“I spend a lot of time going to small, dusty, forgotten, by-time towns,” says Natalie Ribbons of Texas-based group Tele Novella, whose wobbly, technicolor pop tunes emanate from one of these picturesque whistle-stops. “It’s such a fun job because I love the adventure of it: We’ll stay in interesting little hotels and motor inns, and we have a big van and we’ll fill it to the brim with all kinds of records and clothes. That takes up a lot of my time. I’m on the road a lot.”
Ah, the life of a touring musician, you may be thinking; actually, Ribbons is describing the life of a vintage clothing merchant seeking treasures for her shop Magic Mirror Vintage, which has locations in Lockhart and Forth Worth. While Tele Novella is more than a hobby for Ribbons and her partner Jason Chronis, a rare records dealer who handles the arrangements and instrumentation, it’s not quite a vocation. Their breezy approach whistles to the tune of “Que Sera Sera,” with Ribbons’s melodies arising on country walks and while chopping herbs; many of her ditties dance around her synapses for years—even decades—before she decides they have incubated long enough. And the way she speaks about her band is as though every piece of coverage, sale, and gig is a bonus, like she’s glad we’re here but also doesn’t mind if we have somewhere else to be.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
“I think we’ve been more or less forgotten by our mother city, but I definitely don’t feel bitter about it,” she says by way of example. Ribbons is referring to the Austin-based publications and radio stations that ceased covering Tele Novella around the time she and Chronis relocated to Lockhart, only 30 miles south. “I would like to find my way back in through that trap door…if we can manage it,” she says, smiling with the air of someone who just missed their bus but is equally happy to walk.
That’s not to suggest indifference or nonchalance. Her passion for the craft is evident—in our conversation as much as in listening to the band—but music, for her, is a means to an end, a way to transmit stories. “As a musician, I’m mediocre at best,” Ribbons says matter-of-factly. “I think that my talent lies in my storytelling ability. I think that I’m a good storyteller.” It’s something instilled in her by her grandparents, “voracious readers” who were always buying her books and secretly wanted Ribbons to be a writer, she suspects.
More often than not, Ribbons coasts above these stories—“little bite-sized worlds,” she calls them—like a cardinal traversing the wide, Southern skies. “I get bored very easily with my own work. Sometimes I just have to change things up so that it’s not dull for me,” she says of these disparate approaches and inspirations. “That’s naturally a side effect: you reimagine how you could share something that’s honest and real about yourself or something you feel is important in a way that’s going to keep people interested, and more importantly, keep me interested.”
That sentiment is applicable more broadly, too. Tele Novella’s first two albums hardly sound like they were made by the same band. “We didn’t have a palette, we didn’t have enough intention, and that album feels all over the place to us,” Ribbons says of their first, 2016’s House of Souls, whose psychedelic rock sounds exhibit a band not yet comprehending the extent of their powers. “So when we made Merlynn Belle,” she continues, “we were super tight with the intention…It was sort of the first time that we sat down and decided what our aesthetic inspiration points were going to be.”
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
For their sophomore record, released by Kill Rock Stars in 2021, the duo limited themselves to ten instruments—including the irreverent trio of garden weasel, Optigan, and autoharp—fed through a Tascam 8-track cassette recorder. The result was “exactly what we wanted it to be,” a perfumed mist of jingling, jangling, lilting, off-center pop—a strange little snowglobe gathering dust at the back of the shelf.
Poet’s Tooth, their new album, builds on that sound, relaxing the reins to welcome new noises and stories (“weird musical characters”) and thus covering more breadth than ever. There’s more pop, but more peculiarity, too. As Ribbons explains, “We just knew what we wanted to make, and we were very clear-headed about what the songs were and what the story was that we were trying to tell…that’s why we knew we had more allowances to move around and expand a little bit.” In other words, while Merlynn Belle’s cohesion came from its toolbox of instruments, Poet’s Tooth makes sense as a singular package thanks to Ribbons’s stories.
The album’s overture, “Young and Free,” was written with the younger generation in mind, inspired by the employees of Ribbons’s vintage stores, but it’s readily applicable to any age group. “This world we’re in is older than sin/ That doesn’t mean that you should keep it waiting,” she gently implores over nylon-string strokes and golden streaks of autoharp, swaying in waltz time.
“I think they’re a lot sweeter and kinder than my generation was at that age,” she surmises, “but there’s also a heavy dose of hopelessness, so that song is about so many things. It’s about everybody. It’s about now. It’s about the past. It’s one of those songs that comes up that feels like it’s forever.” Of course, all these songs feel like they are forever. After opening the curtains with “Young and Free,” the album draws them with “Funeral,” literally structured as a life cycle, and concluding with the poignant declaration: “You can’t stop the whistle from blowing.”
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
A life of multitudes unfolds between these bookends. “Rodeo Clown” is a devastating monologue from its titular entertainer, unappreciated and cast aside (and, I posit, a surrogate for DIY bands). Similarly fantastical, the clip-clopping standout “Vampire Cowgirl” showcases Ribbons’s benevolence: “You need to eat something/ The people may drive you away/ But I know you’re just a woman.” The single “Hard-Hearted Way”—in which the narrator raises eyebrows at their achievements; “Jesus, look how far I’ve come/ Does my strength scare you?”—could be told from the POV of one of those young and free denizens who followed her previous advice, maybe even Ribbons herself.
Each song is deeper than it first appears, and can be read many ways; “Broomhorse,” for one, demonstrates how a benign object can be repurposed into something magical if it’s treated the right way. Indeed, these are more like fables than songs, the kind that deserve to be passed from mouth to mouth around crackling campfires. “That’s not where I was coming from but that’s a wonderful interpretation; I can see how there will be a lot of different takeaways,” Ribbons responds to one of my bungling suggestions. It gets at something pretty obvious: she doesn’t write for herself. She writes for us, for the world; heeding her own advice, she doesn’t keep it waiting.