A simmering sensuality marks the music of Tameca Jones. She winds her body when she sings, caressing steamy phrases as they move through her. She morphs cadences into moans and slides seductively through slinky passages augmented with kitten whispers or pleasurable gasps.
“I normally write about sex because I love sex,” she says with a laugh when we meet at Radio Coffee and Beer in South Austin. “Who doesn’t love sex?”
But the emotional peak on “Naked,” her five-song solo debut set to drop later this month, is “Head Over Heels,” a slow-burning pop devotional that builds into a stadium-shaking eruption of pure heart. With impressive vocal leaps and soaring high notes, the song is driven by the desperate yearning of wounded love, the feverish determination of a boombox-hoisting John Cusack character.
Anyone who’s wrestled with an ill-fated relationship will recognize the feeling, but Jones didn’t write the song for a lover. “I haven’t really known much romantic love in my life, to be honest,” she says. “I’ve been in love maybe once or twice in my almost 30 (clears throat) years.”
Life had a different plan for Jones. Sixteen years ago, when she became pregnant with twins during her senior year in college at Baylor, she dropped out of school and moved in with her parents in New Braunfels. Since then, she’s balanced her slow rise to the top ranks of Austin’s music scene with her life as a single mother, guiding her son and daughter, now high school students, toward adulthood.
“Head Over Heels” is a milestone on that journey.
“I wrote it about my son, like, two years ago when he was transforming into a man and he didn’t want to be snuggled anymore, no more cuddles,” she says. “I was just hurt because that’s my boo.”
She and songwriter Casey McPherson had been messing around with piano chords and he sent her a loop to work with. She wrote the song’s sweeping chorus on a drive to Houston. “I was just bawling,” she says.
“I didn’t know I had that (expletive) in me.”
But as any parent knows, having a child changes the way you experience emotion. “It’s just taught me how to love, how to love unconditionally,” she says. “The pain, obviously, when they reject you. It definitely opened up another layer to me.”
Jones has been a mainstay in Austin clubs for the better part of a decade, and she raised her national profile with a prominent feature on Gary Clark Jr.’s album last year, but this EP has been a long time coming. For years, she was focused only on performing. “I didn’t have the mindset of getting in the studio and recording,” she says.
She “based her bread and butter on” playing live sets of mostly cover songs. Now, with the prospect of paying for a pair of college educations looming in her not-too-distant future, she’s scaled back live performances to focus on developing a catalog of original work, eyeing the lucrative businesses of publishing and commercial placements.
With the shift in focus, she’s heard some grousing from fans who miss her regular sets at the Continental Club Gallery and C-Boy’s, but she’s determined to push through to the next phase. “That’s nice, that was a nice time, but I’m trying to have a career and make money, and my kids are going to be in college and they’re going to want cars,” she says. “I’m trying to get that mailbox money and focus on another aspect of the industry.”
A self-taught musician with no background as an instrumentalist, she downloaded cellphone apps to teach herself about chord progressions. She’s still studying the craft of songwriting, working to define her signature sound. Though R&B and soul are going through a resurgence in popular music right now, the commercial industry is dominated by hazy neosoul loaded with watercolor emotion that doesn’t jell with Jones’ natural inclination for a harder sound.
“Less blue and lavender, more, harsher colors, I guess,” she says. “I couldn’t be that brooding artist with the candles like Erykah Badu is. It’s just not my thing. It has to be a pop rock feel.”
In her cover band days, she brushed off requests for Badu, Jill Scott and even Aretha Franklin. “I’m already a soulful person, so adding more of that to me is like putting whipped cream on warm vanilla,” she says. “I need more textures in my stuff.”
Her personal sonic palate is strikingly diverse. She’s a huge Led Zeppelin fan, she loves Garth Brooks and she considers ’80s rockers Tears for Fears a big influence.
“I love Kenny Loggins — I’m not gonna lie. I love Michael McDonald,” she says. “I’m just a weird girl. I get turned on by transforming kind of more Caucasian music into soul.”
The EP contains just one cover song, a sexy soulful take on Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”
Beyond that, she called this EP “Naked” because it’s her way of “coming out from under the covers.”
The process of putting the release together was longer, more exhausting than she expected it to be, but she’s pleased with the result.
“This was my first foray, my first stab at original music without a band,” she says. “So I just needed it to sound right and to feel right. … I had to come out with my guns blazing and be like, ‘Ooh, bam bam!’”
ARTIST OF THE MONTH: TAMECA JONES
Recordings: Featured vocals on “Wings” on Gary Clark Jr.’s “Sonny Boy Slim,” 2015; “Naked,” 2016
Shows in September: I Live Here, I Give Here presents the Big Give (gala event) at the Sunset Room on Sept. 9; Ubuntu launch party at Pershing on Sept. 16; Listen at Winflo on Sept. 17; Austin City Social at Nordstrom Domain Northside on Sept. 28.