Interview: Singer/Songwriter Tom Brosseau
If you’ve been to Largo in the past few years, chances are you’ve seen and heard Tom Brosseau. The 33-year-old singer/songwriter is a fixture among the cabal of regulars (Sara Watkins, John C. Reilly and of course, Jon Brion among them) gracing the venue’s stage. In fact, the cover of his latest album, Posthumous Success, is a kind of shout-out to his Largo family, featuring a photo of Brosseau chatting at a party alongside Watkins and Largo co-owner Mark Flanagan.
Brosseau’s music features heartfelt and quirky lyrics, which he delivers in a high-pitched, wavering voice that has become his signature. The half dozen albums he has released since 2002 have showcased that voice in spare and largely acoustic offerings that nonetheless colorfully evoke his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. His latest album adds full instrumentation (Drums! Synths!), yet manages to retain the unique character that has made Brosseau a local indie-music darling.
But his recorded work is only mild preparation for the warmth and geniality one experiences at his live shows. Brosseau is arguably the most charming musician routinely gracing LA stages today. Always affable and routinely comedic, he will sometimes stop in the middle of a song, proclaim “nah, I really don’t wanna play that one, you guys wanna see a trick?” before trailing off into a brief monologue while he tinkers with his guitar or fumbles through the application of his harmonica holder. It’s far from an annoying experience, as the audience is made to feel like they are privy to the inner neuroses of the songwriting experience while being walked through a lovely set of music demonstrating his country, folk and rock influences.
Brosseau forgoes a car, instead riding a bike or taking the bus, though his doing so is far from an effort to be seen as clever or cool. “I gave up my car and started taking the bus,” he announced to a crowd one evening in Largo’s Little Room. “That was a bad idea. I just wanted to tell you all, don’t do that.”
Not surprisingly, Brosseau arrived by bicycle for this interview, in which he talks about how taking a critical beating in Nashville furthered his career, why he doesn’t consider himself a folk artist and why he isn’t opposed to the idea of covering R. Kelly songs.
I have to ask. Are you still hoofing it around LA?
(laughs) Yes. I miss my car terribly. I really do. I had actually inherited a car from my grandmother. It was a newer Cadillac, and it was too expensive to keep it up. My grandmother fell and broke her hip and wasn’t able to drive, so I inherited this car. And right from the get-go, every time you brought it in for service, it cost an arm and a leg. And I was tired of it. And the circle I started running with, everyone was into the whole green thing. So I thought, this made sense for me to give my car up. I’ve been taking the bus for over a year now. And I really love it. But I just kind of miss getting in the car and really having no particular place to go. Having the freedom to do something by myself. On the bus you’re always with people. But that’s great too.
Tell me about your journey to LA. Your earlier records are so evocative of your home, North Dakota. What brought you from Grand Forks to LA?
I think that some people stay in their little towns and they take on their family business. I have friends whose parents own car dealerships and things like that. Or you go to college somewhere and that becomes your home away from home. I always loved show business and singing. Getting a college degree was always something to appease my parents, I guess. So I knew that the moment I graduated from college I’d leave. I just didn’t know where.
I went to the University of North Dakota. Then a small Catholic School in St. Paul, Minnesota, called St. Thomas. I settled played open mics there at places like the Artists Quarter. But the grandest open mics of them all were in Nashville, Tennessee. If you were a serious songwriter, then you had to go to Nashville. So I went and lived there for a while. And I did this open mic. And it was very discouraging. You try out for these judges, then they’d tell you if you were good enough to do a show.
I still used my parent’s home address back then, so a letter came to their house saying “sorry, but you didn’t make the cut.” But you get good, constructive criticism, and you’re either discouraged and hate the world, or you reinvent yourself, you get better and you get thick skin.
How was your sound different before Nashville?
It was very simple. The songs that I was writing back then, they’re just like two and a half minute songs. I tried to write close to Cole Porter. So, it was pretty simple stuff. Then I discovered this dark side. And I started going to it more and more, and I slowly began to start really writing songs. Not even songs. More like stories. That was when I started reinventing myself. But it came from being discouraged and failing in other people’s eyes.
