“We try to keep people close”: Lina Tullgren on atmosphere, inspiration, and letting go

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c/o Dan Tabban, 2013

Lina Tullgren has a very cozy presence. It’s a just-barely-30-degrees night in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the heat inside this rustic cafe is fogging up the picture windows from the inside. With the vibrant succulents hanging loosely from the curtain rods, twinkle lights abound, it’s like a cozy greenhouse. Lina, her bandmate, Ty Ueda, and I sit huddled around a shiny wooden table, and as we shed our layers of coats and scarves, it was obvious they were high school best friends– they laugh and reminisce freely, riffing on one another the way you only can with someone who has seen you grow up. This specific tour, they tell me, they organized themselves, and they brought a bunch of their musician friends with them to crash on couches around New England for the week. Their faces, still pink from the cold, light up. They love their friends. “A lot of our friends put out really fantastic records in 2016, which is very lucky,” Lina grins, “It’s super cool to have your friends doing awesome stuff and be able to smile upon each other with gratitude.”

The pair plays their set a few hours later in a similarly warm, tightly-packed hub– a second-story house venue looking out over the silent main street. It’s intimate, and it’s easy to feel out of place in a stranger’s apartment, but everyone is lively and open, starting loud conversations as they perch on scratchy couches and lean against the kitchen counter. As Lina and Ty set up their gear at the far end of the living room, the crowd goes silent and sits on the floor. “Swing low/When you speak, speak low,” Lina sings, fragile and tough in the same syllables. She and Ty strum through songs off of 2016’s Wishlist EP, and the room feels lighter, more soft around the edges. When Lina sings, it’s like she’s singing to her friends. “I wonder how you found now that you’re older again.”

What are the origins of this project, how did it come about?

Lina Tullgren: Me and Ty had been playing music together for a really long time, in different formats. I played the violin and played folk music for a long time, like I played classical violin for a long time and then learned about traditional fiddle music. I grew up in Maine, so I would go to fiddle camp a lot in Northern Maine. I was very much entrenched in this bluegrass and traditional music scene that was cool but really frustrating a lot of the time. And I’ve been writing songs for a while– I started writing songs in 7th grade just for fun on the side, but I always had a very difficult time finding an appropriate outlet for those songs. So I moved to Boston after graduating high school because I had all these friends who were making folk music, but me and Ty [Ueda] had played in an indie rock band in high school, so I was very secure in this folk scene but also could see myself doing other projects. I didn’t really have enough self-confidence and sureness to break into doing something new. But after a year of living on my own, I decided that I had to do something else, so I got an electric guitar and started writing songs on that, and Ty found the guitar on Craigslist. He’s a fiend.

Ty Ueda: Yeah, I’m a big Craigslist addict. I had just bought a bunch of new stuff and I was eager to use it. And we had known each other for so long.

LT: Yeah, so I started writing some songs. I got the guitar and I wrote the song “Watchdog”, which is the first track on the [Wishlist] EP, and then I wrote “Older” after that.

And you released your EP, Wishlist, on cassette?

LT: Yeah, self-released on cassette. We only made like 25, and had a big party for all of our friends where we played the thing and mostly gave them away. (laughs) But it didn’t really cost anything to make, it was really easy and really fun. We were like, “Alright, let’s just do it, cause we want to.”

TU: I think we put down like, $40 for all of the materials. And then only made half of the stuff we ordered. (laughs)

LT: We ordered 66 blank cassettes. I wanted the cassettes to be black and have a clear case, and when we were looking at the website to order them, and I was like, “Huh, these black ones are on sale,” but there were only 66 left.

TU: And you could only get the deal if you bought all of them. (laughs)

LT: Originally I was like, “Let’s make 75 cassettes”, but then we were like, “…66 is also fine?”

That’s like a hardcore number.

LT: Yeah, exactly. So punk. But we never made all of them.

TU: I think they’re actually numbered to 50, and we stopped at like 27. Our dubber broke and we were like, whatever, we have enough.

LT: But it got picked up kind of fast– we released it in mid-March and I sent an email to Captured Tracks that same week. And then it was re-released on vinyl.

When you originally released it, was it just the physical cassette or did you also put it on Bandcamp…?

