Week in Pop: Body Song, Scarves, Tom Brosseau

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Tom Brosseau

Tom Brosseau live at Cafe Pop & Torgal, Orense, Spain November 2016; photographed by Federico Álvarez.
Tom Brosseau live at Cafe Pop & Torgal, Orense, Spain November 2016; photographed by Federico Álvarez.

Heading out on a west coast tour this February with Crossbill Records labelmate Garrett Pierce; North Dakota artist Tom Brosseau presents a premiere listen & view to his previously unreleased song, “Don’t Tell Me”. Recorded during the North Dakota Impressions sessions, Tom concentrates & channels plenty of feeling with every single solitary strum that is struck with purpose. Like the passions & pointed feelings imbricated within every song & release from Mr. Brosseau; Tom tells things like they are, where the most inexplicable & ineffable areas of the heart are illuminated with a candle-lit cadence that creates a genuine timeless presence of familiarity. The North Dakota artist casts a light on the vagaries that we all can relate to from our own life experiences where everything from hesitation to confrontation with everything we both know, or don’t understand exists on an extended plane of existence that emulates our own understood realities & rheumatism about the arrivals & departures of amour & it’s infinite evolutionary cycles.
Tom Brosseau’s debut for “Don’t Tell Me” from the recording sessions for North Dakota Impressions provides an ultra-personal, never before heard single that deals with what happens after one has sacrificed everything for someone who doesn’t them anymore. Between sparse chords strummed on an acoustic, Tom contributes harmonica accompaniment that tells the heart-wrought tale of hope that a lover will change their mind (no matter how long it may take) where the feeling of confronting a loved on at a crossroads brings the audience to that decisive turning-point of staying or going. The heartbreak hits home when Tom sings the lines like, “I have forsaken for you everything, and that’s alright with me, but don’t tell me, don’t tell me…but I already know you don’t love this heart any more.” The ways of unrequited give & take are put on prominent display with a maudlin arrangement that respects all involved parties & feelings as the waterworks are triggered with the closing verse; “shall I wait for you to change your mind, however long it takes, do you wish for me to just go away? I would surely die, no….don’t tell me….” Tom Brosseau hones in on the most difficult discussions & moments imaginable with an unflinching honesty & courageousness that deals with the most difficult fall-outs of the heart head-on in a valiant manner.

The live visuals for “Don’t Tell Me” find Tom Brosseau sitting stationary & singing out a solemn song about words & ways that wish to rather not be expressed. Filmed by Georgie D’Albiac-Brewin at The Basement in York, UK; Brosseau’s acoustic guitar strums & stripped-down song sings out in an earnest & respectful protest against intuitive the break-up terms presented by a former lover. The sentiments like the strings reverberate & bounce off the surrounding walls, floor & ceiling of the basement where Brosseau’s heart & soul strong soliloquy is given the entire subterranean space to inhabit for the duration of “Don’t Tell Me”. The compendium of gathered desires & wishes is heard like a live & living scrapbook where the dramas of yesterday & today become the novellas & b-side compilations of tomorrow. Following the debut viewing & listen, read our candid interview with none other than the legendary Tom Brosseau.

