Sarah Beth Tomberlin may appear meek at first, but her music will move you from the get-go. The Louisville-based singer-songwriter recently surfaced in the national eye because of her debut full-length, At Weddings, and its simple honesty. But if you ask her how she’s adjusting to it all—touring, interviews, a general fanbase at all—she still seems unsure if it’s happening at all.
On her debut album, Tomberlin draws a line from her upbringing in a traditional Christian setting to her current place after her loss of faith. While the subject matter of At Weddings sounds dreary and potentially angsty, it is, instead, a beautiful record that slowly takes steps through her past. The whole album never grows louder than a comforting stir, providing the type of songs you want to curl under in wintertime. And while it may seem like a natural instinct, an album that came naturally to someone who is meant to share their work, the fact that it’s even gaining traction beyond her hometown still feels surreal to Tomberlin.
“To be honest, I’m really bad at being proud of myself,” says Tomberlin. “It’s all very new, so it’s hard enough to wrap my head around what’s going on, nevertheless take time to be proud of myself. What I’m proud of is that I’m not coming from any scene or big city. I take a lot of pride in hard work, playing shows, and getting music out into the world when you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of tools to help themselves. I don’t have a huge team or anything. This past tour was my first tour. When I say it’s hard to reflect, it’s because everything is so new. There’s not a single inch of this that feels familiar or comfortable. And in a way, I’m proud of that.”
To get to know her better, we interviewed Sarah Beth Tomberlin for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With At Weddings as the prompt, her answers are jittery and honest—traits that will appear in her set when she plays Cafe 939 this Friday night.
1) “Any Other Way”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever had plans to travel somewhere but the mode of travel became inaccessible suddenly?
TOMBERLIN: I don’t think I’ve had to take a different mode of transportation, but one time my mom and I were driving back from St. Louis and it took us almost 10 hours to get home on what would have been an hour-and-a-half drive. It started sleeting, there was ice, and it was wild. There was a slight chance of snow in the forecast, but it basically became covered with inches of ice anyway. We stopped on one exit to get food before driving home in the night. As we got back on the ramp to get on the interstate, all of the cars in front of us were sliding off the ramp. We also slid off the ramp, but somehow our car was fine. I don’t know how I helped my mom because she’s a more experienced driver, but I did. Everyone was driving like 20 mph and we passed like 15 car accidents. It’s terrifying driving at night seeing wreck after wreck and ambulances that couldn’t get to people because of it. That was like two years ago, too. But somehow we got back home.
2) “Untitled 1”
DIGBOSTON: What’s a feeling you often experience but doesn’t have a proper name?
TOMBERLIN: Gosh. There probably is a name for it, but I feel like a constant feeling that I feel—that’s a lot of feels in one sentence—is that nothing ever stops, everything is always going on all of the time, and you have to somehow not lose your mind. That’s a constant feeling I feel. I used to often say, “When everything calms down in different areas of my life, then…” but I’ve realized nothing is ever slowing down. It’s like feeling overwhelmed but combined with the knowledge that no part of the world stops for anything or anyone. Nothing ever pauses. It’s never collectively okay for the entire world. [laughs] I don’t know. I think about weird things like this, sorry.
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you got completely swept up in something?
TOMBERLIN: I’m going to try to look for a positive here. Let’s see. I don’t really know, but last night I watched The Simpsons for the first time in my life. I can feel that becoming a thing that I get swept up in. I don’t really binge-watch shows too often. I have to be really into a show to do so. But sometimes you just need lighthearted awareness, and I feel like The Simpsons offers that. I digested it well and probably can watch it all if I scatter it throughout periods where I am in the mood. I can feel that coming on.
The thing is, I wasn’t allowed to watch it growing up. I guess I didn’t realize that it’s not on Netflix, but I did realize I have someone’s TV password thing. I don’t even know what app I’ve been watching it on, but I am now. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch it [growing up], I didn’t really have any pop culture sensibility. And now I’m like, “Oh, this is fun.” Maybe it was because Family Guy and Southpark were around at the time and my family thought it would be similar to that, but looking back now I don’t get why I couldn’t watch it, because it’s pretty mild.
