Tessa Kole is one of Houston’s most dynamic and outspoken musicians. She quickly pivots from passionate artist to outspoken activist to successful athlete with what, on the surface at least, seems like almost effortless ease.
The same agility is true even in how she speaks. Her southern drawl is as sugary and comforting as grandma’s ice tea served on the porch under the blazing Texas sun. In a moment it can transform into rapid fire expletives and a tone as sharp as any West Texas barbwire.
Essentially, Tessa’s personality and life are as widely diverse and far reaching as Texas itself. Full of passion and integrity, she seems to embody ideas, approaches, and goals that at some points seem to be diametrically opposite to one another. Yet somehow they blend together to create something special and unlike anything, or anyone, else. Like the Lone Star State, Tessa is not willing to settle or be defined by any one aspect of her life. In fact, just one of the many distinct projects she juggles in a normal day-in-the-life could overwhelm even the most committed go-getters.
Tessa fills her day with her students that require extensive lesson planning and organization, her band, in which she is a principal writer, guitarist, and vocalist.
Having trouble keeping up?
She also collaborates with extensively with Stiletto Broadcasting on radio programs and in championing women in music. Her passion for community inspired her to create the Musicians’ DIY Fight Club.
How many hours are there in a day again?
Oh, and she’s also a competitive swimmer which demands incredible training, diet, and more than a few scheduling challenges.
Such an ambitious lifestyle often comes with compromises and creative multi-tasking. Perhaps the most of which she detailed by saying, “(Sometimes) I make breakfast and eat it in the bathtub to save time. I know that sounds crazy, but when I need more sleep…I sleep as late as I can, and that means that certain things have to be done together to save time.”
Tessa life in music seemed to be predestined. Born to a classical pianist mom while dad, a band director, also owned an orchestra and band repair company. At 4, at the insistence of her mother, she began piano. Piano led to guitar and even to “dabbling” in bass. An accomplished musician, she has a mastery of reading and writing notation and insists on doing the later by hand. “It’s a more organic process to me” she mentioned as we discussed her approach to writing and about her role as teacher.
At an early age she was inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees and cites two of Prince’s albums, Sign O’ the Times and Around the World in a Day, as among her favorite albums of all time. A fan of dynamic Houston bands like Glass the Sky, Jealous Creatures, Only Beast, Valeluna, and Whit she also deeply enjoys Hiatus Kaiyote. (More evidence of the diversity that define her spirit)
Her music, which includes the band PuraPharm, (in which she is joined by her husband Paul Adams) weaves between moody, textured rhythms employing programmed, often frantic, beats to authentic Texas roots inspired acoustic folk marked by her passionately belted vocals.
Her writing process is not marked by any particular or rigid method but rather finds inspiration and melody from wherever it can be found. “I’ll know when the melody is right. It just happens naturally,” she said. Despite her extensive musical vocabulary and knowledge of theory, she continues to explore progressions rooted in basic open chords, the same one she teaches daily to her students.
“It’s like pieces of a puzzle that they can be creative with and use any way they want. I’ll take open chords and move them up and down the fret board until I hear something that works well and (sounds) unusual. The more I’ve started learning about certain chord progressions and how they work when rearranged a certain way, plus using my own intuition, magical things happen. I’ve got so much new material coming to me right now it’s ridiculous.”
She laughingly mentions that one of the songs she’s currently sewing together includes a progression born during a lesson with a 9 year old student who was kind enough to approve its use. How’s that for community and collaboration?!
A fiery Texas gal, there is no shortage of hot topics that ramp up her passion. When the topic of the Houston music community (she refuses the term “scene” and all it implies) the flames burn a few notches hotter. She is quick to express her passion and loyalty, and shower praise on her peers but just as quickly can launch criticism to those venues or “middle men” who exploit artists by charging bands to play or take advantage of the inexperienced to forward their own success.
“They will praise you one minute and tear you down behind your back the next. The only interest they have is their own, and advancing their own agendas. Most of these bands are just a pawn in those agendas. I refuse to be a part of it at any level.”
