TOMBERLIN – Interview

Foto-© Sebastian Madej

Tomberlin, alias Sarah Beth Tomberlin, ist zurück und veröffentlicht diese Woche ihr Zweitwerk I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This via der Indie-Rock-Schmiede Saddle Creek. Die in Florida geborene und im ländlichen Illinois aufgewachsene Pastorentochter konnte schon mit ihrem 2018er Debüt At Weddings verzaubern und rief damals die ein oder andere Erinnerung an Phoebe Bridgers wach. „Das Thema der Platte“, erklärt sie, „ist zu untersuchen, Raum zu halten, einen Altar für die Gefühle zu schaffen.“ Und verglichen mit dem Raum des Debüts, fühlt sich dieser hier nun größer, heiliger und mit ellenlangem Echo an. Echo. Pedal Steel. Alte Akustikgitarren, frisch gezupft. Ein treibender Synthesizer. Kühles, bürstiges Schlagzeug. Ambientes, ausladendes Klarinetten- und Saxophonspiel. Die Lockerheit und Weite der Arrangements vermittelt eine zärtliche Wertschätzung für ihre Teile, als ob jedes Arpeggio, jeder Loop, jeder Scratch eine gefundene Muschel oder Feder in der Hand ist. Und dann ist da noch das Instrument ihrer Stimme, die die liebenswerte Eigenschaft hat, perfekt gestimmt zu sein, aber nur widerwillig gespielt zu werden. Wir trafen die US-Amerikanerin vorab zum Interview via Zoom zum Interview und dieser Tage vor ihrer Berlin-Show im Prachtwerk zum Foto-Shooting!

This album – I don’t know who needs to hear this… – is quite different from Projections in the same way that it was different from At Weddings, at least in terms of production style and palette. I think it is more expansive and textured. How was your experience making this one different from the last two, and what kind of influences were you pulling from?
Sarah Beth Tomberlin: Well, it is my first studio record. The other things were recorded in apartments and garages, rather than a studio. So that was a big shift because recording in a studio is obviously going to sound pristine in a way, but it was important for me not to lose the organic nature of recording, so I hired Phil Weinrobe who co-produced with me. Cass McCombs was going to produce originally, and then he was working on his record at the same time and told me that he had bit off more than he could chew, but I can still play on the record. And I was like, “Cass, it’s fine, thank you for telling me.” And then I met back up with Phil because I knew that he had done those solo records with Adrianne [Lenker], and then I was just kind of like, Phil is super capable to co-produce with me for what I’m going for. He’s just a real big audio nerd and very, uh, in-tune with the song’s thread. So, he’s not going to use broad huge strokes to create a moment. He was going to tune in to the sound and the feeling. That was super important because I do think as artists get bigger and get to go to a studio, sometimes that loses its charm. You know, those moments that I think bring a lot to a recording sometimes, a producer can want to paint over that, and I was concerned about that. I wanted those moments to be taken with a bit of a preciousness, but not too precious to where it was all about saving that stuff. It’s a tender process, so I was concerned about bringing it into a studio for that sake, but that ended up working out well because I think the people that I hired were really in tune with the feeling, and that was important. The major shift of sound difference and ability for it to sound different just had to do with being able to record in the studio and having a bigger budget than I had before, and my intention for how I wanted to build out the songs. I had a bit of a sonic palette: I wrote all the songs on acoustic guitar, but I knew that I didn’t want all the songs to be acoustic guitar driven, so I had a plan. On the first record I didn’t really know that I was making a record and the EP was kind of dipping my toes in the water before going into LP2 zone where, you know, you get self-conscious because you have an audience now. So, the EP was simply to have fun. And I did that with Alex and Sam. It was just having fun. On this I had fun, but it was very intentional. It was intimidating, but it ended up working out well, I think.

Was it different writing songs self-consciously knowing that other people were going to hear them?
Yeah. It took me a minute to find a groove, because when I was writing At Weddings, I was just writing my best attempts at songs. I was just working on the craft. I was taking it seriously, but there was a non-seriousness to it because there was no audience. I didn’t grow up in a music scene, I never took guitar lessons, I was simply just messing around trying to write a song and then had enough songs for a record. That’s how it came to me. So, it was way different to know I had a record that came out and people had received it really well. For someone who has no audience, and then just suddenly At Weddings was out there and then everyone has opinions about it and then I was like, I must do it again, but this time there’s people waiting to hear it. Before I was just creating to create. Some people say, “I just do it for me and it doesn’t matter what people think,” but that’s kind of nonsense because you do need to care about your audience and hope that you’re communicating and growing in the way that you do that. I think it’s super self-indulgent to think that your audience doesn’t matter.

