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A Q & A with Girlyman's Tylan Greenstein

June 28, 2013

By Kim Ruehl for

For about the past decade, Girlyman have been slowly but steadily garnering a fiercely loyal cult following at clubs, theaters, and folk festivals across the country. They've opened for everyone from Dar Williams to the Indigo Girls, and have established themselves as a force in three-part harmony. Then, in 2010, guitar/banjoist Doris Muramatsu discovered she'd developed cancer. The diagnosis - together with the natural growing pains of a ten-year-old band seemed to give the troupe a good excuse to take some time off and focus on whatever they needed to focus on. For singer/songwriter Tylan Greenstein, that meant dredging up all the songs she'd been accumulating and explore what she could do with them on her own.

She called up Seattle-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Michael Connolly, who plays in a band with Tylan's partner, Ingrid Elizabeth. Together, Tylan (who has dropped her last name for the solo project) and Connolly holed up and fashioned a recording titled One True Thing - an album which sounds remarkably lush, considering most of it was created by just two people. She called in Indigo Girl Amy Ray to sing backup on a tune, but other than that, One True Thing is entirely Tylan's voice and vision - an intimate and intensely honest album about getting through life's hard times by keeping an eye on what matters most.

Kim Ruehl: Let's talk about your new record. What moved you to go solo and make this record?

Tylan: Girlyman ... had toured about 10 years straight, really hard touring. In 2010, one of our band members got cancer and we were just kind of frayed at the edges, I think, after all of that and personal differences... we just decided to stop touring for a while. Around that time, because we were going to get this break, we all had this incentive to pursue projects we'd thought about in the past but didn't have time to do. My project was a solo album. It's something I'd always wanted to do because I had a large backlog of songs. Three songwriters in a band, you only get a few songs on each album. I had a lot of songs I loved that never made it on albums. I was continuing to write and felt like I had a nice collection of material. So, the time was right, and it really came together.

KR: What was the significance of 'One True Thing' for the title of the album?

T: The past year and a half has been one of the hardest periods of my life. It's been a time when pretty much everything in my life changed at the same time. During times of transition like that, it's hard to know which end is up. It was really intense. But through it, I felt like there was something consistent that was internal, even as so many external things were shifting. This internal thing was a truth I could hold onto. That's what that song is about. There is this beautiful gem, even in hard situations, that persists. The cover of the album has an outstretched hand with a tiny sort of magical-looking bird landing on it. That's an image that comes from that song. That's the metaphor I was working with.

KR: You don't really seem to hold back much in your songwriting. I wonder if you ever stop and think 'Maybe I don't really want to go there', but then you go there anyway. Or is that just naturally an avenue where you feel like you can push yourself all the way?

T: I don't think I've ever been interested in holding back. Especially now in my life. I'm not going to say Girlyman was a slave to convention because that's certainly not true. But on this solo path that I'm on now, there's just a lot at stake. There's a lot, personally, going on that made me feel like I really have nothing left to lose. I feel like the songwriting on this album is very personal and intimate. That's all intentional. I don't think I held back in the past either. I wouldn't be surprised if the next solo album felt different because I feel like I've had a lot come together in this tumultuous time, so the landscape of the writing will shift. But I don't think it'll be less intense.

KR: Tell me about working with Amy Ray. Was that a co-write situation, or did you just call her up to play with you?

T: I wrote the song. I recorded the album with Michael Connolly in Seattle, at Empty Sea studios. That song, we were both hearing a low harmony. Originally, I thought it would be a male voice, but Michael suggested seeing if Amy would do it because she has this really strong, really powerful low female voice. I'm an alto as well, but her voice is even lower. That's not something you hear very often - two lower-range female voices harmonizing. I emailed her to see if she would be interested and she was totally into the idea. She came over and just nailed it. I'm really happy with that track. I think it's really special.

KR: I knew Michael from Seattle. I knew him as a fiddler in an old time band out there. Did he do any playing on the record?

T: Oh yes. He did a lot of playing. I have the booklet here. I can tell you what he played. He played electric guitar, electric and upright bass, Hammond organ, piano, accordion, melatron, violin, dobro, percussion, and harmonies. For anyone who doesn't know Michael, he's just one of those guys who took all the talent and left just a little bit for everyone else. I think he thinks very orchestrally. He's a master arranger, I would say, and just an incredible producer. He was able to arrange these tracks in such a beautiful way and play a lot of the parts himself. That was really fun because we could just develop these parts together.

KR: He seems like the kind of guy that, you would go in, you might have a vision of how the songs are going to sound and you wouldn't even have to tell him what it is. He would just figure it out.

T: You mean like does he read my mind? Sort of. I felt like the collaboration was really natural. Both Michael and I have this - I don't even know what to call it - it's sort of a core of melancholy tenderness, or something. He's just got this really precious, very sensitive, emotional core that I think is really resonant with mine ... I felt like most of the time, when we hit on the correct form for the song, or the correct arrangement, we both felt that it was really palpable. It's exciting when that happens.

KR: Have you done a lot of live shows since you've been solo?

T: Yeah, I did three separate studio release tours. I did one in March on the West Coast. Then I was on the East Coast in April. Then in May I was in the Midwest. I played a lot through the spring, and I've been playing with Ingrid Elizabeth who's also in the band Coyote Grace with Michael, and she's also my partner. The live shows have been really great and very different from anything I've done.

KR: It seems like after a decade with one band, it could be either really freeing or really terrifying to go on the road by yourself.

T: Yeah, I would say it's both. The first couple of times onstage all by myself, I could barely play because my hands were sweating so much. It was terrifying. When you're used to being insulated with these other people and instruments, it can be exposing to get on stage - there's just you and the song. But what I also found is that it's very liberating. I have a different job than just trying to blend with three voices all the time. As much as I love that and I think Girlyman's three-part harmonies are really special, it's just stretching my muscles in different ways, to really deliver a song with all my emotion, being totally present with it, and giving that to an audience. It's been totally scary and really, really exciting. I think it's the same energy. If something is not scary, it's probably not that good.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:29 PM | Comments (1)

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