Tom Brosseau breaks out

His new album, Posthumous Success, shows a harder edge.

Photograph: Jody Barnard

“It’s like that scene in Network with Peter Finch,” Tom Brosseau says with a grin: “'I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’” The singer is discussing his approach to making his third album, the optimistically titled Posthumous Success—the things that drove a performer described by Pitchfork as “a last bastion of old-timey Americana” to make a kick-ass, loud-drums-and-distorted-guitar-filled record—and one that also happens to be his best yet. Fans of Brosseau’s earlier work—a group that includes Bono, PJ Harvey and Natalie Portman—needn’t worry, though: There are also moments of spindly, ethereal beauty on the record. But in short, a transformation has occurred. “I feel good,” Brosseau says, “like I’ve got up out of bed, and I’m awake now.”

He looks good, too. Brosseau mostly comes off how you’d expect him to, based on his earlier albums: a beautifully polite person who uses antiquated expressions like “gosh” or “I’m damned mad!” But he’s also glowing today—tanned and chatty in an old sweatshirt and jeans. He arrived at this Tompkins Square Park caf carrying the guitar and small suitcase that make up his entire luggage for a two-month European tour.

So what brought on the big shift? “I think it had a lot to do with confidence and not being afraid,” Brosseau says. “Realizing I should just trust what comes into my head, so the writing is fresher and more exciting—and there’s a little anger, dare I say?” Perhaps the biggest clue to the singer’s newfound vigor is “You Don’t Know My Friends,” which kicks off with Brosseau scowling the line, “Walkin’ around with a hole in my heart.” Backed by drums thwacked so loud they distort, he drops couplets as bleak as they are funny (“Looking gaunt and living on beans and rice/I’m beginning to laugh like Vincent Price”).

Brosseau says his defiance and determination to not succumb to a broken heart were inspired by Woody Guthrie’s quote: “I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good...that you are just born to lose.” That, and the fact he felt like he was being typecast as some kind of trilby-wearing relic. Whereas now he’s singing about strutting round the city in tight pants, as if to say... “Yeah, go fuck yourself!” Brosseau completes the sentence, cursing like a naughty kid.

In truth, Brosseau has always been something of an oddball. Born and raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he was a gangly, shy boy who didn’t fit in with the rest of his hockey team. Nor did he have the traditional farmstead upbringing he so envied of his cousins (“I could go to a movie in the city, but my cousins were getting up early and milking the cows. Doing something!”). As a teen, he went to school in Minnesota, returning home one Thanksgiving with his eyebrows shaved off. “I suppose I thought they were getting too bushy,” he says. “Everybody thought I looked like David Bowie, and you know what? I kinda liked that!”

Brosseau’s high-pitched singing voice guaranteed he was never going to fit in. “Some people don’t like the voice, some do like the voice,” he explains with a shrug; his style was inspired by listening to his dad’s records as a kid. “Roy Orbison was not afraid to use the upper register,” he says, smiling. “He was such a character, and when you’re younger, you latch onto the cartoonishness, you know? Same with the Ink Spots. Those are the people I copied, and then the vocal muscles form and you can’t change it. I’m glad of that, because I admire those two bands very much.”

It is something to be thankful for. Any pop wanna-be can sing the line “I’m ready for the big time” (as Brosseau does on “Big Time”) and have it sound utterly dull; it takes someone stranger and more singular to give it a real charge. Will Brosseau make it big with Posthumous Success? You get the impression he doesn’t really care. “I’m terribly thrilled with this record,” he says. “And I’m not angry, but I am fiery. I think that success is really listening to your dreams—but in order to do it you have to wake up. You have to work at it. That’s success.”

Posthumous Success is out now.

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