Tomberlin’s ‘At Weddings’ Is A Hushed, Light Folk Record For A Dark World

Pop Music Critic

Philip Cosores

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Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s debut album is filled with a kind of hush, the kind Karen Carpenter would approve of. Written in bits and scraps at first, while she was living with her deeply religious family after dropping out of a strict Christian college, the album is full of stolen away moments and half-whispered realizations. These songs have the air of devotionals, but they’re about falling away from something forced and shoring up your own inclinations, not directives of worship toward a third, divine being.

That doesn’t mean they’ve lost the elegant air of hymnals or the soft sweep of a new age worship song. Thankfully, the best bits of those two forms linger in Tomberlin’s music, even if the faith bit has gotten fuzzy. After being homeschooled through her formative years and moving around quite a bit with her family, her choice to leave college was the first decision in a series of steps away from the teachings of her devout Baptist upbringing — and it isn’t just the sweet bluntness of a lyric “I always hated church” that gives the shift away.

Across the scope of At Weddings, she grapples with the awakenings that most teenagers and early twenty-somethings go through, sluicing these moments for the small, round instants of pain and joy that can make or break a young songwriter. In her case, these experiences make her foray into music, joining the eerie flashes of power (“Self-Help) with the unrequited, painful dramas that play out (“Seventeen”) during the growing pains of early adulthood.

The music on the album sticks to these same themes, following very simple chord progressions, mostly on guitar, and fleets of harmonies that swell and spill to punctuate the peaks and valleys of the melody. Tomberlin cites Mirah and even drone music as influences on her simple, lilting sound, and certainly acknowledges the influence of her religious background. But she is quick to cite her songwriting as a means of telling her own stories, as well. After putting the songs together and eventually getting them recorded, a friend sent the songs over to Saddle Creek, who almost immediately reached out to Sarah, eager to release the record, which came out last week to widespread critical acclaim.

Aside from immediately thinking of The Carpenters, I hear influence from other contemporary female songwriters here, too; the incandescence of Bat For Lashes, a tenderness often attributed to Sharon Van Etten’s writing, and Laura Marling’s florid deadpan all seep their way into At Weddings. In a time that has been remarked upon for its overt darkness, bitterness, and snark, it sometimes feels like a miracle that an album like this one — that is so full of quiet light — is still making its way out into the world, and gaining a strong foothold. We recently corresponded over email about her record, read a condensed and edited version of our conversation below.

As far as the songs on the record, when did they become a cohesive whole in your mind and not just a smattering of different attempts?

I realized the songs I was writing were telling a story. I was unsure of anything apart from the assurance that these songs should probably be shared. I did share them with a select few friends that I trusted and they encouraged me to put them out.

When you were making the album, did you have specific artist or record reference points as far as what you wanted your sound to be? What informed the sonics of it?

Sonically, I referenced Mirah’s You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This. I knew I wanted the songs how I originally wrote them — stripped back, very raw. But I also wanted some bigger elements of production and space. I joke that At Weddings is an undercover drone record.

When I listen to the album, I hear someone feeling at a loss as part of the church, but still tied to it. What is your current relationship with that tension and your faith?

Well, my family is still very much a part of the church. Extended family as well. It will always be a part of my life by extension of them, I think. Sometimes that is very hard because we agree on some things and disagree on lots of things. This is any family dynamic though, right? Mine just happens to be based on theological disputes and different beliefs. Growing up people assume things about you if you are a pastor’s kid. It’s annoying as shit. If you’re in church and around a pastor’s kid, just talk to them. People censored themselves around me and my family and it was so painfully obvious. Just relax. We are all trying to figure out life together. No one has real answers.

I was also homeschooled and had a bit of a rude awakening when I joined public school in 6th grade. Did you have a moment like that, where you felt thrust out into the world in a new way? What were the results?

Not really. My parents made sure we were involved in a lot of extracurricular things. I took ballet for several years, took piano lessons for a little bit, and played sports etc. I actually went to public school for Driver’s ED because you had to by state law. That is the only time I attended public school though. College was a new social environment. I’d never dealt with gossip in a school environment before. Church, sure ha. But yeah, college gossip equals, ‘oh you were walking across campus with that person. Are you into them?’ Eyeroll so silly.

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