4) “You Are Here”
DIGBOSTON: When you have a panic attack or moment of fear, what do you say to yourself to help ground yourself and calm down?
TOMBERLIN: Lots of things. It’s hard to think about those things when you’re not experiencing it, but let’s do it. I think the number one thing is breathing. That’s a thing—being aware of the fact that you need air. That’s something your body usually does on its own, but you need to remind yourself of it in that moment. I also think knowing that generally most things aren’t the end of the world, even if they’re very bad or very shitty, is important.
I’m trying to think of a really fun and nice phrase to sum this up, but I’m drawing a blank. Because, really, nothing is ever the end of the world, and the end of the world is very soon itself, which is calming. The void is calming. [laughing] I would have to have a long 10-minute pause to think of a better word. Generally, when you’re having a panic attack, it feels like there’s no space for yourself or whatever you’re feeling. So allowing yourself to take up space and freak out is part of it. Part of why you freak out is because you feel like you’re not allowed to, I think. I don’t know how to stack all of those things together in a coherent way.
5) “A Video Game”
DIGBOSTON: Where were you the last time you played a video game?
TOMBERLIN: Oooh. The last video game that I played was Mario Kart, and I was in my living room. I was very angry because I’m bad at it, but it’s so much fun! It’s addicting! Suddenly I release all of the curse words I know. I’m not even that angry. It’s just frustration. Then I’m like, “This can’t be me; it’s the controller.” It’s like the Nintendo 64-era version of the game. I didn’t have an N64 growing up, but I did have a couple random friends along the way who had one. Every time someone had one in their home, I was obsessed. My first game console I had was a GameBoy Color. I only really had PacMan and Super Mario Bros., which was great, but yeah. We didn’t have a gaming console until we inherited my grandparents Wii—which is so sad that they had one and we didn’t. [laughs] That was my first gaming console that wasn’t a handheld situation.
6) “I’m Not Scared”
DIGBOSTON: Which fear of yours have you recently overcome?
TOMBERLIN: I don’t know if anyone actually ever overcomes fears. Maybe they do, but I don’t think I have overcome one. I think everyone still struggles with it. But I’m thinking too hard about the question. I should just answer the question.
I haven’t beaten it, but I’ve gotten better about literally not giving a shit about the idea of having to market yourself. I really feel like that’s super gross. I can’t really get with it. I hope that’s something I never try to get with. I really, really understand that I need to make a living and be able to pay bills from what I do, or at least that’s the goal, but I never want to have to feel like I must check certain things off to be the person who sells the things. That’s not how it is for me. That’s a fear because it feels like you have to do that. When you look around at people, a good hefty portion of people around my age making music are really invested in—though I don’t think it’s anyone’s actual desire—working with others whose job is to do that for you, to make you marketable, but in a not-gross way. I think I’m getting over the fear of feeling like I’m not good enough or it won’t be able to be done without selling myself. I don’t know if this makes sense, but I’ve been trying to not care about that. It’s fine to not care. And it’s fine if other people are doing that in a way that’s sellable. I’m okay with not being like that. I’ve gotten over the fear of feeling like I need to be selling myself.
With art, it’s kind of super sacred. It’s a life giving thing and it can feel gross when it’s packaged like you’re buying the latest gadget. It’s weird. But we’re all learning.
DIGBOSTON: Looking back at when you were 17 years old, what’s your happiest memory and your most painful memory?
TOMBERLIN: Wooow. [long pause] Gosh, this is… oof. Do I want to talk about this? Let’s see. My happiest memory from when I was 17? What even went down? That was a weird year. Let’s see. I was leaving Christian Bible college at 17. So that was weird. I don’t know. That wasn’t the painful thing, as that was actually really good to leave that place.