Describe for us what the North Dakota Impressions sessions were like and any favorite anecdotes that have stayed with you.
I recorded North Dakota Impressions in Silverlake and Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, California over a period of about a year. This album was to be the third in a trilogy of albums, and while I was hoping to release it the year following Perfect Abandon there was no real rush. I had the feeling that once Sean Watkins and I got the first song down the rest would come in a steady manner.
The sessions were fun. Work, but fun. There was no deadline and so there was no pressure. I’m never too keen on just getting right to work. I like to ease into it, almost forget about it. Sean and I might first have a cup of coffee, gab about this and that, get a taco down the street, listen to a vinyl or two of folk music, and then record. I’ve always liked how making music is just an excuse to hang out.
What can you tell us about the inspirations and feelings that informed “Don’t Tell Me”?
“Don’t Tell Me” I wrote in 2002 while living at the Hawthorne, a residential hotel in the San Diego, California neighborhood of Bankers Hill. Often when I finish a song I’ll put it away and go on to the next one. I wrote lots at the Hawthorne. Most have been put away. Lately I’ve been wondering my purpose as a songwriter. I’ve been looking to my past compositions for answers, especially the ones I put away. “Don’t Tell Me” has reminded me of the days when I would wonder, search and hope, dream. It has reminded me that no matter how colorful I am, still I’m a ghost. That’s a benefit to a writer. You can slip along and take note of daily activity undisturbed.
At the Hawthorne, I rented a single room. It had one window and a small closet. There was no kitchen. The bathroom was a community bathroom. I worked the opening shift at a coffee kiosk on the grounds of the San Diego Naval Medical Center. My dream was to be a touring singer-songwriter.
I could open my window, but in order to get a good breeze my door needed to be propped open at the same time. The problem was the guy directly opposite me, on the other side of the hall, a hairy, roly-poly man. He had the same dilemma. Ventilation at the Hawthorne was poor and no two doors could be open at once. If I had my window and door open it would create a suction so strong that it would slam his door shut. And vice versa, when his door and window were open my door would slam shut. You might say we fought for the breeze. Eventually I gave up. While having my door open cut into my privacy, and with it shut I had no fresh air, I preferred not having to catch a glimpse of the roly-poly man, who had a tendency to lounge around in nothing but underpants.
Bankers Hill is beautiful and historic with its Victorian houses, Balboa Park, clear views of San Diego bay, but the drawback is its proximity to the San Diego International Airport. The Hawthorne rested directly below all incoming planes. At any moment I could look out my window and the planes would be lined up for days. It was deafeningly loud and every plane that passed overhead deposited a thin mist of soul infiltrating exhaust. I seemed to be a prisoner in my own space. Not at all what you might call an inspiring environment. But I did become a more disciplined writer.
“Don’t Tell Me” is about wanting to know and not wanting to know something at the same time, probably because the truth is already there and hard to accept. It stems from a relationship I once had with a gal I was friends with. She was cool in every way, beautiful, and I thought true. My feelings for her eventually developed into something more. When we hung out I felt like I was falling. One day she gave me a letter and made me promise not to open it. I locked it in the glove box of my car and spent many nights aimlessly driving around town wondering about it. The mystery of it burned a hole in me. But I suspected it was a love letter, I suspected she loved me, too. The day she asked for it back I was certain it had all been a test of my will power and dedication and that she’d be impressed because the letter had remained perfectly sealed and I didn’t so much as put one tiny crease in it. But no. You should’ve opened it, she’d told me. In it was one word, the word yes. You were to ask me what yes meant and I would’ve told you yes I’ll marry you. Enough time has gone by now where I no longer care, but I still don’t understand why she insisted on telling me what was in that letter.
Tom Brosseau hanging out in old-town San Diego; photographed by Carey Braswell.
Tom Brosseau hanging out in old-town San Diego; photographed by Carey Braswell.

Interested in hearing too about working with Georgie D’Albiac-Brewin at The Basement in York, UK for the live rendering.
I’ve worked with many talented filmmakers. Hope Hall, Maria Mochnacz, Andrew van Baal, and most recently Georgie D’Albiac-Brewin. Perhaps what these filmmakers share in common is that they’re just happy to be behind the camera, it doesn’t matter where or when. Georgie, I’ve observed, is diligent and patient, and willing. She’s not so much filming as she is ready to capture a behavior, like a wildlife photographer. In that sense, I would say she’s a true documentarian. There was really no plan for us other than to meet at The Basement in York, England. When we discovered the storage area where we ended up shooting “Don’t Tell Me”, it seemed destined. Georgie and filmmakers alike have the capacity to allow things to happen.
What has been guiding your own creative intuition as of late?
Intuition or motivation? Intuition seems like something not guided. Or if it is guided it’s guided by God. Intuition is there, partially there or lost. For it to be there all you need to do is be an open person. Perhaps what I’m saying is I believe in God. My creative motivation, on the other hand, is driven by my sense of death.
How have you noted the way your own songwriting process has grown over the years?
I am much more okay with repetition.
What else has been cooking in the world of Tom Brosseau?
Sean Watkins and I are in the studio again. This time we’re recording the songs of the Original Carter Family. I’ve been playing the part of song selector and Sean’s been focusing on the arrangements. The idea is to highlight some of the lessor known Carter family songs and give them a new sound. The Carter catalogue is a true treasure, one of the greatest contributions to the American folksong book, and I am so passionate about it.
Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a live album, produced by a friend of mine, Christoph Hermann. I’ve wanted to record a live album before, but it’s a nerve-racking proposition. A combination of things need to happen. You need to be playing and singing well. You need decent recording equipment, you need an engineer. You need an audience. Once you’re confident you’ve got these things situated you may very well have a nice recording on your hands when you are finished. In my case, I had someone like Christoph Hermann to take care of most of it. And I am grateful. I have only been able to get so far alone. Big hearts and big believers have helped me along the way.
Tom Brosseau and Garrett Pierce’s “Dusk” West Coast Tour Dates:
16 Hattie’s Hat – Ballard, WA
17 Benson Amps – Portland, OR
18 The Center for the Arts (Off Center Stage) – Grass Valley
19 House Show – Oakland
21 Private Event
22 WAL Public Market – Sacramento
23 Delta of Venus – Davis
24 The Lost Church – SF
25 West County Herb Company – Occidental
26 House Show – Napa
03 The Sanctuary – Santa Monica
04 North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe – San Diego
05 Certain Sparks Music – Lompoc
Tom Brosseau’s North Dakota Impressions is available now from Crossbill Records.