Tom Brosseau – The Lo-fessional
Tom Brosseau wants to get something straight about his much-written-about vocal style. “I don’t agree that my voice is effeminate,” says the 28-year-old over drip coffee at the Back Door Bakery in Los Angeles. “I’ve been compared so much to Jeff Buckley, but he had that Led Zeppelin influence in his singing, but he goes way above and beyond what I do. When I think of my own voice I think of Roy Orbison. He had an operatic voice but I don’t think anyone would call him effeminate.”
It’s easy to see why such comparisons pop up when it comes to Brosseau’s spare, delicate prairie trill. Besides Orbison, he names Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson as influences. In song, it’s the equivalent of Jimmie Rodgers’ high lonesome croon or a thin Dust Bowl quaver from an obscure field recording. It contains, as one reviewer more charitably described, “a hundred years’ worth of heartache.”
Upon his arrival in San Diego in 2001 from Grand Forks, North Dakota, Brosseau was embraced almost overnight by the city’s coffeehouse royalty, including Gregory Page (with whom he formed the duo American Folk Singers), Angela Correa (with whom he recorded a self-released CD called Popular Songbook) and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins.
John Doe encouraged him to move north to Los Angeles, where his uncanny luck repeated itself. Brosseau fell in with the heady crowd at L.A.’s singer-songwriter mecca Largo, where he met Jon Brion, Glen Phillips and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench. Sam Jones, director of the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, wandered into the club one night was so impressed by Brosseau’s set that he not only hooked him up with Seattle’s Loveless Records but also produced Brosseau’s 2005 release for the label, What I Mean To Say Is Goodbye.
The album was one of last year’s sublime pleasures, particularly the opener “West Of Town”, an eerie snapshot of surviving the Red River flood of April 1997, which destroyed the Brosseau family home and displaced over 60,000 fellow Grand Fork residents.
Brosseau’s songs are notable not only for their emotional honesty and deft avoidance of traditional folk structures (Doe dubbed them “prog-folk”), but because they sound as if he is singing them in a hotel room in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. It isn’t that far from the truth. His eponymous 2002 release (a.k.a. The Blue Album) was recorded over two days in Gregory Page’s apartment. The subsequent Late Night At Largo was recorded in one session with a single microphone after the club had closed for the evening. What I Mean To Say Is Goodbye was recorded at Sam Jones’ informal home studio in Topanga.
While such “lo-fessionalism” (Page’s term) might seem like a cliched bid for veracity, it actually is a reflection of Brosseau’s childhood. His grandfather, Dean Brosseau, was in an old-timey band called Buck & the Buccaneers and kept a makeshift recording studio in his basement. “Every other weekend we’d all drive up to Drayton and Grandpa Dean would give us all haircuts in the barber chair he kept in the basement,” Brosseau recalls. “Then he’d put on a nice pair of slacks, his cowboys boots and cowboy hat, white button-down shirt, pour himself a whiskey water — more whiskey than water, actually — and we’d all gather in the basement and sing songs.”
Those family basement sessions introduced Brosseau to a wider palette than just traditional folk or country songs; the repertoire included Pat Boone’s “Love Letters In The Sand” and “Moody River” (“Your muddy waters took my baby’s life”), “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano” by the Ink Spots, and Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”.
What he took from the Tin Pan Alley composers, in particular, was the concept of deceptive simplicity. “Pete Seeger always said that, ‘Anybody can write a complicated song, but it takes skill to write a simple song,’ and I think that’s indicative of the songwriters of that era,” Brosseau observes. “When it comes down to it, they are able to take something that everyone is able to identify with and make it simple, boil it down.”
Although his new album Empty Houses Are Lonely will be released by FatCat Records in the U.K. and Europe in March (with a U.S. release to follow shortly), Brosseau seems more excited about Loveless’ concurrent re-release of The Blue Album, which contains “I Tune My Guitar To The Hum Of The Train”, the first song he ever wrote.
“It sort of hearkens back to a more naive time in my life, before I really knew how to structure a song,” Brosseau says. “Now I know how to structure songs a little more cohesively, but in some way that rawer form of myself no longer exists. I can never quite be the musician I was then, just as I can’t be the musician I am now four years from now. I think that even when you develop, you’re always leaving something behind.”