I guess I got out of a really horrible first relationship when I was 17. We’re just going to leave it at that. This dude was in school to be a pastor and it was an abusive, manipulative relationship. It was scary to me that someone preparing to “lead people” was like that. That was a pretty big sign apart from the fact that he was not a nice person. You don’t find those things out right away—that’s the thing. Maybe a way for people to realize that they’re in negative relationships is to think if you would want that person to be leading a group of your friends. It’s not even like I’m a practicing Christian or anything. But in the way of “leading,” I mean any authoritative figure. Is this a leader? Is this a trustworthy person who is empathetic or compassionate? Asking those simple questions when you’re in a relationship helps. Would you want other people to be in a give-and-take relationship with this person? That helps turn some lights on. Those were the things that freaked me out, realizing this person would tell people what they should be practicing or aiming for in religion, but how unsafe a job that was for someone who was being gross and bad to the person they were dating. You just don’t want that in that environment.
The best was, well, I don’t have a lot of memories popping up. I know that I did go to the mountains in Georgia with my family that year to a place called Ellijay, Georgia. That was really, really nice. It was a nice time. We got a cabin in October. The leaves were changing and it was a good time to be in the mountains. There was nothing happening and nothing around. It’s a little mountain town with all of these forests and trails. So we hiked and chilled and made apple pie. It was very cozy. I tried to watch Avengers on that trip and fell asleep two times, so I accepted I’d never get into it.
It’s weird to think about not actually remembering highlights from years of your life. I guess that year was just really weird. I moved back home and went back to work at a coffee shop that I was working at. Tried to work at Subway for four months and that was bad. Wow. Those are the highlights I can remember from that moment… which feels sad.
DIGBOSTON: How is self-care different from self-help?
TOMBERLIN: Oof. I could go on for days. Self-care honestly has been turned into this capitalist money pit. It’s not actually going to the spa weekly because nobody actually has money for that. It’s literally just practicing allowing yourself to take up space in healthy ways, I think. You have to create healthy boundaries for yourself in all ways. I think we hear “boundaries” as a kid and think, “Ew, boundaries, I’m king of whatever’s going on in my life.” You want to think you’re invincible. But not everyone has your best interest in heart, which is scary to realize, and that’s a very real thing. So instead of saying self-care, I think self-help is a term that should be used because those things are what help you take care of your mind and your body and your heart. Creating those healthy standards for yourself is important. Realizing when something is too much and do something to make it not so heavy on yourself. It’s different than fucking slapping on a face mask. It’s not going to fix your mind and make you less stressed out. That’s not reality. I could go on forever and ever. They may not be different things, but self-care in the way it’s sold to us right now is not actually self-care. It’s hiding behind buying things.
9) “Untitled 2”
DIGBOSTON: If you could change any part of your name (first name, middle name, or last name), which would you change?
TOMBERLIN: I mean, I like my name okay, but it’s annoying in the way that I introduce myself as Sarah Beth, because that’s what I’ve always gone by, yet people call me Sarah. Just Sarah. It feels weird because nobody actually calls me that. Only one person in my life has called me Sarah. That’s just weird to me. So I have one name I really like, but which part of my name would I change? I always liked the name Rowan. It’s just because I like a book series about Robin Hood’s daughter, and her name was Rowan. I remember thinking, “Yes, that name is tight!” I would probably change my name to Rowan because why not. We’ll say that. I guess maybe Rowan Beth sounds weird but cool. We’ll go with that.
DIGBOSTON: What are you looking forward to doing this upcoming February?
TOMBERLIN: Ooh! We’re going on a tour that I can’t talk about yet! Touring, but with a band that I really love a lot and am super stoked about touring with a lot. So I won’t mess up and say the name. That’s exciting to me and that’s happening in February.
For a noncareer thing, I don’t know. February is a weird month. Winter in general is long and weird. I don’t know what I’m looking forward to since everything revolves around touring, but I guess I’ll be looking forward to the fact that February means that winter is almost over. That’s what I guess I’m looking forward to.
TOMBERLIN. FRI 11.16. CAFE 939, 939 BOYLSTON ST., BOSTON. 8PM/ALL AGES/$12. BERKLEE.EDU/CAFE939