Louisville singer-songwriter Tomberlin is breaking out of her shell and connecting with others with her debut album “At Weddings,” which explores her conflicted relationships with religion, family and growing up.
Talking with Sarah Beth Tomberlin is easy and fun, which may surprise people who have heard her music.
Home-schooled in a religious family — her father’s career as a Baptist pastor required the family to move around to various small towns — Tomberlin was sheltered from most pop culture. But though she was immersed in church and its culture, Tomberlin realized it wasn’t who she was meant to be.
If any part of that world influenced her, it was the music.
Tomberlin, 23, performs under her last name only. Her first full-length album, “At Weddings,” released on Friday, Aug. 10, is a project that took several years. “At Weddings” doesn’t sound like gospel music; the album is instead a translation of the experiences that inspired its songs, in and out of church.
Tomberlin’s low-key folk sounds were written, and meant to be listened to, in the bedrooms of isolated people waiting for a chance to break free.
As an adolescent, Tomberlin’s cousin helped her discover kindred teen angst musical spirits in Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes (the latter being the biggest act on what is now Tomberlin’s label, Saddle Creek Records).
She had to keep that music hidden from her parents back then. Though she says her family is musical, none could — or would — collaborate in her style.
By her late teens, Tomberlin was living with her parents in Fairfield, Ill., working at a Verizon store and trying to figure out who she was. She had more friends online than in real life and understood more about what she didn’t believe in than what she did believe in.
She began writing songs to help figure it all out — songs about identity, gender, questioning.
By 20, she had a lyrically and musically consistent collection.
“I write in bursts,” she tells Insider. “Pretty much all my songs I’ve written in one setting. I write a lot in my phone notes, piecing things together.”
This collection, hushed and sparse, sounds like it was written while trying to avoid conflict with more oppressive forces inside the same house. Produced with frequent Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett, the album’s intimate compositions come to life with rich textures and the urgency of her yearning delivery.
She recently tweeted, “When I wrote these songs I never thought they would leave my bedroom. I hope the record can be there for you like it was for me when I wrote it.”
Some of her songs were released last year by the Bloomington, Ind.-based label Joyful Noise Recordings, after songs Tomberlin placed on the site Bandcamp were sent by a mutual friend to Mirah, a beloved indie singer-songwriter who was working with Joyful Noise. Soon after that, Saddle Creek came calling.
“Even if nothing had happened, I really looked up to them,” Tomberlin says. Though founded in Omaha, the label’s heads today live in Los Angeles. Tomberlin headed west this spring to perform there and has become close with their staff. As part of becoming serious about the business of music, she got a music lawyer.
“It’s gross, but I have to pay my bills … there are snakes in the grass everywhere,” she says.
Moving up to the business world (Saddle Creek’s albums are distributed by ADA, a company owned by the Warner Music Group) also means that her new partners can get Tomberlin discussed on influential music sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, in the UK’s Mojo magazine, Canada’s Exclaim!, and in The New York Times.
Or, as she jokes in the entertaining online voice she built up over years with little better to do, “Them: WOAH has ur life changed since u got a write up in The New York Times? ur so famous! wow crazy stuff!”
Tomberlin settled — for now — in Louisville in early 2017, where she has added musicians Matt Hubbard and David Swanberg to her live band. The trio has played several local shows this summer and has a record release show on Tuesday, Aug. 14, in Brooklyn.
The pink vinyl first-pressing of her album sold out through pre-release orders; the current version, this time transparent mint on vinyl, also is available on cassette, CD, MP3 and streaming.
If she didn’t know who she would be as an adult, Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s story is starting to unfold — on her own terms.
She says her parents are bemused but proud of her musical adventures. Her break from what they taught her in childhood isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. She loves her family, but there’s also a big world out there, and she wants to see more of it.
“I just want to keep making good stuff,” she says about recent attention. “It’s great and super cool, I’m very honored, but I have to keep on working.”