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Finding A Place To Create With Tamsin Wilson

On April 21, 2017

“Parks in New York are few and far between,” Tamsin Wilson says, sitting on a sunny, street-side cafe patio in Brooklyn. “Where it shows a green square, it’s not often green. It’s just a concrete pit.” She qualifies the observation with a bitter chuckle. “Not quite the same.”

The soft-spoken musician is filling me in on her frustrations over the lack of accessible greenery in the city. We’re discussing her forthcoming debut record, I Go Missing In My Sleep, which came out on April 28. Performing with two close friends as experimental folk trio Wilsen, she’s written a record as gentle and enveloping as its curious title suggests. Perhaps curiosity itself, and thereby uncertainty, is the undercurrent that moves Wilson’s writing. Her first words on the record convey as much: “Oh, I wonder how you move your hundred little legs,” she wonders quietly on opening track, “Centipede.” It’s an almost-childlike thought; one might imagine a young person tugging their parents’ sleeve, inquiring how a hundred-legged bug might coordinate its’ many appendages. It’s also explicitly visual, which is fitting considering Wilson’s background as a visual artist.

“Attempting,” she promptly appends to the designation of ‘visual artist.’ While studying at an art school in England, she felt a disconnect, and decided to drop out to pursue music, “which [was] a little more socially inclusive,” she remarks. Still, visual art is an important medium for her, married now with her musical work with her new record’s striking cover art. It’s an image by Berlin-based artist Pierre Schmidt that Wilson discovered whilst searching for suitable images. The surrealism of Schmidt’s work was a natural fit for Wilson’s somewhat enigmatic music, both in content and process.

The album title is lifted from late-album cut “A Parting,” where its’ context shifts its’ meaning. “In the song, it’s supposed to mean just emotionally going somewhere else, but I thought it was a nice symbol of the process,” Wilson reasons. That process is how I Go Missing In My Sleep came to be. It was fittingly composed in the stirless air of the late-late night and early-early morning, in pockets between past-midnight side shifts and the early morning belligerence of Brooklyn’s bustle. “I was nocturnal for a while. Some of that was out of necessity,” she admits, citing those tranquil periods as rare moments of free, unhindered time. But it was also borne of an acute anxiety at the thought of someone listening in on her workshopping. “I was living with three people at the time, and I couldn’t seem to be as creatively independent when I knew that they were moving around,” she remarks. “When everyone was asleep, I felt like time stood still or something. It was so freeing.”

This information betrays two pieces of information crucial to understanding I Go Missing In My Sleep. The first is that Tamsin Wilson is incredibly protective of her music and the way it’s created. (Although she’ll tell me she’s grown to love performing, she says, “Writing without the idea that anyone is going to hear the music is the most important part for me”). It also forwards a form of resilience, a resistance to conform. Wilson could have driven a couple hours upstate to rural locales, where surely the threat of car horns and the thunderous din of subway trains would be neutralized. She elected to bend her surroundings to work in her benefit, to stay and find a way to create, tucked in amidst the chaos.

“I heard someone say the other day that if you’re an extroverted introvert, you find yourself happiest reading a book in a crowded cafe. That’s exactly what New York feels like,” she explains with a playful smile. “I often think maybe it would be wiser to move somewhere a little bit less expensive, and that would give me more freedom to just record the entire time.” She ponders the thought, prodding it. “Then I wonder if I might go crazy. I think that will forever be a discussion.”

After all, the city certainly isn’t without redeeming qualities. “There are so many wonderful opportunities,” Wilson notes quickly. “It feels wonderful to feel surrounded by so much exciting energy and creativity. That propels me forward.”

After art school, Wilson moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music for music business, chuckling that the designation sounds “not very cool.” It’s there that she built a family of friends, and a home away from home. “It was just one of those joyous times,” she smiles. Art school in London was alienating, taking the wind from her sails. “The last place I remembered feeling entirely comfortable was in this music world,” she says. Wilson developed an intimate level of familiarity and comfort in Boston. “New York can be overwhelmingly the opposite,” she admits. “That’s why it’s nice to carve out nooks and crannies to try to keep that semblance of normalcy and community.”

Wilson has sought those communities her whole life. From life in London, to years spent in Calgary, back to London, to Boston, New York and beyond, she’s lived in more cities by the age of 27 than many people will in their entire life. She laughs recalling how her parents would play Canadian country pop star Shania Twain in the car in England, a clash hinting at a relatively transient upbringing. Wilson doesn’t speak ill of anywhere she’s been, but does punctuate her Calgary memories with one criticism: “I didn’t really know many creative people. I had a thirst to be around more creativity.”

It’s symptomatic of the content on I Go Missing In My Sleep; it’s not explicitly transient, but it certainly isn’t stationary or stagnant. Wilson is expeditionary, in melody and word. Along with bassist Drew Arndt and guitarist Johnny Simon, Wilson has taken what began as skeletal, softly-plucked notes on a nylon-string guitar in the dead hours of the night and turned them into an expansive alternate dimension, slithering through dream-pop soundscapes to minimalist post-rock to dark folk to sparse avant-garde to sounds beyond classification. It’s brilliant and intricate and striking, immersive on all sides.

Wilson’s words reflect the record’s illustrious composition. The aforementioned “Centipede,” is both a literal and figurative vehicle. “One night I was finding myself quite stuck, that form of writer’s block where you’re like, ‘I have to write something that I’m going to like, and I don’t know if I like anything right now.’ I was like, ‘just pick something and write about it,’ and at that moment this bug crawled under the door.” It’s balanced with a sentimental side, one Wilson giggles at mixing with the more literal inspiration. Lines like “Won’t you stay the night?” extend her narrative beyond addressing a bug. “Maybe he was the companion,” she laughs, before chastising herself for gendering the arthropod.

The natural solitude of nighttime writing is a catalyst for reflection; “Heavy Steps” echos the ruminative themes traced in Wilson’s work, straining beyond cursory experiences for something more vital and honest. “I’m most fascinated by people and their relationships with themselves and other people,” she ponders. “I do think that some people can dwell in negativity and the past, it’s very easy to do.” The sentiment rings as multipurpose; these are narratives we can ascribe to ourselves or to others. For Wilson, the calls for tenderness and change on “Heavy Steps” were an outstretched arm, an invitation to self-love. “You may sit and wonder why people haven’t entered your life, and it’s maybe because you have some self-repair [to do],” she offers simply.

For Wilson, they’re the sounds of “figuring out one’s sense of self.” It runs parallel to her own transience; a search for place. She says it addresses trying to suss out where she fits in the world, as much socially as geographically. “I had some of those moments where I felt utterly lost,” she says earnestly. “You’re floating above your body like, ‘what are you doing right now?’” To some extent, those moments are never ending; what once was great and comfortable might not be so anymore, and may never be again. But if that’s the case, then perhaps the inverse is also true: if you’re confused and lost, comfort and clarity are surely ahead. “[It’s] been quite reassuring, knowing that I’m constantly evolving, and demands, standards, needs will always change,” she asserts calmly. “I’ve enjoyed learning that it’s just going to continue happening.”

Profile Picture of Luke Ottenhof
Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.

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