It was strange to finally see Thomas Bartlett perform solo at the Ecstatic Music Festival last month in an auditorium that radiated all the charm of a high school theater. It wasn’t that Bartlett, who performs with a full band as Doveman and releases records on Brooklyn’s excellent Brassland label brought the house down on the ensemble driven event. Rather, it was all too rare to see the admittedly jet-lagged pianist finally alone — at least for a handful of songs before Nadia Sirota, Owen Pallett and a string quartet brought the festival’s mission of carefully curated collaborations into full bloom.
“I am not and never have been a particularly natural performer,” Bartlett tells me over a Campari and vodka on a rainy afternoon last month. “I don’t get a huge charge out of the act of playing music. What is deeply exciting is that I made something great. I’m not one of those people who really lives for that moment of [being in front of an audience].”
The New York based singer-songwriter and accompanist is ironically the least recognizable name in a cadre of New York musicians slowly approaching marquee status — Pallet (performing to critical acclaim formally as Final Fantasy), composer Nico Muhly, The National and Sam Amidon all comprise an orbit within a universe of Martha Wainwright, Yoko Ono, Antony and the Johnsons and Glenn Hansard of The Frames and Swell Season.
Bartlett has toured, performed with and quietly befriended the entire list and then some, while still admitting Doveman sacrifices along the way — “how do I say no when David Bryne asks me to play,” he laughs, noting how his own creative pace remains his largest inhibitor. “I think I’m often just an enabler for people,” he says. “I’m very good as an accompanist, of working with singers, and that’s a lot of what I do.” He describes those collaborations between Antony or Wainwright, for example, as “a pretty intensive mind meld.”
Yet, what makes this classically trained Vermont native anything more than a linear note staple is the fact that such eclectic, shining outposts all lead back to an unassuming center. “I do love collaboration,” he admits, “but the thing that I hate most in the world is forced collaboration. It just drives me crazy.” In an age where remixes and production credits are pitched and coupled for the marketing value alone it’s fascinating (heartening, even) to find these natural indie unions flourishing with such humility — in Manhattan no less.
“I wish people would be more thoughtful about that sometimes,” Bartlett says, of the leading question. “Instead of thinking, oh, let’s throw these two people together.” The Ecstatic Music Festival was a perfect example of how collaboration doesn’t need to be commissioned and this fact isn’t lost on the performers. “It’s what made [it] so cool,” in fact, “because those kinds of cross-pollinations do exist. They can be very natural and Judd [Greenstein, festival curator] was really smart and careful about programming it in a way where he’s not forcing those connections.”
Bartlett says he’s been “suggested” a few collaboration opportunities by the well-intentioned, but always turns them down. “I never worked that way,” he says, “I’ve never dealt with anyone that way,” but admits it’s something he’s always actively sought out. “It’s more just about wanting to play music with others.” Still, that wasn’t always the case until recently.
The feeling was palpable on stage last month and a damn near-inspiring set of marching orders for anyone looking to follow suit. Bartlett left Vermont to study in London with Maria Curcio, one of the 20th century’s greatest classical music teachers and nowhere near the current indie stable of names to drop. He came back to attend Columbia, where he studied English before dropping out for a journeyman’s career in music. Harlem, the one constant, is still home, with roommate and friend since childhood, Sam Amidon.
“I’m finding myself in this position — which is very lovely — which is that through this ridiculously good luck over the past few years I’ve ended up playing with some of my very favorite artists and people who I’ve admired for a very long time.”
Read one way and Bartlett is forever the bridesmaid if Doveman wasn’t such a curious, engaging listen on its own. Begging a headphone treatment, the 26-year old sings in a hushed whisper that’s completely lost in most indie venues today and might partially count for the minimal touring in support. The Conformist, released last year, is precious and poppy without wrapping itself too tightly in your roommate’s duvet. It’s no small feat and I tell him. “I feel like The Conformist is a record of pop songs,” he says before pausing. “It’s certainly trying to be.”
New YorkMagazine noted how Bartlett was coming out of his shell this time last year, but in talking to the musician after a particular sound check down the street the reverse rings more true — it’s a confidence of conviction and intent that one notices more than anything. With so many opportunities Bartlett is able to do what he wants with little regret or anything that resembles a shell.
“I started feeling it very strongly about a year or year and a half ago,” he says. “I’ve been right there with bands who have gone from small rooms to Radio City and that’s great, but in some ways it just doesn’t get that much better.” Money is mentioned, but time is the main compromise. With equal defiance and deference: “I don’t care for that myself,” he says. “My dream is not to be on the stage at Glastonbury cooing to 50,000 people.”
Bartlett says he’s similarly under no particular pressure to finish the next Doveman record. “I’ve sort of chosen to absent myself from the rat race of trying to become ‘known’ as an indie rock band and build up a fan base,” he says. “I’m just going to continue to make records and do what I’m doing” The writing process, he also admits, is extremely slow, usually happening at night, but he’s happy to let the songs slowly accrue. “For many years my solo career was hindered,” he says, listing off the number of tours begetting tours. “Now, it’s like the greatest excuse in the world to make that music when I wanna make it.”