Words by Tommy Johnson
Singer-songwriter Evan Uhlmann is in many ways like most who enter their adulthood years of life: seeking the answers to the difficult questions in terms of getting older. This often leads towards looking back on past experiences, exploring various realms that could be unknown, and eventually accepting the fact that this is what getting older is all about at the end of the day.
Throughout Uhlmann’s debut album Tea Lady, his deadpan delivery metaphorically strips him down to present a familiar vulnerability many have felt in each of the tracks.
Off Shelf: I read that growing up, you tirelessly learned every lyric from The Beatles. What albums of theirs would you consider to be the most influential?
Evan Uhlmann: Yes! I would learn every Beatles melody and lyric! The Beatles kind of blew my mind as a kid. The first song I heard from them was “Here Comes The Sun,” I remember I was looking outside my window on a winter day, and it’s one of the happiest memories I have from childhood. I didn’t understand how people could be so melodic and catchy. Rubber Soul is probably my favorite album by them; I always came back to that one for some reason. I still love the song “I’m Looking Through You”—it might be my all-time favorite Beatles track.
OS: How important was attending Bard College for you in terms of wanting to become a musician?
EU: Bard was pretty important in that they had a great music program, helping me develop fundamental songwriting skills. I had some great teachers who supported my endeavor to write folk/rock songs even though I was enrolled in a jazz program. For instance, there was an assignment where we had to practice “Giant Steps” in 12 keys—but I asked if I could do some Beatles songs instead in 12 keys, and my professor agreed. I spent most of my time at Bard practicing, writing songs, and performing. I also was in a rock band in college, Meek and the Marksmen. We would perform a lot of on-campus venues, NYC, and at other colleges… in a way that experience was more valuable than school itself, because it gave me a chance to write songs and collaborate with peer-musicians. It gave me much needed confidence to know that other people were having fun playing with me, performing music I had written.
OS: You have bounced around to only find yourself back in the friendly confines of Chicago. Looking back, what was it about the city that lured you back?
EU: I missed my friends and family back in Chicago—it was where I grew up, and it always felt safe to me. I think I spent a lot of time trying not to be in Chicago by moving to other cities like New York and LA, and that became very exhausting. The lure was the comfort of settling back into a city where lots of my closest friends still live.
OS: Living in other cities, what you say was some of the biggest things you took from the experience?
EU: You’re always bringing yourself with you. You’re not really escaping from your problems. I think it’s an important realization to come to, about the whole experience of traveling. It’s something that I feel good about having learned to accept now. I think I kept moving from city to city because I kept wanting to start over—but because I moved so much, it would cause me to be less settled and consistent with what I really wanted. I’ve learned that home is where you are supported and where you can feel like a stable human being… wherever that network of support seems to be the best place for me to be.
OS: You spent some time focusing on writing instead of performing. Did you find yourself becoming almost a bit antsy about not getting out and playing at any point during the break?
EU: I actually enjoy writing a lot and didn’t miss performing that much. When I’m writing, it feels like I’m moving forward with creativity—but once I’m performing, it suddenly feels like old material… like I’m recycling creativity. It was always more exciting to be writing, but I did miss playing with other musicians and having songs come to life in that kind of a collaborative effort. When you’re writing on your own it’s not always as full and exciting as having a band going through it with you, though.
OS: Do you find yourself writing all the time, or do you find yourself doing so sporadically?
EU: I often write in spurts. The melodies and some of the lyrics often come together at the same time. For Tea Lady, I wrote a lot of the album without an instrument because I didn’t want to be limited to writing on one. So I would sit around and try to think of melodies and write lyrics off of that. That’s still my general process currently, but I’m also writing more on guitar these days—and that has been fun to get back into. I’m also recording demos on Logic, which is fun to tinker with and build from. It makes it feel like I’m really working towards something! At the moment, I’m trying to write a little every day—especially since I have so much time to dedicate to songwriting.
OS: You spent some time putting Tea Lady together. During this duration, how much changed in terms of production of instrumentals, lyrically content, etc.?
EU: A lot of production aspects were left up to Greg [Uhlmann] and Tim [Carr]. Completing each song could take a while because we would build on it slowly. It would usually start with me sending a demo to my brother and he would lay down a bass and guitar track. We would play around with what I had written, but the foundation was there.
Greg and Tim were great because they were very much in sync on how they wanted the tracks to sound. We would often start a song, then come back to it later and either add or rework instrumental parts over time. There were some songs where I didn’t write the lyrics until right before I recorded it—but once I sang the part, it was hard to change since I had to fly to LA to record vocals. So I kind of had to decide what I wanted to say right there and then. We did spend a good amount of time reworking mixes to get the sound the way we wanted it, so that was probably what changed the most during working on the record.
OS: I have to say that one of the unique parts of Tea Lady is the partnership you had with your brother. Has this been something that you two been wanting to do for a while now?
EU: He came up with the idea, telling me I should release another record, and that he wanted to produce it since I hadn’t released anything in a very long time. He told me that maybe I wasn’t enjoying music as much as I used to because I wasn’t writing the kind of music that I enjoy writing—and that was eye-opening. I think I was trying to write music that I thought other people would like, instead of what I enjoyed. He didn’t have to work that hard to convince me! I’ve always respected my brother and looked up to him as a musician. I think the record came out very authentic when working with him. We wrote a lot together as kids and had a brief rock band together, I was probably 16 and he was 13, and we were called The Conductors! I think we had only one real concert where just my parents came but it was pretty epic, and we made T-shirts so we were legit.
OS: My favorite song on the album was the lead single “Dying Again.” I love it most in part due to the messaging behind it. Honestly, I feel that way about the entirety of the album. When writing, what did you want to convey for the listeners to pick up on?
EU: That things will be okay, that there is purpose behind our lives, and it is not all for nothing. “Dying Again” was a song about dying and being reborn right after someone goes through a terrible loss of their own. They are for the first time in a long time feeling okay with moving on and starting over again. I was exploring more aspects of spirituality when writing this record, and trying to find meaning in my own life, so I think that may come off in some of the songs. Although there are sad parts to the record, I wanted to convey a message of hope. That sadness can be endured and in a way, be beautiful or just a natural part of life. I also wanted to convey the message that maybe there is more to life than what we are experiencing, perhaps different worlds or life after death. True or not, it fascinates me.
OS: I am curious about the photo that is on the cover for Tea Lady. What is the story behind it?
EU: The album cover is actually a picture of my grandfather – he’s on the right – and great uncle posing alongside their daughters. I thought it was really neat and felt nostalgic. I also just really needed a cover, and I found that photo in the family archives. I don’t think either of them knew how to play guitar—and I have no idea where they got those guitars from, so it’s pretty funny to me.
OS: You had a killer lineup that was involved in the recording of Tea Lady. What can you recall were some of your favorite moments?
EU: Thanks! We had a lot of great times. We recorded in a bunch of different places and there was a lot of laughter and bad jokes. I think recording in a Chicago studio with my brother and a bunch of other great musicians was my favorite. It’s fun to spend all day in a studio, order takeout, and lose all concept of time with a bunch of friends. I loved recording “Dying Again”—the vocals you hear on the finished album were just supposed to be a scratch track, but we liked it so much we kept it in. We finished that track pretty quickly, which was surprising. We also had some funny recording moments in my brother’s LA apartment… I remember recording some scratch tracks all while laying down on the couch with a blanket, drinking too much matcha.