North of the Internet

A conversation with Tom Brosseau was published August 16th, 2017 on North of the Internet. Interview by staff writer Morgan Enos.

Morgan Enos: We shared a stage once in the tiny town of Lompoc, California. I noticed then that you’ve gravitated toward turn-of-the-century folk songs by Blind Blake or The Carter Family as much as your own material. It drove home the point that people in the turn of the century dealt with the same stuff we do now – political crises, relationship troubles, needing to tie one on to deal with it all. Has any song from back then reminded you of yourself, in any way?

Tom Brosseau: Folk music doesn’t remind me of me. But I follow it just the same. I like to hear about people’s problems.

Enos: What was your very first impression of Los Angeles, when you moved there as a young man? What did you do on your first day in the city? How did you feel, as specifically as possible?

Brosseau: I moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, really without knowing much about Los Angeles. My feeling was that when I arrived I had just joined a race.

A friend of mine said when he moved to Los Angeles he first read everything by Raymond Chandler, the popular American noir writer whose novels featured L.A. as a backdrop, to sort of get himself acquainted. It was good advice for me to follow, reading novels with L.A. as the setting. Though I didn’t read a whole lot of Chandler, I enjoyed the ones of his I did read, for instance Lady in the Lake. Others like Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain and The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald were more my style. I discovered John Fante and read Road To Los Angeles, West Of Rome, Ask The Dust, Dreams From Bunker Hill. I started to not feel so alone, and eventually enough time passed to where I got tougher. I’d visit Philippe’s, Musso & Frank and Angels Flight, as though touching the places I had read about would somehow endow me with a special power, like the gift of gab is given to all those who kiss the Blarney Stone.

On the day I moved to Los Angeles, my landlord, Jackie Jewels, gave me a tour of my rental, a cottage with an avocado tree and a backyard that folded out in to a ravine. She told me I was moving to the right neighborhood because all the artists in Los Angeles lived in Echo Park. Not far from my address was a drive that wound around the Echo Park hills of Angelino Heights, offering a captivating vista of the Echo Park pond. From there I watched people walking around the pond, the vendors selling their fruit with chili powder, the water fountain and lotuses, and beyond all that was a mural of figures running a race. I remember thinking on my first day in L.A. that it was all a race and I was just another runner.

Enos: Can you introduce us to yourself as a child? What were your personality quirks, wants, needs or hang-ups? Do they follow you to this day?

Brosseau: I hid a lot, loved music and really wanted to be Rick Springfield. I wanted to be older, I shaved my face with a spoon, bought near beer at the Piggly Wiggly with some of the neighborhood kids, lit matches in the alley. I loved church and the hymnals. I loved my grandmother Lillian.

In junior high my choir teacher showed us a video of our first choir performance of the year, a critique on how to be a better singer. In the video, I was in the front row moving way too much, doing things I was not conscious of, like fixing my hair and jerking my head and adjusting my shoulders as if my clothes were coming off. This, the music teacher said as he pointed to me in the video, is what you should not do in a performance. Remain still with your hands gently clasped in front of your body, he exclaimed, and for heaven’s sakes don’t be constantly fussing about with yourself.

Since junior high I’ve tried to keep a cooler exterior, but I really don’t know if that’s true or not. I suspect I don’t move around as much as I once upon a time did. I am a self-aware person. I usually know where I am from a bird’s eye view in any room. I visualize, map out ceiling tiles, pick one and think of what I look like from there.

Enos: Let’s flash forward from there. Please describe how you began to assimilate into the Largo scene in Los Angeles with Sean Watkins, Jon Brion and others. I think they’re some of the finest players around. Was it a result of happenstance or a calculated move to collaborate with those particular musicians?

Brosseau: I began playing Largo before I moved to Los Angeles, and when I was driving up from San Diego to play music more than it seemed I was playing music in San Diego, my attitude was to just take a chance and move there for good.

Playing Largo was in part due to a couple artist friends of mine passing along my music. Gregory Page, Cindy Wasserman, John Doe. Really, that’s how I’ve gotten however far I’ve gotten, because people have believed in me and helped me along. I also worked very hard and believed in myself. That’s the secret, you must believe in yourself.

I met Sara and Sean Watkins through Largo owner Mark Flanagan. Jon Brion, too. And so many others. That’s Largo’s specialness. It’s a club of performers. I’ve gotten to be around a lot of writers and songwriters and comedians and actors.

By just breathing the same air as your peers, being around them, there’s a transfer of some kind, an energy that will sharpen life’s definition and reveal a new pathway, like how lines and locations appear on the uncharted territory of a map once the secret word has been spoken.

Enos: Please tell us about you did yesterday evening, roughly to the minute or hour.

Brosseau: Yesterday was Pioneer Day in Salt Lake City. I spent it with my family at Cherry Hill, a local favorite campground and water park. I swam and got some sun, ate homemade potato salad, cucumber salad with vinegar and onion, a turkey burger, baked beans, and a can of cold diet caffeine-free pop.

Enos: It’s funny how our lives are spent in a series of vehicles. Some of my earliest and best memories were in my dad’s two-door Honda Prelude, 500,000 miles on it, The Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today” on the stereo. What’s the first family car you remember being in? Do you still have an emotional attachment to it?

Brosseau: My folks had a station wagon with beige leather interior and a seat way in the back. This station wagon was a lot of fun and I do think of it from time to time. The cigarette lighter was one of my fascinations.

My mother used it every time we got in to the car. One time she told me to stay put while she ran into a store. After a couple minutes my curiosity got the better of me. I pushed the lighter in and when it popped out I saw the orange glow and touched it. I burned my poor little finger.

Enos: Can you tell us about the first instance of very severe heartbreak in your life? Does it linger? How have you processed it since then?

Brosseau: I’ve had some heartaches. I’m sure I’ll have more. Perhaps by comparison I’ve had it much better than the next person. I don’t know, but I always think of that when I’m feeling hopeless. There is no deeper heartache than the first one you experience.

One of my favorite performers is Peggy Lee, a gifted singer and songwriter from Jamestown, North Dakota. Lately I’ve been thinking about her song “Is That All There Is?” for which she won a Grammy in 1969. The narrator of the song lays out a series of events that’s happened to her over her lifetime in which she anticipated the heartache to be more devastating than it turned out to be.

For instance, her boyfriend leaves her, and when she finally realizes that he has left, and she gets over it, she thinks to herself, is that all there is, is that all there is to love? I think we all share in on the sentiment of Lee’s song. It’s not how devastating heartache can be that’s surprising but how quickly we are able to move past it.