Tessa Majors’ Final Gift
T essa Majors sings these solemn words over sturdy acoustic-guitar strums: “I want you to know that I came. I want you to know how I’m still here.”
As the song’s narrator, she’s struggling to watch a loved one tormented by inner thoughts and, despite her best attempts, is unable to rescue them from their suffering. Titled “Stay,” it was one of many works Tess — as her family and friends called her — had been diligently refining and retooling over the past few years. Recorded on her iPhone, she had likely chosen the quietest place she could as she worked through new music, with murmurs of noise occasionally sneaking up in the background.
The 18-year-old had been writing music since she was 14, and by the time she entered her first semester at New York’s prestigious Barnard College in 2019, she’d already played in two bands, learned the bass, piano, and acoustic guitar, and had dabbled with drums. She had released an album with Patient 0 — her high school alt-rock band — and was stoked when their song “Prom Queen” had topped 1,000 listens on Spotify. By that winter, she was itching to get into the studio to record some of her new songs — including “Stay” — when she headed home to Charlottesville, Virginia, for break.
She never got that chance. In the early evening of Dec. 11, 2019, Tess was walking through a park near her school when three teenagers attacked her. They had planned to steal her phone, but Tess screamed for help and was putting up a fight when one of the teens stabbed her. The group fled empty-handed, but Tess’ wounds were fatal. (The two 14-year-olds in the case pleaded guilty to murder and robbery charges, with one sentenced to nine years to life in prison and the other 14 to life. The 13-year-old pleaded guilty to robbery charges and was given 18 months in juvenile detention.)
Three years have passed since Tess’ murder. Her parents, Christy and Inman Majors, have moved away from Virginia and avoided New York since attending sentencing for the final teen in January 2022. Throughout the trials, they navigated the media storm by keeping a low profile and denying interview requests, with their only comments delivered via powerful impact statements read aloud in court. That was all they were willing to share — until now.
On Friday, the family released Tess Majors: The Voice Memos, a precious batch of their daughter’s unreleased music that they’ve privately held since discovering the recordings in 2020. Tess had been using her phone as a repository to store around 170 neatly organized voice notes of music she had been tinkering with and hoping to record. In victim-impact statements in court, the Majors had wondered if Tess had desperately fought for her phone because it was the only place she had stored years’ worth of music.
The Majors hadn’t realized the extent to which Tess had been working on plans for her own album until after her death. A good friend and bandmate had shared with them “Red Flags,” an unreleased recording from that summer, and a student journalist had sent them an interview where Tess hinted at a fresh batch of songs. “It felt like a gift straight from Tess,” Christy tells Rolling Stone. “Looking back, of course she had songs. She wrote all the time, but she never really shared with us what she was working on [until] it was fully formed.”
“It felt like a treasure trove at a time when we were desperate for any memento or reminder of Tess,” Inman adds.
But Tess’ album wasn’t close to completion. Her voice notes contained various piano melodies, guitar chords, lyric snippets, and sometimes several different versions of the same song. Sitting with the files, the Majors decided to complete her album, with Inman spending hours sifting through different renditions and takes and calling on the help of his old friend and musician Brian Pulito to finish what Tess had envisioned.
The album’s 14 tracks help piece together a story of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, experimenting with themes of love and longing, doubt and vulnerability, and choosing oneself. With the exception of the untitled, single-take “File 28,” Inman, Pulito, and Grammy-winning mastering engineer Darcy Proper carefully molded together the various ideas Tess was playing with. Although the voice memos themselves are unpolished — something both Christy and Inman readily acknowledge — they show a clear promise of a young artist’s potential.
Releasing the album was a difficult choice for the Majors. In conversations with Rolling Stone, their apprehension and nerves are evident. The grueling trial process has scarred them. Should they risk opening Tess and their family back up to the public after the long and painful journey of trying to heal privately?
But recently, Christy says they felt compelled to share the album, perhaps as a way to help reintroduce Tess to the world on terms she would’ve hoped to have been known for: her music, her thoughts, her creativity. “Early on, Christy and I decided that we were going to do everything in our power not to let Tess be defined exclusively by the last five minutes of her life,” Inman explains. “We were adamant about that and have been from very early in the grieving process.”
Ultimately, they are choosing to honor Tess and mark what would have been two milestones in May: Tess’ 22nd birthday and her Barnard graduation, when she would have joined her classmates as they donned baby-blue robes and walked across the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas.
“We did this because we felt like we had to,” Inman says. “We didn’t want to leave her oeuvre incomplete, even if some of these songs are … We aren’t releasing the album with the thought that a million people will listen. So, if only her friends and family listen, that’s fine with us. We have no expectations. But we can rest easier knowing that anyone who wants to hear more of her music can.”
TESSA MAJORS WAS BORN to perform. It may be a cliché, but it doesn’t make the sentiment any less true. As a toddler, Inman recalls in amazement that Tess had memorized patriotic tunes like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” off a CD and would gleefully chirp them out as a parlor trick for visitors — a feat for a child not yet two. “She rarely took much cajoling to belt out a number in front of an audience,” he says.
