Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TREEFORT 2016—The Evening Class Interview With Tisper (née Samwise Carlson)

Photo: Joey Tribiani.
With the sweetest of smiles and the strongest of embraces, Tisper (née Samwise Carlson) has distinguished himself in Boise's musical scene as an elven incarnation of fantasy folk, incanting melodies that dream and lure listeners into meditative states. Often when I spot him walking out and about it's as if one of the young subjects of a Botticelli painting has stepped down from the canvas to visit the street. Gentle and brave, his talent knows no bounds.

As detailed on Treefort's website: "Tisper is a fantasy-folk project fronted by Samwise Carlson from Boise, ID. It combines intricate guitar-work, dream-like vocals, and ornate lyricism to excite evocative imagery of imaginary worlds. Samwise is known for [his] angelic vocal style, impressive range and gently hypnotic, moving performances akin with the spirits of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, and Joanna Newso.

"Tisper's debut album, Sleepy Creature, is an honest and lulling, testament to Carlson's childhood obsession with fantasy, and conversely, [his] morose and oftentimes disconnected disposition toward the stark realities [he has] experienced as a millennial in America. Recorded to tape in a half-flooded concrete basement, Sleepy Creature features accompaniment by Jake Saunders on cello and Riley Johnson on keys and vocals and is to be released in the Spring of 2016."

It was a genuine pleasure to sit down with Samwise to discuss Tisper. Tisper will be playing the El Korah Shrine on Saturday, March 26, 2016, at 5:00PM.

* * *

Photo: Maya Jaguar
Michael Guillén: I'm aware that you showed up in Boise's music scene about the same time that I arrived here. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Why and when you came to Boise? Where did you come from?

Tisper: I moved from Rigby, which is near Idaho Falls. I was planning on going to school. I first came to audition for the music program at BSU, got accepted as a major in music composition, but didn't get accepted into the school itself because I'm super bad at math. I failed the Compass exam.

Guillén: Why did I have the impression you were from southern California?

Tisper: I am from California. I moved to Rigby from San Diego, California, when I was about 10-11.

Guillén: So most of your adolescence and young adulthood has been in Rigby? Was it a tiny town?

Tisper: Tiny town. It maybe has a population of 6,000.

Guillén: Growing up in such a small town, when did you know you wanted to be an artist and musician? Did you have any influences there?

Tisper: I started playing guitar when I was 10 or so and really loved it. I had some friends that also played music and we would just jam out all the time. I had one friend in particular who really pushed me to start singing, because I would not sing in front of anyone. I'd write all these songs by myself in my basement room. He helped me in that way by pushing me to start singing in front of people.

Guillén: Did you have musical influences? It sounds like you found a community of like-minded people playing music, but were you listening to anyone who you wanted to be like?

Tisper: If we really want to go far back, I was really into the Googoo Dolls. Kind of silly, right? They got me into tuning my guitar to alternate tunings. A lot of what I'm doing now was influenced by that. I listened to The Beatles a lot. I really loved The Beatles. When I was 14 or 15, I discovered more indie stuff, like Feist's "1234" and I was like, "What is this?" It was a really cute indie pop jam.

Guillén: So you've always liked a melodic pop sound?

Tisper: Yeah, but I didn't discover it until I was 15. After that, I fell deep into the Internet and found a lot of cool artists that I liked.

Guillén: So you are a self-taught musician?

Tisper: Yeah. I took a few lessons when I was young, as far as my instrument goes.

Guillén: So you came to Boise and started playing at open mics. Did you ever busk on the streets?

Photo: Matthew Wordell.
Tisper: I went straight into open mics. I did do some busking in the Summer of 2014, but by that point I had already had some shows and played out of town and stuff.

Guillén: Did you know anyone when you moved to Boise? Did you already have a built-in community?

Tisper: No, I didn't know anyone.

Guillén: How did you find your people, then? Because now you are definitely a part of a community.

Tisper: I want to credit it to The Crux. That venue was my spot for a while. It was my favorite place to go. I was there every day. Every night I would go to every show. It was a great gathering place where I could hang out and meet people. That's where I met Brett Hawkins, who's my best friend and band mate. I met him there doing open mic night. The Crux was definitely a huge deal. I met most of my friends there.

Guillén: Where does your stage name "Tisper" come from?

Tisper: This is really silly but I have a background of playing a lot of RPGs and, if I had an Elf character, I would always name it Tisper because it sounded Elven. Musically, I was originally going by Woodwind but realized it would be really hard to find Woodwind online anywhere because you would type in "Woodwind music" and get a million hits on woodwind players or woodwind instruments. So I decided to switch to Tisper.

Guillén: Is Tisper configured as a solo act? Because the first time I saw you, you were playing with Judah Claffey, and the next time I saw you at last year's Treefort you had an ensemble of cello, harp, violin and viola (with that lovely guest appearance by Bronwyn Leslie).

Tisper: That was a good time and super fun.

Guillén: Is your conception of Tisper to advance to a fuller sound? Or are you remaining solo?

Tisper: It keeps changing. I'm going to do it solo for a while. I feel it's healthy for me to do that now and it's fun.

Guillén: Have you written new music for this year's Treefort?

Tisper: I have three new songs that I'll be playing.

Guillén: How do you situate Tisper within Boise's music scene? Do you feel that you're part of a scene? Is it a scene that's allowing you to grow as a musical artist?

