Just Like Coming Home: An Interview with Singer/Songwriter Lina Tullgren

by Keely Shinners

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"I want them to feel what I feel."
Listening to the five tracks on Lina Tullgren’s forthcoming debut record Wishlist, I latched onto a vivid imagination of slow-dancing in a tiny, dark studio apartment (that I have never lived in) with a boyfriend (that I do not recognize), candles lit on the kitchen counter, half-eaten (vegan) pizza in a cardboard box on the carpet. And I felt like crying, not for the longing of an apartment or a pizza or a boyfriend, but for the deep intimacy within the vision, the space that Tullgren's music creates.

This feeling of “home” colors much of Tullgren’s life as a songwriter and musician. Growing up with her music-loving parents in the tight-knit communities of New England, Tullgren’s childhood homes were constantly flowing with artists, musicians, playwrights, and more. Her first record, which will be re-released on vinyl for Captured Tracks on June 24th, was recorded on an analog reel to reel 8 track at her best friend Ty Ueda’s home in New Hampshire, with all the raw, spontaneous sounds therein.

I talked to Tullgren (while she was at home, drying wet clothes on every surface of her apartment, she says) about writing songs, translating emotion into melody, and finding hopefulness in the midst of catastrophe.

You grew up in New England, around a lot of different artists and musicians, including your parents. What was it like growing up in that community?

My mom was a classical flautist. My dad doesn’t play music, but he’s a big enthusiast. My stepmom, who my dad met when I was four, is a songwriter and an actress. My great-grandfather was a jazz piano player. There were lots of creative people around me growing up. I was raised by my parents, but I wasalso raised by all of their friends. And they have a lot of weirdo friends who make music, write plays, or do art.

Have the people you grew up with informed your passion for music?

Yeah, I think so. I’ve been exposed to a lot of different kinds of music since I was a baby. My mom let me pick what instrument I wanted to play. I decided to play the violin, and I did that for a long time. I was always really passionate about music. All of these inspirational, adult figures around me always informed that passion. But it took a lot of learning experience to find what I wanted the outlet to be for making that music.

Where does your sound come from? Does it come from your upbringing, listening to Brian Eno and classical music, or does it come from elsewhere?

I’ve always listened to a wide range of different things. I started writing these songs on Wishlist as a reaction to surroundings that I was frustrated with. I was playing classical violin, and I was also playing all this folk music. I was surrounded by bluegrass musicians who were obsessed with old music. I was interested in it, because I could connect to it in a certain way, but I was very frustrated with the fact that no one was pushing to do new stuff. It was just a re-presentation of the old thing. After so long doing that, I thought, “I write songs. I’ll buy an electric guitar and see what happens.” The music that came out of it, at least initially, was a reaction against the stagnance surrounding me. I was ready to create something that was really different from stuff I was hearing.

You got signed to Captured Tracks on the spot after they listened to your demo cassette. What was that experience like?

It’s kind of crazy. I’m still walking on air about it. The songs on the tape were a couple years old. My best friend and collaborator Ty [Ueda] and I recorded the tape for fun, just to give it to our family and friends. I’ve always loved Captured Tracks. I love Mac DeMarco and all the records that have come out of that label. I went onto their website and read about their demo submissions. I thought, all right, whatever. Nothing is going to happen with it. I’m going to keep making music. I’ll live in obscurity until I do something else, like open a restaurant or move to Europe. Something stupid. But they responded to my email two days later. I was like, what the fuck? This isn’t real. They’re really cool. They’re really good people. When I met them, I was kind of scared. You hear all these horror stories about the music industry and all these terrible, evil people. But when I went to meet all of them, I was like, oh my god, you guys are just like me! You’re all nerds too!

Why do you think the record speaks to people so profoundly?

Something I think about a lot when writing songs is the concept of having a home. Feeling at home somewhere. I’ve moved a lot of times over the years. Moving to a new apartment or leaving somewhere, you have to cultivate a new feeling of home. It’s not like it gets easier. But I think a lot of people can relate to this concept that home can be found again once you leave it. All the time, as you grow up, change, have relationships, you’re always searching for that feeling of comfort, being at “home.” That exists in all the songs, whether abstract or spoken.

I got that feeling too when I was listening to the songs. It’s that feeling of intimacy, feeling like you belong somewhere.

Yeah, feeling like you belong is the big thing.

Your work seems very personal. You have raw sound and subject matter. What is the process of translating a depth of emotion and sincerity into a song? Do you feel like the songwriting process can be constraining? Or do you feel it opens you up?

