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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.
You mentioned music has been involved in your life from an early age via church, is that perhaps something positive you took from your upbringing that might not have been there if you were raised secular?
It is 100% a positive. I don’t think I would have been as drenched in music if I hadn’t been raised that way.
“To be a woman is to be in pain” — that line on “I’m Not Scared” drew me in immediately. I’m wondering what your perspective is on women and their place in Christianity, which almost completely sequesters us into the roles of caretaker, wife and mother, second place and submitting to husbands etc.
Ha. That would be a long conversation to fully even try to explain how I feel about ‘women and their place in Christianity.’ I am angered and distraught by the lack of an actual sh*t given by the church for (and not only women, but addressing this question) women who have been abused. Not only sexual/physical abuse, but mental and emotional abuse. Why? Because abuse in the church is historically kept quiet to protect men in power. I think that being a wife, mom, and a caretaker is a beautiful strength filled role. If you want that. Not every woman can have that, let alone, desires that. And that is more than ok.
Being a Christian woman doesn’t mean you have to desire these things or want them or do them. I do think a lot of f*cked up theology distorted by men has demolished any hope that a woman who is a Christian could feel contented apart from these roles. Also an important side note in that ‘submit yourselves to your husbands’ often people love to leave out the rest which says ‘In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.’ AKA, don’t be a f*cking dick. Anyway, imagine me screaming for a solid day. That is how I feel about ‘women and their role in Christianity.’
What was the recording process for the album like? When did you decide to sit down and record these songs?
I wrote “Tornado” first. It was the first song I’d written that I didn’t hate weeks later. From there I just kept trying to write better songs. I recorded them on iPhone voice demo. I still have all the original demos. I had no time to fool around with garage band, I was working 45 hour weeks 15 hours of school. I just did the work and new that when I could record them properly, I could flesh out the sound I wanted then. Writing is the most difficult part. So my goal was to write the songs, record on iPhone voice memo, and then worry about the rest later.
You mentioned writing music initially out of a place of isolation, is that still how you currently write songs?
No, I don’t write out of a place of isolation anymore. Perhaps sometimes, but it is no longer the catalyst. Generally, I still do usually have to be isolated to write. That has been interesting to learn since moving away from my parent’s small rural town. I still thrive in that kind of space when I’m writing.
A lot of people have brought up the influence of hymns when listening to your songwriting, what are some of your favorites? Do you still feel connected to those songs?
Anne Steele was really influential even in working on this record. She has a song called “Dear Refuge Of My Weary Soul” and I wrote music to it because I was reading this book of hymns and there was no sheet music. It moved me in a really haunting way. She’s just questioning God and his goodness, whether or not he hears her complaints, whether he is actually good. I think we can all relate to that.
When did you get connected with Saddle Creek?
A musician I didn’t know at the time, Ryan Pollie, sent them my record. Amber from Saddle Creek emailed me and at the bottom of the email, I realized she was from Saddle Creek. I couldn’t stop smiling cause I’ve loved this label since I was 13 years old. It was a really special moment I’ll never forget. We continued to talk and they came to Louisville for a weekend to spend some time, and to make sure I wasn’t a jerk probably. They weren’t jerks either. Just the best people. I feel really lucky.
Have you already begun working on your follow up?
I have a few new songs possibly for the new record, but my process is more just write the things now and worry about the next step as it comes.
At Weddings is out now via Saddle Creek. Get it here.