Sarah Beth Tomberlin has only lived in New York for a short time, but she leads the life of a native. The artist, who performs as Tomberlin, owns a Honda Civic, but she usually leaves it parked near her Brooklyn apartment, choosing instead to wander the boroughs by foot — sometimes 10 to 14 miles a day — while listening to music on her headphones.
“I’m super-content,” says Tomberlin, who was born in Florida and raised in Kentucky and Illinois. “Which is wild, because I had no plan to ever live here.”
Tomberlin, 26, has experienced several firsts in New York. One of her first-ever shows was at Union Pool in Brooklyn, celebrating the release of her debut At Weddings in August 2018. She had her first sip of alcohol at a bar when she was 19 and didn’t get carded, drinking a bitter IPA (she recalls telling her friends, “This is disgusting and all of you are messed up!”). It’s also here, at a Williamsburg coffee shop, that she’s sitting down for her first in-person interview, to discuss her new album I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This…, out April 29 via Saddle Creek.
Tomberlin looks like a young Rickie Lee Jones, except from the Nineties, with her long, butterscotch hair tucked in a claw clip and a hoodie layered underneath a denim jacket. She’s naturally shy — a function, perhaps, of having been homeschooled in a Baptist household — but over the course of our talk she slowly reveals a dry sense of humor.
I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… is a rumination of feelings; a collection of songs steeped in inquisitive folk and dense instrumentation that often stretch to the five-minute mark. The opener, “Easy,” reaches nearly six, as Tomberlin describes her recurring role in relationships over a twinkling piano and clarinet: “I always keep it quiet/I’ll sit up on the shelf/No real desire spoken/And I deny myself.”
“This is a pattern with me,” she admits, sipping an oat milk cappuccino. “Being so understanding, so much, that I don’t exist anymore.”
She carries this self-awareness into “Tap,” where she drops a line that could easily be the crux of the entire record: “I’m not a singer/I’m just someone who’s guilty.” This is Tomberlin flipping the traditional songwriting perspective, à la Mitski, where the writer is positioned as the protagonist.
“It’s easy to place yourself in a position of power, of being like, ‘I’m not the one that fucked up,’” she says. “Artists, myself included, are guilty of placing the blame on everyone else. It’s something I was trying to recognize. We all have our shit.”
But the highlight of the record is “Sunstruck,” a stunner that tackles a relationship with an alcoholic. “Nothing will come from an ever-flowing cup,” she sings, unraveling her steadfast vocals over fluttering percussion.
“I was writing that song from the perspective of having this on-again, off-again, ‘see you when I see you’ with a person, and then recently finding out that they had been three months sober,” she says. “I was examining it in a different light, because I had walked away from it. Things can really shift and change.”
Tomberlin stresses that the song’s final words — “We left behind some pain/To get to the magic thing” — are not about the relationship, but the self: “The magic thing is both of us working on ourselves, trying to find peace and understanding.”
Tomberlin co-produced I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… with Phil Weinrobe, known for working on the solo records of Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek. It was cut live at Brooklyn’s Figure8 Recordings, with few overdubs and no headphones — just Tomberlin and her band playing in a circle. Not only did it mark her first time recording in a studio, but it was also the first time she hired musicians to play her music. “Phil was like, ‘Let’s just play quietly and look at each other,’” she remembers. “I grew up singing and playing music in church, so it was like reminiscent of that form of community.”
That community runs deep in Tomberlin’s family. She became a Christian at age four when her father became the pastor of a church, and she began questioning her religion early on. “You hear the story and you’re like, ‘I did this? I put Jesus on the cross? Of course I’m sorry. Of course I don’t want to go to hell,’” she says. “It was hard for me though, because that was my only way of knowing how to be.”
Five years into her career, Tomberlin says her parents are supportive of her pursuit, but it wasn’t easy at first. “People at my dad’s church were reading my press and then coming up and saying things like, ‘Well, I don’t know if you should be proud of her, because in this interview she said she’s not a Christian,’ and it was really hard on them,” she says. “I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I was talking to these journalists like they were my friends, and they were definitely taking advantage of that.”