It opens up. Something that I’ve struggled with over many years is being able to talk about my feelings. It’s hard to put into words in a conversation with someone. When I can’t figure something out, I need to sit down and form a melody. Words will come out and help me understand something that I wouldn’t be able to articulate to another person. The writing process for me is very stream-of- consciousness. I form a chord progression that I like, and the lyrics come out of it. Or you write one verse, and suddenly you can associate things from that, forming another thing.

Along that vein, in a world of bubblegum pop and digestibility, even in the indie music community, why make music that is deeply emotional?

People still want that. People really like to digest pop music. I love to digest pop music. It’s great. There’s a time and a place for that, but you can’t have one thing without the other thing. There needs to be some sort of balance in this music industry. People want to have fun, but they also want to feel things. I think that is one of the reasons for the presence of indie music in the mainstream world. People listen to music, whether it’s my music or whatever else, and they’re like, “Getting older? I felt like that once.” They find something that speaks to them somehow. They can latch onto it. That makes me feel good.

You recorded Wishlist originally on a Tascam 388 at home.

Yeah, at my friend Ty’s house. We’ve been making music together since we were sixteen.

People always romanticize the effect of analog, its ability to capture raw energy and the honest spontaneity of songmaking. What is it about the aura of the homemade cassette, the analog record, that brings a new dimension to the song?

As basic as it is, I just love how it sounds. At least for this record, it’s so much more sonically pleasing to me. The fact that there’s all this hiss, all these strange noises. This recording session was pretty informal, so you hear something dropping in the background. You hear this cool ribbed noise. It brings me back to one of the first recordings that Ty and I did. “Watchdog,” the first track on Wishlist, I wrote the day after I got an electric guitar. That was the first song. After I wrote it, I went to New Hampshire to hang out with Ty at his parents’ house. We recorded the first version of it when he had just gotten the 388. The tapes that we used were kind of fucked up, so the crap that came out was really wobbly. It had this crazy noise, like you were underwater. Everything was slowed down. It was like you were trying to walk through water. It was so cool. You can’t make that in a studio.

If I can be frank, the songs on this album make me want to cry, and I imagine a lot of people have the same experience. Why do you think that is? Is it the darkness lurking in the tracks, or is it a kind of hopefulness?

It’s both dark and hopeful. I think that is something people can latch onto. A lot of the songs on the album came out of different heartbreaks. You go through a breakup, and after, you get back on your feet. It’s like an earthquake. You look around. You see, oh, that window is broken. That window is broken too. The floor is all fucked up. But I have my clothes and my speakers, they didn’t break. You look around, and you’re reminded of the darkness of some catastrophe that happened. But you think, “I’m okay, so I’m going to be okay.” There’s a hopefulness in the songs that people can relate to things that they have been through.

A lot of these songs are about breaking up with someone, growing up. You seem to be interested in these in-between phases of life, the melancholy of feeling pulled away from the past or having to move in a new direction. Why do you think this interests you?

When I was a kid, I had all these adult figures around me. I ended up growing pretty fast. I’ve always considered myself to be kind of an old soul. I always had friends who were older than me. I was always kind of there. I graduated high school, and I didn’t go to college. I moved to Boston right away to make fiddle music, because I couldn’t afford to go to Berkeley. I was in a relationship, living a seemingly adult life, so young. I was only eighteen years old. I didn’t know the creative thing I wanted to go towards, but I had a relationship and a job, pretending to be an adult. But then I hit this point like, I don’t know what I’m doing. What the fuck is going on? This is something we all go through. It struck me that I had felt so stable for so long. Since the time I was fourteen, I was like, I got it figured out. I’m an adult. You’re accelerated, but you can’t see what’s coming for you. Then, I looked around and I felt like I had grown up so so fast. All my friends that had gone to college were getting drunk all the time, and I felt like this lame old person. Suddenly, I had to be on my own and figure out what was going to happen.

I pressure myself all the time. It’s one of my flaws. I don’t stop to tell myself that I’m really young and I have a lot of time to do everything. My brain goes to another place. I read about so many different artists, and I always find myself comparing my age to certain people. Like, that person put out their hit record when they were nineteen! Why can’t I do that? But then I’m like, chill! Chill. You gotta stop doing this. So I’m working on that.

What’s on your “Wishlist” for this album? What are you hoping the experience will be for listeners?

I want them to relate to the songs. I want them to feel what I feel. I’ve been playing some shows, and it’s always nice when people come up to me like, “I cried when you played that!” I just hope people like it. I spent a lot of time working towards making it. I went through so many changes in my life. I know that everyone is struggling and trying all the time. I hope that they can listen to it and find some solace. And some hopefulness.

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