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Well, intersubjectivity is one of the themes of the record. I really look forward to certain songs on this record because it feels like there are kind of more rooms in the building in a way. Which isn’t necessarily an inherently better experience, but where with At Weddings you could hear a lot of Liz Harris and with Projections there is the touch of Alex G’s production, I don’t know who needs to hear this… has so many songs that point in different directions while circling around the main aesthetic. I really look forward to certain songs on it because only that song can do that thing. My favourite is “unsaid”, which is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard for such a long time. For me, it’s a song about a fear of expression, specifically through language. The chorus goes:

“If I don’t call you out, I don’t have to feel doubt/If I don’t say I miss you then you never have to be around/If I don’t say I love you then you don’t have to love me/See how simple the unsaid keeps things”

This is such a beautiful way of talking about the fear of not being seen the way you see yourself and feeling paralysed by uncertainty but also knowing that those things that are unsaid are the stuff of life: the things that feel most important. And you have spoken openly about your sexuality in interviews, and I know you came from a religious family in a rural setting. There seems to be a theme running through the album of miscommunication, broken lines, and loneliness, but also a lot of shame around those things. What do you think the role of shame is in these songs and your art in general and, if you don’t mind me asking, how does that play out in the creative process?
I mean, we all know the story of how I was raised at this point. With religion comes shame because it’s telling you that basically, no matter what form of religion, you’re not enough and you shouldn’t trust yourself. It took a while for me to get to that point of understanding it. Like, if you don’t act in these ways, then you are going to hell and if you don’t believe this, then you’re going to hell, and if you don’t want to work on that and change, then you should be ashamed. When that’s what your whole life is rooted in and your whole understanding of the world, which mine was, it is scary to start doing that. When you have no real other example of what a different life looks like, stepping out of that and following my own life path has come with a lot of making mistakes. Coming into my own relationships and just being like, the way that I was raised is you don’t have sex before you get married, and you get married young and you have kids, and you serve Jesus the rest of your life. And so, to step away from that and then engage in relationships of various kinds, it’s just this whole new world where all I have as a point of reference is this really messed up gendered positions thing. And so, there’s just, there’s a lot of shame even when I know that that’s not it. I don’t think that’s a helpful way to live your life, but there’s just shame and I don’t know the right way to do it either. None of us do, there’s no textbook saying this is how you do it. I’m more so interested in what comes after shame. Not just in my personal life, but creatively being an artist, because the way that I fell into it was so unique. There’s even self-doubt shame. My first record doing well when I know other artists have worked for years to try to get their music heard and my random little thing just popped off a little bit. I have shame about that. How do we make this into productive work? Not just for my work, but for my life, out of which my work flows, because we can only talk about shame so much before it’s redundant. On At Weddings a lot of lyrics have dual meaning, it’s really layered and masked because I’m not even there yet. I think this is a big leap because I’m asking what comes after shame? I don’t really have an answer for you other than that. It’s something that I’m constantly investigating, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop, just because of the way that I was raised. Catholic people, I guess they say I carry a lot of guilt and I think I have bits of that. I don’t know who doesn’t want to be good. Who wants to put a man on a cross? When you’re hearing that, when you’re little and you’re like, well, I don’t want to do that. So, it’s just going to be the way that my brain was formed. It’s always going to be a question in my mind, and I think it’ll come out in my music.

Even though you have collaborated with lots of people, Tomberlin is very much your project. Do you have a specific schedule or time that you work? How do you keep yourself motivated, and how do you deal with any lack of motivation or artistic blocks?
The pandemic has really been a whirlwind for me because I moved around a couple of times. I didn’t really have a set space of my own until right before we recorded the record. I moved into my apartment here in Brooklyn in May and then literally had 12 days or something before we started recording the record. I just feel it’s different than it was when I was touring constantly, because then it was kind of just taking any moment, I had of space for myself. I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, at that time and I had my own apartment, and I had a room separate from my bedroom where I would go and write at my desk, just play guitar. That’s my writing process generally is just playing guitar and then something catches my ear and then I chip away at it. But I don’t have a desk here because it got abandoned on the move. It was interesting removing that object. You can sit on the floor or on the bed or whatever, but I realize it’s my first time in my life not having a desk since I was 12, I think. There is something about to going to the desk and sitting and being like, this is my zone. That helps me. For me, I don’t have a schedule. I was just listening to this podcast and this interviewer was talking with the poet Mary Oliver before she died. I think the interview was a few years ago, but she said, you know, the job is to show up when you’re an artist. I mean, for most artistic brain people, I don’t think we’re really regimented or people that do well with parameters. I think it just depends on your personality type but for me, if I sit down and think I’m going to write a song, I never write a song. I need to think, I’m going to play guitar, I’m going to play for fun. And that’s when I write a song. Or when I’m procrastinating. I went upstate for a night last week to practice the set for the tour. I start practicing, I go through two songs and then I was fiddling and tuning and I was like, this is nice. And then 2 hours go by, and I’d started writing a song. I think I’m learning the Mary Oliver thing very much. Just simply showing up the main part of the job. That works for me better than being like, today I’m going to put in my time sit a desk and write a song. It never happens and if it does it’s bad and it’ll be thrown away near instantly.

