcoming shows?

We only have a few more shows before Christine Wilhoyte moves to Nashville! We’re playing the Lodi Grape Festival on September 19 — which will probably be long gone by the time this comes out. After Christine leaves, we’re playing at the West Side Theater in Newman, which is a really beautiful theater that we played a show at a few years ago. We’re hoping also to get down to Southern California at some point this year to play some gigs down there with Megan.

What aspect of teaching is the most rewarding for you?

One of my favorite things to teach is improvisation. Most of my students have never improvised before, whether because they’re too young or they’ve only ever played classical music, and it can be nerve-wracking to make up a melody on the fly. I have this exercise I do with my students: first, they play only quarter notes on an open D string, experimenting with tone and volume. Then, they can play any rhythm on the open D. Then, any rhythm on any note on the D string. I continue removing constraints until they can play any note, string, and rhythm. Suddenly, they’re improvising! It brings me so much pride to hear them go from being so shy and nervous to just filling the room with raucous joy.

What challenges have you had that were hard to work through and how did you approach it?

This is sometimes surprising to others, but I’ve never been really good around people. I’m a very awkward person, a very anxious person by nature, even if that doesn’t come across in my interactions with people. So coming out of the pandemic and being back at school, going from almost total isolation to being around three or four thousand people every day was really hard for me. I struggled with a lot of anxiety and felt overwhelmed. But I’ve got my little coping strategies. I listen to music, I go for walks, I journal. 

Thanks for sharing that, You’re not alone in that anxiety. Separately, what old-time fiddle tunes do you love?

Old-time is something I’m not as familiar with as bluegrass, but every time I play it I just love it. Forked Deer and Duck River are two of my favorites. Do those count as old-time? 

Those are great tunes, works for me.

Really anything in D, especially if I can cross-tune. I love cross-tuning with my five-string fiddle — it sounds so rich and lovely. I just bought new strings for my five-string, the Kaplan Vivos, and I’m excited to try cross-tuning with those. They are so loud it’s kind of scary.

Thanks so much, Tessa.

Thank you, Dave!

North Country Blue’s EP Flight on Spotify

Copy Editing by Jeanie Poling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website.