Sarah Beth Tomberlin and Sam Acchione | photos by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN
Tomberlin and Sam Acchione on building connections and recording Projections in Philadelphia
Fall invites certain types of songs to work their way into our lives once again, often leaning on familiarity to provide comfort and warmth, especially when times are difficult and the world is getting colder. But Sarah Beth Tomberlin, who performs under her last name, offers a new contender for fall listening. Her new Projections EP follows up her debut album At Weddings, re-released in 2018 on Saddle Creek, which Pitchfork called “remarkable for its grace, candor, and composure.”
Whereas At Weddings explored themes of loneliness and isolation, Projections looks at close relationships and intimacy with a mix of dry wit and hard consideration. The EP is comprised of four original songs and a cover of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s “Natural Light,” and was recorded in Philadelphia with Alex Gianascoli and Sam Acchione of Alex G, though Tomberlin has been criss-crossing the country since her career in music began, moving from Louisville to Los Angeles. She spoke with The Key from upstate New York, while Acchione called in from Philly. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The Key: Where in Philadelphia did you guys record this EP?
Sarah Beth Tomberlin: Sam would know [laughs].
Sam Acchione: It was recorded all over. It was almost entirely recorded at Alex’s apartment. And then and we also did the drums throughout Delco at my parents’ house on my dad’s old drum set. But, the bulk of it was right here in Philly, over in Alex’s spot.
TK: So I was wondering what it’s like to record in that more informal setting at somebody’s house. Do you think that that made you guys feel more comfortable?
SBT: I’ve only ever recorded in makeshift studio situations. I still have yet to record in an actual studio, which is kind of hilarious. Which I didn’t even really realize until I was like, “Oh, I’m doing this again.” I took a tour of a studio the other day, and I was just like, “Oh, damn, I haven’t even recorded in one.” Kind of funny. I think the whole thing is just making yourself comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than someone’s apartment, generally? I don’t know, it’s a chill vibe.
TK: And so Sarah Beth, you were a fan of Alex G before you toured with him. Who reached out to you about working on this EP?
SBT: Yeah, I was a fan before we toured together. But, we did a tour in May [of 2019], all of us, a week long tour, and then we got along, and Alex was like, “I wish you could do the Fall tour.” And then I was like, “I actually can indeed do a Fall tour.” So, it was a month-long situation, and it was great. And I was just playing some new songs backstage, sometimes the boys would be around. But Alex and Sam were both like, “This is sick,” or whatever. And I kind of had the idea to do an EP, but I thought maybe I would just have a different producer for each track just to have fun and dip my toes in some different situations. But then, it just kind of came together that I felt comfortable with them, and wanted to do it with them. And I kind of mentioned to Alex about working on it. I was like, “It’s truly no pressure if you’re not down, like there’s no expectation here.” But I sent him the songs, sent Sam the songs, and they were both down and wanted to work on it. It just kind of happened organically, which is kind of how everything has happened for me, which I feel thankful for. It’s really easy to make those decisions when it just feels okay.
TK: Why did you initially want to work with different producers on every track?
SBT: Just because, when I recorded At Weddings, I didn’t really realize I was making a record. I was just like, “These are my best songs, and I’m going to record them. ” But, I didn’t really realize that was what I was doing until it was done. I was like, “Oh, this is a record, or whatever.” And so, I just didn’t really have much say in the matter, aside from, you know, saying, “I want to record these songs.” And, my view of producing is you want someone to help you reach your vision that you maybe can’t do on your own. And even with Alex and Sam, at first I was like, “I don’t know who’s producing.” And then I was like, “We’re all producing this. Like we’re all bringing ideas to the table, and we all feel comfortable communicating.”
So, the idea of having a different person was because, I think I know who’s producing the next record, now. But I still was really unsure and kind of wanted to try out different people in a really casual way without having to be like, “Let’s do a session” or something. Like rappers and pop music people do that all the time, where they do full albums with different producers on each song. And I was just like, “I can do that, too, if I want.” So, that was the idea there, but then it ended up working out with the guys. And it was fun, so I’m happy with it.