When she was around six, Christy says a restaurant pianist let Tess have a seat at the bench to play a tune. “As we were leaving,” Christy remembers, “she told her grandmother that it was the best night of her life.” When Tess was 11, Christy received an unexpected phone call from a sleepaway camp director noting how impressed he’d been by Tess’ cover of Etta James’ “At Last.”
Liz Barnes, a professional jazz pianist and educator who taught Tess in those early years, recalled how the six-year-old’s feet would dangle from the bench as she banged out the Beatles, Adele, and Queen songs that she had brought to learn. “I have no doubt Tess was a world changer,” Barnes says. Their weekly classes were a welcome source of excitement for Barnes, she says. “She was just eager, and you don’t always get that,” she says. “For the most part, parents are making their kids take piano … but Tess was excited about piano lessons.”
As a teen, Tess began spending time at Charlottesville’s Music Resource Center, a nonprofit music-and-arts after-school program for the area’s middle and high schoolers. The program’s then-director Lucas Brown recalls Tess filling in for vocals or strings at any gig. Often center stage, Tess would bop around and dance in place, sometimes whipping her hair around while plucking at her bass. Brown remembers Tess bringing the same level of enthusiasm to a small group of 20 as a packed room of 120 people. “[That] is hard to do,” Brown says. “To bring that same energy, usually you rely on the external — the audience — but if you got something inside, which I think she did, it doesn’t matter. She’s just gonna perform.”
Music became an outlet for Tess and a way for her to grow socially, Christy says: “In high school, she often felt isolated and like she didn’t fit in. But when she performed, she could connect with people in ways she didn’t normally.” By the time she graduated, those connections were clear when her school selected her to give a speech at the chapel ceremony. Tess blushed and giggled as she was introduced to a room of peers before delivering a self-assured valediction about the journey that lie ahead of them, imparting life lessons she had learned throughout her young years.
“If you feel a certain way, share it,” she says at the end of the address. “The world will benefit from hearing your unique perspective much more than it will from your silence.” The inspirations behind her songwriting were clear. “It is so easy to act like you don’t care. True strength comes from the ability to be vulnerable,” she added.
She was spunky and took inspiration from David Bowie, one of her musical idols whose chameleon-like penchant for change inspired her to never wear the same outfit twice onstage and to chop off her blond hair or dye it funky colors. (In photos taken her freshman semester, Christy remembers Tess being pleased with the shock of her teal-green bob dramatically competing against her blue eyes.) She may not have been the biggest fan of pop or new country music — but her 90 personal Spotify playlists contained a multitude of genres, perhaps kept up her sleeve in case she wanted to rebrand one day.
Tess formed her high school band Patient 0 — influenced by 1990s riot-grrrl groups alongside classic rock bands like Blondie, Led Zeppelin, and the B-52s — with her best friend Hannah Fowler on guitar and friend James Gunter on drums. The trio wrote and recorded the angsty album Girl Problems and released it shortly before Tess decamped to New York City. The group plays tightly, with Tess devising smart bass countermelodies to support guitarist Fowler’s riffing. Tess confidently belts strong, catchy melodies on songs about everyday problems like jealousy, the importance of truth in relationships, and falling in love with a prom queen. It’s the sound of teenage girls opening a rock time capsule but viewing it through their own unique lenses. “They wanted to rock harder than anyone else in town,” Inman says.
COMING-OF-AGE IS a theme that Tess continued to explore in The Voice Memos. The recordings are equally emotional, confessional, and tuneful but sound rougher. The song sketches reflect the looser, alt-rock sound of Patient 0, though more akin to Nirvana’s Unplugged or the Goo Goo Dolls, but they also suggest Tess was willing to venture into folk and singer-songwriter territory.
Her lyrics show self-awareness themes similar to fellow singer-songwriters Olivia Rodrigo, Soccer Mommy, Billie Eilish, and Phoebe Bridgers — Tess parses breakups, avoids exes in the parts of town where her past haunts her, and tries to become a better person — though her music never veers explicitly into pop territory.
Some tracks show an aptitude for poetic storytelling, such as in the way Tess sings, “I get scared when you treat me right/So don’t give me a second chance” early in “Second Chance” but closes with “I’ve had some time to think/And I want a second chance.” On the deceptively upbeat “Good Guy,” Tess sings about a guy who’s so bad for her she needs to lie to herself about it. “Open Book” begins with a gloomy, Kurt Cobain-esque riff, though instead of pouring her soul out the way the title suggests, she instead sings, “I could never be an open book.”
Her songwriting ability was her biggest strength, and her vocal melodies are the stars of The Voice Memos, in spite of the recording flaws and rough drafts. She plays a jaunty, propulsive guitar line on “Crash Course,” echoing the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and early Jonathan Richman, but she sings a keening, building chorus over the chords: “I’m sorry” — dramatic pause — “that I don’t trust myself too much.” Some tracks are billed as instrumental interludes, but they feel almost like background music begging for Tess’ tuneful vocals.