Tisper: To an extent I feel that. There's a lot of really good music and supportive musicians and non-musicians here. We're not at a competitive stage yet.

Guillén: How would you describe your music?

Tisper: Jake Saunders, the cellist who played with me last year at Treefort, he described Tisper as "fairy pillow talk", which I loved. My music has fantasy vibes. It's really pretty.

Guillén: It is very pretty music and you have a beautiful voice.

Tisper: Thank you.

Guillén: And, as you've just told me, elven. There is a bardic minstrel quality to your songs. Your music tells stories. Where do those stories come from?

Tisper: Most of the time when I write I'll have a vague concept of a story in my mind. I don't really try to write stories.

Guillén: So you get an image first that guides the narrative?

Tisper: Yeah. I utilize imagery a lot. Lately, having turned 22, I'm feeling an existential weight. I don't know why.

Guillén: Looking back, I'd have to say my twenties were the hardest years of my life for being so heavy. Collaboration helps with shouldering that burden. Can you speak to Boise's collaborative ethos? When you arrived from Rigby, did you find that unusual?

Tisper: Yeah, it was all unusual. What I knew about any of this from the scene in Rigby, which is nothing, or even Idaho Falls, which is pretty much nothing, was all I'd ever known. I don't really know anything else besides this scene in Boise.

Guillén: What are your hopes then? Do you have a sense of where you want to go with your music? I know you've played in Southern California. Do you want to tour? To record?

Tisper: I'm finishing up a record right now that will be 11 tracks long and I'm planning a tour for June. Touring, for sure, is my main goal.

Guillén: How do you negotiate that? Do you have a manager? Do you do that all yourself?

Tisper: I will be, I think, working with Duck Club. They're booking me in West Coast gigs. But I've booked about seven dates by myself. This is my first time doing that so I'm learning as I go.

Guillén: What are you learning? Have you played these venues and feel comfortable approaching them again? Have friends recommended venues? How have you figured out this network of venues?

Tisper: Pretty much all of that. If I've played a venue, I'll contact them. I've been going to shows long enough and have met enough musicians from out-of-town and that's helpful because I can approach them and say, "Hey, remember me? Can you help me get a gig here in Albuquerque, New Mexico?"

Guillén: Are some of the gigs you've lined up out of state?

Tisper: Yeah. Idaho Falls will be my first stop. Then I'm doing Camp Daze in Montana. Salt Lake City, Utah. Logan, Utah. Laramie, Wyoming. Fort Collins, Colorado. Hopefully Denver, Colorado. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Phoenix, Arizona. It's a long process. Most people try to book six months to a year in advance, which is such a long time in my opinion. I'm still booking this right now and it's hard to think four or five months away.

Photo: Jessica Pallante.
Guillén: So my final question is a bit of a sticky one, but it's something I'm fascinated in. You and Brett and Judah, your tribe, your clan, you're characterized by a lovely gender fluidity. As a man who grew up as a gay kid in Twin Falls, Idaho, I have nothing but respect for this gender fluid approach towards persona. I couldn't have dreamed of doing something like that in '70s Twin Falls. I'm heartened that the times have changed and that young straight men like you and Brett feel comfortable challenging these gender conceptions by wearing make-up, jewelry, women's clothing. But perhaps I'm presuming too much? Do you feel comfortable? Can you speak at all to what gender fluidity means for you? And what you're trying to express by it? Is it an important element to your creative process?

Tisper: I feel gender fluid. I don't think I've always felt that way, but when I was a teenager I noticed I was not a "manly" guy. I don't feel that I fit in that role. I also don't feel I fit in the role of a woman. These categories and the traits associated with them are weird. I don't really get it so I just do what I feel like doing. If I want to wear a dress, I'll do that.

Guillén: I admire that you've joined a lineage of gender resistance that has been going on for generations. At last year's Treefort, I remember running into you and Brett as you were shopping for old clothes at a vintage outlet and I thought, "How lovely. They're acting like the young artists in 1920s Manhattan who were raiding thrift shops and cross-dressing." Everything old is new again, in a way. But so is judgment and discrimination. Do you get any blowback for your brave gender fluidity?

Tisper: It depends on where I am. In downtown Boise no one ever says anything to me. Boise's a progressive bubble. But I live in Garden City where I've had a few ... experiences. There's a bar called The Ranch Club that's about two minutes walking distance from my place. It's a silly Idaho bar. You can smoke in there. But almost every time I go there someone comes up to me to say, "All right, I just gotta ask ya: are you a boy or a girl?" I'm like, "Why? Why do you care?" Sometimes I get that reaction. But most of the interactions I've had have turned out to be positive.

Guillén: How do you answer when you're asked if you're a boy or a girl?

Tisper: I just say, "I don't know. Both?" Then I gauge their reaction. Usually they'll just say, "All right. That's weird" and walk away. I just try to be charming about it and smile.

Guillén: Has there been any blowback within the music community?

Tisper: I don't think so. I've had nothing but positive feedback. People seem to be into the androgyny, which is cool. I work at the Heatherwood Retirement Community on the Bench and sometimes get comments from the older folks, especially the new ones who come in and don't know me, but I feel they've resigned themselves to not understanding me. "Kids these days."

Guillén: Well, I'm very proud of your bravery, Sam, and encourage you to keep resisting. You're an inspiration to me as an older guy and I look forward to hearing you play at Treefort.