Ben Burwell pretty much embodies the F. Scott Fitzgerald saying, “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what has changed is you.”
As Burwell releases his solo debut album, This Town, under the name Turbo Pastel, he’s come to accept his turbulent relationship with music -- and with what became of his old band, Taj Raj.
In fall 2015, months after the release of Taj Raj’s sophomore album, doubt crept in for Burwell. With just one upcoming show on the calendar, he went to band practice one night and told the group he wanted out. He invited them to continue on without him, but he needed to quit, because he hated the way he felt trying to make a career out of music.
That ending changed a lot of things in Burwell. As someone who deals in absolutes, he made many deliberate choices to remove music from his life. “I have an old guitar that my grandpa bought my mom in the early ‘70s,” he says. “My mom gave me that guitar. Every song I’ve ever written, I wrote on that. I took that guitar that had been in my bedroom since I was 11 and through college and my move to Minneapolis, and I put it in the case and put it in the basement and left it there.”
Burwell is a thinker, and it’s evident as he speaks that he’s considering each part of his story and laying it all out, weighing each word before it comes out of his mouth. “I bought no records for a year and a half,” he continues. “Stopped reading music review websites. Didn’t go to a single show. Listened to podcasts only. Music could not be a part of my life. The album that we worked so hard and long on didn’t get the reception I expected it to. It didn’t make me feel good anymore. It’s like quitting drinking for an alcoholic. I just had to go cold turkey.”
He searched for a steady trade. One night when he was bartending at the Lowbrow in South Minneapolis, Burwell struck up a converation with a man who drove a Tacoma truck, because he was interested in buying one. The man invited Ben to check out his carpentry work and eventually took Burwell under his wing and taught him the craft.
Burwell had taken to heart a lesson his father had shared with him: You should keep your intellectual pursuits for your free time and not incorporate them into your day-to-day work. Burwell’s guitar stayed in the basement while he honed his carpentry skills.
Late last year, while Burwell was still bartending at the Lowbrow on Saturday nights, his friend Wyatt Overman came for a drink and asked if Burwell was performing. When he got a “no,” Overman encouraged him, saying, “You gotta, man. This town could use your voice.”
Meanwhile, Burwell’s friend Jake Wallenius, with whom he founded Taj Raj when they went to St. Thomas together, would occasionally send him messages asking if he’d written any new stuff. Wallenius told Burwell that he’d be a part of any new project he might start, if he ever decided to write again.
These encounters spurred something. Last fall, Burwell went to Twin Town and bought a guitar hanger, got his guitar out of the basement, and hung it on his wall. He wouldn’t touch it for a month, but it was there as a reminder for. At a Christmas party, another former Taj Raj bandmate, Jake Pavek, invited Burwell to share the last night of his new band’s residency at the Aster Cafe in March. Ben agreed.
With no new songs written, Burwell got to work. He’d been criticized for using archaic language in the lyrics of Taj Raj’s last album, Night Speech, so he simplified his writing. He decided to tell the stories of people who’d come into his bar and clients he’d met while doing carpentry.
Last January, Burwell’s car died and for a week he had to work, about a mile from his home. He distinctly recalls walking past some old men working in garage on one of these walks and wondering about their story.
“People’s individual stories are fascinating,” he explains. “Every single one of us has a story to tell. I’d be surprised if they weren’t all fascinating. It was during these walks to and from work that I realized I can tell my story. If it works out that everyone’s story is interesting, then I guess I have an interesting story, too. I just need to learn how to tell it. That also revealed something to me. If I really embrace that fact, I don’t care if someone likes the song or not. I don’t care if they don’t like what I say. I’ve never given a fuck what people think about my personal life, so why should I care what they think of my work?”
For This Town, Burwell teamed up with Andy Sanford on bass, Nick Costa on guitar, and Wallenius on drums. “I had next to no input on what they wrote,” he says. “There were some intros that Costa helped with. Nick’s musical DNA makes him a superhero -- he can meld with anyone. Jake is a phenomenal drummer, and he’s gotten better in the last couple of years. Now I play the song, and he knows. We have this kinship.”
Recorded in less than three takes, the warm and earnest EP is decidedly country. On the opening track, “Luck,” Burwell’s slippery vocals roll over Costa’s twangy guitar.
Coming home to music has been cathartic for Burwell. His mood is lighter, probably because he has no expectations for this project. Once more, Burwell is performing music he writes with contributions from band members who are his friends. So what’s different?
“We’ve all gotten older, and we’ve all gotten better at what we do,” he says. “All of these factors played a huge role in allowing me to let go. I’m letting go,” he repeats as if just now he’s coming to the realization himself.
With: My Kindred Husband
Where: The Warming House
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. Nov. 10
Tickets: $10; more info here