LT: We put it on Bandcamp as well. That was it, it was very very small. It was more just for me than it was for anybody else at first.

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c/o Bandsintown

What drew you to the cassette format?

LT: It’s really cheap, and if you’re self-funding your project, it’s really the only way to do it. It was mostly just for myself, to put it out and have something out there. For my own sanity, to move on and start making new things. Half of the songs were pretty old by the time we started making the tape, so it was really something that needed to go out so I could keep making different music.

TU: Also, people can get the files from Bandcamp and just burn a CD if they really want to. It’s a whole different operation to make a physical thing. We use an all-analog path for the cassettes.

LT: We knew all of our friends in our community have cassette players in their car, or actual cassette players at their houses.

TU: It was just the most logical thing, really.

It’s definitely a thing that’s coming back, too. Now there are all these cassette labels that are popping up.

TU: Yeah, and they’ve already started to go back out as well, so… (laughs)

LT: Such is the way of the trend.

Is this show tonight part of a bigger tour?

Lina: Yeah, this is the third night. It’s just a week, it’s really chill. It’s with our friend Jaye Bartell, who is on the label Sinderlyn, the Captured Tracks sister label. And also his friend Damien Weber.

That’s cool. I feel like going on tour would be the ultimate forced bonding experience.

LT: It is! You’re put into really cool situations and stressful situations, and I think that’s the best way of figuring out if you wanna be friends with someone. Because either people are really bad at responding to those situations, or they’re alright.

TU: Or they’re really good, just in a totally different way. If we’re ever gonna tour with people it’s like, “Would that even work? Would we even remotely get along with these people?”

Do you usually have control over that, who you tour with? Do you set up your own tours?

LT: This is our first tour. Ty and I have been doing a lot of really short runs over the past 6 months, but this is the first tour that’s more than 3 dates in a row. I set everything up myself. We’re actually doing a longer tour in February that will be about 2 weeks long, and that’s just gonna be the two of us.

You’re from New Hampshire, what kind of music scene exists there?

LT: A really good one! We were really fortunate to grow up around a really amazing music scene. A psych, indie rock, weird music scene of great, awesome people who were older than us but took us in as high schoolers to teach and help us.

TU: It was really densely populated. There were so many bands who were eager to make sure we skipped over a lot of the garbage you generally have to go through in forming your own tastes and opinions. It was nice to have people on your side, just to point you in the right direction.

LT: We had a lot of people who believed in us and helped us realize what we wanted to do, which was really special. The scene was really well-rounded, really special.

What’s your typical songwriting and recording process?

LT: It starts with me coming up with some interesting progression on the guitar that I like, and I develop it from there. If something sticks, I’ll start with the words. I don’t really sit down and write and put it to guitar, it’s much more organic and sporadic. We do all the recording ourselves. Ty has a small studio in a barn in New Hampshire that we recorded at, and where we’re making our new full-length record..

TU: Some of the best times shaping a song will come down to tracking a demo and actually sitting down with a tape recorder. Being able to play it back and listen to it, and slowly add things on.

LT: This has definitely happened with a few of the songs on this record. I’ll write a song and feel half-okay about it, and I’ll bring it to Ty like, “Alright, I wrote this song that has good ideas, but I’m struggling with something.” It’s really great to have an outside perspective to be like, “I see that these ideas are cool and interesting but if you just shape it and make it like this, it will be even better.”

TU: It’s also nice that we’ve worked together for so long. I think we both know traps that we fall into with production or songwriting. We’ll recognize things we do and know how to push one another to not get stuck.

Is there anything that you do when you feel like you’re having writer’s block?

LT: I don’t really feel like I have “writer’s block,” per say. There are periods of time where I won’t write anything for a while, but it’s not because I can’t? I think it’s good to be working on something every day, but I also think it’s really good not to do that. If a week goes by and you don’t write anything, it’s okay because you’re always taking in information. Your brain is always listening to things, looking at things, processing stuff. You don’t necessarily need to make it into something every day. But then you go back to your guitar a week later and something comes out that you didn’t know was there, but was there the whole time. If that makes sense.

Like not forcing it but giving yourself the opportunity to have ideas come to you.

LT: Exactly. I think it’s easy to be bogged down by that idea of writer’s block. It’s kind of silly. You just need to give everything space.

