By Emma Kopelowicz
The state of Minnesota may be known for its huge malls and mind-boggling number of lakes, but it’s also America’s not-so-secret hotbed for musical talent (Minnesotans Prince and Bob Dylan may ring a bell). It also is the hometown of the alt-R&B singer-songwriter Har Mar Superstar aka Sean Tillmann who swept the early aughts music scene with his genre-bending style and larger-than-life stage presence.
When the pandemic abruptly halted the ostentatious performer’s tour schedule (one of his last stops was the original Great Scott), Tillman decided on a whim to find himself a day job and get to work on a new album. The musician solidified himself as the ultimate local legend when he became a postal worker in his area last fall. Tillman says that sometimes people in the neighborhood peak outside their doors to greet the navy blue-clad rock star with a jovial, “What’s up, Har Mar?”
Thousands of delivered letters and months of remote recording later, Har Mar Superstar has released his personally financed “existential homecoming” record, Roseville. The St. Paul-based artist sat down for a Zoom chat to discuss the inspiration behind the album and what comes next for Har Mar.
EK: You’ve been working at the post office since last fall. How is that going? Any funny mail carrier stories?
ST: It’s good. Actually, I like it a lot. It’s kind of a whole different thing and it just feels good to be out helping people. There are a lot of people who you’re the only person they see all day, so it just feels good to get people all the things they need. And there’s something about it for me that is really calming [about] watching everything empty out of the van every day. It feels like you’re getting a real task done.
I’m pretty recognizable around my neighborhood and around wherever I deliver. I get a lot of people popping their heads out being like, “What’s up, Har Mar?” It’s really fun, so that’s cool. I did get sent to this kind of commercial warehouse space to pick up a delivery and it turned out to be this kind of mass company that makes Magic: The Gathering Arena placemats that you put down and play Magic: The Gathering Arena with. The company was called Quest for the Janklord. There was a pentagram on the floor with a little monster truck remote control truck in the middle of it and I thought that was pretty sweet.
EK: What was it like balancing a job and recording an album (all in the midst of a pandemic no less)?
ST: Yeah, it was a lot. I was pulling 95 to 100 hour work weeks because I was delivering for 60 to 65 hours a week in the holiday times. And then I was coming home and working for a few hours on mixes and performances, and just kind of pulling the whole album together. It was a lot, but also, I wouldn’t count making the album as work, per se. It’s just something I like to do. So, it was kind of good to take my mind off everything else. Just go make stuff, you know.
EK: Many college kids, millennials, and adults were brought back to their hometowns (sometimes by force), but you returned to Minnesota by choice five years ago. What inspired this move and why did you decide to make an album about your “existential homecoming?”
ST: I was in LA and New York for about 12 or 13 years and I just I found myself coming back to Minneapolis all the time just to record and make things. There’s such like a kind of a great art scene here in general so I was really drawn back.
It just felt good to be back and it was kind of just the time and place. It’s a time capsule of everything that brought me to today. It feels good to just hold memories dear.
EK: Yeah, I feel like nostalgia has been a major theme recently. I reminisce about this time last year which in the grand scheme of life is so small.
ST: It was maybe almost exactly a year ago today that we’re doing this interview that I played at Great Scott with Heart Bones. That was one of the last few shows of tour, so we were kind of right in the middle of all the hotspots of the pandemic starting up. We were convinced that we were super spreaders, but I got pathology tests and everything and it showed that we never had it.
EK: That’s so funny you were in Boston before it all went down. I’m not sure if you heard that the Great Scott is moving.
ST: I’m glad that they’re at least getting a new location. I heard the location is really cool from my sister who actually lives in Medford, so I get all the dirt on the local scene.
EK: Would you consider this your most personal album yet? Are there any particular tracks that you feel most connected to?
ST: I was overly honest when I was writing it and I felt like that was a really great thing. I just wanted it to be relatable on as many levels as I could with as many kind of types of people as I could be. And yeah, I think “Solid Ghost” is definitely very personal. It starts on a down note and kind of revs up into this love story about me and Laura; we’re now engaged. And I think that sets the tone for the whole album, you know, just how it just kicks in with that song immediately and takes you down and then straight back up.
I try to write from a place of honesty all the time, but as Har Mar has progressed it’s definitely [gotten] more personal. I quit drinking a couple years ago, so it’s like definitely like I’ve mined my whole kind of psyche a little bit more –– soul searching a bit more. I think that comes across in the music.