Now her engine is revving as she continues…
“A lot of bands don’t understand this, or just don’t care about it, but I do and that’s why you don’t see me hanging out with almost anyone. I don’t trust most people anyhow, so I don’t talk to these types in the first place. It saves me a lot of bullshit down the line. I run my own operation and do things in a way that is best for me. I learned early on not to trust anyone. I’ve never been one to run with the herd and follow their program, especially when there are so many flaws in it. I stay safe, stay away from all of those people, and my life has been much more drama free and I feel more (free) to create and do anything I want. I don’t want to be associated with any of those people. They’re the biggest two faced hypocrites you will ever meet. They don’t really have our backs; they just play real good at it. At the end of the day, they’re all out for themselves.”
This passionate independence and desire to provide others with the resources and the benefit of her experience cultivated over a lifetime in music inspired her to begin the Musicians’ DIY Fight Club. Not a record label, nor a management company, it operates as a sort of collective comprised of like-minded musicians who wish to collaborate and share wisdom in order to facilitate aspiring musicians as they attempt to take control of their own destinies and the business side of their careers.
“MDIYFC isn’t an organization. It’s more of a place to come for education and also to vent. It’s for people seeking the truth behind the way the music industry operates and (who) want ways to run their own show without the intervention of some POS middle man. Honestly, in this day and age, you don’t need ‘em. Some people may WANT them, but really, you don’t NEED them. There’s a big difference. It’s a place to come and talk about solutions.”
She’s running on all cylinders now as we discuss what advice she would offer aspiring musicians:
“Don’t trust anyone! That’s my biggest ‘don’t.’ People will lie to you, talk shit behind your back, and make you empty promises every day of the week….DO surround yourself with positive, uplifting people. Anything is possible if you believe it will work. Belief and faith is the main thing.”
Her passion for advocacy and activism hardly end at her beloved music community. A proud Christian, she does not shy away from openly sharing her faith. “My identity is through Him. I am proud to say I love Jesus Christ.”
The immediate reaction may be to think a devout Christian may cause a measure of conflict within a community known for its agnostics and atheists but Tessa happily states that while always feeling like an outsider of sorts, her faith has never been an issue with her fellow musicians in Houston.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said when the topic turns to politics.
A long time conservative that voted for Donald Trump in the most recent election, Tessa has been an outspoken activist going back to her participation in the Liberty Movement in 2009. More recently, the toxicity born of such a controversial and heated election cycle has taken its toll on many and she is no exception. Tessa describes some of her relationships as being strained, to say the least.
She has become somewhat of a target for those who find her outspoken support for conservative values. The political climate and heated debates have created incredible stress and ended several friendships.
“This election has caused the greatest divide amongst people I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve been fucked with in every way possible, and I haven’t always responded well to that. I have been angry, hurt, frustrated, and depressed way too often and I have acted on those feelings in a manner that has not been healthy for me many times. I’ve cut ties with so many people I can’t even begin to tell you. Losing most of them has been for the best, but some I have really been shocked and hurt over.”
She continues with a heavy weariness in her tone, “There are people I will absolutely never speak to again. Then there are those that I’ve reached a level of pleasant discourse with, even though we completely disagree politically. Being a Trump supporter in the midst of a large group who hates him more than anything in the world has been really difficult.”
Refusing to let the drama bring her down, she chooses instead to focus on what inspires her and keeps her in a positive frame of mind: community, her music, her incredibly supportive husband, and finding solutions to problems through collaboration and faith.
“I’m really past the point of being upset about everything I’ve seen and experienced. I’m now to the point where I’m seeking better solutions. I want to keep things more positive. It’s a challenge for me. Once I get past the anger and hurt and frustration, I can get to the solution part. That’s where I’m headed now.”
In the end, Tessa Kole embodies the DIY individualism that has shaped Texas’ legend and lore for generations. She’s confident but not arrogant. She’s humble but not self-deprecating. She’s devoted but not self-righteous. Her music nods its head to her influences but could never be described as derivative. She’s sweet and polite like a well-raised good Texas gal, but mind your manners because like the barbwire that tamed the Wild West, she can shred you to pieces.
Her mantra? “Do no harm, but take no shit.”
Uncompromising in her beliefs and approach to music and life, she backs down from no one, stands up for everyone, and speaks from the heart no matter what. She’s exudes a gentle compassion for her friends and the community as a whole but to borrow from the famous slogan, Don’t Mess with Tess.