One of the highlights of this year's festival is an appearance by Lina Tullgren, the up-and-coming Boston-based songwriter who grew up in South Berwick, Maine, and who just released her first full-length album, Won, on the label Captured Tracks.
Building off her haunting and brilliant 2016 EP WISHLIST, Tullgren's beguiling indie-folk finds new peaks with Won, a 10-song traversal of personal nostalgias and muted joys. As one of the quiet highlights of a festival of some big names, we spoke with Lina about old friends, wearing music out, and what she dances to.
You grew up in South Berwick, right? What did your parents do? How’d you start playing music on your own?
Well, my dad’s a house painter but he’s really into music. We had music on in the car or at home at all times. I learned a lot from him about Brian Eno and Television and that side of things. My mom is a classical flautist and so she would play around the house. She was really into bossanova for awhile and I had an appreciation of that from her.
I played classical violin from age 7 until age 19. I kind of hated it for a long time, but I’m now very happy that I was forced to do that. Well, not forced, but it helped me develop a kind of self-discipline that I still have now for rehearsing and working hard and practicing your instrument. Those sort of formulas never leave you, because when they’re instilled in you in a young age, they’re hard to unlearn.
My mom could see that I was frustrated with classical, so we found this fiddle camp in northern Maine and I started going there from age 12. That was a really formative experience for my musicianship that was a place I could go every summer and be around people that were doing things I was interested in. I felt comfortable singing in front to people for the first time, writing songs and showing people. It took a long time to feel comfortable with what I was doing on my own and going there helped my growing confidence.
When I saw you at Waking Windows last year [at Blue] your band was two people, but you’ve recently rounded out to a full band? What are your thoughts on that decision?
It’s been really amazing. It’s been strange in a lot of ways. Me and [guitarist] Ty [Ueda] have been playing music together a very long time, since we were 16. We’re like a unit. It’s been interesting bringing new people in and learning how to interact with them musically and socially. This is the context that i’ve been hearing the songs in my head since I started making them. That’s very special and interesting to me.
How did you and Ty start playing together?
He grew up (just over the border) in New Hampshire. There’s a river between our two houses, and I would see him on the other side of the river. He would play an accordion, and eventually we started playing music together.
I’ve listened to some of the playlists you’ve made on Spotify. They’re good and diverse. What’s your line of thinking when you’re making these?
The record label [Captured Tracks] has asked me to make a couple of those. I like making playlists and sharing with people the music you listen to is fun. I always really like seeing what other bands and artists are listening to, whether it be when they’re going to the studio or whatever. The music that I listen to doesn’t sound like anything like I make.
There’s a track by (Dutch electronic musician) Legowelt on one of those.
Yeah, he rips.
Do you dance? What do you dance to?
Oh, I dance all the time. I was born to dance. Let’s see, I haven’t been listening to a lot of dance-friendly stuff lately. I don’t actively go out and dance anywhere because it’s very hard to find places to do that where I live. But me and Ty kind of dance anywhere and everywhere we go, if the time is right or not. I really like the song called “Unamerican Woman” by this guy called Dinner, who’s on the same label I am.
Almost all of your songs dwell in this seemingly really intentionally heavy emotional space. Have you always written songs that way?
Songwriting for me is not always a conscious activity, if that makes sense. It’s less so now, but a lot of the time in the past where I might not have been in touch with in my emotions as I am at this moment, songwriting was the space to go to to help figure out some of the things that might be going on internally. A lot of my songs have come out of that place.
Your music seems like it carries a lot of vulnerability and sadness and nostalgia. Is there music out there that you appreciate that brings up a sort of sadness or nostalgia for you? Are there songs or albums that have some intense power over your feelings that you respect and don’t want to wear out?
I don’t really see the wearing-out part, but I definitely left behind a lot of music when I stopped playing fiddle music and folk music. I can still go back to a lot of those musics and exist in that space for a couple of minutes and see how important that was at the time. It’s not nostalgic, because it’s not sad for me at all, but I guess some records bring me to the place. I’ve been listening to a lot of Hildegaard Von Bingen lately, and that music is kind of transporting me to a place that I haven’t been in a while. It’s so pure and incredible, that it really transports you in this place where everything else is melting away. I feel that way when I listen to Scott Walker also — Scott and Scott 4 are the shit.
A record that was really formative for me in middle school was Either/Or by Elliott Smith. Hearing that record for the first time was certainly a songwriting turning point. When I heard that record I was pretty entrenched in playing fiddle music, but I started writing songs to the melodies of those songs, just to find out how to write songs. I think my dad had a copy of it. But there was this lady I knew who had a store in Portsmouth and used to cut my hair when I was a little kid. She dated Elliott Smith for awhile. Her name’s Amity, and there’s a song called “Amity” on Roman Candle. I remember listening to Elliott Smith with my dad when I was a kid, and he was like yeah, Amity dated Elliott Smith growing up. I thought that was incredible.
Won by Lina Tullgren | playing Waking Windows with Ava Luna + Tredici Bacci + Mega Bog + Shook Twins + Jimmy Dority + Maine Youth Rock Orchestra | One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland | 9:30pm (show begins at 6:20 pm) | $12 | www.onelongfellowsquare.com