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INTERVIEW: Tobias The Owl

Hi Elijah, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hi, VENTS. Nice to e-meet you. I’m doing great. Nice to be here.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Let Go”?

The song is about time and memory, and the inverse relationship that they have. Our memories are imprints of the past that preserve something about the way the world once was. Inevitably, the arrow of time makes every memory more distant and more faint with every passing moment. But in some ways, as the universe marches on, it amplifies and magnifies the impact of our actions through an ever-expanding web of consequences and causality. So even as time seems to be erasing us from existence in a lot of ways, it’s also magnifying the effects of who we choose to be in other ways. I always thought that the inverse relationship between time and memory was an interesting thing to write songs about and that theme pops up in a lot of places in the new album. The song is as much about letting go of what we once held dear as it is about embracing a future of endless possibility, so I’d like to think that there’s some hope in the song’s message.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

I guess I was thinking a lot about my battle with leukemia and my own mortality when I wrote that song. The idea of letting go, is something that we have to confront in a lot of literal and metaphorical ways, as we face our mortality, and that became a particularly emotional experience for me, when I was diagnosed with leukemia. It was really a defining moment that influenced the album in a lot of ways. I wrote the song not too long after I was given the diagnosis, and I finished that song and the album as I was recovering and navigating my way, while rejoining the world, after some of my health issues were resolving. By the way, I’m in remission now, and I’m doing fine, but the whole ordeal had a profound effect on me.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

Yes. We’re really proud of the single, “Let Go”, and we’re hard at work on a music video. It’s maybe the best song I’ve written, or at least among the best, so I really want to create a rich visual vehicle for the song that helps audiences engage with it. There’s also a lot of depth in the song’s meaning, so we’re working on something that I think captures some of the different levels of meaning. We did do a live, acoustic version of the song that we made with Rain City Collective, who are local photographers and videographers in Seattle.

The single comes off your new album A Safe Harbor For Wayward Echoes – what’s the story behind the title?

When I think of a wayward echo, it means something from the past that is lost in the world. The idea of a safe harbor is my reference to finding a place to rest or not be so lost. The album is all about navigating the fine line between being lost in the world and finding your way. So in some ways, the songs are the wayward echoes, and in some ways I was the wayward echo as the songwriter. With what I went through, before and during the writing of the album (or “owlbum”, as we like to frequently say), the transition in my life was really dramatic. But each of us is constantly changing on a daily basis, even on an atomic level, and so it was interesting for me to think of each song as an echo of the person that I once was at that moment when the song was written. And the idea of creating a “safe harbor” for all the “echoes” of who I was during all those phases of a very dramatic transition was the overarching theme of the album. The songs come from a very personal journey, but our goal was to achieve something that a lot of people would resonate with.

How was the recording and writing process?

They were definitely two phases of the album. I wrote a lot of songs for the album, and then, when we started recording, I had to really think of the songs in a different way, and try to make each song a cohesive statement, while bringing the music and themes together in a way that fit. I wrote about 160 songs for the album, so there was a lot that we could have included, and there were a lot of directions that we could have gone in.

What was it like to work with Sheldon Gomberg and how did that relationship develop?

Sheldon was a fan of a song that I had written a few years ago that was covered by Jonah Tolchin and John McAuley of Deer Tick. The song was “Low Life”, so I when I was ready to make this album, I messaged Sheldon to ask if he wanted to collaborate. In the weeks and months leading up to the album, he put so much wisdom and patience into really absorbing each song, and he really delved into the meaning of dozens of songs. After hearing so much of his insight and feedback, I knew he was the right person to partner with.

How much did he get to influence the album?

Sheldon has definitely been a major, major influence on the album. He’s amazing to work with. He’s worked with some of the most talented songwriters that have ever lived, but he still gave a lot of attention to my record and put a lot of contemplation into my music. He spent hours pensively thinking about each song, listening to mixes, pouring over versions of the songs, talking with me about the themes, and planning how to mold some very unrefined moments into a very complete musical vision. It was really wonderful to work with a producer who was so thoughtful and patient. He knew the songs as well as I did, and in a lot of cases, he gave the songs the love and attention that they deserved, even when my confidence was faltering.

Do you tend to take a different approach when you are collaborating with someone else rather than in your own?

I don’t think there were many moments where Sheldon and I didn’t share a very similar vision. In almost every song, we really had similar ideas. I think there were a lot of moments where the songs didn’t really change trajectory, but their trajectory was amplified and refined. Compared to my previous projects, the biggest change with this album is that in the past, I was a little limited in what I could achieve as far as my vision for the final versions of the songs. For this album, we were very ambitious. We set a lot of big and bold goals for how we wanted things to sound, so I think we set the bar higher, and I hope that some of those ambitious choices result in a really full experience for folks who will listen to the new owlbum.

How do you get to balance your love for science and arts?

There are some very esoteric themes and scientific revelations that inspired the songs. At times, our society puts a membrane up between science and art, and that membrane is probably more permeable than we might think. In my career as a professor, I study the human body and create images of very detailed, elegant anatomy. The result is as much an artistic expression as it is an application of science. As a songwriter, I’m inspired by emerging scientific insights that have shaped and reshaped our view of the world and where we lie in the universe. In a lot of ways, our generation is seeing very new facets of the universe and its evolution, and that perspective is tremendously inspiring to me as a songwriter. So I try to reconcile artistic and scientific perspectives in my career and also in my songwriting, and trying to cross a false dichotomy. Hopefully, I’m inspiring others to do so as well.

What aspect of the human experience did you get to explore on this record?

On a very personal level, I was confronting a lot of existential questions. There were questions that I was trying to face about my own mortality. Battling leukemia made those questions more acute and brought them to the forefront of my experience. I was really trying to answer a lot of questions that are big and fundamental, like: Who am I? Why am I alive? What’s my role in the universe? And then after I was regaining my health, I started asking questions about how I should find my way back into a world that sometimes seems like it doesn’t have enough space for each of us. Sometimes you face things in life that remind you that the biggest questions are the most basic. Are humans just infinitesimal beings flickering in and out of existence in an instant in a cold, vast, uncaring universe? Or does our detailed view of the universe give us a perspective and insight that is somehow more significant? So the songs are very personal to me, but I think that in my journey, I faced some questions that are a very universal part of the human experience. I don’t know that I found definitive answers to any of these questions, but I think there’s some value in sharing some of the challenges of addressing what it means to be who we are as humans.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes. The songs that we’ve released have already gotten a huge audience of folks around the world excited. We’ve had a lot of folks around the world asking if Tobias the Owl will be touring through their region, so we’re really excited to continue the journey with some live performances of the song. We have some shows planned for Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Toronto, and we’re definitely going to make some other dates work for us to travel to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world. I’m looking forward to shows at Hotel Café in LA, Hotel Utah in SF, Sofar New York, Pete’s Candy shop, and hopefully, we’ll be announcing more dates very soon.

What else is happening next in Tobias The Owl’s world?

I think our next task is to finally answer the question of what the purpose for human existence is. We should have that wrapped up by the end of our tour. I predict we’ll know for sure within a couple of weeks. Or maybe not. Just in case, we don’t wrap up a cohesive answer for the purpose of why the universe exists, I do have plenty more songs. We definitely have enough songs for another album someday, but for now, we’re really looking forward to sharing this album with as many folks who want to hear it.

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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