Tom Brosseau grew up wanting to be Roy Orbison but ended up becoming, well, Tom Brosseau.
A lanky Southern California singer-songwriter who released his first album in 2002, Brosseau has since earned a wave of critical hosannas as well as endorsements from more established artists like John Doe and Bonnie Raitt.
It's not hard to hear why: The North Dakota transplant — he left Grand Forks right after college— has a distinctive vocal range and intonation that calls to mind singers like Chet Baker, Jimmy Scott and Jeff Buckley, while his sophisticated songwriting invites comparisons to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Jerome Kern.
And it's not every artist who comes up with song titles like "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground," or can write about the 1997 flood that swept away much of his hometown in a way that's moving but not maudlin. All of which means that words like "haunting" and "timeless" keep cropping up in reviews.
So does Brosseau feel haunting and timeless?
"No, I don't," he says with at least a hint of exasperation. "I always wonder why people say stuff like that. I never agree with that, you know, but everybody's entitled to their opinion, and people have said worse things about me."
Then again, he admits, they may be half-right: "I just feel like I'm coming from a whole other place. I think that's one thing that's accurate, is that it seems to be a place that is of no time at all. You know, like time really has nothing to do with it."
Behind the green door
Brosseau proves that point on his forthcoming album with fellow singer-songwriter Angela Correa, who perform together as Les Shelleys.
Billy, the duo's debut for the Fat Cat label, is a timeless and only slightly haunting collection of covers that range from the 1895 standard "The Band Played On" to John Prine's "The Late John Garfield Blues" and Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll." The arrangements are about as stripped-down as it gets: two voices, one guitar, a couple of dogs (more on them later), no overdubs.
Among the most memorable tracks is "Green Door," which was a mid-1950s hit later covered by everyone from Bill Haley to the Cramps. On it, the duo's exquisite harmonies are accompanied by nothing more than body percussion (hand claps, finger snaps, etc.). The result is reminiscent of old field recordings, which as it turns out, was altogether intentional.
"I was really fascinated with the Smithsonian Folkways albums," says Correa, who also plays in an indie rock band called Correatown. "You know, all those field recordings of people on their porches, and choirs in their church, in the middle of the mountains somewhere. And you can't even really make out half the time what the people are saying. But they're all singing with such conviction, and sometimes they're warbling, and sometimes they're off-key. But still there's something in it that moves you, and there's a certain honesty, and there's not any pretension, you know?"
The equipment Les Shelleys recorded on wasn't quite as primitive as what musicologist John A. Lomax carried around in the trunk of his car. But it was close.
"We recorded on my minidisc player," says Brosseau of the sessions, which actually date to 2003. "It's one take, nothing fancy. You can't go back and polish it up, you can't do anything. So it kind of becomes a documentation. There were two dogs in the house where I lived, a Great Dane and a little cocker spaniel. They're both dead now, so it's like the voices of these two dogs are preserved on some of the recordings. It's really important to me because those two dogs are like my best friends."
Brosseau and Correa never expected to release the tracks. But like the Smithsonian sessions that inspired them, the recordings seemed to take on a life of their own.
"In a way, they didn't sound that good; I mean, the people who mastered it really did a great job," says Brosseau, who was surprised when the Fat Cat label (home to cutting-edge artists like Animal Collective and We Were Promised Jetpacks) expressed an interest in putting the album out.
"We never thought we'd ever release anything like this. It might be confusing to some people but, you know, but maybe others will get it and appreciate it."
Meanwhile, the duo continues to look forward, which in their case means not looking quite so far back.
"There's a Syd Barrett song that we're thinking about working on," says Correa, "but I don't know if we'll actually end up doing it."
It may have taken them the better part of a decade to get around to releasing a record, but Brosseau and Correa are clearly kindred spirits. While his brother was going out and buying Duran Duran albums, Brosseau grew up paying more attention to what his father and grandfather were listening to. Likewise, Correa developed an early reputation for being an "old soul."
"I had a lot of people telling me that growing up," she confirms, "but I never really knew what it meant. I think I've always been sort of emotional and empathic at the same time — but I don't know whether that's old soul or new soul."
For his part, Brosseau says recent travels throughout Europe and Asia have served to deepen his perspective.
"I felt like I was leaving my old self behind," he says of the extensive touring. "I can't get enough of it. You either really end up loving the road, or you don't and you wanna get off it. For me, it's always been about staying on it as much as I can. In fact I'm afraid to be off it."
So does the new Brosseau still get that weird look in his eyes when he's playing live, as if he's staring intently at something that's not there?
"Yeah, I'm looking at all the ghosts," he says. "I'm looking at Roy Orbison. I take him with me everywhere I go."