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Tyler Tholl transforms Maple & Beech from a solo project into a musical community

Christopher Goyette

Christopher Goyette

Making music can be a solitary experience.

When you’re writing songs, it’s easy to feel isolated. But connecting with like-minded souls over a shared love of music can form a bond that feels like family. That’s what Tyler Tholl experienced when he decided to turn his solo project, Maple & Beech, into a full-fledged band filled with relatives and longtime friends. And Tholl found a way to rekindle a part of himself in the process.

“I had stopped writing songs for a few years. It was something I had done in high school and college, then I stopped. Because playing made me too nervous. I was worried about public shaming,” Tholl says with a nervous laugh, as he shares fries and drinks with his wife/bandmate Nora Kain and Maple & Beech vocalist Nicole Wilder.

“I got some therapy and started writing songs again,” he says. “I brought in my friend [Pete James Johnson, M&B’s drummer/electronics], whom I’ve played with since sixth grade. We made an album a couple years ago [2017’s RUNDAWDAW], but since then we’ve grown. It blossomed from this little solo thing into a real band.”

But though the band now has seven members (with guitarist John Knauss, bassist/guitarist Dan Lehn, and trombonist Nick Syman rounding out the lineup), Maple & Beech remains a personal labor of love for Tholl. He spent all of 2018 producing, recording, mixing, and mastering M&B’s new self-titled record in his basement. When asked about the album’s lengthy creation and how much of a perfectionist he is, he laughs and asks Kain to answer for him.

“It was a long process,” Kain says with an affectionate sigh. “Tyler is very much a perfectionist when it comes to music. The way he writes for Maple & Beech, I call it, ‘More is more.’ There’s so much going on. From my observation, it just takes him a long time to get all of that down exactly the way he imagines it.”

And there’s a lot going on throughout Maple & Beech’s 10 songs. Grand, sweeping synths and lush string arrangements (by Andy Thompson and members of the Laurels String Quartet) augment vulnerable lyrics about being lost and lonely, seeking truth, making art, and finding solace in others.

Echoes of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Everything But the Girl, and Elliott Smith pulsate throughout the record, as does the expansive production of Jon Brion. “[Brion’s] Eternal Sunshine score kind of changed my life,” says Tholl. “And you look at my record collection—Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright—he’s done all that stuff. He uses so many sounds. It’s all very big music.”

Each of the 10 songs on Maple & Beech sounds surprisingly different from the track preceding it, though the album is still cohesive. The work tells a story of self-discovery and self-progression, of finding meaningful camaraderie amid the chaos of modern life.

Though Maple & Beech will be a digital-only release, Tholl has put together an art/lyric book as a companion piece to the new album. The book features colorful cover art—a work titled “N E W | L I F E” by Wisconsin artist Steven Duke—as well as artwork by J Klaye, Tholl’s artistic alter ego.

But printing out 150 color copies of a 30-page booklet might be more expensive than simply producing a batch of 500 CDs. “The cost is probably comparable,” Tholl says with a mischievous grin. “I don’t really listen to CDs, but I do like having something to give people to read and look at. It’s interesting to read liner notes, so I thought it would be kind of fun to hand these books out to people.”

If that arty concept might seem pretentious, Maple & Beech wholeheartedly embrace the term. “Pretentious? Yes!” it says proudly on the front page of the album booklet. “You call it pretentious before someone else can call it pretentious. Art pop with a special emphasis on the ‘t,’” Wilder says with a laugh.

“There’s something kind of embarrassing about writing songs and being sincere,” says Tholl. “We talked a lot about sincerity with this record. The last album I was using a lot of jokes and nonsense lyrics, and this time I wanted to be more thoughtful and earnest. So I say ‘pretentious’ as almost a shield to protect the sincerity involved.”

Wilder sings on half of the album’s songs, contrasting with Tholl’s lower-register vocals. Their creative partnership helps the material blossom and flourish, while touching on raw, vulnerable emotions that allowed them both to heal as the songs took shape.

“I’m not a songwriter, really,” Wilder says. “So when Tyler reached out and said he wanted to collaborate with me on writing a song [album opener ‘OK’], that was a new experience for me. What I ended up doing was handing him raw, unedited journal entries because I trusted him that much. And what came back actually helped me make sense of some unresolved emotions that I had. It came back as this beautiful thing, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m now at peace with that four-year part of my life. Thank you, Tyler. That was cheaper than therapy.’”

Maple & Beech is divided into two sides: “Noise” and “Order.” “We’re not printing physical copies, so it’s kind of silly that I even have sides on this,” Tholl admits. “But I know that R.E.M. always did the two-sides thing with their records. And I wanted to be R.E.M.”

The album’s two sides represent the struggle between two contrasting forces battling for power and control that courses through the record. “Lyrically, this album is a search for some kind of balance or order,” says Tholl. “The first half is about isolation, stagnation, and fear. The second focuses on how we might turn things around, put the pieces back together, and find some sort of connection. It’s about how we move between these dark and light places. Ultimately, I hope that it’s a positive message about growth and change.”

While some of the songs originated in a dark, solitary place, a strong sense of hope and optimism courses through the album, along with a sense that it’s better to share in your struggles alongside friends and family than to go it alone.

“It was more fun recording this album than the other one for a lot of reasons,” says Tholl. “Because of collaborating more, because Nicole sang half the songs, and I was just in a better head space, I guess. I love these people. I love this band so much. I’m grateful for these people, and I’m grateful for anyone who would ever come to our show and listen to our music. It makes me feel very warm inside.”

Maple & Beech album release show
with Har-Di-Har
Parkway Theater in Minneapolis
Saturday, September 21