“Fear is easy, everything else is hard,” Erin Tobey sings steadily on the second track of her forthcoming Middlemaze after having harped on her youth and fearlessness on the song prior. Actually older than she lets on in the opener “I’m Young”, the Bloomington artist can tell us that fear doesn’t always leave. It’s something to fight back against for the rest of your life, but it’s worth it for everything else, and Tobey has done a lot of everything else.
In the decade since her stunning solo debut, which combined intimate lyricism and roomy electric guitar arrangements, Erin Tobey has played and toured in Bloomington acts like Mt. Gigantic and the scuzzy lo-fi duo Brenda’s Friend. She’s also gotten married and settled down, and she’s worked on her second solo album with her husband Jeff Grant and brother Matt Tobey. But Middlemaze is a reflection on the confusion that remains even in settling down—how when you get past the beginning some things settle but the muddle of living doesn’t always lessen in the ways you might expect it to when you’re younger.
Tobey’s weapon is metaphor. With pictures from the rural outdoors and from mall security cameras, she makes the maze more endurable. “Loneliness like a kernel in your sneaker / pry it out,” she sings on “Lonely Daughter”, her voice supple and calm, and suddenly loneliness is something tangible to dispose of. Meanwhile love is a lever with which to set someone free, and constant contact is a vice. Middlemaze has the vastness you could expect from someone who’s gathered experience in many worlds, including the worlds of punk and folk in near equal measure. Some of these songs have the energized country tinge of Jenny Lewis’ songwriting, while others fall into line with Sibylle Baier’s smooth, wrenching folk songs. And there are didactic moments that Tobey wouldn’t have allowed herself ten years ago. Floating over the infectious sway of an organ on “Work It Out”, she runs over the rubric of compromise: “Work it out if we have to talk all night / say what’s wrong but make sure to say what is right.” But even these instructions feel more like a reminder to the self than advice from a wise parental figure—there are things she’s learned, but it doesn’t mean they don’t bear repeating in private every so often. There are some creeping uncertainties that only widen after youth, triggered by the inevitability of death and the failing of relationships. Still, sometimes you have to make peace with the maze, take solace in just being there. So she sings on the penultimate song, “Death to death and death to life / I’m here with you tonight.” We can walk through the thick of things with a comfort that’s lasting, at least for a little while.
Middlemaze is due out June 3 on Let’s Pretend Records and streaming below. We had the chance to speak with Erin Tobey over the phone, and you can scroll down for the interview and dates for her upcoming tour with Stephen Steinbrink.
Impose: Your self-titled came out in 2005, so it’s been ten years. What’s changed for you since your last solo record?
A lot has changed. In 2005, I was living in Bloomington, but I was spending a lot of time in Florida. I recorded that first album down in Florida with some friends of mine. I was like 24, 23, and I was playing a lot of music then and didn’t really have a job, was kind of just traveling around a lot. In 2006 I met this guy Jeff Grant who’s my husband now, who was living in Virginia. So I moved to Virginia, kind of upended my life in Bloomington and ultimately got married 5 or 6 years later. That was a fundamental change that happened in my life, that kind of shifted everything. Not to say that a relationship has to be the central thing in someone’s life, but I was writing songs about ennui in my solo project, and the project was this vehicle for exploring sadness and being lonely and figuring out who I was. And then I fell in love and that was one big shift.
So you worked with your husband and brother on the record too? What was that like? Had you worked with your brother before?
My brother and I have been playing music together since 1998, since he was 13 or 14 and I was like 16. We were in our first band together when we were teenagers, and then we were in another band called Mt. Gigantic, and we spent like 2000 to 2005 traveling together a lot, on tour, playing music together, backing each other up on our respective solo projects and playing in bands. And then I played with Jeff in a band we were in together called Pink Razors after I moved to Richmond—we were in this pop punk band together. This is the first time that the three of us came together, but between all of us we’ve been working on stuff together for 15 or 16 years. It was pretty cool to work on this album with both of them.
Was writing the album a solitary process? In the lyrics you mention isolation, staying in your room. What’s your solo writing process like?
It’s true that it is pretty solitary. Several of the songs—a handful, maybe three or four—were written while driving by myself up to Michigan to visit my parents, who live five hours away in Lansing. I do a lot of writing like that, just recording voice memos on my phone and piecing stuff together over time. Most of the songs will come in chunks, they don’t necessarily all come out at once. But when we decided to record it as a three-piece we worked them all out together. I’d been playing a lot of the songs by myself for a long time, but we rearranged them together. The recording process was pretty collaborative but I still felt like I was in the driver’s seat trying to make sense of everything, which was stressful but also very awesome and a powerful feeling.
Where does the title Middlemaze come from?
