When trapped in Maine, you either take the creative path or the athletic path. Lina Tullgren chose the first.
From ages 7 to 19, she worked the strings of a violin, taking off for Maine Fiddle Camp each summer to pursue the instrument and the friendships formed there. It’s what gave her the ear for heartfelt songwriting. But now, at age 23, the Boston singer-songwriter wields an electric guitar with equal confidence. In fact, it’s how she did a total 180 from that style of music that makes her songwriting so mesmerizing.
Tullgren’s debut release, the underrated five-song tape Wishlist, is a typical New England-sounding album of lo-fi bedroom songs. Armed with a guitar, her voice, and occasional contributions by bandmate Ty Ueda, she works her way through emotionally open, intentionally dragging structures. It’s the brittle feeling that accompanies aging when you’re not quite ready to age, the pain of letting a broken heart heal at the only pace it’s capable of healing at, and the letdown of unwrapping a gift that’s not—and never will be—what you actually want. It’d be earnest even if it tried not to be.
Though the loneliness of her guitarwork immediately recalls the solemn sadness of folk musicians like Elliott Smith, Tullgren’s music keeps an optimistic outlook. “I want to have a hopeful element that exists, because it should be realistic,” she explains, twirling a cocktail in circles in the dim lighting of Alden & Harlow. “I know for a lot of people, it’s not realistic to feel hopeful about sadness and loss and all of those themes that are explored in Wishlist, but I think it’s very important to have that complexity. Having hope is important. You need it when you have a breakup or you move away or you’re struggling with something. You can’t be down in a hole all the time. That’s one of the main reasons people have responded so positively to this music—because they can understand the need for solace.”
At the bar, her outfit is exactly what you’d expect for a Jamaica Plain resident: a colorful coat, green-rimmed circle glasses, a short haircut for maintenance’s sake. And yet, Tullgren isn’t a caricature. Berklee College of Music accepted her to its program, but she turned it down—and then moved to Boston regardless. With no college line to tow her along, she navigated the city at her own pace on her own terms with her own harmonies in her head, pushing herself despite not knowing what she was pushing herself towards.
“The first year of living here, I was around all my folk music friends but still felt very outside-looking-in on that because I felt this need to break out of it. After that, it took time to meet people doing similar things as I was, but now I feel like I’ve found some circles I jive with,” she says. “You learn how to be a person who exists in the world whether you’re playing music or not. Music helped me figure out a lot of personal stuff in my brain about friendships, relationships, family, and things, and in that way it’s a bit like therapy.”
With the EP reissued on major label Captured Tracks and a proper full-length in the works, Tullgren is getting comfortable with this new footing she’s found. “Some of the songs we’ve made poppier with the drums, but it’s been a choice to take songs that are slower and make them into something bigger,” she says, excitement spreading across her face. “It’s been an experiment, seeing what places these songs can go when they have a band.” After all, she’s only released music as a duo, and performances are either her playing alone or joined by Ueda who, almost always, turns his back to the audience the entire time he meddles with his pedals.
This Friday is the first time Lina Tullgren performs with a full band. Given the upcoming album sees her flexing that same talent—she’s roped drums, bass, guitars, organ, wurlitzer, and piano into the mix—with a four-piece crew, Tullgren’s show will be a chance not just to catch a musician in the positive period of a growth frame but to remember why hopefulness matters, an outlook we all need more of no matter how comforting wallowing may be.
LINA TULLGREN, HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE, WAY OUT. FRI 2.3. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 10:30PM/18+/$10. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM