In Music

Tom Vollman's first solo disc, "The Betty Violet" is dark and raw.

Vollman ventures out alone for "The Betty Violet"

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OMC: The record has an anguished, pensive kind of vibe that I equate with "Straightaways" by Son Volt which had that same kind of simmer and wasn't really country and wasn't really rock, but some kind of in between. Was that something you aimed for or did the sound and the vibe just happen?

TV: It was really strange for me to see how the record was taking shape as the sessions wore on. In one sense, it was exactly what I had in mind, but in another sense, it was something I hadn't ever imagined. It kind of took on a life of its own. The songs are dark, to an extent, but that wasn't necessarily planned, it was just what came out.

The recording process -- engineered and mixed by Caleb Willitz at Chicago's Rattlesnake Studios -- added a significant bit of flavor to the overall feel of the disc. Once the recording and mixing was done, I was fortunate enough to have Matt Pence -- the drummer for Centro-Matic -- master the record at his studio --The Echo Lab -- in Denton, Texas. He brought a third, and maybe most importantly, fresh, set of ears to the project. His stamp is definitely present and for that, I'm grateful. Both he and Caleb contributed to the overall feel of the recording in subtle, yet very resonate ways.

That said, I appreciate the "Straightaways" reference, which has always been one of my favorite records. It has a certain sense of legitimacy in that it feels very organic and uncensored. There's a distinct lack of clear continuity to the record, but at the same time, there's a very solid theme -- the idea of unfettered creativity. For me, that's what's exciting about rock n roll. It's a bit dangerous, really, but in the end the product feels like it has legs.

I've always loved a record that really speaks to me because it's packed with some of the author's heart and soul. There was great deal of care put into the record, but at the same time, there was a great deal of spontaneity. The biggest challenge, often times, was to turn off my inner critic/censor and let the record be the record.

OMC: The songs on the record have a very strong sense of place and are often named after streets ("Bedford," "Delancey"), towns ("Lincoln NE") and neighborhoods ("Day Heights"). Are you a very place-oriented person?

TV: I do tend to be a place-oriented person. I find that certain places conjure certain feelings, memories and emotions. Often times, the feelings are tied directly to the place. More often, though, I find that an indirect, sometimes after-the-fact relation tends to take root during the writing process. Still, the experience of the place -- the sights, the sounds, the smells -- are so vivid that they serve as the spark that powers the entire process.

Most of these songs were written in the four or so months before I started recording with one of them coming 12 hours before a session. In that sense, they were relatively new and, as a result, they held a fresh sense of urgency. For me, the most easily accessible ideas and emotions are those that are tied to my sense of place -- a fleeting moment wrapped-up in something concrete and physical. Some of them are real, others are imagined, but they all have a vibrancy that made the writing and the recording very easy.

OMC: With "The Betty Violet" and the likes of Bon Iver, is Wisconsin going to become known as a dark singer / songwriter's paradise?

TV: I like the idea of Wisconsin being a songwriter's paradise. There are so many talented performers and writers in Milwaukee alone, not to mention the full state. There's a great deal of exciting work being produced. I think Bon Iver's record, having struck a well-deserved critical chord, has done a lot to expose the breadth of talent within Wisconsin.

There must be something about our long, cold winters that makes folks grow kind of dark and introspective. In all seriousness, I think that the process of writing is quite analogous to the passing of winter as it gives way to the spring. An artist grooms and arranges a series of songs, often times alone (much like the dead of winter), then records and releases them, creating a natural sort of birth (the spring), which fuels further creation. It's a promising and rewarding cycle.

OMC: What's next?

TV: There's quite a bit on the horizon, which is exciting, to say the least. I'll be touring a bit off the record -- heading east for a few stretches and then to the southwest. I'm looking forward to a bit more touring in the new year, but for now, we're going to work to support the record on the radio, between the stretches of shows.

The band is still together and we're working on a new record, as well, which is quickly nearing completion. We're pretty excited about the recordings, as a full band offering has been fairly long overdue.

On the 'solo' front, I'm planning to head back into the studio in December to begin work on a follow-up to "The Betty Violet." I'm really excited to see where this batch leads, as I think my writing has grown a significant bit as a result of 'The Betty Violet' recording process. There's definitely and opportunity to build and expand upon the previous experience and hopefully concoct something new and exciting in the process.

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