It’s often said that joy and sorrow spring from the same well; Juneau-born musician Eric Tollefson’s experiences as a songwriter prove this to be true.
Tollefson might never have become a songwriter if not for the heartache he suffered at 18 when his girlfriend broke up with him. Though he’d learned guitar as a kid, he’d never written a song, until the break-up pushed him to find a way to express his overwhelming emotions. Tollefson said he picked up the guitar and the song just poured out of him.
“It was the craziest feeling,” he said earlier this week at the Rookery. “I called like three friends that night. I said ‘Hey, listen to this!’ It felt right. It was exciting.”
A few years later, in 2004, after he’d left songwriting behind to pursue a high-pressure career in finance, a tragedy of unbelievable proportions brought him back around to his music once again.
“The day I couldn’t do it anymore was the day the tsunami happened in Indonesia,” he said. “100,000 people just got wiped off the face of the earth and all people could talk about in my industry was how it affected people’s wealth. I had to leave that day.”
Tollefson quit, sold his house, took a job with Breedlove Guitars and dove back in to songwriting. His first CD, “The Sum of Parts,” was released in 2008, the second “The Polar Ends” has just been completed and is due out in March.
The first CD, released when Tollefson lived in Bend, Ore., was very well received by fans and critics, landing on the Bend Bulletin’s best local releases of 2009 list: “Tollefson’s songs are bluesy pop beauties, spilling... over with impressive guitar work and melodies that’ll follow you around for days.”
The release also led to some major national placement for Tollefson, including a chance to open for big name acts such as G Love and Special Sauce and Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Tollefson said though he was mostly satisfied with the first CD, he feels the new one reflects a more complete artistic product; he stepped up every aspect of the work this time around.
“Everything I could have put into this, I did,” He said. “There’s not a whole lot of songs – just eight – but ... it took a lot of work, two and a half years, every day.”
Tollefson will perform at the Viking Friday, giving his home-town crowd a chance to hear the new songs (and get an early copy of the CD) in advance of the CD’s spring release. He’ll be joined onstage by local musicians Clay Good, Adrian Minne and Jason Caputo, who have been rehearsing the new material over the past few weeks.
“They are good enough that they can just pick it up,” Tollefson said of his Juneau crew. “And what’s cool with Clay is that i can work with him and suggest stuff, but I don’t like to form him into what this drummer (on the CD) did, because Clay’s ideas are so interesting.”
The show begins at 9 p.m. upstairs at the Viking Lounge.
The new CD blends a range of musical styles -- blues and soul, rock and folk; Tollefson said he worked with the most professional team he could find, including two different producers: Franchot Tone produced a couple of the slower numbers, such as “Heart on a String” and “Before you Go,” and Rob Evans worked on the more rock-oriented tunes such as “Vultures” and “Whose Love.”
The cover art for the CD is based on a project Tollefson created while at JDHS -- a polar bear print that won third prize in printmaking in the 2001 All-State Art Competition. The original work, created with local teachers Tom Manning and Jan Neimeyer, was reworked for the CD by Modern Dog Design in Seattle.
Andy Kline, program director at local station KXLL said he’s really been enjoying the new CD, particularly the track “Vultures.” He’s got three songs in ”hot” rotation at the station.
“His music has a lot of depth and, as he’s experimenting with new instrumentation, like the horns that back the track ‘Whose Love,’ his music is moving in a really exciting direction,” Kline said.
Another track that is garnering attention from other stations is “Before You Go.” (This listener was hooked on the sweet, slow swish of this song on the first listen.)
“(‘Before You Go’) is the one I guess people have responded to the most so far,” Tollefson said. “It’s definitely a heartbreak song, without a doubt.”
That track also features a special guest, Eric Heywood, on pedal steel; Heywood has played with huge stars like Ray LaMontagne and Son Volt, among others, and Tollefson was able to work with him thanks to producer Tone’s connections. He said the opportunity blew him away.
“He just killed it,” Tollefson said. “He’s one of my heroes.”
Producer Evans set him up with another amazing opportunity: the chance to record the album at Haunted Hollow, Dave Matthews’ personal recording studio. Tollefson said walking in he felt like a kid at Disneyland. He has great respect for Matthews, especially as a live performer; other musical heros include Ben Harper, whom he has met, and LaMontagne.
Tollefson started playing guitar when he was 8, but his music education began when he was much younger. He clearly remembers his dad having him and his sister Brooke listen to the 1969 Woodstock Festival concerts in their entirety, and as he listened young Tollefson would envision himself on stage, performing for the crowd. A decade or so later, he made it happen: his first public performance was at the Alaska Folk Festival when he was 12, joining Hannah Lager and her father John on stage. The next year Tollefson was back at the folk fest performing his own set — largely Tom Petty covers. Then for a little while in middle school and high school his interests turned to other things — skateboarding, football — but he soon drifted back toward music, joining the chorus in high school and picking up his guitar again.
By 2000 he was playing a few shows with Good at the Hangar, thinking about writing songs but having a hard time making it happen. Good stepped in with a piece of advice that proved immensely helpful.
“I was writing songs but there wasn’t much to them. It was just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Maybe a bridge in some of them but not really. Clay is the one who told me, ‘If you’re going to write music, you can’t listen to what you want to listen to. You’ve got to listen to all sorts of stuff.’ I dove off into the Buena Vista Social Club and the blues, all kinds of different stuff.”
After graduation in 2002, Tollefson headed to the University of Montana to pursue a degree in business. Though his career in finance didn’t work out for him, Tollefson said he’s grateful for the experience, as it helped him figure out how to work with a team, and to approach difficult situations with a professional attitude.
Since getting to town, Tollefson’s been rehearsing for Friday’s show, writing some new material and hanging out with him mom and step-dad, Steve and Karla Allwine, who own Mendenhall Auto Center in the Valley. He’s also hard at work on promoting the new CD; though he said he loves pursuing his music full time, it’s a lot more work than people might realize; only about 20 percent of his time is spent writing and playing music, the rest goes to marketing, planning and other aspects of the business.
“The Polar Ends” was self-released but, in another lucky break, Tollefson was able to sign on with The Orchard, an independent music distribution company with an international reach; they usually only works with artists who are signed to a label, Tollefson said.
“I called (Orchard) on a day when the receptionist wasn’t in, it was a temp. And she passed me to a person I should never have been able to talk to.”
Orchard is handling the digital distribution of his music, while Tollefson is working with radio stations across the country to get his songs on the air. In Juneau, local stations such as KXLL, KRNN and KSUP have been very supportive of his new work; Tollefson said hearing his songs played on the air in his hometown is huge.
“To me, that’s the biggest compliment.”