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

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?