On her new album, Tomberlin cultivates a community garden
Sarah Beth Tomberlin, the daughter of a Baptist pastor father and a musical mother, grew up gardening with her parents in the land of tobacco farms. The singer-songwriter, who releases music as Tomberlin, says she didn't really enjoy pulling weeds in the hot sun as a kid; now, she lives in New York where she doesn't have a physical garden – but it's clear the experience stuck with her. Gardening appears as a metaphor for personal growth on her new spectacular sophomore album, i don't know who needs to hear this... Themes of planting roots and relating to the natural world pop up throughout the album, but they're especially apparent on "sunstruck," a standout track that Tomberlin has said is about "the growth that can take place if you choose to tend to your own life's garden." "The work's not always fun," she sings, "but it's better than staring at the weed and the mud."
And she's not cultivating that growth alone. She co-produced the album with Philip Weinrobe (who's known for his work with Lonnie Holley, Deerhoof and members of Big Thief) and collaborated with a crew of notable musicians-turned-friends whose photos are all aptly displayed like Brady Bunch squares on Tomberlin's website. (That communal energy is evident in the video for "tap," one of the album's singles, which features Tomberlin and her collaborators making music sitting cross-legged in a circle outside and, later, recording in the studio.) The resulting record is a beautiful patchwork of expansive sounds – meditative synths, rocking electric guitars, waltzing woodwind instruments – across eleven tracks that explore a spectrum of emotions – curiosity, doubt, compassion, happiness, guilt, loneliness, vulnerability and forgiveness.
Tomberlin grew up in a devout Baptist family and was homeschooled until she attended a private Christian college at age 16. She eventually dropped out of that college – but says religion is always going to permeate how she processes information even if she "doesn't believe in it the way [she] used to." There's a playful wit to some of the biblical references on idkwntht... "Could build the Tower of Babel as you babble on," Tomberlin teases over a saxophone on "collect caller." On other songs, she sings more directly about growing up in the church. "I know I'm not Jesus / But Jesus / I'm trying / To be enough," she repeats throughout "born again runner," a track about her relationship with her dad. And while she may no longer be attending a formal church, she is familiar with sacred spaces that foster community. On stage at shows, Tomberlin chats candidly with the audience; she's a gentle leader who laughs easily and has a knack for making those around her feel at home.
On Tomberlin's 2018 debut At Weddings, an album with sparse instrumentation and a hymnal sound, she sings of wanting "to be more than a woman in a garden." But on idkwntht... – perhaps with a newfound wisdom, a commitment to hard work and a little help from her friends – Tomberlin is tending to her garden and finding time to bask in the sun while she's at it.
Ahead of idkwntht...'s release, Tomberlin spoke with NPR Music about the importance of community, creating a new kind of altar for herself and the relief that comes with not knowing all the answers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elle Mannion, NPR Music: You recorded the album with a handful of notable collaborators [including Cass McCombs, Felix Walworth of Told Slant, Philip Weinrobe and David Cieri] and no two songs sound the same. What was that process like?
Sarah Beth Tomberlin: I love records where each song is its own world, so that was very intentional. Basically, I would play every song on guitar and then Phil Weinrobe and I would figure out which elements to elevate. Some things I really had a vision for – like "happy accident" I knew was going to be, like, a grungy electric slapper.
But on some songs, like "easy," I knew I wanted it to be either synth or keys-driven. And so we'd talk about the elements, get a sketch and then start playing around. [We] started inviting these players in – I kept joking that I was just collecting all the deep feelers. Some people are amazing musicians, but they're not exactly feelers. All these people who played on the record just felt the music, and I think you can hear it.
It was a very easy process and so fun. And I learned so much because it was my first time recording in a studio. It was very intimidating leading up to it, but [then it became] second nature — like, oh yeah, this is what I'm supposed to do. Being able to be in that space after so much time working on the songs alone, it was really nice to be met with community.
You mentioned that the church was your community growing up. I'm curious how that impacts your understanding of community now – and if it impacted the creation of the album. Did it feel important to you to make recording sessions feel communal?
Community was definitely important. At first it was the core group of Phil, Felix and me. And then adding in all these people was very thoughtful – [considering] who is the right person to bring in this sacred space. I didn't let anyone from the label come. I didn't have friends stop by. It was a precious thing.
It wasn't just me making this record. I wrote the songs, yes, and produced and sang them, whatever. But all these elements are why it sounds so beautiful. I'm really proud of it and want to highlight it. I definitely had a vision, but I'm not shy to be like, all these great people helped guide me.
You've said that the theme of the album is "to examine, hold space and make an altar for the feelings." You grew up with a perhaps different kind of altar in the Baptist church. Can you tell me about this idea of a new altar for feelings?
As I was writing the record, I realized that, thematically, it was kind of zooming in on these small moments that are also big moments. It's very much a camera, zooming and zooming out, trying to frame it. The altar image came to mind. I got my first tattoo in 2020 – it's a candle and some other stuff, but predominantly the idea was to get a candle. As I started talking about it with my friend, we had a conversation about holding space. I was going through a lot of tumultuous things in my life and moving around, and my friend basically asked: "Do you light a candle for yourself at the end of the day to remind yourself you're you and you can be present for yourself and for other people in your life?" And that imagery stuck: I'm going to light this candle and set the tone for this moment and for me examining my feelings or examining myself and take a moment to gather myself – and then eventually I'm going to blow out the candle and move on and not hold on to that moment anymore. It'll be a new moment to usher in something else. So I think from that conversation, that imagery of setting up an altar for yourself versus [a] religious altar – or an altar for other people and their feelings and needs – was a really big, "Whoa."
i don't know who needs to hear this... as an album name is so good. I'm curious how you landed on that as the title.
Well, it's funny, that song wasn't even going to be on the record. I was going through my iPhone voice memos, which is how I record my demos, and I happened upon "idkwntht," which didn't [yet] have a name on it. And then when I went to the studio with Phil and Felix, they were like, "What do you want to start with?" And I was like, "Well, I listened to this thing the other day and maybe it's a song."
We started making it, and it came together so easily. After we recorded it, I was like, "that's the name of the record." It's like: I don't know if you need to hear this, but maybe you do – and maybe you can get something from it, even if it's not your cup of tea.
There's such a contrast between the sound of the first and last songs on the record. It seems like you maybe have more questions in the end, but there's a sense of relief or freedom in knowing you don't have all the answers. Was that intentional?
Totally, that was pretty intentional with the sequencing. I was pretty dead set on wanting ["i don't know who needs to hear this"] to be last sonically, but then also thematically I think it's actually a perfect ending. It's like a little rest; you've reached the end — here's your nursery rhyme mantra to carry you through.
"easy" starts [the album] being kind of like, wow, s***'s f******. [Laughs.] I think everything's just been extra tender-feeling and difficult because we're all processing so much. ... And so at the end [of the album], it's total compassion – there's a real sense of relief, which I wanted to feel.
I was also thinking about my previous work, At Weddings. It ends with "February," which is really dark. At the end, I'm asking who will hold my hand and say that they care. And then with this, it's an extending of a hand and being like, "I don't know the answer, but..."
"...I'm lighting the candle."
Yeah! Like, this is the moment. I think that shows an amount of personal growth.
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