TK: Was there a period while you were working on this EP or while you were touring with the band where you were just getting over being a fan? Because I remember also reading that a misheard Alex G lyric ended up in At Weddings, too. So, already there’s a bit of inspiration.
SBT: Yeah, I mean, on the first tour, I was just stoked. Because, I mean, we had some mutual friends even though I hadn’t met any of… Well, actually, I guess I met them at a show I took my little sister to in St. Louis when I was like 19, or something, or 20. I don’t know.
SA: At Firebird.
SBT: Yeah, The Firebird in St. Louis. So I had met Alex in a very casual way and met Sam, I’m pretty sure. For sure I met John [Heywood, bassist]. But yeah, and I just knew that they were nice, chill dudes. The idea of celebrity being attached to these normal-ass people that, like, we’re all capable of being stupid and making mistakes. I don’t think there was any, “Oh my god, Alex G and like, blah, blah, blah.” I was just stoked to make music with people that I felt approached it similarly, and stoked to be on tour with people that are sweet and good and want to have fun and not make everything a huge deal. That’s just such a relief.
So more than anything, you just get in a zone and you’re like, “Ah, this is like a well-oiled machine, and that’s relieving.” I wasn’t really struck with any kind of, “Oh my god, it’s them,” other than being so excited to hear them play every night, because I love all the songs and the full band, it hits every time. So, every night, I was losing my shit, especially to “Brick,” because, of course, everyone must. But yeah, I don’t know. That was like, that was fun. But it wasn’t like, “Oh my god.” It’s just like, “Oh my god, I get to hear some of my favorite songs every night.”
TK: So Sam, I understand that you played a lot of instruments on this album and produced it alongside Sarah Beth and Alex. Have you produced a record before this?
SA: No, this was my first time. I mean, I guess aside from Alex and I’s old band back in the day, but no one produced that, you know? So I guess I had worked in that capacity before, but never in an official way where I was being credited that way. But no, it was fun, it was a blast. You know, I think sort of how Sarah Beth was saying, it was just very open. It was really just the three of us sitting there and everyone just kind of tossing out ideas and being like, “Okay, well, let’s try this, or let’s try this.” It just felt very relaxed and organic. It felt similar to any other recording that I’ve worked on where it wasn’t like, “Oh, shit, I’m co-producing now I gotta, you know, be this way or that way or anything.” You know, it was just kind of like how I’m used to doing those home recordings, and you just try different stuff and whatever works, you know, you kind of go with.
TK: I was wondering, actually, about the drums on “Wasted.” You know, just listening to the EP, you can tell that’s a very different song than the rest of them. And you can also hear that it would be a very different song if you took out the drums. Whose idea was it to have drums on that track?
SA: I know that there was an idea to have drums in general, but that specific kind of beat, Alex had sent because Sarah Beth and I were kind of messing around with the songs beforehand, and she had sent recordings over to Alex. So he sent one back and it was just like, electronic beats, and it wasn’t exactly like that, but it was that kind of vibe and that same kind of feel. And he was like, “What about something like this?” And, you know, it was more of a samba, I think that first one that he sent over. And then Alex had that [new] idea sent over, just like this quick little electronic- It was probably just like a GarageBand loop honestly, that he threw over it.
SBT: He was like, “Is this too left field?” And I was like, “No, no, follow this. We got to follow this through.”
SA: Exactly. It shouldn’t be electronic, though. It should be, you know, real drums. Yeah, but it was funny, because that was one that Sarah Beth was playing on tour, and she was playing by herself. It’s very much a Tomberlin song either way, but I don’t know, it’s cool seeing it go from hearing it the first night on tour when she played it, you know, hearing it that way, and then the way you can dance to it with the drums and stuff. Yeah, which is cool. I think we all wanted a club hit.
TK: Yeah. It definitely opens it up in a whole new way. And also, I was interested in a lyric on “Wasted” where, Sarah Beth, you have this line that’s like, “Do you think this song’s sad?” Is that something that you’re worried about with your music, or was that something you were worried about with that particular song?
SBT: I mean, it’s just kind of tongue-in-cheek because all my songs get called “sad.” And I don’t really feel like they’re all sad. It’s just exploring meaning and duality, and the fact that we all contain multitudes. And it’s just “sad,” I think, because the instrumentation is more somber, there’s a lot of space. But that’s the thing is, there is a lot of space there. That’s intentional for you to project, ha ha, your own feeling into the thing. I like writing jokes into songs. And it might not always be like, “ha ha,” like, everybody might not catch it. But I like putting things in there that kind of keeps it alive for me in a way. Like, a joke is always funny, even if it’s not really funny anymore. Like, that was once funny.
TK: Well, speaking of humor, I have this quote here from you where you say, “That’s a thing with queer people, we all use humor to deflect our pain.” So what kind of humor is that? What do you use in your day-to-day that’s deflecting? Or do you have a favorite, like, queer comedian or a friend who does this, too, that you’re talking about?
SBT: No, not really. I just feel like anybody on the internet, especially queer artists on Twitter, everybody’s just throwing jokes. I feel like people can find the humor in super dark shit really easily, because there’s just a lot of dark stuff that is kind of swarming in your mental all the time. I mean, I’m from a very conservative Southern Baptist family, and it is not chill that I’m queer. Like, I came out to my parents over email this summer, actually, and I haven’t gotten a response, you know? And that’s, like, dark, but also hilarious.
And I just mean, I feel like everybody with any kind of struggle tries to deflect with humor, but I do feel like it’s a very profound thing that happens a lot with queer people as the world continues to try to be like, “This isn’t chill,” and we’re like, “Yeah, you might not feel chill about it. But like, here we are!” And I don’t know, I think I was just speaking to the fact that that’s also a defense mechanism. And, even though it is self protective, you’re also trying to make space to find the joy in the really dark spots, you know?
TK: Finding humor in dark situations is definitely very common right now, I would say.
SBT: Oh, yeah.
TK: When At Weddings was released, you called it an album born out of isolation. And now Projections is a lot more open, it’s built on connections and relationships, but it was written primarily in 2019. So I’m wondering if now you’re at a more similar headspace that you were at with At Weddings than when you wrote Projections?
SBT: I mean, I feel like, sure, in a way, but also not because I have a community now. And before, I just truly did not. So it wasn’t just isolation, as in I’m away from my friends, I just didn’t have many people. And now I do. I’m talking to people on the phone, or, you know, writing letters or catching up over FaceTime every once in a while. Like, I have a community. And so it is different. And, honestly, all this time, even though it is dark and a lot of dark shit is happening, a lot of people are truly, truly suffering, I really needed some time off, because shit kind of popped off in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. And it was just kind of like saying yes to so many things, and not really processing anything that was happening.
And I had just moved to LA last July, and I hadn’t had much time to be home or just digest anything that had really happened over the past couple of years. So it really needed time. And I kind of even feel more stable within myself, which is cool. But that also comes from having community and having tools. And I have much more of that in my life now, which is really centering and balancing. I’m super grateful. So it’s cool that was happening with this EP right before this dark year took place, but to me it reflects back, like when you try to really invest in your community, and people around you and yourself, tending to your own shit, stuff opens up. I think the universe opens up and connects the dots in a way.
TK: Speaking of community, I follow you on Instagram and you have these great livestreams. And you also will play music and talk about a lot of things that are on your mind like social media, the music industry and how, when you do have a lot of things to air, social media is not always the best place to bring them. You can get trolls, you can get unwanted comments and such. And the music industry is kind of based off of musicians having to open themselves up to everybody. Do you think that there’s a line in how honest you can be with your fans?
SBT: I think vulnerability is good, and honesty is good in any atmosphere, regardless of if you’re a “public person,” quote-en-quote, or not. But I do think that I’ve just re-evaluated. And that was something I just didn’t have time to process. It was like, I didn’t even really process, “Oh, my Instagram that I’ve had since I was like 16 or some shit was transformed.” Like I woke up one day with a blue checkmark. It wasn’t like I asked for it, you know? Everything kind of switched, and I just didn’t really understand what was happening. And I was still trying to use it in a way like I was talking to my friends, and then I was like, “Oh, there’s some people that are just following me, maybe because they hate me?” And also because people are just interested in things and it doesn’t mean that they actually care about what I’m saying, which is fine. Everybody can do whatever they want.
SA: I don’t think you have any hate followers.
SBT: Whomst to say? But I just mean, I just have really reconsidered, like I don’t think that Instagram and Twitter are built for long form discourse and dialogue, obviously. And so it’s just reflecting on what I put into that atmosphere instead of just being like, it’s everyone else. It’s just, how far are we actually going to get in these kinds of platforms to have conversations? When I play shows, I’m around. I do my own merch most of the time and I’m available, you know? But it’s also like, I’m not a therapist, and I can’t be responsible for a bunch of strangers, in general, but especially strangers on the internet. It’s like, I want my music to be like an outstretched hand, but it’s more of like a “Here’s an outstretched hand. I don’t have any answers, but I can maybe help you get up a little bit.” And then I don’t really know where to go from there. Like “we’re in this together” kind of thing. But yeah, I don’t know, it’s a lot. The internet is a lot.
TK: Yeah, definitely. Like you said, one day a lot of things changed for you, when your music became more publicly known. And you know, you signed with Saddle Creek, which was the record label that Conor Oberst worked on. And right now you recorded an EP with (Sandy) Alex G and Sam. And also you did a music video with Busy Philips. Were you a fan of Busy growing up?
SBT: Yeah, I was a hardcore Freaks and Geeks fan. Like, truly loved that show, would just rewatch it over and over again, because there’s only the one season – R.I.P. But yeah, I was a big fan of that show in particular. And also, Busy was one of the first celebrity people I followed on Instagram, because I just liked how funny she was, and real about her own shit. The influencer world is terrifying, but she truly is just herself on Instagram. And so, I was a fan of hers. But she followed me on Instagram around the time my record came out, and I inwardly freaked out because I never really messaged people that are famous, and cool, and I like.
But I DM’d her and — we actually scrolled back the other day to see what I said. It was very me, I was like, “Hey! I hope you’re having a good day. I just want to say, I think you’re great.” [laughs] That was all I said, and then she DM’d back and was like, “You’re coming to play with Andy Shauf! Can Mark and I [her husband] come to the show?” And they came and we hit it off and talked for two hours. And then I got Kimmel like a few months later, and so they were like, “Just stay at our house.” And so I just connected and bonded with them really hard, and they’re like family now. So I was a big fan, but now I’m an even bigger fan, because they’re just truly the sweetest people.
TK: What’s it like to realize that a lot of these things that were planting seeds when you were very young, you know, like Conor Oberst’s music and Busy Philipps’ work, are coming full circle for you?
SBT: It’s really strange, like if I think about it too much, I just start laughing and also crying because it’s real weird. But I talked about this a lot this year, just in different conversations with friends, and like working through things, I feel like you have to take risks and let things go for the universe to kind of open up. I am the only one in my family that is not, like, in the Christian world. Like, both of my sisters are married to pastors. I do music and have a dog, and I’m not religious. I don’t have any guidelines for this going down well, but I just feel like I need to follow this through.
The world has opened up and connected a lot of dots for me, like Saddle Creek found my music on Bandcamp. It had been up like a month or something, and they reached out to me. It wasn’t like I was knocking on their door or anything. It was just kind of like, these things happened, and I’m so grateful. But I truly do feel like when you’re putting into the world the best that you can do, and working hard to be a better person and tend to yourself and your friends’ needs, I don’t know, things open up and stuff starts connecting. So much has happened that way.
I even found the phone note where my booking agent was like, “Hey, can you just text me a list of bands that you would like to tour with? Just so I know what to try to look out for.” And all of the bands that I had on that list, I’ve toured with. It is pretty wild that all these things have happened. And I feel really grateful and lucky. But I also feel like the work never stops. It’s not like you have arrived or like I need to stop trying to do my best. It’s just like, that’s all I want to do is make work that I’m proud of and want to sing, you know, until I’m sixty. Like, that’s all I want to do. So, hopefully I can.
Tomberlin’s Projections is out Friday, October 16th via Saddle Creek Records. Preorder the album here.