Collaboration is the name of the game for Vermont-born singer and producer Thomas Bartlett
The Gloaming pianist is bringing his salon-style Burgundy Stain Sessions to Ireland, and he’s got a formidable roster of musicians to rely on
Burgundy Stain Sessions: Thomas Bartlett
Burgundy Stain Sessions: Anna Calvi
Burgundy Stain Sessions: Glen Hansard. Photograph: Joshua Bright/New York Times
Burgundy Stain Sessions: Annie Clark, aka St Vincent. Photograph: Ben Sklar/New York Times
Collaboration is the name of Thomas Bartlett’s game. The population at large may not know the Vermont-born pianist, singer and producer, but his extensive creative reach has already touched the likes of The National, Sharon van Etten, Glen Hansard, Bell X1, David Byrne, The Gloaming, Beth Orton and Anna Calvi.
Bartlett’s musical travels began early. His first (and still firm) friend, growing up in Vermont, was Sam Amidon. Through diversions into and out of classical and contradance music, Bartlett gradually drifted towards less commercial edges of rock music, populated by the likes of Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Antony and the Johnsons, Hannah Cohen and Julia Stone.
“Collaborating is what I enjoy the most,” says Bartlett, stepping out of a New York subway, “and it’s what I’d felt I’d love to do for quite some time but hadn’t entirely put it into practice. I used to be an accompanist for a lot of singers, but I’ve found that producing records is where I’m the happiest and where I think my talents are best used.”
Bartlett is something of a prodigy whose precociousness has morphed into a keenly objective and empathetic musicianship. Moving to New York more than a dozen years ago, he began to perform music under the umbrella title of Doveman, subsidising his work as a music critic for salon.com with regular gigs with the city’s growing network of left-of-centre musicians. As the years passed he discovered that being an accompanist wasn’t enough.
“Playing with, for example, Antony was such an intense experience for me. He writes his own material on piano, and was very used to accompanying himself, but at one point he decided he’d be better centre stage, and so he asked me to be the pianist. This meant I had to enable his vision, in a way. I found I was quite good at that, and enjoyed it.
“It’s a similar mindset I bring to production, in that I’m not the kind of producer who likes to impose their own vision on musicians. I like to try to get inside what their vision already is, and to help enable it to be more fully articulated.”
Does that work all of the time? “Definitely not. As I grow in confidence as a producer, there are times I get more into imposing my will, and in that way the Burgundy Stain shows have been really good for me.”
Bartlett is bringing his renowned Burgundy Stain Sessions to Ireland for the first time next weekend, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. First staged at (Le) Poisson Rouge, a club in the West Village neighbourhood of New York, in January 2011 – and inspired by salon-type get-togethers of like-minded artists and musicians in apartments and houses – the sessions are essentially Bartlett and his friends. Friends in high places This might come across as too cosy if it weren’t that the list of friends is impressive: it includes Norah Jones, the Wainwrights, Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly, Chris Thile, St Vincent, Lisa Hannigan, Laurie Anderson, Damien Rice, and Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National. The concert will form part of Brassland@NCH, a weekend of music put together by the Dublin venue and the New York record label, which was started in 2001 by Alec Hanley Bemis and the twin Dessner brothers.
“I love those shows, because I get to boss around some of my favourite artists. I tell them what songs I want them to sing, and how I’d like them to sing. In that sense the shows have been a total wish fulfilment.
“It’s great in that I can have Beth Orton sing Central Reservation, which was my favourite song of hers about 15 years ago. Or I can have Glen Hansard sing Stevie Wonder’s Lately, simply because it would be cool to hear.”
Do the sessions work because of the diversity of performers or because of Bartlett’s benign dictatorship? A bit of both, he says. “Yes, it’s a community of musicians who admire each other but who sometimes don’t get to work or be onstage together very often or at all. We usually don’t plan the shows out in advance, and we do very little rehearsal, so I hope when it’s working well there’s a feeling in the audience that they’re also in on the creative process.”
It all sounds as if it’s ripe for discovery by those who like a bit of structure surrounding a lot of creative stretching and conviviality. What can Irish audiences expect?
“I’m currently in the studio with Glen Hansard, recording his next album,” says Bartlett as the background of New York continues to purr and clash. “So I hope to convince him to sing some new songs he has never performed on stage before. Beyond that I’ve talked with Paul Noonan a little bit, and there are some cover versions I’d like him to do.
“One of the things I care about so much with the Burgundy Stain shows – and, remember, I’ve only really done them at (Le) Poisson Rouge – is the real feeling of informality about them.”
Thomas Bartlett: The Irish connections
“In 1992 I was about 10. Martin Hayes released his debut, self-titled album, and for me that was a life-changer. I was completely obsessed with that record, and when I went to see him live it completely blew me away. He did things with a fiddle that I didn’t know music could do.
“To find myself now in The Gloaming with him is so crazy – my 10-year-old self would barely be able to believe it. In that sense The Gloaming has been an incredibly satisfying thing to be involved with.
“For a number of years during my teenage years I studied classical music, but Irish music was what really excited me. And then, without feeling like it was an Irish thing in any way, I became a fan of The Frames, and randomly met Glen Hansard at South By Southwest, in Texas, on St Patrick’s Day.
“I had seen The Frames play a couple of times already over the course of the week. I was standing at the bar at a Daniel Johnson show, and Glen walked up to me and said, ‘I’m Irish, it’s St Patrick’s Day and I need to buy you a beer.’ That’s how I met him, and we’ve been friends ever since. It was Ireland asserting itself once more in my life.
“It feels like a web of coincidences, except there are too many of them to be coincidences. Me and Irish musicians? Clearly, there is something that keeps drawing me in.”
Doveman’s Burgundy Stain Sessions, with Glen Hansard, Paul Noonan, Lisa O’Neill and Anna Calvi, is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on December 14th; nch.ie