Summer Guide: Jesse Teer of The Senators on Ditching Med School for Music

In the 2015 edition of our Summer Guide, we've profiled people who are living their dream: creative couple Josh and Sarah Rhodes; obsessive bread baker Mandy Bublitz; popular YA novelist Amy K. Nichols; baseball player Josh Chesler; and Judy Nichols, who recently hit the road. Up today: Jesse Teer of folk-pop group The Senators.

Jesse Teer is living his dream: life as a recording, touring, professional musician. "Last year, I was working at Starbucks," he says. "And I thought, 'It's now or never.'" Taking that first step into a music career, he admits, was scary. "But not as scary as working some crap job for the rest of my life would have been."

He has no memories of Indiana, where he was born. "I only remember growing up in Scottsdale," says the Brophy Prep graduate. "My mom's a doctor, and we moved out here because she got a job in Phoenix when I was really little. I think my parents were hoping I'd go into medicine — or anything other than life as a professional musician."

Teer started out as a high school band geek. "I grew up playing cello in the Phoenix Youth Symphony," he recalls. "By the time I was 14, I was holding my cello sideways, trying to play it like a guitar."

Teer's musical tastes were influenced by his parents. "My mom listened to a lot of singer-songwriters, so we'd be listening to James Taylor or Elton John in the car on the way to school, and then that night my dad would be playing the Beatles or the Stones." Studying classical music and music theory helped, too. "I learned to listen to an arrangement, and how it worked, which helped me see and hear music differently."

He kept playing, doing music on the side as he slogged his way through a degree in microbiology at ASU. "I was cutting tracks for our first album while I was filling out medical school applications," he says with a little laugh. "Part of the application was always where you have to write about who you are, and what you want. I started to notice that music was always in the front of my mind. I finally figured, 'Okay. Public health will always be there. I have to go do this.'"

Jesse began collaborating on songs with his brother, Adam, who was living in Tennessee. Later, Teer hooked up with childhood friend Bryan James, drummer Jason Yee, and Joe Bitz, who plays keyboards, trumpet, and mandolin. The Senators was born.

Teer's parents weren't thrilled. But the band's indie-rock-meets-western-Americana sound proved immediately popular with listeners. Billboard ranked the band on its Next Big Sound chart last year, and it toured in support of Phillip Phillips SP in 2014. The Senators played some better dates at San Francisco's House of Blues and The Mint in Los Angeles; the band's first album, Harsher than Whiskey Sweeter than Wine, got strong early notices.

"Now we're looking at how music can be a career with some longevity," Teer admits. "I'm geting married this year, so I need some financial stability. But nobody's record sales are what they once were, so we have to figure out how to do this while supporting our families and ourselves."

And contributing to charities, along the way. The Senators are a band with a cause, dumping some of their earnings into banishing childhood hunger in Maricopa County. Proceeds from the sale of the new single, "Hummingbird," will benefit the Valley of the Sun United Way. "Maybe it's our Catholic school upbringing," Teer says, "but we figure we better be giving something back."

Teer doesn't know that he could have cobbled together a musical career that took off so quickly if he'd tried to in any other city. "By the time I was in high school, I had met all these great musical people," he said. "People are really accessible here. So you have a music teacher, and they stay with you, they take an interest in your career. I really think it's a Phoenix thing, where you're not just another kid passing through their music theory class. People are more open here."

He hopes they'll be open to the Senators' new album, which just dropped in April. "We're planning to put out a couple singles this summer, and to tour," Teer says. "The bigger plan is to just keep doing what we love, and to push hard at it."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela