by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau moves through the world and comes to his art at a pace and a pitch unlike most others. Maybe it’s that he’s from North Dakota. Maybe it’s that he’s an old-school folkie. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither. Doesn’t matter, really. What he offers up, musically, is something special. His latest release, North Dakota Impressions, completes the trilogy started with Grass Punks and Perfect Abandon, and continues his partnership with Sean Watkins as producer. It’s an interesting and introspective song cycle, in typical Brosseau fashion.
Kelly McCartney: Quaint small towns and simple, humble lives are very often the punchlines of jokes — except in election years when those values get waved around on flagpoles. Why do you think we have such a push-pull relationship with the Heartland way of life?
Tom Brosseau: Local news reporter and family friend, Marilyn Hagerty, was over to my parents’ house for dinner the other week when I was home visiting. My father grilled, my mother made her famous “don’t scare the cabbage” coleslaw, and we all drank a cold Grain Belt beer. It was a nice evening. We ate on the back deck.
Ever inquisitive and interested in relation to my new album, North Dakota Impressions, Marilyn wondered what I thought was so funny to non-North Dakotans about North Dakota. That was her particular take on the meaning of my new album title, anyway, and to be honest, I didn’t quite know how to respond. But I could see what she was getting at. In the past, while on tour, I’ve been asked where I’m from and when I say North Dakota, people seem to be so caught up in the idea of a state that far north that they’ll let out a little laugh, like their funny button just got brushed.
The search for community and connection are at the heart of social media… which often pulls people away from their actual communities and connections. What role do you see your music — or music, in general — playing to help tether folks to what’s true?
One of the more interesting aspects of music these days is vinyl. You might say it’s made a comeback. I used to be a record store hound at Budget Music in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Vinyl had, at the point I started buying music, been phased out. Completely. Today, half the store is devoted to it.
The vinyl enthusiasts appreciate the physicality of music. The relative expansiveness of the album artwork, the actual weight of the vinyl itself, and, since it seems vinyl manufacturers are boutique, they piece it all together bit by bit, and feature special colors and packaging. There’s much to marvel at.
As a recording artist, it’s a pleasure to have my music on vinyl. It makes me feel like I’ll never die. Vinyl is like stone.
Home, for many people, is equated with a specific place. But it can also be a state of mind and heart that is carried along. Which is it for you? Or is it something else entirely?
When I’m away from North Dakota, I can feel it in my heart and, when I’m in North Dakota, I can feel it in my heart. It’s better to be in North Dakota.
Talk to me about working with Sean Watkins. How’d that feel? What did he bring, as an artist/producer, that someone else might not have offered?
Sean Watkins produced my 2014 Crossbill Records release, Grass Punks. The work ethic we created for that album transferred to North Dakota Impressions. But then, it was a whole new deal. A whole new deal because this time around we knew just what to expect from one another, and that meant we needed to figure out a way to stay distracted enough in order to be magical.
Folk music can be very much like the Bible. So much of everything — literature, art, culture, quoting — is based on the Bible. In music — pop, country, rock — so much goes back to folk music, and Sean grew up with folk music. So it’s like he has these laws instilled in him that he follows. Ask me how it feels to work with Sean, and I have to say it feels very truthful.
This album is the final installment of a trilogy, so where do you go next, artistically speaking?
Home, identity and local. These are at the heart of Grass Punks, Perfect Abandon, and North Dakota Impressions. But my work here is just beginning! I’ll continue to explore these themes. In the work of others, like the Carter Family, for a covers album, and in my own work, too. Maybe for my next solo album, I’ll head west for new material, to the oil fields, and see what else I can find.