w/ Jana Horn
What hides in the fog that keeps people apart, and what does it take to cut through it? These questions hang heavily over Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s music, whose hushed and intimate tones orbit answers as much as they savor the unanswerable. To be in relation to another human being is to engage with a deep mystery: We are all fundamentally alone, siloed into confusing bodies, and yet occasionally we find someone who lets us feel as if we weren’t. Tomberlin, the Louisville native who recently relocated to Los Angeles, delights in articulating and amplifying that mystery, picking out its details and marveling at its scale. In singing her aloneness she soothes it, and extends a hand to others reckoning with their own solitude–a paradox that warms her spectral songs.
Tomberlin’s new Projections EP continues the arc of her critically acclaimed 2018 debut At Weddings, weaving new collaborators and new techniques into her signature dusky milieu. Since the LP’s release, Tomberlin has toured with Pedro the Lion, Andy Shauf, American Football, and Alex G, played a Tiny Desk concert for NPR, and given a riveting performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The five-song EP, capped with a cover of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s stunning “Natural Light,” reflects this period of intensive growth and self-discovery. “I wrote these songs while getting to know myself outside of people’s perceived notions of who I was,” says Tomberlin. “I just started being like, What am I interested in? What do I want out of relationships and friendships? What am I looking for that I don’t have in myself already?“
The rich vocal harmonies and guitar lines that made At Weddings so riveting still provide the EP’s foundation, but new percussive backing and instrumental flourishes open the path forward for Tomberlin. After touring the US with Alex G and playing new songs for the band in their shared green room, Tomberlin reached out to Alex Giannascoli and his bandmate Sam Acchione to produce the EP’s four original tracks. She recorded her new songs in Giannascoli’s Philadelphia apartment alongside Acchione and frequent collaborator Molly Germer. The fleshed out sound lends a sense of urgency to tracks like “Wasted,” an uptempo romp across the kind of thorny relationship that withholds as much as it gives, and “Sin,” a song that applies reclaimed Christian imagery to an unorthodox romantic partnership. “I don’t mind sinning if it’s with you,” Tomberlin sings against washes of violin and brushed cymbals. “Say a prayer/Lay your hands on me/I just wanna be clean.”
“I wrote ‘Sin’ while living at my parents’ home and exploring my queerness, but afraid to make it too obvious,” Tomberlin says. “It’s definitely using imagery that gets used against queer people, but making a joke out of it. That’s a thing with queer people. We all use humor to deflect our pain.”
Tomberlin’s ability to pan across the general disaster of human relationality and then zoom in on an effervescent moment of pure intimacy is one of her greatest strengths as a songwriter. Queer people get shuttered under the label of sin by the wider world, and yet despite that brand they steal moments of love and healing for themselves. Love is, generally speaking, a wellspring of pain and dysfunction, but look at the moments where it works. “It’s all sacrifice and violence, the history of love,” Tomberlin sings on EP opener “Hours,” “But remember when we stayed up/And took turns playing songs?” The camera zooms in, and magic alights on the people who suddenly take up the whole frame.
You can refuse the mystery of how people manage to be among each other, or you can delight in what it offers, no matter how fleeting. Tomberlin opts for delight every time. Hers are songs for people who, despite the turmoil of the world at large, despite the weight of its sadness, unshield themselves and fall into wonder.
Optimism seemed to come about indirectly, almost in passing, a feeling of being in-between things. Iwas really mobile at that time, living wherever. Half the songs came through in a week. “Jordan”perhaps the most out of the blue… sitting there as I was on my brother’s couch in Austin. But I guess Idon’t think that anything comes from nowhere. Everything is writing to me. A grad professor once toldme that masturbation is writing, as long as you’re looking out a window.I had just discovered, late, Raymond Carver Broadcast, Sybil Baier (which “Tonight” is more or lessdedicated to), Annette Peacock, Richard & Linda Thompson, a short story called “Car Crash WhileHitchhiking” by Denis Johnson. I had “Heart Needs a Home” in mind, “The Great Valerio;” I was justreally moving through the world, hanging in the shadows of the people I wanted to be. Hoping, lookingout, this is Optimism. I was looking for anything.In 2018, I took these ten songs into a studio in Austin with some members of the band Knife in theWater. I’d been singing with them at the time and it felt right. My friend Ian, who I’d been performingwith as a duo for a few years, was with me on drums. “Friends Again” and “Jordan” were written in theprocess. “Jordan” was such an outlier, I thought: I can’t put this on the album. Then at some point in therecording process, decided to embrace it–the question of whether spiritual themes should be a part ofmy work–which wouldn’t even be a question now. It’s in everything. But at the time, youknow, it wasthe first time, and so the song kind of scared me, like I was a mule for it instead of its owner.