Tom Brosseau Sings Old-Timey Songs About Cellphones and Olive Gardens
Tom Brosseau is a singer-songwriter who talks of his tour dates as “personal appearances.” In his songs, women are “gals”; vacations, “holidays.” And on his latest album, North Dakota Impressions (out Sept. 16 on Crossbill Records), homespun details like malted milk and his grandmother’s Cadillac are scattered throughout like prairie hayseed.
In Los Angeles, where he lived for over a decade, his blushy Midwesterner demeanor could easily be construed as an act. But Brosseau, who's from Grand Forks, North Dakota, has hair more the color of pale straw than platinum blond, and his anecdotes are too plainspoken for most irony-loving hipsters. Home state pride is something he wears without much fuss, like his buttoned-up, collared shirts and dark blue jeans.
“I’ve always wanted to do music and write, and I think in order to do that I had to leave,” Brosseau says, speaking from his parent’s home in Grand Forks, where his mother answered the phone. “Over the course of me leaving and growing up a little bit more, I figured what I like to write about most is North Dakota and the prairie scene.”
It wasn’t long after Brosseau moved to California, in 2001, that he began to explore this idea in earnest. His first album, released in 2002 when he was living in San Diego, is a collection of sparse acoustic songs titled North Dakota. He moved to L.A. in 2003 and a few years later released his fifth album (he's quite prolific), Grand Forks, about the town’s devastating 1997 flood. His latest three, Grass Punks, Perfect Abandon and North Dakota Impressions — recorded with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins, frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, and Watkins again, respectively — form a North Dakota trilogy, exploring an emerging folklore in the process.
“I’m kind of a quiet guy. I feel like I’m able to move about without anybody ever really noticing me, and I think because of that I’ve been able to concentrate on just being an observer," says Brosseau. "It’s funny, I’ll classify myself as a North Dakota songwriter, [but] it’s almost as though I’m writing about a mythological place, too. Much of it is real, but a lot of it, [you] just can’t help your imagination with coming up with new avenues about the same place.”
“Stuck on the Roof Again,” from 2014’s Grass Punks, he explains, was inspired by Marilyn Hagerty, the 90-year-old Grand Forks Herald columnist who wrote a 2012 review of the local Olive Garden, a story that was widely circulated on the internet and satirized for its small-town purview.
“Marilyn is kind of a buddy of mine. People do know who she is because of that review she wrote, but there’s just so much more to her,” he says.
On his new album, “A Trip to Emerado” hitches a memory of a car trip with his grandmother to imagery of a domestic drone program recently launched near Grand Forks. Talk-singing, he relates the story over the gentle clip of his guitar: “Recently, one of these drones helped locate the whereabouts of a wanted man on a 3,600-acre field. Now just think of that: all that space and still nowhere to run.”
Brosseau’s songwriting is further distinguished by his voice, a starched, dry tenor that sometimes cracks into a short yodel, or holds sustained notes in a feather-light vibrato. His versatile guitar style compliments the effect, incorporating complicated finger picking, repetitive or rhythmic strumming, and unhurried, free explorations from song to song.
You’d think he might have been raised on the cowboy songs of Eddy Arnold or Sons of the Pioneers, but growing up, he was more aware of the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.
“They were all so skilled at writing, and I liked that they were able to be timeless, yet at the same time kind of commented on what’s happening right now.”
His song “Cradle Your Device,” from Grass Punks, is one of his more recognizable takes on this idea: “Blue teeth/Strained eyes/You bite your lip and bow your head/I only wish you’d pay as much attention to me/When we’re in bed/I mean I’m wearing next to nothing, I even put on a little spice/I long for you to hold me in your arms/But instead, you cradle your device.”
So diverse are Brosseau’s subjects — from cellphone addiction and catastrophic fires (“The Horses Will Not Ride, The Gospel Won’t Be Spoken”), to a reverie in a Dairy Queen (“Today Is a Bright New Day”) and the existential dreaminess of “You Can’t Stop” — at times he seems more time traveller than troubadour, a voice that drifts into old-time folk tropes as effortlessly as it considers the issues of modern times.
Brosseau muses on this. “I think, maybe, therein lies the craft — being able to comment, but not being [so] tied down that ... a year later it’s out of date, or it’s changed. I really just love that quality; that’s what I strive to do.”
So what’s next for this native North Dakotan who just wrapped the last in a three-part series about his home state? Perhaps it was inevitable: He’s moved back to Grand Forks, where he’s living with his parents until he figures out the plan.
He has a few ideas, and is considering buying a place by the railroad tracks, across from the historic opera house Mark Twain reportedly once visited.
His visits with Hagerty are more frequent now, too. “She came over for dinner last month,” he says. “My mom has this great cole slaw recipe called ‘Don’t Scare the Cabbage Cole Slaw,’ and we all sat down and had this meal and a beer. Marilyn is not afraid to drink a beer.”
Tom Brosseau returns to L.A. for an album release "personal appearance" at the Sanctuary in Santa Monica on Friday, Sept. 23. More info.
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