Do you write things down from interactions you have with other people’s art? When you’re reading or listening or watching? What are some things that have really moved you recently?
That’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve ever really been asked that. Normally people would ask, do you write throughout the day or something. I haven’t previously been consistent with journals or writing every day, but since right before the beginning of the New Year, I’ve been writing every day just for myself. Sometimes it’s simply I woke up at this time, I had coffee, this is what I did. And then sometimes it’s four pages. It’s just the practice of literally me showing up, and not putting pressure on writing a song each day. A practice of showing up for myself and that’s been helpful to me. But I did have an idea once watching a movie, it was before Letterboxd thing was a thing. I guess people write their own little reviews or whatever, but I wanted to watch the movie and then just write a few lines of what it brought up. It’s so romantic to me the idea of documenting these times because then you can look back on your life. My mom has old journals and diaries from when she was younger, and her and my dad met in fifth grade. It’s funny, she has a journal entry that says: “married Benny Tomberlin today! Haha just kidding.” When she was in seventh grade. Then they got married later in life. If she had never written that, I would never know that that crossed her mind. So I like the idea of documentation for going back and having something to share or examine about yourself, because I think we forget parts of who we’ve been as time goes by.

Totally. I have that thing where I will write something, and I will realize that I’ve written it before.
That’s a big thing. And that’s also part of the writing every day because a relationship that I was in ended recently and it was interesting to go back in time and see that I was processing some of these things and choosing to not process things. I saw that and realised I didn’t really do anything with that creation. So, it’s just interesting. I think it’s super helpful. I’ve written lines before too where I’ve said that before. It’s helpful even if you don’t use it because you’re seeing yourself maybe get stuck in a pattern. And that’s, I think, super helpful. Sometimes I’ll be out, and something will move me or bring up an idea and I’ll write it on my phone. I also love when I’m listening to a song and I mishear lyrics and that’s not what they said, but that’s really good. I’ll write it down.

I know that you’re a list maker, what kind of things you make lists of and how does that help and function in your life?
When I’m feeling very overwhelmed by what’s on my plate especially during an album cycle. Just so much gets thrown at you suddenly, it’s hard to plan your normal life. Because this job is strange. Even today I think I was just up for two interviews and now I’m doing four or five. So, I’ll get in anxieties where it just feels like there’s a boulder on my chest and the only way to alleviate that is to simply write it down: these are the things that I need to do. And then the act of crossing it off means the boulder becomes lighter. I struggle with OCD and there are certain things my friend pointed out to me the other day. He said, you’re always picking up things and putting them in the right place and folding or, you know, arranging, which is true. If I do these things, then I will have control. I can’t control all these outside elements, but I can control this space in front of me. I’ve been that way since I was young. It doesn’t bother me. I write lists mostly of what I need to accomplish, but then I have nice lists for myself. I made a list by my bathroom mirror for a while that said: drink water, be grateful etc. Just grounding things to remember you’re a human person with needs. Yeah, those are good conduits to yourself.

You’re about to go on an extensive tour for this album – It’s obviously going to be different to the way it was before quarantine: how are you feeling about it?
I’m very excited to get back on tour. I try to say I don’t need anything; we all have the things that we need, kind of. I do feel the need to engage in that way. I’ve played some shows and I did another tour with Andy [Shauf] this past summer, and that was nice to get back into it. But when I play, I’m like, oh, yeah, this is what I do. I love the process of recording, that’s really exciting and also a big part of it, but there’s these in-between moments where it’s like, what do I do? How do I do this? Do I do music? Especially during the pandemic. Hearing people sing along to a song that you put out is incredible. Just wild. When you get to share that space and create a zone for people to enter and share an hour or two with you, that’s so special. My fear is COVID and losing money because it’s not like I’ve made money during this time. Most people don’t get paid an advance for their record; all the money goes towards paying to make the record. So, I desperately need to be making money and I hope that COVID doesn’t mess up the shows. Especially coming overseas, we’re paying so much and if it gets ruined, we simply lose a lot of money. It’s a really hard time right now for bands to make these decisions, and I’m not cancelling tours, but I know people that have out of a different comfortability level and it’s tough but I’m simply desperate to play music, so she’ll be coming round the mountain, as they say.

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