EK: That’s funny that you bring up “Solid Ghost” because the line “There was a time I felt less human and more like a solid ghost” particularly struck me. What inspired you to write this lyric?
ST: It sort of just popped into my head. It was the first time I’d seen people in the pandemic. A couple of my friends, Laurel and Damon, got married. They went ahead with their really safe pandemic wedding, and so we went to that and there was a break in between the wedding party and the reception. I was feeling socially awkward like everybody was and so while everybody else kind of moved directly to the reception, I went home for a little bit to decompress.
I found myself at the piano in our dining room, which I got from my parents a year ago when we bought our house. It’s the piano I learned to play on when I was five. I was feeling really sentimental, and I was feeling all this love from the wedding and then kind of crazy because I was like, I don’t know how to deal with people for more than an hour. All the emotions came up and I wrote the verses and the chorus on the spot there and recorded the demo. I sent it to John Fields, who produced that track with me, and I went to the reception. By the time I got back, two hours later, he had produced the whole track, and I was like, holy shit. That’s how that goes! It was a perfect day. I felt really great going to sleep that night.
EK: In the past, you have definitely taken your time when it comes to releasing music (Har Mar’s Best Summer Ever came out in 2016). Is there a particular reason you decided to release this album now?
ST: We had just released the Heart Bones record and we were all really excited about that, but we didn’t get to tour it –– we’ll still finish those dates at some point. There was something about the lack of new music coming out that excited me. I saw a couple weeks into the pandemic John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats posted a bunch of insanely high chart numbers. And you know, he’s like, this is for The Mountain Goats. It’s crazy. I can’t believe we’re on all these charts. And I was like, kind of like, oh, this is the time where independent artists can kind of do whatever they want and maybe get recognition or maybe a little more attention than normal.
I really wanted to put out something and use my time to get across an idea. And once I realized that I wanted to make a 70s AM gold kind of record, I just went full steam ahead. The songs I was writing seemed definitely like the end of winter and the beginning of spring hopefulness. I just decided to make January 15 my deadline for finishing it and we hit that.
EK: You mentioned in an interview with NME that this album is “melancholy, piano ballad-based” but it definitely emits a lot of positive energy. Can you talk a little bit about striking that balance?
ST: I think melancholia has some sort of hopefulness in it, too. When I start writing a song, I gravitate towards minor chords so that’s where kind of sad music lives. I like to juxtapose that with either really positive lyrics in a negative kind of music-scape, or vice versa. I don’t know, I think this was just another way of saying this is going to be a highly personal album.
EK: There are clear 70s glam moments a la Elton John and Prince as well as slower ballads more along the lines of Carole King with dramatic keys and horns to amp up the emotion. Plus, there are some more alt moments sprinkled in here and there. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind this album and how it was able to come together during quarantine?
ST: I had a couple songs already written. “Hearts Have Misspoken” and “Where We Began” were written before the pandemic started, so I kind of knew I wanted to go into some sort of Todd Rundgren, “I Saw the Light” era kind of pop. And I knew I wanted it to reflect that kind of songwriting, which was really, really flamboyant, but really personal. Like Elton John, like you said, or Paul Williams, who wrote all the music for The Muppets back in the day. I just love [Williams’s] writing and I think that was a huge inspiration. And for me, it’s like, once I know what the album is gonna be, it’s like, okay, now I’m just gonna make it. It just takes me a couple years to figure that part out.
When I figured out I was going to make a solo album, Bye Bye 17 was done two months later, you know, or when I figured out Best Summer Ever was going to be this kind of fake Greatest Hits from a bunch of decades I didn’t live in, then it was just easier to finish and write and produce. I just need to kind of wrap my head around the entire concept of the album, and then everything falls into place.
Then we just kind of recorded everything from a distance. And luckily, here in Minnesota, testing was really widely available pretty early on from maybe the end of summer onwards. It was just easy to get a 24-hour test and meet up with one of the band members and feel comfortable, you know, playing in a room with them even though we were still wearing masks and stuff, but not feeling like we’re gonna somehow, you know, spread this horrible thing. We just did it that way, and then sent tracks around to everybody in the band, and they just all nailed it on their own time. Everybody got really good recording at home.
