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Photo By Laura Roberts
Teneia Sanders

TENEIA SANDERS: CATCHING THE MULTITUDES

Story By Tim Roberts Photos by Laura Roberts

Nor I, nor any one else can travel that road for you,

You must travel it for yourself.

-Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

We sat at a plastic table in front of Stevie Ray's Blues Bar on Main Street. A strong, cool breeze rattled the leaves in the trees that sprout up from the sidewalk and surrounded the front of the bar. Two blocks up the street from where we sat, the Louisville Bats began their game against the Rochester Red Wings. Cars of those who didn't want to pay six dollars to park in the stadium lot lined the curb on each side of the street.

She pushed the right strap of her white top back onto her shoulder and continued talking about her debut CD.

"I don't really listen to it anymore," she said. "I'm not tired of it. You just hear yourself over and over. That's what you do in the studio. I don't ever want to be where I'm absolutely stuck on myself to where it's 'Hey, let's listen to my CD again. It's more of me, okay? Me, me, me!'"

She has a grin as wide as the clear late-spring sky above us. She's generous with it and it can't cage the laugh that crackles from her throat. She leans forward and tilts her head. Her earrings, silver rectangle frames with a small pink lozenge dangling in the center of each, jostle against the back of her jaw. It's clear that she is proud of the work she has done on the CD, but at the same time she trying to be dismissive, even bashful about it, like she's holding down the cork on big bottle of vintage bubbling Lookatme! that's been shaken and is ready to burst open.

Admittedly hard to do, since this year she has not only released her first recording, Soul Catcher, but she also became the hostess of a weekly open-mic show and jam at Stevie Ray's (a gig she was in the right place at the right time to have land in her lap), went on a short tour of Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin with her friend and fellow singer-songwriter Leigh Ann Yost (subject of January's cover feature in this fine publication) and contributed an original song to a documentary on racism in her home state of Mississippi.

Teneia Sanders

But Teneia Sanders is somehow able to contain it all. In a professional career that spans just a little more than two years, she has become an integral performer in Louisville's roster of talent, just as comfortable performing with a casual crowd at an open-mic show as she is working with one of the city's best-known producers and set of session people.

Not a bad first step for a young woman who migrated to town from Jackson, Mississippi, just for a change of scenery. Plus she needed to get away from a six-day-a-week job she had waiting tables at an Outback. Since that restaurant is only open for dinner during the week, it never allowed her to play music.

"I moved here with a boyfriend, initially," Sanders said, "for a change of scenery. We had dated for seven years. I played every open mic I could. My first gig was at the Old Louisville Coffee Shop with Jamie Barnes, Scott Kirkpatrick and Isaac Mingo. I was so excited. I had been trying to network with people, just doing open mics, really. I wasn't pushing anything. I'd play and talk to people afterwards."

Teneia Sanders

A minister's daughter, Sanders was (obviously) surrounded by music growing up in church, so that's where she learned how to sing. She started writing songs when she was 12, was in a rhythm-and-blues group during high school and at 18 was impressed enough with a friend's ability to play acoustic guitar that she bought a book of chords and taught herself how to play.

"A lot of people have said to me, because I'm self taught, that I have a really distinct kind of guitar playing," she said. "So I guess that's helped me in a way. For the most part, I didn't even know what chords I was playing. I wouldn't know if I had taken lessons what I would've turned out to be. I never really took vocal lessons, either. But it's working out fine."

By no means does Sanders imply that just picking up a guitar, a chord book and singing a few songs is the way to become a musician. The road she took to become a full-time musician isn't one that will instantly score a busy weekful of shows and phone calls from the major labels begging to be the one that gets a signature on their contract . But one thing she did that is essential to developing as a musician is playing out and networking, both of which landed her a permanent gig as host of the weekly open-mic session at Stevie Ray's and got her a producer for her debut recording: slackshop's Billy Bartley.

"I met him at Molly Malone's," Sanders recalled. "We initially talked about just recording a couple of songs, just to lay stuff down so I wouldn't forget it. Two or three months into it, I said let's just go ahead and make a record. So we recorded for about a year. He's a great guy to work with, a lot of personality and he was really good about not being too pushy about stuff. He just let me figure out everything that I really wanted. He'd ask what I think the song needs, which I thought was a great thing for any producer to do."

With only two exceptions, Sanders didn't think the songs on Soul Catcher needed anything other than guitar and vocals. Which is appropriate because the essence of those songs is intimate, confiding. One in particular, "Help Me," starts with the sound of a rainstorm and a door slamming. The song itself has a lonesome, echoey harmonic overdub that sounds like it was kidnapped from an old portable radio forty some-odd years ago and time-tripped into the now. As if an audio ghost from an Owen Bradley session in Nashville with Brenda Lee haunted the sound board wires at Downtown Recording, where Sanders made Catcher.

