Words by David C. Obenour
Tobin Sprout creates art that feels simultaneously subdued and earnest. As a musician, whether through his solo releases or as a foil to Robert Pollard in Guided by Voices, his songs are perfect for wistful sing-alongs – tugging at something personal but immediately relatable. As a painter, his works offer a reflection to reality, with a perspective that can feel quiet and isolated.
Showcasing both pursuits, Empty Horses is a collection of new songs paired with 24 of his paintings. It’s an uniquely American album, embodying vistas and hopes, solitude and struggle. Not every musician can translate so well when striped to their core, but Sprout’s core has always connected deep.
Off Shelf: Can you talk about the painting you choose for the cover of Empty Horses? What made you decide on it and how does it reflect the album?
Tobin Sprout: My wife Laura had found an old Red Cross pin. I saw it one day and it just had the color and rust that I really like painting. After painting it, I thought it would be a strong image for a cover, very bold and the format of the painting was perfect. I followed up by doing the back of the pin as well. It wasn’t until it was in production that I started reading about the Red Cross, and that the founder Clara Barton had been at the battle of Antietam, bringing food and medical supplies to the doctors. She was called the Angel Of The Battle Field. A few years later she would found the American Red Cross. It just began to feel very fitting for the album as a whole, a desperate search for better life and healing.
OS: Empty Horses also comes with a beautiful collection of your paintings. Knowing you’ve been a painter for a number of years, what prompted you to include your art so extensively for this album?
TS: I chose paintings that seemed alone in spirit, the one of Bill on 5th Street has a lone person looking into the darkness. Others of barns and sunsets, with colors that I thought captured the mood of the record. I sent about 15 paintings to Fire Records and they matched them to the songs. I think they did a really nice job of that. The poppy on “Every Sweet Soul” and the sunset on “No Shame”.
OS: Faith also seems to a recurring topic in the album. Do you think it affects or what role do you see it playing in how you work as a musician and artist?
TS: I think faith has always played a role in my life. I believe there is a higher power, and sometimes it seems that it works through me. Things in songs and painting come from nowhere sometimes. As far as the album, I think the people in the songs are asking what it all means, is there a reason? Is this God’s plan?
OS: The album took me a little by surprise on first listen with how much the songs are more acoustic driven than before. Almost like a classic singer-songwriter album. What prompted you to go this way?
TS: I had written “Antietam” in 2010 and wanted to expand on it. So when I wrote “On Golden Rivers” it just started coming together. The songs just felt like they needed to be simple, acoustic and piano. “Every Sweet Soul” was written as a band piece. But one day I just tried playing it as just an acoustic song. It changed the rhythm and seemed to work even better.
I’ve listened to the band version and it just doesn’t have the feel it needs. Other songs just followed in that vein, right through to “No Shame”, the last song written for the album.
OS: Were you initially happy with how the songs sounded when this way? Was there anything you had to change about how you sang or played when you started to write or record?
TS: Not really in the recording, but in mixing. I wanted the vocal more 60’s, very upfront and clear.
OS: I know touring won’t be an option for the foreseeable future, but when it is – could you see yourself reimagining some of your other songs more acoustic-driven?
TS: I had been working on doing solo shows, mostly when the band wouldn’t be able to go. Like overseas and one-off shows on the west coast. So when things get rolling again, I will be playing some solo acoustic shows.
OS: I saw you hoped to do a streaming event in the coming month. Can you tell us any more about that and what you hope to be able to accomplish with it?
TS: Yes, I want to do a show where we play Empty Horses front to back, and the second half would be a regular live show. I’ve been producing some songs my that daughter and son have been writing, so they will open the show. My band, Gary, Steve and Tommy will back the whole thing up. I also asked Drew Howard to join us on pedal steel. Should have a date set soon. Really looking forward to it.
OS: I asked Sam Prekop of The Sea and Cake this recently, but you’re in a similar position of having two creative pursuits with their own audiences for your music and your visual art. I’m assuming the followings for each of these might not always or even frequently overlap. Do you see them as separate endeavors?
TS: There are people that know me as a painter and have no idea that I am a musician. And vice versa. It’s very much two worlds. I’ve always felt like I am a visual artist first, maybe because I began painting before I got into songwriting and music. But I find I like performing live more and more, in part because of the band I have. I think we really play well together.
OS: You’re both such incredible songwriters and I’ve always loved you as a foil for Pollard. Do you think there’s a possibility of another Airport 5 album or other collaboration with him in the future?
TS: I’m still in contact with Bob now and then. Nothing has been mentioned, but I would be interested.