EK: Yeah, I’m sure in the age of Zoom they had to get used to hearing themselves alone in their makeshift studios.
ST: Yeah, it’s hard for it not to be super personal when you’re on your own for most of the time, recording with a mic by yourself with nobody to look at and be like, was that cool? You just sort of have to trust your own instincts more. And I think that made everybody more confident and just better at what they’re doing.
When I [first] listened to the master, my mind was just blown that we actually accomplished what we did. You know, I still kind of can’t believe it. It’s a lot that we took on and we actually achieved more than I thought we would. It was such a nice surprise.
EK: Your new album is theatrical, highly expressive, — much like your shows — and feels like a true journey through the genres your music tends to tap into. Since this album was made in the throes of the pandemic, did you make this record for a quarantined audience or did you imagine how these tracks would eventually sound live?
ST: That was kind of the freeing part of everything when I was writing. I didn’t have to imagine the live show, just like for the immediacy, you know? Somehow that kind of worked in a circular way to come back and make songs that would work really well live. I think the fact that I could just think about people being sequestered to their own quarters or living in their own heads felt like a nice way to connect with people and bring a hopeful spirit. I think that was one of my goals, and that’s why I really wanted it to be a spring record.
EK: Obviously, the Har Mar persona has been a hit on stage, but what’s the future for Har Mar if live performances aren’t around for a while?
ST: Well, I’ll just keep delivering mail for now. I mean, if it takes longer than a year, I’ll probably make another record. I know, Sabrina [Ellis] might come visit. We’re talking about writing new Heart Bones stuff again. We’re scheduling a few shows [in Minnesota], and we’re not going like bananas or anything. We’re scheduling some local stuff for later in the fall and early in next year, just to see if it can happen. I think live music will come back in whatever form and I think capacity is going to be about the same as it was, once everybody has at least access to the vaccine free and safely. Then it’s kind of like you’re on your own, if you don’t believe in it, or don’t want to take it. I’ll probably still be wearing a mask. I love them in the winter. It’s great, it keeps my face warm.
I have faith that everything’s going to kind of work itself out. I think the first few shows you go to might feel weird, and I just feel like they should be earlier. They should be shorter, you know, feel like one opening act and the main thing and then just get out.
EK: I heard there are whispers of a TV series as a possibility…
ST: Oh, kind of, I mean not really. I’m just going to make a kind of variety show that’s just one live stream. It’s going to be part live, part variety show, part choreographed dance routines and fake commercials. It’s just sort of a fun way to present the album as its own thing that we will sell tickets to so everyone can kind of tweet along and have a good time. You’ll get a copy of it at the end.
I’m just sort of working out the logistics of how and when I’ll be filming that. Hopefully, by the time all the physical record comes out –– like the vinyl and CDs and cassettes –– maybe around that time. At this point, the fact that live shows are being talked about again, it’s like, I’m just really excited to focus on that when it’s a possibility. There are so many people outside of Minnesota that I want to reach out to and hug through a weird variety show that I make.
EK: You’ve worked with some pretty heavy hitters in the music industry from Julian Casablancas to Father John Misty to Lizzo. What has been the most surreal experience yet? Are there any particular tour memories that come to mind?
ST: We did the whole Father John Misty tour for his first album together. We were hanging out a lot in LA when he was just getting that whole project together and had stopped playing with Fleet Foxes at that point. I think that whole tour was surreal. People were just starting to discover his genius and we were just having so much fun. I was like … I’m trying to figure out how this new album is gonna work and get finished and all this stuff and it’s not released yet.
He played drums in my band opening the shows and then headlined with his own stuff, and it was crazy. He sent his whole band and the tour manager off with a really nice van, and then rode with me and our friends Jeff and Macy, who played in my band, in [Father John Misty’s] old really, really suspect van that we got pulled over in many times. It’s like this weird white van with mushroom chocolates melted into the seats and stuff. And it was one of the most hilarious tours I’ve ever been on.
EK: Who or what would be your dream collaboration?
ST: It would probably have to be with Dolly Parton or Sade, maybe. I think even just being in the same room watching them work –– even if I just got to kind of hang out and throw out like a “maybe it should be ‘they’ instead of ‘us,’” you know? Like, some dumb suggestion like that, but I would love to just watch them write and see how things blossom out of their process.