A lot of your musical influences are obvious. But considering how so many of your songs fall into a kind of storytelling category, what are some of your literary influences?
I didn’t really get into books until high school. Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It was so creative and imaginative. Then later, I got into some poetry. Like Edgar Lee Masters. And I got the idea that that was where I wanted to go. I loved the idea of taking a poem like that and setting it to music. It seemed like it would work. Literature today really plays a big role.
So what about modern authors?
I try to read more female authors. Like Joan Didion. I always try to read The Paris Review to stay up on modern authors. But I’m worried about print’s future.
Did you hear that Kirkus Review closed?
No, I didn’t know that.
Editor & Publisher as well.
I mean, what’s gonna happen? It’s kinda sad.
It is. Okay, bringing it back to music. You’ve done some really great covers during your sets at Largo. Do you have any favorites?
One that I really love. A Waterboys song. Has Anybody Here Seen Hank? It was written for Hank Williams, but it could be about any country star or songwriter who has put their life on the line. That did something to themselves. Maybe drugs or alcohol. So that song really meant something to me. I love singing it, and sometimes I feel like it’s my song. Like I wrote it. It’s something I think I could’ve written.
Have you ever considered doing covers way outside the genre? And R&B song perhaps? There’s always R. Kelly…
I certainly would do it. I listen to all kinds of music. I listened to NWA, Easy E growing up. Partly because of the Parental Advisory sticker, but I also feel like at that time, that was close to cult music. So, yes, definitely.
I think collaborations are interesting too. Michael Macdonald collaborated with Grizzly Bear. It was just like an odd pairing, but it works. And when you hear it, you’re reminded that it’s music. Why wouldn’t it work?
Some of the oddest pairings seem to work. Jon Brion has proven that with his shows. A lot of it is just having the balls and having the guts to put your own spin on a different genre.
Well, you should get together a bunch of your friends and cover the R. Kelly song Pregnant.
I haven’t heard that one.
It’s R. Kelly, Tyrese and Robin Thicke. It’s almost an R&B supergroup. Like a very nasty Traveling Wilburys. The lyrics are freaky, of course. But vocally, it’s great.
I’ll check it out!
How old were you when you wrote some of the songs on your earlier albums? There is such a childlike innocence to it, it feels like you were very young.
Oh yeah. I was 20 when I wrote most of the songs for the Blue Record. There was definitely an inexperience about life there, but I love that.
Your music is often classified as folk. Are you comfortable with that? I made a Tom Brosseau station on Pandora, and I have to say, the other songs it played didn’t match up too well.
No, I don’t consider myself a folk artist. Funny you should mention Pandora. My girlfriend, Kelly, had it on a Tom Brosseau channel last night. I was curious what it would play.
I mean, it often works well. But with your station, it doesn’t.
I concur. If I could design my own channel, I don’t think there would be that much folk on it. There would be Kronos Quartet. The Heat Soundtrack. I’m a Philip Glass fan. I like to see myself like that. But there’s always how you see yourself and how it really is. For all I know, the most appropriate a Tom Brosseau songbook is to match it up with a certain vocal range, or some guy with a high voice. I’m not that into folk.
Lastly, I wanted to ask about your history of odd jobs. Garbage man. Barista. Did you have a favorite?
Landscaping. I loved that. There are a lot of good lessons to be learned from doing manual labor.
And landscaping was great. It’s kind of like songwriting in a way, ya know? You’re constructing something, taking out the bad parts. Hopefully enjoying yourself. And you’re crafting something. It’s only recently as I’ve started having more success that I’ve had the cushion to actually sit down and spend more time writing.
Writers are crazy people. Most people can’t handle that kind of solitude. I see people complain about their jobs. And once they don’t have a steady thing, people go crazy. CRAZY. It’s a damned lonely life.
Tom Brosseau plays tomorrow (March 20) at 8pm at Largo at the Coronet's "Song Cycle" alongside Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, Benmont Tench and many others. The host is actor/musician John C. Reilly. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.