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The Boston Phoenix Grammy Girl

Boston's Susan Tedeschi savors the nomination

By Linda Laban

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Around about now, most of the female artists nominated for this year's Grammy Awards, which are broadcast worldwide from the Staples Center in Los Angeles this Wednesday, February 23, will be finalizing the details of their outfits and confirming appointments for armpit Botox injections that will paralyze overexcited sweat glands to prevent unsightly perspiration from soaking their specially designed gowns. But not Susan Tedeschi. The 29-year-old native of Norwell, Massachusetts, might be up for her first Grammy, nominated in the category of Best New Artist, but the blues singer, guitarist, and Berklee School of Music graduate is holed up in Lafayette, Louisiana, in a building with the very rock-and-roll name of Darkside Studios.

"I'm in the recording studio, I gotta go to work," Tedeschi says as we try to reschedule an interview that was slotted in between a couple of radio-station chats and a session with the LA Times. They all ran late, so we are, too.

Mention the obvious -- that she's very much in demand -- and Tedeschi demurely answers: "I guess so. . . . I don't know!" But this girl-next-door image, we find out when Tedeschi calls back a half-hour later, is far from the whole story. Behind that sweet voice, behind her quiet assertiveness and middle-class confidence, is a practical work ethic and ample professional savvy. The simple, girly image also belies the dusky blues and ballsy rock and roll found on her Tone-Cool debut, 1998's Just Won't Burn -- the album that brought Tedeschi to wider attention outside the Boston blues circles where she first made a name for herself as a singer in the mid '90s.

Just Won't Burn incorporates diverse musical influences -- gospel, classic R&B, '50s rock and roll, and even a dash of country folk in the shape of John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery" -- into Tedeschi's Chicago-style electric blues. But for all her musical training and technical grounding, Tedeschi also embodies a stripped-down ethic that echoes the rawness of Delta country blues. In a genre sometimes preoccupied with overstylized guitar theatrics, her songs have an integrity that's often lost.

Right now though, everyone wants a pound of flesh. And what's more, as she nurses her outside hope for the Best New Artist award -- she's pitched against the multi-platinum likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kid Rock, and Macy Gray -- her myth is growing apace. Supposedly, if you buy the hyperbole, Tedeschi listened to her father's Mississippi John Hurt records while teething, made her singing debut at age five in church, and served as an understudy on Broadway before she hit her teens.

"Yeah, it's getting misquoted," says Tedeschi, a devotee of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. "I sang in gospel choir in college, at Berklee. I never really was an understudy. I was a callback in case the understudy was sick."

An understudy's understudy, then? "Pretty much. Still, I was 10, and I was excited to be a callback."

Also, though Tedeschi has played in bands since the age of 13, she did not form the first noteworthy band that she played with. "That wasn't my band," she says of local blues outfit the Smokin' Section. "That's another misquote. I was hired by the drummer to sing back-up, then they let me sing lead." Another thing, too: though she has sung for most of her life, Tedeschi didn't start playing guitar, apart from some acoustic strumming, until her early 20s. Even when she did form her first band, the Susan Tedeschi Band, in 1993, she was still only singing. "A lot of people learn when they are older," she says with a shrug. "I started playing a lot more guitar around '94-'95. It was only in August of '98 that I started playing all the guitar, just after Just Won't Burn. I did some of the leads on that, but Sean Costello played lead there."

The new album, which Tedeschi began recording at the beginning of February, will be a different story. "For the new record I'll be playing pretty much all the guitar, most of the leads," she says. She'll be joined by Just Won't Burn alumni: drummer Mike Levesque, who recently relocated from Boston to Nashville, and piano and Hammond B3 organ player Tom West, of Somerville. Bass player Brad Hallen, who lives north of Boston and joined the band last July, is also on board. (For the record, Tedeschi calls a succession of hotel rooms home; she's been on the road so much for the past two years that there was little point in keeping a place together.)

Prodigy or not, Tedeschi has been sure-footed in her ascent since graduating from Berklee in 1991. She went from local blues jammer with promise to winning Outstanding Blues Act at the Boston Music Awards in 1995 and '96 to playing Lilith Fair '99 and singing duets with Sheryl Crow, and having Sarah McLachlan and members of the Dixie Chicks back her up.

