The Starfolk shoot for the moon

From left: Allison LaBonne, Jacqueline Ultan, Stephen Ittner, and Brian Tighe
D. Bartley

Most would assume Brian Tighe to be immune from crises of confidence. After spending the '90s leading locally beloved jangle-pop practitioners the Hang Ups, he found similar acclaim in the early aughts as a key cog in diaphanous indie-pop force the Owls. Despite the record deals and hit movie soundtrack placements in his past, by the latter half of this past decade, Tighe had come to rethink his worth as a songwriter.

"Having written a lot of songs over a couple of decades, you do invariably start to question some things," admits Tighe, 44, somewhat sheepishly. He is seated with his wife and collaborator Allison LaBonne, 43, at a St. Paul watering hole. "'What is the value of a song?' 'Is it really worth all of this time I'm putting into it?' Unfortunately I did lose a little faith at times, but in the end making music is something I always come back to that ultimately brings me great satisfaction."

By most standards, Tighe was far from idle in the six years since the Owls' last outing. He was hired as Jeremy Messersmith's guitarist and studio collaborator and began periodically teaching songwriting courses at the McNally Smith College of Music. Along the way, he reconnected with ex-Hang Ups drummer Stephen Ittner — always his toughest critic, according to Tighe — which spurred the creative process for the first album from his new band, the Starfolk.

"Getting to work with Stephen again was huge for me," he explains. "In many ways the creative vibe was harkening back to the early days of the Hang Ups, just wanting every chord progression to be special enough that it would gain his approval."

The Starfolk's internal creative vibe may echo the Hang Ups' youthful days, but its outward sound does not. Tighe still boasts that distinctively airy tenor and a penchant for setting beautiful vocal melodies atop unusual chord progressions — recently described with rightful awe by Messersmith as "like doing ballet in a minefield." In fact, the Starfolk achieve a far broader sound than that of their frontman's power-pop past.

The nine Tighe-led tunes on the record include everything from jaunty campfire strum-alongs like "Midnight Moon" to shimmering guitar-pop in the vein of the Sundays found in "Sleeping Without Dreaming." LaBonne adds to the Starfolk's impressive breadth by throwing in three tunes of her own. Hers constitute the album's most rocking moments, and her formerly icy alto range finds fiery vigor. The group's secret weapon, Jacqueline Ultan, adds either sinister shading or bright accents on cello depending on the occasion.

Musical reinvention wasn't without its growing pains, however. Recording stretched out over four years, and Tighe was tweaking arrangements right up until the moment the record was mixed a few short weeks ago. The longtime couple — married for 13 years and together for 22 — are quick to credit their mutual artistic support system for seeing it through.

"Songwriting is always there in the background as part of our larger relationship," explains Tighe. "We go through our artistic ups and downs together and are very aware of each others' process. It's a daily part of our lives together."

"I don't know if I could have pursued songwriting without Brian," chimes in LaBonne, who didn't share her first songs with Tighe until seven years into their relationship, a move that ultimately birthed City Pages-cover-claiming band the Owls. (The now-active group, featuring the couple sharing singing and songwriting duties with Maria May, plans to release a new album in 2014.) "I was so self-conscious in the beginning that his support was crucial. Having him embrace my songs, and then bring them to another level through arranging and recording them, that meant everything to me. Brian's music is a huge part of the person that I fell in love with, and I feel like a keeper of that in a way."

"There's your world of songs and to me that's totally part of you," counters Tighe quickly, the uniquely symbiotic nature of their intertwined artistic and romantic connection on full display. "That's part of why I love making music with you. I get to experience you through another world."

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