by Paul Wolf
Have RV? Must travel. Got soul? Must sing.
Husband-wife musical duo Ben and Teneia Eichelberger, collectively known as Teneia, are a road warrior tour-de-force, spreading a musical message with a passion for equality.
“We just came off a whirlwind trip,” Ben said by phone from Richmond, Virginia, recounting a Hattiesburg-to-Atlanta-to-California-to-Atlanta- again-to-Richmond journey. “I think I slept ten and a half hours last night once I got to bed!”
Counting themselves thankful, the Fondren-based couple has just recorded a new six-song EP, “Wake The Queens,” due out this fall.
“It’s a female empowerment album,” Teneia said. “[It’s about] women speaking up, standing in their power, being bold and speaking their truth. That’s a big thing for us, making sure we talk to women and people in general — to be bold.”
Born in Mississippi, Teneia met her Iowa-born husband Ben in Arizona where they both lived for a time. He, with a career in aviation and she, a musician, made the leap to go on the road full-time in 2015.
“Two years ago in Phoenix, we did a crowd-funding drive and raised $20,000 in 30 days to buy our RV,” Teneia recalled. “Our fans and friends were so supportive.”
Those generous fans showed strong support back home, too, making the move back to the south imperative.
“People here were asking, ‘How can we help you be successful? We saw so much community around and never thought we’d be based out Mississippi. There’s so much love, so much help and we need to be here. It felt right to land back in Jackson.”
Their home base provides musical influences rooted in rock and soul and a mirror to reflect upon how far the state has come — and ways in which it still needs to grow.
“I grew up in Mississippi and a big part of that is really beautiful,” Teneia said. “But there are some conversations not being had. For us, when we first got together, we asked, ‘How can we have a positive message?’ not just through music, but music with a message.”
Teneia explained that 50 years ago, because of their difference in race, she and Ben wouldn’t have been able to marry. That realization gave her love for others struggling with equality.
“It’s in our personalities,” Ben said, “to fight for justice. And that’s not specific to racial or marriage equality. It’s across the board. It’s part of the reason we are together. Teneia and I both have hearts that beat for humanity and want to see equality pervasive throughout culture.”
For the last two years as a duo, Ben and Teneia have called their brand of music “folk-soul,” exhibiting acoustic elements with a singer-songwriter slant.
“It’s always incorporated that vibe, because it’s so much a part of Teneia’s vocals. Gospel, blues – all of the rich Mississippi influence.” Moving forward, with a new record on the way, Ben says the sound will transform to more soul and rock.
“Wake the Queens” was tracked at legendary Jackson recording studio Malaco, not original to the plan at all.
“We were randomly going through, giving friends a tour,” Ben remembered. “[Engineer] Kent [Bruce] showed us a project he was mixing, and it sounded so damn good! It wasn’t on our radar to record there, but when we heard the amazing quality, we were like, ‘Ok, that’s where we need to do our next record.’ They proved themselves without knowing they were auditioning for us.”
Just last month, Ben and Teneia received a boost to finish the mixing and mastering of that project: a $5,000 grant awarded by the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“Things like the MAC grant lend credibility to what we’re doing,” Ben said. “To have the arts commission get behind us, and be so supportive — to believe in our mission — will help us finish the new album.”
Malcolm White, executive director of Mississippi Arts Commission, said “Ben and Teneia have become part of the fabric of Jackson’s creative culture. They tour extensively, which gives them an opportunity to spread their message of inclusivity and empowerment through music across the nation. They are an optimistic, talented couple and make excellent ambassadors for the state.”
For those considering a path similar to the Eichelberger’s, it can be done — if commitment is involved.
“You have to work hard and work smart,” said Teneia, who has been singing and recording since 2004. “I’ve always shown up and done my best. And I’ve gotten so many referrals [that way]. Be reliable and you can always make a living.”
Ben’s former career in aviation paid his bills, but it didn’t fuel his passion. He echoed his wife’s advice for success with a bit of his own.
“You have to start with practicing your craft a lot. Open mics, bar gigs – test it to make sure this thing you say you want to do is good fit and something you’re good at. Get your act to the point that it is smooth. Stand out, put the work in, polish the stone that is your ability and that’s when you can shine.”
Find Ben and Teneia online as they chronicle their adventures, traveling in the “tiny musical house” at youtube.com/teneiamusic. Look for them back in Mississippi in October in Booneville and Rolling Fork and on December 9 at the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration and the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.