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An interview with Tom Brosseau – introducing new album Grass Punks

From North Dakota to Los Angeles, down to earth musician Tom Brosseau has travelled far, but his music is still embedded within the sweet sighs of the plains.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Tom Brosseau, Green Punks by Kerry-Leslie

Tom Brosseau, Green Punks by Kerry-Leslie.

LA resident and folk troubadour Tom Brosseau hails all the way from the enigmatic sounding Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Grass Punks is his first solo release in 5 years and his 7th studio album to date. It draws on universal themes of emptiness, false dreams, loyalty, betrayal and perseverance to paint a subtle picture of a life where sweetness is shot through with pain. The album title was taken from a phrase belonging to a San Diego based artist who would perform her soft, low voiced poetry over cafard melodies on the piano.

Tom Brosseau

How did music infiltrate your life from an early age, and what are your fondest memories of this time?
My uncle Jon played the piano, and he played it well, a lawyer-pianist, though pianist, that was his métier. Still plays. Check out one of his albums, Some Ragtime, Blues, Boogie & more.
The radio provided me a broader spectrum of music: Oldies, Country & Western, Rock, Pop. My hometown, Grand Forks, North Dakota, had the university, UND, so I grew up listening to college, which introduced to me contemporary singer-songwriters, like Suzanne Vega, Iris Dement, Traci Chapman, and Alt-country, like Son Volt, Grant Lee Buffalo.
MTV was very important to me, the supreme form of musical expression, especially the early days, when the videos and the tone of the songs were in good tandem, like “Tom’s Diner” and “Rockit”. Then there seemed to develop this tradition of incorporating film footage or photos within the video, mild aggression, and sometimes something burning, like Shock the Monkey by Peter Gabriel, The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get by Morrissey, Sunny Came Home by Shawn Colvin, Nearly Lost You by Screaming Trees. After that, I stopped watching MTV.
The most influence on me, though, was the actual music I learned and sang during school and at church. For instance, at Calvary Lutheran we had sheet music to the John Jacob Niles song, “I Wonder As I Wander”, and because the melody was so haunting, the final “wander” of the refrain had such a lilt to it, this effect seemed to push the song past the church choir room walls, into another realm, and me, into another time and space. Music and singing- my uncle Jon’s playing, the radio, MTV, church- I thought of as truly a magical thing.

Tom Brosseau by Lisa M Dalton

Tom Brosseau by Lisa M. Dalton.

When and why did you decide to live in Los Angeles, and how has this influenced your music making?
I moved to California in early 2001, by way of the Sundance Film Festival, where I held seasonal work in the Logistics department. I was a liaison to the festival volunteers, ran packages of whatever sponsor products from here to there, set up “no parking” signs, cones, blockades. I met a gal there, who also held seasonal work, an SDSU film student, and kind of fell hard for her, traveled back with her after the festival ended to where she lived. That is how I got to San Diego.
But also, I moved by way of the wind. I mean, I was just out there in the world at that time in my life, a young man, like a loose leaf, and like how a leaf then trembles before it is carried away by the wind, this is how I landed in California.

Tom Brosseau Grass Punks album cover

What was the process of making the Grass Punks album?
I had composed a good deal of songs in between Posthumous Success and the making of Grass Punks, so when Sean Watkins and I got together, and because we weren’t bound by anything- not time, not money, because there was no deadline, there was no budget- we began every session with one song, and one song only, working on the arrangement of that song at the kitchen table of Sean’s house, near the 101 Highway, Hollywood, California. Cradle Your Device, the track that kicks off the album, was in fact the first song we recorded. It’s a one string song when I play it solo, but sitting at the kitchen table at Sean’s, playing him this tune, by the second pass he had already come up with a complete, distinctive part on his acoustic guitar, which, on the recording, the way he picks his guitar in relation to what I’m doing on my guitar, sounds like something off a Washington Phillips record.

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Tom Brosseau – Today Is A Bright New Day.

You’ve toured and worked with an amazing roster of musicians, do you have any stories you could share from your time on the road?
I think I have mainly kept my eyes open, my mouth closed when I’ve traveled with some of the folks I’ve traveled with. Probably if you were to ask some of these artists their impression of me they either wouldn’t recall I was ever there or they’d say, “Yeah, quiet kid, stuck to himself.” I’m afraid what I could offer here would be more on the shorter side of an anecdote or less, eye-blink observations, interesting only to me. Allow me to remain silent, spare your readers the banality;-)

Tom Brosseau by Sangita Kumari

Tom Brosseau by Sangita Kumari.

Are there any great unsung American folk artists we should know about (but probably don’t)?
Bradley Kincaid.

Tom Brosseau by Ruth Ferrier

Tom Brosseau by Ruth Ferrier.

What are you most looking forward to when you return to the UK?
The travel, people, the food.

Grass Punks by Tom Brosseau is released in the UK on Tin Angel Records.


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