interview – tomberlin

– featured image courtesy of philip cosores – 

When sarah beth tomberlin released at weddings last year, the weight and poignancy of her songs were immediately palpable.  each of the album’s seven original tracks is quietly devastating in its own right, but the entire project has a symbiotic relationship with catharsis; listening to at weddings in full, without distraction or interruption, yields a profoundly cleansing experience.

after its initial release and acclaim, the omaha-based saddle creek records picked up at weddings for a reissue, with three additional tracks in tow.  “a video game,” “i’m not scared,” and “seventeen” all arrive in succession, bolstering the album’s second act with tomberlin’s signature confessionals delivered over sparse arrangements.  “i’m not scared” is particularly resonant, the directness of its refrain at once deeply personal and widely applicable to a larger audience.  that strain of altruism crops up again and again throughout at weddings, its myriad personal reckonings conveyed with the rare ease that makes its consumption so medicinal, therapeutic.

we were very fortunate to recently connect with the louisville-based songwriter via e-mail to chat about at weddings, the lingering effects of childhood, and the enduring influence of hymns.  our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity; check out the transcript below.

your family moved several times when you were very young, a transience that finds an analog in your music and lyrics.  much of at weddings seems rooted in adolescence, but does your early childhood have any lingering effect over your songwriting?

i’m not sure.  i think childhood shows itself in glimmers as we get older.  it comes out in different ways in different people with various histories.  my childhood was full of changes, but also full of a lot of sameness.  you find things to hold fast to during these changes.

i was always a kid who was outside as much as possible.  i was bad at sitting still.  i had to be out doing something, and maybe this comes from living in desolate places: the desire to make your surroundings interesting.  exploring your environment is a large part of songwriting, at least for me.  that same sense of wonder i hope i continue to carry that with me in my writing.

you’ve cited “tornado” as the bellwether of at weddings.  do any of the subsequent songs written particularly stand out in terms of personal significance, a memorable origin, or overall construction?

have i?  haha, maybe it’s in my bio somewhere, which i did not write.

when i initially wrote “i’m not scared” i didn’t think it was very good.  looking back now, i am really proud of that song and it is one that people want to talk about the most.  that song has brought up lots of good conversations so i am thankful i didn’t toss it in the garbage.  ha.

bright eyes and dashboard confessional were among the first CDs that you purchased.  are there any other artists you listened to at that formative age that have left a lasting impression on your life, not necessarily just within your capacity as a songwriter?

hm, i was late to music that really influenced me.  i still am learning and wanting all the recommendations.  i love listening to old and new.

i also feel like i’ve been asked this a good bit and try to condense the answer, so i’ll leave some other influences here: the carpenters, andy hull of manchester orchestra, cass mccombs, laura marling, neil young, and arcade fire.

the saddle creek release of at weddings contains three new songs that were written after the album originally came out last year.  how do these tracks fit with the rest of the album thematically and in terms of sequencing?

“i’m not scared” i actually wrote a month after i got back from recording the first six songs, which was august of 2016.  “a video game” i wrote that winter.  so those songs were really written in a similar space and time in my life where i think it could have fit earlier, i just didn’t have recording equipment around to place it with the already completed album.

i wrote “seventeen” last summer.  initially i was reluctant to put these songs on at weddings, because i thought the record was cohesive as it was, but listening through with where they are placed on the record they really fit so perfectly.  i think, if anything, it added even more depth to the record.  i’m really happy i decided to add them.

the phrase “my fifth of a century” feels like a mantra of sorts for this album.  do you find the first twenty years of your life to be a period that’s come to a conclusion, or are you still sorting through the vestiges of those experiences?

all but one of the songs on the record i wrote in my bedroom at my parent’s house.  since then, i’ve moved out and to another state.  i work in a different environment so the work has changed.  i’m not in school, and my community is not the same.  so yes, i do think there is somewhat of a conclusion there.

your music has been described as having a hymnal quality, and it certainly has a cleansing effect.  what components of sacred music continue to resonate with you, even as you gravitate towards a more secular existence?

i don’t think i’m gravitating towards a more “secular existence,” ha.  i am not sure what that means.  but yes, i am still influenced by the hymns and spiritual songs that i heard everyday.  i think hymns are some of the most beautiful songs, old hymns especially.

my dad actually gave me a book of anne steele’s hymns a few years ago and i wrote music to a song called “dear refuge of my weary soul”.  her life was severely difficult and she found peace through writing.  that particular hymn is just kind of her talking to god, questioning back and forth.  i really like when hymn writers question aloud, so maybe that is something i’ve taken from that kind of music.

at weddings arrives tomorrow via saddle creek.

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