Sarah Beth Tomberlin wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music growing up. She was raised in a deeply religious Baptist family, and one of the first memories she has of hearing music that wasn’t related to church was watching American Idol and realizing that she didn’t know any of the songs the contestants were singing. Her familiarity with the pop culture touchstones of her youth is still a bit rocky (“I still don’t know all the words to ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time,'” she admits) but, as most determined teenagers will, she managed to seek out music that spoke to her on a more personal level.
The first CDs she remembers buying were the Chicago movie-musical soundtrack, Dashboard Confessional’s The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, and Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. She hid them from her parents, terrified that they would find them and trigger a dialogue she wasn’t ready to have just yet. “Everything we saw or heard would end with this critical and analytical discussion,” she explains. “So if we went to the movie theater, we would then talk about what the message of the movie was, even fucking Finding Nemo.”
She now credits that sort of thinking with helping her be a better listener and informing her own songwriting, which is beautifully realized on her debut album as Tomberlin, At Weddings, which will be released in a couple months. “I look for redemption in everyone else,” she sings on one of its songs. “But funny thing is that I always hated church/ Spend so much time looking that I forgot to search.” It’s an album that’s largely about finding the answers that work best for yourself, separate from but still ingrained with the values you grew up with.
Tomberlin often felt lonely in her youth, like she couldn’t express herself without being judged. She was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and spent her childhood moving from place to place as her father, a pastor, traveled to different churches. They moved at least five different times before landing in rural southern Illinois, where her family still lives and, up until a couple years ago, Tomberlin still lived, too.
After finishing homeschool at 16, she went to a private Christian college for a short stint but dropped out and ended up back at home. She was working 45 hours a week at a Verizon store and doing 15 hours of school, and it was during this period of time that Tomberlin started writing the songs that would eventually make up her debut album.
“It all came from being super isolated,” she says. “In any possible way you could think of isolation, that’s what I was experiencing. At time, it felt like this isolation that was directed solely at me. It was so much that it had to purposeful. Like, something good had to come out of it or it could very much kill me. These songs came out of literal survival mode. Because I just needed to create something for myself while living there. It was kind of a shelter.”
Music had always been a part of Tomberlin’s life, whether through the church or otherwise. Her mom played piano and flute, and her family sang religious songs around the house. Tomberlin took piano lessons for a little while, but would always play by ear, drawing the ire of the teacher, who would hit the student’s fingers with pencils if they didn’t hit the right note. Her parents gifted her a guitar when she was really young, though she plays that by ear, too. She recalls home videos where she’d make up 20-minute songs about everything and anything.
But it wasn’t until later on that Tomberlin realized that the music she was making could perhaps serve the same purpose that music had for her — bridging a gap from isolation to the world-at-large, providing recognition and confirmation of doubts and feelings that otherwise would have been left unsaid.
“I’ve always been writing songs, even if I didn’t share them,” she explains. It was one song in particular, “Tornado,” that she wrote when she was 18 or 19, that jumpstarted the process of wanting to share them. In the next year, she’d write the majority of the songs on her debut album, At Weddings. The album was initially released last fall, on a limited-edition vinyl run from Joyful Noise Recordings, and will be re-released later this year on Saddle Creek Records, with three additional songs that she wrote in the past year. It’s a full-circle moment, from surreptitiously listening to Conor Oberst albums to releasing her first album on the Omaha label that was instrumental in developing his career.
Tomberlin relocated to Louisville, Kentucky after finishing her associate’s degree last year and now lives there, where she works at a coffee shop. “I really wanted to focus on being able to write and do music without feeling exhausted and strained,” she says. And while she no longer identifies as a Christian, her music still has a vestigial spirituality to it.
Its lead single, “Self-Help,” is a rejection of the guidance that she was indoctrinated into, using it for a more practical purpose. “I used a self-help book to kill a fly,” she sings. “I think it worked, mom/ I think I’m fine.” Her music is made from the barest of bones, looping guitar lines and plinking keys and her silvery voice, that together create a kind of hymnal stillness. It’s a sound of solitude that’s reminiscent of the isolation that Tomberlin experienced growing up, but its very existence sounds like an invitation.
01 “Any Other Way”
02 “Untitled 1″
04 “You Are Here”
05 “A Video Game”
06 “I’m Not Scared”
08 “Self Help”
09 “Untitled 2″
At Weddings is out 8/10 via Saddle Creek Records. Pre-order it here.