The album’s most developed songs — “Bad Omens” and “Into the Grey” — are also its best. Tess plays a Nirvana-like, single-note riff on the former while singing about how spiders, broken mirrors, black cats, and hexes scare her less than returning to the lover who wronged her. “Heed these poison words,” she sings, her voice skating over the top. On “Into the Grey,” which has all the melodic makings of a great pop song, Tess sings about feeling grounded while her lover ascends above her. Her voice lifts as she sings, “But I forgot how to fly.” While it would be easy to read into the ominous themes of the last two songs differently given Tess’ death, they’re both exactly the sort of songs you’d expect an 18-year-old girl, just beginning to navigate life away from home, to write. Tess was transparent with herself and others that she was on a journey to figuring herself out.
Since the recordings are only raw material — some likely dashed off so she wouldn’t forget a good melody or improvised while she had a moment’s inspiration — it’s difficult to imagine how she would have edited and molded them into polished songs the way she had done with Patient 0. With just a guitar and piano supporting her vocal melodies, each track had the potential to become something wonderful if she had gotten the time to finish them.
AFTER LEARNING OF TESS’ unreleased songs, the Majors had to go searching for them. “We had Tess’ computer but didn’t see that she had any of her own music on it,” Inman says. “So Christy reached out to a number of Tess’ musician friends, one of whom mentioned that Tess usually recorded her demo-like stuff on her iPhone. We had no idea.”
At the time, Tess’ phone was still being used as evidence in the criminal case, so Christy requested the files be extracted and sent electronically. The discovery was overwhelming — both in the amount of material and its emotional weight. Christy describes hearing those raw takes as “incredibly painful” and delayed listening to the entirety of the songs. “Inman is the one who went through all the files and listened to everything,” Christy explains. “I remember him spending hundreds of hours with his headphones on, walking up and down our driveway listening to the recordings.”
Inman says he found the material just as gut-wrenching but also “comforting” and “therapeutic.” “Hearing her voice, her sincerity and conviction, I felt like I was communing with her a bit through the ether, the great beyond,” Inman says. “And I was proud of her. Proud of how hard she worked and how seriously she took her craft. How she kept experimenting and pushing herself to try new things creatively. I taught writing for nearly 30 years, so there was also an element of just marveling at her writing. Listening to these files made me very proud, and man, I just liked hearing her voice again.”
Having already released “Red Flags,” Inman saw a path forward. He called up Pulito, his longtime friend and former drummer of cowpunk band Nine Pound Hammer, for help in pulling together the files for an album. “[Inman] knew that there were some beautiful things there and he knew there was something special about it, but he had no idea where to even begin,” Pulito tells Rolling Stone. “He was just looking for advice early on, and that’s how it got started.”
Together, they spent hours listening to the files and the different versions of the songs. While Tess had marked six songs as finished, the rest were still rough ideas. The basic melodies and lyrics were there, so Inman and Pulito used the existing fragments as an outline to pull together cohesive songs. “We have no idea how Tess would have recorded these songs,” Inman says. “My guess is she would have rocked some of these up a lot more.”
“As you’re listening, you have to put yourself in the right mindset to understand where it came from and what we’re trying to do,” Pulito adds. “Everything that I did was always trying to put it in the context of, ‘What would Tess want me to do at this point?’ Which was pretty emotional. I would get goose bumps. I would cry. It was just stunning how beautiful some of this stuff turned out.”
Inman and Pulito finished the album in September 2020. “The first several times I listened to the album, it wrecked me,” Christy says. “But even then, I recognized Tess’ growth as a songwriter. She covers the same topics that were covered on Girl Problems, but there is a new level of maturity and experimentation with her songwriting.”
In February, they connected with Proper to master the album and get it ready for publishing. She was honored to help. “It was emotional for me,” Proper tells Rolling Stone. “I think it’s really important that this material be put out there so that people can get a sense of who she was.”
Now that the Majors have released The Voice Memos, they’re still nervous but more at ease with their decision. “I hope this album inspires kids to make their own music, to listen to more music, and make connections with others through music in the same way Tess has done,” Christy says.
One of the Majors’ wishes is for people to hear Tess’ songs and cover them, encouraging artists to create their own versions by dialing up the amp and rocking out the way Tess might have, or taking an entirely different approach. The hope is simply that people are inspired and learn a bit more about Tess and what she stood for. “In some ways, this will close the book on the music she created in her very short life,” Inman says. “But we are hoping it might open a few doors as well. Regardless, we’ve seen the project through, and that to us is the important thing.”
Out of all the songs in the album, Christy says the final three tracks — “Stay,” “Bad Omens,” and “Into the Grey” — are her favorite. “Stay,” in particular, serves as a poignant and gentle reminder from her daughter, almost as if Tess was singing directly to her, Christy says. “I think Tess has many friends, family and supporters who will take great comfort in hearing from her again as she assures us all, ‘I want you to know that I came. I want you to know how I’m still here.’ I know I do.”