"I just played with Bob Dylan," Tedeschi says gleefully, after reciting a long line of notable artists she's opened for. She even got to play on the same bill as Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Garth Brooks, and Lenny Kravitz at VH1's Save the Music Foundation bash, the "Concert of the Century," as Bill and Hillary Clinton looked on.

So with all this under her belt, how does Susan Tedeschi feel about the idea of being a "Best New Artist"? How new is she, the oldest nominee, feeling? "Nobody's really ever a brand-new artist. It's almost like giving recognition to people that have had a groundbreaking record and, all of a sudden, from nobody knowing you, all these people know you," she says sagely. Then she giggles at her own somber tone. "I think it's pretty neat!"

Tedeschi is up against some stiff competition if you're measuring by album sales and bucks in the bank, but that doesn't faze her. "You know, it's interesting how everybody thinks Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera will win it," she scoffs. "I think Macy Gray or maybe myself or even Kid Rock will get it."

And no matter what happens at the Grammys, Tedeschi has already done pretty well for herself as a woman playing blues, which even in this day and age makes her a minority entertainer. She lists some contemporaries: Debbie Davies, Sue Foley, Deborah Coleman. None are household names.

"There's someone who's up and coming, Shannon Curfman," she adds. "I think she's 14 or 15. She looks a lot older and sounds a lot older. But she's adding more rock-sounding songs, because that will sell more records."

One thing does annoy Tedeschi: even though her indie label, Boston-based Tone-Cool, is distributed through the mighty Universal network, she is getting second-class treatment when it comes to Grammy prep.

"You know what really bums me out? All of the other artists that I'm up against in that category have had designers make them dresses," she says. "Why don't they do that for me?" Good question, and one that seems to find an answer in unit sales. For now, Tedeschi is going to have to make do with the off-the-peg dress her distributing giant has agreed to pay for.

She's hardly the primp-and-preen kind of girl, though. Instead of getting her armpits Botoxed, Tedeschi scheduled herself for a couple of weeks at Darkside, and you can bet that's where she'd rather be. "Obviously I'm gonna want to look good, but I don't want to put tons of work into it. I'm such a tomboy!"

With recording the follow-up to Just Won't Burn on her mind, Tedeschi admits to a certain detachment from all the Grammy brouhaha anyway. "I'm not really experiencing it," she says with a weary note in her voice. "I just don't think of it."

Besides, in a practical sense, she hasn't gained much yet, and doesn't know whether she will. That is, she notices her album sales are not going up. Yes, after nearly two years on the Billboard blues charts, Just Won't Burn has sold around 300,000 copies -- more than respectable in blues and jazz circles -- but Tedeschi knows that the Grammys would give her a clear shot at pop-star quantities if things were done right. "I don't think the distributor is putting enough records in the stores," she says simply. "I go to a lot of stores and they don't have it. I know that I could sell a lot more records, but I'm not because of ignorance." This lost opportunity is really grating on Tedeschi.

"It's very frustrating for me, because they could at least ship another 100,000 and then at least it would go gold," she groans. "I don't have any control over that. There's a lot of politics involved, and it's really tough for me. Even if I had a video and I was doing really well, I don't know if I would sell more records, because they're not putting them out."

And that, of course, is what it's ultimately all about: selling those CDs and surviving the cut-back-the-artist-roster practices of the music business. Give her enough reason and sweet Susan will tell you how it is. But she'd prefer not to have to deal with the ugliness: really, what's important to her is enjoying the journey, so she'd rather dwell on what an incredible time this is for her. Even if she doesn't notch up a gold record or a Grammy, she intends to take home memories of this momentous time in her life.

"I really want to enjoy this Grammy opportunity because I don't know if it will ever come around again," she says. "But I'm hoping it will. I'm hoping this nomination isn't a throw-in for the Academy [of Recording Arts and Sciences, the body behind the Grammys], like, 'We're putting cool stuff in there now,' or whatever.

"I don't know," she says, the sweetness returning to her voice once more. "I want to enjoy it, and then when it's over with, I'll just get back to work.

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