By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Particularly in the (apparently never-ending) age of American Idol, it's all too easy to assume that every aspiring musician grows up belting out tunes in the shower and angling for the limelight at an early age. Brett Bullion's nine-year journey from ambient instrumentalist to indie-pop singer serves as a reminder that not every singer is a natural spotlight hog; some of the best are initially hesitant to let others hear their voices. The clear tenor Bullion unveils on Tarlton's new album, Evergreens, instantly marks him as a must-hear vocalist on the local scene.
"The move towards actually singing on a record was a gradual thing," offers Bullion, 25, who first garnered notice—and a national record deal—as an Edina High School teenager in the ambient instrumental outfit Tiki Obmar. "I had always written lyrics and vocal melodies just for fun. Snippets of some of the vocal melodies on Evergreens have been around on my hard drive for seven years. Initially it was more just sounds than actual words. It took a while for me to get the lyrics to a point where they were something I really believed in and I wouldn't feel so bashful about presenting them."
The slow-cooked lyrical approach works. Anyone familiar with Bullion's prior work—wordless, percussion-driven mood music that wears its Dosh influence proudly on its sleeve—will be shocked by Tarlton's new musical tapestry. The sonically spare songs Bullion crafts in tandem with multi-instrumentalist Adam Wozniak unfold at a glacial pace, consisting of only a few moving pieces in any given tune: understated electronic samples, hypnotic electric piano figures, the occasional deft drum rhythm. Bullion's voice and lyrics are left to do the heavy lifting—and they prove more than up to the task. A narrative song cycle about the travails of intimate relationships examined from all angles—filial and romantic, times good and bad—Evergreens finds Bullion a bracingly effective lyricist his first time out of the gate ("The boring drugs inside my head and the boring lover sleeping in my bed were not so boring when I first ingested them").
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"Even though I personally wasn't making that kind of music before, my favorite stuff has always been from narrative-driven songwriters," Bullion says of his disarmingly direct lyrical style. "I'm trying to present a story and have lyrics and characters people can latch onto. To me it's no different than playing a drum part with conviction, figuring out the right feel, deciding where you want certain colors to be. Lyrics are just another way for me to connect, so I figure if I'm going to bother having them then I might as well be blunt about it. I aim to be as clear as possible in my writing; I think there's a tendency in a lot of lyrics right now to hide behind artifice, which is fine too, but not what I wanted to do."
A born-and-bred Twin Cities talent, Bullion is quick to credit his hands-on adolescent musical education in the local indie scene as an indispensable talent incubator. "I got really lucky with that," admits Bullion. "I met [local luminary jazz drummer] JT Bates when I was like 12. I started taking drum lessons from him and he was always so cool about just letting me hang out and turning me on to new music. About the time I entered high school I started Tiki Obmar with Chris Smalley, and the whole goal was really just to try to mimic all the amazing music we were hearing around us and give it our own spin. Going to see Happy Apple every Friday night, knowing Dosh, growing up with the Love-cars—those were just hugely influential experiences. Then, after college for two years, I worked at a software company alongside Ev [Olcott of 12Rods] and Matt [Foust of Love-cars] and was able to do session work with them and be a part of their musical world.
"The Cities are such an open place that if you're willing to listen and learn there are so many talented people willing to teach you. The experience has meant so much to me that to imagine growing up somewhere else is kind of unthinkable; it would have been like being born into an entirely different family. It's been that foundational for me."
TARLTON play a CD-release show with Dark Dark Dark and Hildur Victoria on SATURDAY, MAY 15, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486