It’s easy to feel guilty for not constantly producing.

LT: I used to be like that. I used to put immense amounts of pressure on myself to be working on things at all times. I don’t really know what changed, but at some point in the past year I was able to allow myself to enjoy life a little bit more when I realized that I didn’t need to be stressing about that all the time. If you’re stressing about it all the time, you’re not gonna make anything good. You just need to let go. That’s when you make the best stuff.

You have a very sparse style, with your vocals and guitar carrying the songs, but on Wishlist, some of the songs have drums and other instrumentation. When you first started this project did you picture it as just you two performing?

LT: I think the idea was to always have a band eventually. For the 3 years leading up to Wishlist I mostly played solo, but always with a bigger sound and bigger idea in mind. And I think our live shows transform the songs into something pretty different from how the EP sounds because we have 2 guitars. There isn’t a lot of 2-guitar stuff on the EP. The EP is very song-focused. These are the songs in their raw format.

TU: There’s quite a few songs where we tried putting more instrumentation on, like drums or another guitar, and the songs just didn’t need them. I think it’s important to know when to stop, when not to muddy it. The only other instrumentation is an organ on every track. And it’s literally just to make the guitar work better over speakers. It was just recognizing that most of it didn’t need anything more than her guitar and voice.

What’s the “feel” that you try to create at your live shows?

LT: It gets pretty atmospheric, I would say.

TU: I’d say intimate in some senses, as well. It’s a little strange because we play as a two-piece, but for the most part it really focuses on Lina, and I kinda hide.

LT: Yeah Ty pretty much has his back to the audience.

TU: I get pretty bad stage-fright, so I just hang out back there. It’s really nice to join people in a really close sense, where we can address them in a really small fashion. I like keeping it quiet.

LT: The guitar sound is big. It’s not big loud big, but it’s really dense. The sound will be really quiet, and then it’ll get big, and then it’ll shrink back in. We’re both very conscious of volume, and even though it’s 2 guitars and 3 amps and all these effects, it’s very dynamic.

Because of the simple, warm style of your songs, you ever play to cozy little rooms of people sitting down?

TU: I think there’s an inherent proximity thing. When you’re in a living room and people are sitting down real close…

LT: We try to keep people close. Most venues we play have a stage, albeit a small one, but I’m very conscious of making sure that people are close.

TU: Even though it’s sparse, dense, dynamic, all these things, the performance always needs to be interactive for us. We’re very conscious of how we are interacting with the people in the room, whether that means it’s in a larger space and we’re louder or it’s in a living room and we’re smaller. It’s more subconscious and internal, but we really focus a lot of effort on making sure that it’s an experience for people, rather than us just playing. Whenever we call people closer, it’s not because, “It’ll be louder if you’re closer,” it’s more like, “You are going to be more immersed in this experience.”

LT: And, “You’re going to be part of this thing.” That’s why you go to a show, at the most basic level– you go to be a part of something and interact with a space and the people in it.

Do you guys have any favorite or most memorable tour stories?

TU: I’m trying to think if we have any really ridiculous things. Oh! Yes. We do. At our release party for the record, we played at the Captured Tracks headquarters. So we were playing this public, free release party, and the day of the show, Ben Stiller sent an email to the label headquarters.

LT: There’s context for this. Apparently Ben Stiller had a band in high school called Capital Punishment, (laughs) and I think Captured Tracks reissued it.

TU: So Ben Stiller emailed the label and was like, “Can I get on the list for this show?” and they emailed him back like, “It’s free, and public!” And then I guess he was like, “Oh, never mind.” (laughs)

He had to be a VIP!

LT: I don’t think he responded at all, but he didn’t show up.

TU: That would have been our fun fact for life, if Ben Stiller had shown up.

LT: Mike Sniper, who owns the label, really liked to rub it in my face. “He almost came to the show!”

TU: That’s probably one of our more ridiculous stories.

Any final thoughts?

TU: You should listen to Bish Bosch by Scott Walker. (laughs)

LT: But like, you probably won’t like it. (laughs) 80% of you will hate it.

TU: Hate it the first time you listen to it, and the third and the fifth time you listen to it. And then some day it’ll click and you’ll be like, “Oh. fuck.”

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