Soul Catcher CD Cover

But the two tracks involving more instruments, the full-band pop in "Charcoal" and drum-machine groove in "Watchin,'" are energetic, slightly angry, confrontational.

"I really love them all," Sanders said of her songs. "They all have different characters to me. I don't officially name them, but I just go with emotions. 'Charcoal' is my anger song. 'Help Me' is an old Pasty Cline, seekin'-help kind of thing. 'Try' is about the friend that's always pushing the other friend to be over a relationship. 'Indulge' is light and flowing. Songs like that just come out of nowhere for me. It's about me making a change, trying to figure things out. They are like different characters. They're like 12 Tenias, but they all have different names. It's not all me, me, me."

A green heavy plastic suitcase full of Soul Catcher now follows Sanders wherever she plays and recently she had the opportunity to share her sound (and CD) with club audiences in Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin with her friend Leigh Ann Yost (on whose CD Basic Needs she appears as, in her words, a "doo-wop" girl).

"I'm really focused on getting outside Louisville," she said. "I love it here, but I definitely want other people to hear my music."

For now, until she gets away from the city more often, she has a steady gig as hostess of the Monday open-mic performance and jam at Stevie Ray's, a gig she landed after the original host no longer wanted to do it.

"Todd Webster of Stevie Ray's offered the job to me," she said. "Andrea Davidson, April Flynn, who plays violin and I came in just to play one Monday night. After that he said he wanted to book us there and said he'd love it if I would host the open mic."

Now going on eight months as the show's hostess, Sanders relishes her role in bringing music regularly to a well-known venue in Louisville on possibly the deadest night of the week.

"It's really laid back," she said. "It's just getting people in and out, networking. But like any open-mic, it's hit or miss. We get people from out of town to stop in a whole lot. Most of the people come to play. There are people to come to listen. It varies. It's really fun and doesn't cramp my Mondays."

And the obvious difference between running the Monday sessions at Stevie Ray's and playing out at any other bar?

"Most of the people who come in here come to hear music. There are a lot of places I've played around town where it's just so loud and people are there to do whatever else they want. Here, you know people are going to listen to what you're doing. It's like my home ground now."

Along with a roster of regulars, including Leigh Ann Yost, Andrea Davidson and Paul Moffett (your Editor-in-Chief of This Fine Publication) to give the shows a consistency, sometimes a guest takes the stage for a short set that doesn't go well, or ends with a minor disaster. Which is what happened on Sanders' first night as host.

"My first week here there was this guy who came in. I didn't know what he was taking. But he did four songs in one and one of them was 'Stairway to Heaven.' He did a whole thing of songs, then he fell off the stool."

Fortunately, that minor incident with a stoned and/or drunk visitor to her weekly show hasn't overshadowed the success she's felt it has (it's already been "pre-disastered," like the Garps' house after the private plane crashed into it in The World According to Garp). Still, it keeps her name and face visible, which generates more exposure for her and could boost the sales of Soul Catcher. One copy of that CD could get into the hands of someone who can help further her young career.

In fact, it already has. A friend of hers played Soul Catcher for a man who is producing a documentary called Return to Mississippi dealing with racism in that state. He contacted Sanders and asked her to contribute some music to it.

"I did a couple of freedom songs," she said. "'We Shall Overcome' and 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' Then I wrote a song for it called 'Stand.'"

The weekly shows keep her busy enough that she's now in the fortunate position of being able to make music full time.

"I'm focusing on traveling, trying to get my music out there. This week, that is. That may change any second now," she added with a laugh. "I'm hoping to go to Spain and do some stuff there. I've heard they like a lot of American music. I'm hoping that will work out. Nothing's set in stone."

"My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach," Walt Whitman wrote in the 25th stanza of "Song of Myself." "With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds." Anyone who ventures into music as a profession, whether they've professionally trained for years or have just picked up an instrument and learned how to make some kind of noise with it that's not too unpleasant, is, indeed, beginning to develop a musical "voice," readying himself or herself to go after what they cannot reach. That does not mean their goals (within reason, obviously) can't be obtained, unless they have unrealistic rock star fantasies of fame, panties or roses thrown on the stage and orgies of cash in rooms large enough to hold a NASCAR race in. It does mean that, for them, it's the attempt that matters instead of the payoff. One that may never come. Or it may hit them the one time that they're not expecting it.

For those like Tenia Sanders, who make these first attempts to reach with their voices, they take mild hits of success along the way. For Sanders it has been developing a network of local singer-songwriters, hosting a regular open-mic show at one of Louisville's best-known venues and getting the chance to contribute music to a documentary. And she has released a CD of stories that encompass, in her words, 12 personalities. Or worlds, if you will.

And with all of that, she is at the start of an encouraging career, ready to catch multitudes of listeners.

Get caught with the multitudes at www.teneiasanders.com.