Keeping Afloat: Sarah Beth Tomberlin on her debut album At Weddings

We speak to Sarah Beth Tomberlin about moving around a lot in her childhood, friendships and her debut album, At Weddings

Feature by Chris Ogden | 03 Aug 2018

Above all else, Sarah Beth Tomberlin aspires for sincerity. The Louisville, Kentucky-based singer-songwriter has felt inadvertently like a secret for most of her early life and when we speak with her it’s clear that she’s ready to start sharing herself.

Having just moved to Louisville in January, the 23-year-old has just finished her early shift at the coffee shop where she currently works, an arrangement she prefers as it opens up the rest of her day to get things accomplished. Imagining her heading to work in the early hours with just the birds for company makes a lot of sense, given the secluded music she writes as Tomberlin, under which she is about to release her debut album At Weddings.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida into a devout Baptist family, Tomberlin and her parents moved at least five times when she was younger to follow her father’s work as a pastor, relocating for the first time when she was around three or four years old. The family eventually wound up in the rural town of Fairfield, Illinois when she was 12.

"I guess since I initially moved so young it wasn’t too crazy to me," Tomberlin says in her gentle patter. "I didn’t think about it a lot until I was a little bit older and realised, 'Oh, I don’t actually know anybody from when I was younger.' You meet kids your own age and they already have a best friend that they’ve had as their best friend since they were five and that just wasn’t a thing for me and my sisters. That was pretty weird once I started realising I didn’t have these roots that other people had."

For Tomberlin, moving so often was challenging as she had to tackle cultural differences such as an obsession with name brand clothing when she arrived in Illinois. It’s tough to be different at a stage of life where standing out from the crowd is what you least want to do. Being homeschooled and only understanding community via family and church, Tomberlin didn’t make too many close friends nearby – instead she made strong bonds with people over Twitter and Tumblr, friends who have been so influential in her life she‘s thanked them in At Weddings’ liner notes.

"I had pen pals that were kind of my closest friends – my cousin Melody is one of my closest friends but she felt more like a friend than a cousin because I didn’t see her that much because of distance," Tomberlin explains. "I had more random internet or pen pal friends and we would make each other mix CDs and send them back and forth. I truly didn’t show people around me that much of the stuff that I was listening to because I didn’t really have friendships like that."

Tomberlin started playing and writing music at a very young age and the first CDs she bought were by Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional, influenced by her cousin. Due to her parents’ beliefs, Tomberlin found it hard to explore art that was even slightly risqué out of fear of being lectured about its content. When it came to music, she hid the albums she bought in a book bag and avoided uploading them to the family computer. While her parents were never punishing, Tomberlin admits she just didn’t want the questioning that would ensue; she now understands they were just trying to do what they thought was best.

"To give you an example of content that they did not like, I had got a lot of E.E. Cummings books when I was 13 from the library, and... I wasn’t thinking anything of it," Tomberlin explains. "My mom was reading one of them and she was like, 'This is so sexually explicit,' I was like, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine! No, it’s not! It’s fine!’ It was really funny though because my dad read it and he was like, ‘Sheila, it’s not much different from the Song of Solomon.’ It cracked me up because it was true."

Once she finished homeschooling Tomberlin started and dropped out of college before returning home and entering work. After writing the song Tornado on her parents’ piano at the age of 18 or 19, she found that writing helped dispel the deep isolation she felt while her internet friends kept her afloat. She ended up writing the bulk of At Weddings between November 2015 and August 2016 while working at a Verizon store full-time and topping up her studies at home. "It was just what probably stabilised me in a way," Tomberlin explains. "I didn’t realise it then but writing was a really good way to have some creative energy going with all that roboticness going on."

The result of all her efforts is At Weddings, a sparse, sheltered record marked by its patient guitar arpeggios, echoing piano keys and Tomberlin’s aspiring voice, with an ambience reminiscent of Grouper. After a seven-track version was initially released last year on Joyful Noise Recordings, At Weddings is now being rereleased with three additional songs this month on Bright Eyes’ old record label Saddle Creek, a nice turn full circle from Tomberlin’s adolescent influences.

One of the main themes on At Weddings is Tomberlin’s quest for identity – whether it’s wrestling with her religious upbringing on Any Other Way, wanting to be a hero in A Video Game or reflecting on womanhood on the surging ballad I’m Not Scared. 'My life has always been a kind of secret,' she sings on the reflective Seventeen, asking: 'Can you keep it?' The songs are affecting, despite there being barely a chorus in earshot – Tomberlin felt she couldn’t easily tie up the songs’ knotted thoughts in a bow without being tacky, aiming instead to be more genuine and let listeners unpick them themselves.

"I think all songs are fiction," she confirms. "Even if you’re putting a truth into what you’re saying or writing, you’re still placing a perspective that you want to share with whoever’s listening, and you still want to make it vague enough [that] other people can put their own hearts and thoughts and memories and nostalgia to the song as well, so you have to make active choices to leave room. When people say [At Weddings] is a personal record, I’m like, it is, but I also want it to mean what it means to you."

While At Weddings’ soul-searching might sound overwhelming, what sets Tomberlin apart is her quiet sense of humour. Unlike similar artists like Julien Baker, who delve so deeply into depression the stakes feel awesomely high, Tomberlin remains firmly on the ground, gently acknowledging her foibles.

Tomberlin's self-deprecation is evident from At Weddings’ first track, the affecting strum Any Other Way, which contains the line 'Feeling bad for saying 'Oh my God' / No, I’m not kidding.' On Self-Help she admits killing a fly with a self-help book and on the closing track February she even considers cutting her own neck before adding: 'Okay I’m sorry / I didn't mean to take it there again.' There is a glib melancholy to Tomberlin’s lyrics which, if we’re honest, we can all reel off easily. 

"I just think humour is what helps us not kill ourselves," Tomberlin laughs, explaining how she obsessed over Sylvia Plath’s darkly funny The Bell Jar as a teenager. "It’s a really big part of life that’s maybe not touched upon in the solemn atmosphere that people put singer-songwriter people in.

"Everyone’s like ‘It’s so cathartic… It’s like you’re just writing a diary,' and it’s not really like that at all because it’s still work, but I think sharing the humour in these really morbid moments is just how we actually live… We’re like, ‘Well, this is really shitty, but, you know, at least there’s one positive, slightly almost depressing positive… It’s not even a positive [but] I’m going to make it that way because it’s the one thing that can keep me floating.' I just think it’s interesting how we get through things that way."

Our time with Tomberlin ends as she stresses just how excited she is to get on tour, play these songs for people and start speaking with them. After feeling isolated for so long, it sounds like with At Weddings, Sarah Beth’s finally found the connection she was looking for.

At Weddings is released on 10 Aug via Saddle Creek