Tomberlin wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of music growing up — something she’s now making up for as best she can. “I have to play catch-up for the rest of my life,” she says with a laugh. “I definitely missed pop-culture moments. I know, like, three Britney Spears songs, you know?”
But her mom made sure to introduce her to the Carpenters, and her mind was blown by Karen Carpenter. “Seeing her play drums, I was like, ‘This is insane,'” she says. “I have two sisters, and my mom also sings, so we were just always singing around the house and playing around with harmony.”
As a teen, she discovered Bright Eyes, Dashboard Confessional, and the Postal Service. Her first concert was Arcade Fire on her 16th birthday, and she even got to meet the indie band — who wrote “Happy birthday” on a piece of paper with their autographs. “That was a wild first show,” she says. “I could not stop screaming.”
Tomberlin considers At Weddings to be the first songs she wrote that she genuinely likes, and she posted it on Bandcamp while working at a coffee shop in Louisville. It wasn’t long before Saddle Creek, a label she knew from her love of Bright Eyes, came knocking at her door. “I got the email and was like, ‘This is a joke,’” she remembers. “When they came to visit me, I was trying to convince them not to sign me. ‘Are you sure? I don’t read music!'”
Success followed quickly. After the official release of At Weddings, Tomberlin was working a shift at Urban Outfitters when she got a text that she was going to play Jimmy Kimmel Live! “I was definitely struggling with imposter syndrome,” she says. “I was just shocked as everyone else. It’s hearing people being like, ‘What’s her deal? Is she an industry plant?’ Absolutely not.”
Around this time, Tomberlin became friends with Busy Philipps, after the actress followed her on Instagram. “I never DM people, but I just was such a Freaks and Geeks fan specifically, that I was just like, ‘I must message this woman,’” she says. “I said something like, ‘Hey, this is wild. I don’t even know what to say, but I hope you… have a great day?’”
While touring with Andy Shauf that year, Tomberlin met Philipps and her husband Marc Silverstein in Los Angeles. When she moved to the city in the summer of 2019, she moved in with the couple and their two children, living in their guesthouse. Philipps even directed the video for “Wasted,” off Tomberlin’s 2020 EP Projections.
“[Busy] started out so young, and really grinded and had to work for it,” Tomberlin says. [She’s] familiar with having to advocate for yourself. I remember one day where she was just like, ‘You need to have a press package.’ I’m thankful for their friendship.”
In September 2020, when wildfires on the West Coast made it difficult to breathe, Philipps’ family rented a home in Manhattan, and Tomberlin followed. In May, she made the move permanent, and got an apartment of her own in Brooklyn. But instead of joy at her newfound independence, Tomberlin went through what she describes as a grieving period.
“I literally wept every day because I just was carrying so much,” she recalls. “I was living with a family and was basically like a nanny for them. I had finally moved into my own spot, and it was pretty isolating. I had a reckoning of, ‘Oh, you’ve been holding onto a lot, and finally have your own space to feel your feelings.’”
Tomberlin calls this space an altar, different from the kind she grew up with. “It was this witchy image of creating this space for yourself, lighting a candle,” she says. “You have to remember that it’s lit and blow it [out] eventually, and that was really powerful. This is an altar kind of record.”
The closing titular track, styled “Idkwntht,” best represents this sacred space, a dreamy lullaby featuring Felix Walworth on backing vocals. It’s intended to be a meditation of sorts, an optimistic sign-off.
“The pandemic had this false guise of community through the internet, [people] sharing [pictures of] their fucking bread and whatever, but everyone was so deeply lonely and not wanting to be with ourselves,” she says. “I see [the song] as an extending of a hand. It’s not like I know where we’re going, but I can help pull you up and bring you where I’m at. Just sitting here, observing.”