This interview originally appeared as the cover story of She Shreds Issue #15, which was released in July 2018.
In Ayla Tesler-Mabe’s first YouTube video, the then-14-year-old played a soulful rendition of “Hideaway” by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, sitting in front of a backdrop plastered with The Beatles posters and various guitar-themed memorabilia. Her flawless cover would make anyone think she has been playing her whole life, but Tesler-Mabe had only picked up the guitar two years earlier.
Now, nearly three years later, the 17-year-old Canadian guitarist plays to larger crowds, has nearly 300k Instagram followers who obsess over her covers, and has even been featured in Rolling Stone. Her bandmates include childhood friend Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things), and she has found fans in Chicago-based rock band Twin Peaks. Her current band, Calpurnia, a twangy rock band based in Vancouver, released their debut EP, Scout, this past June on Rocky Mountain Records.
In the midst of her rising success, She Shreds spoke to Ayla about her gear, her musical experiences so far, and what we can expect from her in the future.
She Shreds: When did you start playing guitar?
Ayla Tesler-Mabe: I got my first guitar when I was 10 years old. I took a few lessons, but I wasn’t really into it, and I sort of put it on hold for a little bit. I had been playing the bass and loved it, but I would always look longingly over at the guitar player in my band at the time, and that’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do. When I was 12, I started playing seriously, and I haven’t looked back since.
Did you end up taking lessons again, or were you self-taught?
Initially I was totally self-taught, and I used the internet to help me figure out how to play all of my favorite songs as close as I could to my favorite guitar players; so, at the time, not at all [laughs]. But since then I have taken lessons, and am currently with this amazing jazz guitar player. I also have somewhat of a musical mentor who helps me with the business side of things. I’m just trying everything I can from everyone I can.
Who is your musical mentor?
His name is Samï Ghawï and he works with a really good friend of mine who is a jazz vocalist. She invited me to be a part of a show and he was the musical director of the whole thing, so through that I met him. He has been so helpful in my discovering of who I want to become as an artist.
You like to try out all different types of genres, right?
I think what I do is an amalgamation of all the different types of music I listen to. I love so many different types of music and I don’t think I’d be happy with just one. So I try to be a part of as many different projects as I can so I can express myself.
Are there any types of music you haven’t tried yet?
That’s a good question! I’d love to try more classical styles, since I grew up with it and I’ve always had so much respect for people who could play like that. It’s an incredible style of music and incredibly challenging.
So let’s talk about Calpurnia’s new EP coming out this summer.
Yeah! It’s called Scout.
Did you contribute anything that you’re particularly proud of for this album?
I think what’s so cool about the EP is that it’s the first six songs we wrote together. Every person in the band has their own influences, styles, and sounds. When it comes together it creates something very unique. Every song is a different mixture of all of our sound influences. You could broadly describe it as rock, but there is a little bit of everything on there. I’m definitely proud of the fact that all of my guitar tracks were recorded in one take. I wanted it to sound like I was sitting down and jamming; they really have a live feel to them. On one of the tracks I also play this really cool Fender 12-string from Japan that the sound engineer had… which was amazing, since I’ve never played anything like that before. I also wrote the lyrics to the last track, “Waves,” which I’m quite proud of. I think they really encapsulate the essence of the song.
Do you sing on the album, too?
I do a few backup harmonies here and there, but the last track I’m singing. There’s a really cool four-part harmony I do underneath my vocals in the chorus that I’m really proud of. It’s pretty Beatles-esque, who are my number one inspiration for sure. Any time I can sound even a little bit like The Beatles, I’m happy.
How did you meet the rest of the band and start this project?
Jack Anderson, the bass player, and I had been going to school together for years. We met in grade two, and in grade three we became really good friends when I realized he liked The Beatles as much as I do [laughs]. I met Finn Wolfhard and Malcolm Craig at a rock camp and became really, really good friends with both of them. Finn and I would hang out a lot and just jam and talk and go for coffee.
One time I was jamming with Jack and my other friend Charlie, and we invited Finn over my house to hang out afterwards. Jack and Finn met briefly, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. A few months later, Finn was putting together a performance for a fundraiser he was putting on and he asked Malcolm and me to be a part of that. He didn’t know any bass players, but he remembered meeting Jack, and it actually worked out really well. The chemistry couldn’t be better.
Do you go to school currently?
I do. I’m actually at school right now.
Yeah [laughs]. They’ve been very supportive and helpful of me trying to balance school and music. Not all of the courses I’m taking are directly related to music, but I think you can learn something from everything you do in some way. So I’m trucking along and finishing high school. From there, I think I’ll be able to devote more time to music.
Let’s talk a little bit about your guitars. Which one were you using when recording the album?
What’s really cool is that we got to record in Twin Peaks’ home studio, so we had access to all of their instruments. I predominantly played my Ernie Ball Musicman James Valentine, which was really great. I love those guitars; they’re really beautiful. There were a few tracks I had an overdrive into an amp… we kept it pretty simple.
Who are more of your favorite artists and influences, besides The Beatles?
Woah, okay. A lot of those late-‘60s bands: The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys… I love listening to them. I think they made incredible music. Also, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and BB King. I definitely love The Jimi Hendrix Experience; I have so much respect for all of the musicians who played with Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, everything he did. He was such an incredible artist.
Do you play any other instruments besides guitar and bass?
I’ve been messing around with drums a little bit. I have also been playing the cello for a few years; it’s a totally different world.
Do you guys have any plans to tour?
We definitely want to, but at the moment it’s difficult considering how busy everyone is, especially Finn. We are gonna try to play as much as we can, and hopefully one day we will be able to tour.