Well, it’s a word I made up! As I was recording and thinking about what songs were going to be on the album, I was thinking about what the world of the album was. So much of it is written from the perspective of someone who’s a little older, reflecting on stuff—as I am, from my perspective. You’re somewhere floating in the middle of your life and realizing that when you’re younger you think that there’s some point at which it’ll feel like, “I have arrived! I’ve found it!” and then realizing that that’s never gonna happen, and struggling with that for a while. And then realizing how liberating that is, too. It’s the “life is a journey” cliche, of course, but I guess that’s kind of what it is—accepting that you’re just in the scrum, you’re just in the middle of it. There’s an end, but you can’t see it, and there’s a beginning but you can’t see it, and you’re just thinking about how long life feels sometimes. In a good and a bad way. I don’t know. That sounds super profound.
The question of what comes next—sometimes you don’t really know.
And you can, you start to have a vision of what that is, but you’re also more comfortable with—you know, there’s some stuff I’m not gonna know, and that’s OK.
In “Swallow The Pill” you sing, “It’s not my body’s style to live forever.” I’m interested in the parts of the record that address death in whatever form that might take. Was it an intentional move to go from the invincible feeling of “I’m Young” to more sobering thoughts and revelations on the last few songs?
The thing about “I’m Young” is that it’s a joke, it’s facetious. The whole thing is supposed to be kind of funny. I realize it’s this melodious, melancholic song, but it’s also kind of funny and you’re just looking at the character in the song and seeing how funny it is, in this kind of tragicomic way. There’s one way of looking at it where it’s like, thinking that there’s no end and there’s nothing that can touch you and you have no responsibility to anyone—I don’t know if that’s really in there, but it’s definitely a thought. You’re 22, and then 10 years later you’ve had people around you die, and you’ve started to understand the reality of that, just how hubristic it is to not respect the force of death and the reality of death. I think there is that arc, for sure. It’s classic—how much more classic can you get? But it’s totally what I have been digging on, meditating upon, for a couple years.
Middlemaze is an album about growing older, and you’re in a place at this point where you can impart some of your own wisdom. Who have some of your teachers been, musically or otherwise?
There have been a lot. I think I have quite a few role models here in Bloomington, people I’m close with or admire who I’ve watched maintain a really interesting creative spark as they’ve gotten older, or continued to see themselves as vital and important. I feel like the romanticization of youth is so prevalent. I’m thinking of these friends in Bloomington, the Kupersmiths, who are just a little bit older than us. Chris Kupersmith is an awesome musician, and Jane Kupersmith started a business—these are just some friends of mine who are really inspiring. That’s one kind of person I’ve found inspiring, showing creativity growing up. It’s not just a young person’s game to continue doing stuff.
There are plenty of artists, too, that are only getting awesomer—Neko Case or Gillian Welch are pretty mainstream examples, powerful women who are only getting smarter and better at being musicians. There’s just that hope that if you want to, you can continue getting better and better, and continue having insight. That’s really inspiring to me, it’s fuel for the fire.
You’ll be touring the West Coast with Stephen Steinbrink in June. I was so excited when I heard about that because his music is such a perfect complement to yours.
I love him, too. He’s so wonderful.
What are you most excited about for tour, and in the future?
I’m so excited to play for strangers. I can’t wait. I have been touring a little bit, in the last couple years, with my band Brenda’s Friend, and I also did one solo tour in the last couple years. I just haven’t been doing it as much as I used to, so it feels like—yeah, back in the saddle! I love my friends in Bloomington and I love playing shows here, but there’s something really awesome about being somewhere new and playing for people. I’m really excited to see Stephen every night. I want to see the ocean, I can’t wait. Our first show is going to be on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, so we’re going to take a ferry to get there. Seeing a lot of friends on the West Coast who I haven’t seen in a long time … I don’t know, there’s so much. I’m just really excited. But the future in general? I don’t know, I just feel like something is opening. Inside myself, I guess. It’s a really nice feeling to share something that you’ve been working on for a really long time, but also to let it go. Like, I can move on to the next thing, work on this next batch of songs, etc. I’m feeling good.
Erin Tobey tour dates
04 Bloomington, IN at John Waldron Arts Center
10 Bloomington, IN at Blockhouse (Middlemaze release show)
12 Denver, CO at Larimer Lounge
13 Salt Lake City, UT at Diabolical Records
15 Langley, WA at Make Whidbey
16 Seattle, WA at The Future *
17 Port Townsend, WA at Uptown Pub *
18 Anacortes, WA at Acme *
19 Olympia, WA at Stable Studio *
20 Portland, OR at Turn, Turn, Turn! *
21 Astoria, OR at Albatross *
23 San Francisco, CA at Sylvan Annex *
24 Oakland, CA at Badger Claw Castle *
25 Santa Cruz at Hannover Street Studios *
26 Santa Barbara at Dashain Co-op *
29 Los Angeles, CA at Bootleg Theater *
30 Pomona, CA at Acerogami
* with Stephen Steinbrink