Interview With The Man Behind Doveman, Thomas Bartlett
Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a. Doveman; all photo credits - Ezra Caldwell
Thomas Bartlett is not one to contain his musical energy. As the Vermont-born, London-trained, New York-based pianist and composer discussed in his exclusive with Classical TV, one-track musicianship is limiting.
First, as a composer, Bartlett has released three albums, including his latest CD, The Conformist, as well as a cover album of Footloose; second, as a supporting pianist, he has performed with the likes of The National, Yoko Ono, Antony And The Johnsons and Martha Wainwright, to name a few (many of whom have returned the favor, with credits on The Conformist); and as a collaborator, he not only releases under the collective Doveman moniker, he has engineered ongoing, innovative performance groups, with Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon as regular confederates.
This week at The Kitchen in Manhattan, Bartlett will perform alongside Nico Muhly, under the pair's collaborative title Peter Pears. Bartlett will also showcase his Conformist compositions; the performance will include arrangements from Muhly (he is an album contributor) and most of the band members from the original recording.
Earlier this week, Thomas Bartlett spoke with Classical TV's Colin Schoenberger on his latest act, his younger performance days and what being a New York musician means to him:
What can we expect from your performances this week with Nico Muhly?
For years now [Nico and I] have been writing songs together, usually just sending stuff back and forth over the Internet: Nico will send me a track to write over, and I'll add things to it, work on vocals, and send it back to him. So we've gradually accumulated a small set of songs; and we've discarded a lot along the way so it remains a fairly small set of songs.
As well, we're going to perform three of these pieces by a composer Colin McPhee, two transcriptions of gamelan music that he did. I think there are five of them, but we've only been able to track down three, so we'll be playing the three.
The second half of the show will be music from The Conformist, the whole record, with a live string quintet, all of Nico's arrangements, and my friend Sam Amidon playing and some guys from The National - so a lot of people from the record, recreating it live.
What about these gamelan transcriptions? How did you discover them?
[Nico] had heard them and sent them to me immediately. The moment he heard [the transcriptions], he knew I was going to love them, so we became pretty obsessed with them. We also loved the fact that Benjamin Britten was involved; that was just kind of extra fun.
Because the name of your collaboration with Nico is a reference to the singer, Benjamin Britten's partner?
The project of ours, Peter Pears, it was certainly partly inspired by loving these transcriptions; the name kind of grew out of that (and we just think it's such a fabulous name). And it took us quite a while to actually track down the sheet music. That's why we hadn't gotten around to doing this before now.
I know you've been at this for a while - can you tell me about your first professional gig?
That's a little hard to pin down... Sam Amidon and I started a band together, playing traditional Irish folk music, when we were 11 or 12. So it would have been around then, and that was as a band called Popcorn Behavior. That was me, Sam Amidon and Sam's younger brother Stefan.
And you were 12?
Yeah. So that's probably the first time we played music in public and were paid money for it.
And can I ask where the name Doveman came from?
I started writing songs a little over 10 years ago, and Sam and I recorded some of them, and Sam had taken to calling me Doveman at that point.
So it was your nickname?
Yeah. Sam would sometimes called me Doveman. There was a postcard my brother had sent Sam at one point; it was my head pasted onto a dove's body. So Sam started calling me Doveman.
You've done a lot of collaborative work - what does musical collaboration mean to you? Is it always a priority for you?
Not necessarily. Sure, I love to do collaborative work. It's more that, as a songwriter, I work fairly slowly; I don't turn out a lot of songs. It took me a few years to write the 11 songs on The Conformist. And playing music is the thing I like to do, and if I limited myself to my own work, I'd run out of things to play pretty quickly. I feel like I have a whole lot more musical energy to give than I could use up on my own solo projects.
You mentioned work from your album The Conformist - how would you say this album differs from your previous recordings?
The first two were recorded very, very quickly ... With The Conformist I did it pretty slowly over quite a long time... The songs with The National were recorded in one day in the studio, and I didn't do a whole lot to them afterwards. But most of the songs I put together piece-by-piece: I recorded all of the piano parts and would slowly have friends come in and overdub different parts. So it was a much more carefully constructed record, with very little improvisation.
I don't think my songwriting was all that different on this record than on the first two, I just wanted to kind of highlight different elements of the songs. I wanted to push hooks forward and basically make them more into pop songs - not that it's ever going to be pop music that I'm making - but to... let the bone structure of the songs be a bit more visible than they've been in the past. I've been very comfortable before submerging my songwriting in this kind of... sonic marsh. And this time I wanted the songwriting to be front-and-center.
Who has been one of the most challenging people - you know, in a good way - for you to work with?
One of the most exciting and rewarding people to play with has been playing with Antony [and The Johnsons] over the last few years. I find myself astonished every time we make music together, but working with Antony was very much not an intuitive process. He hears music very differently than any other person I've ever known - but in a very, very specific way - that it took a lot of work to slowly learn the way a phrase breathes for him, to learn to get inside his head musically. So there was a lot of playing with Anthony, and a lot of just getting it completely wrong, before I started being able to accompany him the way he needed to be accompanied.
And what does performing in New York mean to you?
New York... I can't imagine a better city for me to make music in. I feel so spoiled here, in that there are so many amazing musicians - and I've been lucky enough to work with so many people from so many different worlds - that when I book a show in New York, I'm very lazy it sometimes in terms of leaving it very late figuring out who I'm going to play with, because I know there are so many people I can call who will be great. It makes me very happy to be here.
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