Tess Brunet blossoms as solo artist

Photo by A. JESSE JIRYU DAVISTess Brunet
Photo by A. JESSE JIRYU DAVISTess Brunet

Tess Brunet played drums for the nationally touring New Orleans rock band Generationals, for Athens’ Twin Tigers and Bo Diddley collaborator Lady Bo. More recently she’s become a songwriter, recorded solo albums and led her own band.

All of the above is impressive, but Brunet’s greatest national attention so far came when she and singer-guitarist Dax Riggs were the Houma-based swamp-Goth duo, deadboy & the Elephantmen.

Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and many more praised the duo’s 2006 Fat Possum Records debut, We Are Night Sky.

Brunet and former Acid Bath singer-guitarist Riggs worked together as deadboy & the Elephantmen for three years. They toured as opening act for the Fiery Furnaces, Peaches and Eagles of Death Metal and performed at the Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits festivals. The duo also earned celebrity fans, including Chan “Cat Power” Marshall and writer and spoken-word provocateur Henry Rollins.

But Brunet believed her contributions to deadboy & the Elephantmen weren’t properly acknowledged.

The breakup was due to many things, she said last week, “but the easy, simpler answer is that I needed to get credit for what I did. That was something that was overdue for me. I love what Fat Possum Records did for us. They really got behind us and pushed us. I felt bad about just walking away, but it’s something that I really needed to do.

“No matter what’s going on that’s looks so great from the outside, internally, if you’re not happy, then none of that stuff is worth it.” Since departing deadboy & the Elephantmen, Brunet’s singing and songwriting have blossomed. Currently on her first tour as a front woman, she’s performing songs from her recent albums, 2011’s Au Ras Au Ras and 2012’s The Great Nothing.

Brunet and her band’s Southern excursion will reach as far north as Asheville, N.C., and include Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and Jackson, Oxford, and Hattiesburg, Miss. Starting this week in New Orleans, the tour ends Thursday, Jan. 24, in Baton Rouge.

“We’re all really excited,” she said.

Brunet writes songs with the classical guitar that her late mentor, Mel Terpos, gave her when she worked in New York City at SIR Entertainment Services. SIR’s facilities include production stages and rehearsal studios. Terpos was a guitar technician whose credits include Hall and Oates.

While working in SIR’s accounts receivable department in 2002 and 2003, and encountering the stars who booked space at SIR — Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Jay-Z, the Allman Brothers, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and others — Brunet got to use the company’s facilities as well.

“I was in my mid-20s then, so I was a late bloomer,” Brunet said. “They allowed me to have access to whatever I wanted and they encouraged me so much. I had never felt encouragement like that before in my life. It was really special for a kid from small-town south Louisiana in the big city.”

Terpos, besides giving Brunet a guitar, encouraged her to play drums.

“I was a tap dancer for 17 years and, when I picked up the drums, it felt natural to me,” she said. “I think it has a lot to do with dancing all those years, because tap dancing is very percussive.”

Without knowing it, Brunet was following a great tradition for musicians from New Orleans. Singer-pianist Professor Longhair and Earl Palmer, the city’s most famous drummer, were both tap dancers during childhood.

After Brunet returned to Louisiana, she joined Riggs in deadboy & the Elephantmen as the duo’s drummer. Born in New Orleans, adopted at 4 and raised in Houma, she’d later learn that her biological grandfather was a drummer.

When Brunet’s creativity led her to writing songs, she turned to the guitar that Terpos had given her in New York.

“I had been playing drums, so the guitar was kind of sitting there,” she said. “So it was still there for me when I made that transition.”

Singing songs she’s written herself and performing and recording as Tess Brunet, the singer-songwriter is experiencing a happy period of creativity.

“My songs are kind of sad and a little emotional, which can be deceiving,” she said. “I was sad most of my life, so I’m writing and singing about something that I’m familiar with, something that I know.

“But all of the decisions that I made leading up to this, as difficult as they may have been, led me to doing something that makes me happy. And I’m creating with people who I chose to work with, and they chose to work with me. We get each other on a musical level and a personal level. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”