Don't ask musicians to do math. Like any good liberal arts major, they will find a way to screw it up. Susan Tedeschi was making $300 to $500 a shift singing as a waitress on a ship. Sure, it was Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and the rest of the top 40, but in the early '90s (heck, today) that was good money for a young musician. But Tedeschi felt she was in a rut, so the Berklee College of Music grad decided to strike out on her own with two girlfriends and sing the blues in Boston. Their first gig together brought in $13.
"It was a ball," she recalls.
There is a reason the Lord created grilled cheese sandwiches, and the music industry works in mysterious ways. The three young ladies borrowed $10,000 to record an album (Better Days) that went on to sell 20,000 copies without the help of a record label. "In Minnesota at a festival, we sold 1,500 records in a day," recalls Tedeschi with a laugh that acknowledges the unusual feat. "We could usually sell a couple hundred records a night back in the old days. It had a lot to do with being 22, 23, 24 and playing blues. How many girls at 24 know who Sonny Boy [Williamson] is? I think the novelty of it was really a trip for people."
An extra promotional push from Tone-Cool Records (who signed Tedeschi and released her next album, 1998's Just Won't Burn) resulted in radio play in Seattle, San Francisco and Denver that helped both artist and label reach beyond their initial goal of selling 60,000 copies by approximately 640,000 copies. And she received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
Tedeschi understands that a certain amount of success is the result of serendipitous timing. But she also understands much more. It helps, for example, if people enjoy what they're hearing. And it helps if you tour a great deal and work your ass off to prove to people that you belong on that stage in front of them.
Unlike many recording artists who lock themselves in their home studios with Pro Tools and then grunt their way through a promotional tour meant to sell the album, Tedeschi works the other way around. She records the albums to give her people a reason to put her back out on the road to perform. Her latest album, Hope and Desire, is a collection of covers, recorded live in the studio by a set of carefully chosen studio pros in about 10 days. The songs selected by Tedeschi, her producer Joe Henry and her A&R man, the esteemed Joe McEwen are eclectic choices. They cut loose on the Rolling Stones' "You Got the Silver," Otis Redding's-by-way-of-Etta-James' "Security" and Bob Dylan's obscure "Lord Protect My Child," among other offerings.
Recording covers allowed the never-prolific Tedeschi to relax. "If it doesn't come out exactly as you hear it, it's still cool," she says. "But if it's your own song, you want it to come across a certain way." For Tedeschi, it's also a matter of time. While her husband guitarist Derek Trucks helps her focus on her career by pushing her to take it more seriously than she might otherwise, her two young children put a squeeze on what little "free time" she might think she has. "But I can still raise a family and make my music, so that's something to say."
6:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 22
House of Blues