Many musicians have beloved projects that, for varying reasons, they have had to put on the shelf for a while. A few days away can turn into weeks, weeks into months, and soon the months can turn into years. With the release of her new album, Middlemaze, in June, Bloomington, Indiana songwriter and guitarist Erin Tobey is proving that it is never too late to pick up the reigns on an artistic pursuit, and in fact, sometimes time can bring about something even more powerful than before.
Tobey, who had spent years playing in punk bands including Abe Froman, put out her first solo album—a collection of folk and sunny indie rock—in the summer of 2005, but turned her attention to other pursuits soon after its release. “The loneliness that had fueled my solo songwriting started to dissipate and I turned away from it, toward other projects.” Tobey said. “Years passed where I wasn’t writing many songs at all, I was doing other stuff—making visual art, working through family tragedy, finishing school, getting married. A couple of years ago, all of these experiences had been percolating and I realized that the project was still sitting there, ready to help, and I started writing again.”
The end result was Middlemaze, which will be released over a decade after its predecessor. Recorded at Russian Recording in downtown Bloomington with her brother Matt Tobey and husband Jeff Grant, who also comprise Tobey’s backing band), the album deals with the ups and downs of leaving youth behind in favor of a more settled, and often more gratifying, lifestyle. Now in her mid-30s, Tobey looks back at her punk days with 20/20 vision. “I think I’m only just starting to get rid of the paralyzing self-criticism that wrecked me in my twenties,” she said. “Maybe a lot of women experience that, this tension between feeling boundless potential and crippling insecurity. How exhausting!”
“I’m getting to the point, though, where I can start to see the fruits of my labor. That’s the benefit of perspective; as it increases you can start to understand how things affect each other over time, and how the work you do is contributing to this bigger picture. Whether that’s in songwriting or working on mental health stuff, things just become more clear. Or they don’t! And you can start to understand that, too, that some things are not meant to be controlled. That’s the maze as I’ve been thinking about it – accepting the unknowableness of what’s ahead of you and behind you. Not like I have all this shit figured out by any stretch. That’s a con – feeling empowered to dispense unsolicited “wisdom” all the time is not cool,” she said.
Tobey had also spent some of her time between records playing music with a number of Bloomington bands including most recently, Brenda’s Friend, (her duo with Amy Oelsner that has a new EP, titled House Down coming out on May, 27 on Winspear Records), and the sum of those experiences come across in the intricate textures and songwriting of Middlemaze. “My point of view had shifted, and also I’d been playing a lot of other music in the meantime in bands that I didn’t write for so I was better at playing and recording. I had also been thinking a lot about songwriting in helping arrange collaborators’ songs. When I sat down with things to say, my songwriting had just evolved alongside the other stuff,” she said.
“All Over the World,” the third single from the album, is a spacious, slow-building indie ballad tinged with a hint of 50s pop. that deals with the narrator’s wistful daydreams of the paths not traveled before concluding with a powerful, determination that the best things may be still to come. “In writing this song, I was thinking about how when friends move away I sometimes question my very deliberate decision to stay [in Bloomington],” Tobey said. “I could go anywhere! Why here? I don’t know if it’s so much about abandoning dreams as it is abandoning the illusion that life is necessarily more fulfilling somewhere else. If you have a restless brain and heart, maybe nowhere will be good enough. There’s something really empowering to me about deciding to commit to a place and establishing a home. Your dreams can grow naturally if you plant them somewhere good.”
Check out “All Over the World” below. Middlemaze comes out 6/3 on Let’s Pretend Records.