There are highways in parts of Texas that feel as if they might go on forever. Travel along one of these roads, and you’ll see it stretches across seemingly infinite land in every direction. Stop into one of the small towns along the way, and you’ll see it stretches across time as well. Artefacts of life and culture that larger cities tend to ignore are perfectly preserved here: the strange, the intimate, the forgotten, the haunted.
Tele Novella began with Natalie Ribbons and Jason Chronis traveling these roads, exploring these towns, and mining for gems along the way. Natalie, who owns a vintage shop, and Jason, who collects rare records, were each making music in separate projects at the time (Agent Ribbons, Voxtrot, Belaire), but a collaboration between them soon ensued, and from the outset, their music embraced these eclectic and eccentric influences. Now, after several years supported by a full band, producing critically-acclaimed recordings and touring nationally, the pair have returned to their roots and relocated from Austin to Lockhart, Texas, where they have recorded their most heartfelt and personal record to date.
Merlynn Belle, Tele Novella’s first release on Kill Rock Stars, is the first true realization of the minimalist creative bricolage that originally inspired the band. Turning down the unlimited options offered by modern recording technology, they adopted a more restrained approach: Songs would be written and recorded one at a time. Each part would be recorded in whole takes, rather than assembled through editing. And the entire album would be tracked onto an 8-track cassette recorder.
“Working with one song at a time allowed us to view each as its own world,” Jason says. The fact that these worlds all fit together is partly due to the self-imposed constraints, which required creative resourcefulness at every turn. The duo enlisted veteran engineer Danny Reisch for the painstaking task, and his expertise in crafting lush pop recordings helped balance the lo-fi characteristics of 8-track tape, bringing rich details out of the delicate arrangements. “We knew this was going to be very different,” Natalie says about her excitement in listening back to the first tapes.
Meanwhile, she set about her most adventurous writing yet, channeling influences as diverse as Marty Robbins, the cowboy troubadour, and Pentangle, the baroque folk group, into a pop-infused medieval-tonk style that sounds at times like the Old West possessed by the spirit of the Old World. Yet even as her voice ranges from candlelit whispers to coyote howls, the music feels cohesive, and there’s an honesty and vulnerability that underlies every word. “This is the first time I just let the songs be about real life… real people.”
It can be easy to lose sight of real people, whether out on an endless highway, or confronted with the endless possibilities of making music today. The scale is simply too massive. But for anyone with enough patience, the stories are still there, waiting to be re-discovered. With Merlynn Belle, Tele Novella have applied their focused curiosity to each song, bringing each of them to life in a way that feels equal parts mysterious and sincere.