Tony Tengs employs the double negative when it comes to his relationship with songwriting. He can’t not think musically, he said, so it’s a natural next step for him to preserve ideas in the form of songs.
Tengs doesn’t credit himself for his good ideas, though. Instead, he credits the process of fine-tuning his internal radar to capture tidbits from the world around him.
“You’re a radio,” Tengs said. “You tune in to some things that resonate with you, and you have a sense about what is charming, interesting and fun.”
Step two, after gathering a catchy idea, is to write it down.
“I’ve lost so many songs that way, thinking, ‘This is great and I’m never going to forget this one,’” Tengs said. “Then you blink and a half an hour later you can’t remember anything.”
Tengs credits much of his early musical influence to the jukebox at the Pioneer Bar in Haines, downstairs from his childhood apartment. The jukebox sang country tunes as well as rhythm and blues, introducing him to the work of numerous songwriters at an early age. He also enjoyed music with his parents and extended family. He still sings with his mother, a Haines resident who he said has a knack for recalling lyrics from many of the “good ol’ songs.”
From downtown Haines to downtown Juneau, where Tengs currently resides, he now credits the Alaska Folk Festival for providing a large part of his ongoing musical education. You may have seen Tengs performing his original work during one of his 19 past performances performances with other friends and collaborators. You may have also seen him in the audience, front and center, with his mother.
“We go to the folk festival every night,” Tengs said. “It’s much better than watching TV.”
If you’ve seen Tengs perform, you may remember a song of his that initially drew you to laugh, then captivated your attention with a disarming message. One of his most popular hits, “Curly Hair,” subtly highlights a default human trait in an attempt to remind his listeners that we are all on the same level.
Tengs would label some of his songs as “political,” however they could be mistaken for songs about fun.
“If you’re going to get on the soapbox at all, you have to throw something funny out there first,” Tengs said. “There’s a danger to get political, but that’s where a lot of steam comes from to get things done.”
Tengs also collects love song ideas, and he aspires to someday record an entire album of love songs.
“They say that the best love songs don’t even use the word ‘love,’ so that’s what makes it more interesting,” Tengs said.
Tengs’ songwriting process focuses on the lyrics, which he called “the mountain range that is the hardest to climb.”
“I like the idea of songs being musicalized speech,” Tengs said.
Tengs retired this year from a career with the Alaska Marine Highway System, and he is looking forward to filling his newfound free time with more songwriting.
“When you’re an uncertain man of a certain age – and I’m probably going to write a song about being that – you see so many of your peers dropping like flies,” Tengs said. “You don’t want to squander too much of your time.”
Tengs said he feels a healthy pressure to work toward his goals of writing new songs, releasing a new album and performing. He also hopes to spend more time collaborating with other local musicians.
“You surround yourself with better musicians than you are, and it’s a good way to go,” Tengs said.
Look for Tengs to perform during the upcoming Gold Street Music season, which holds its first concert on Oct. 6.
• Libby Stringer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.