“The song is this place where emotional intensity meets a compulsion for organization.” ~Sabrina Ellis
Heart Bones is a collaboration of Minnesota veteran Sean Tillmann (Har Mar Superstar) and Austin native powerhouse vocalist Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit). Fresh off their performance at Rock The Garden, Heart Bones is currently on tour supporting the upcoming album release. Recorded entirely in Minnesota, Sabrina shares that she now considers herself a local songwriter, having spent so much time working on music here. She’s currently in 3 bands and has a writing partner in each of them. Jokingly, she considers herself a strong collaborator.
In past projects her songwriting partner would write the chords, while she wrote the lyrics. With Heart Bones, the immediate question of two lead singers arose. “Sean and I are both the singers, the voice, and the mouth of our groups. I just didn’t know how it was going to go on a technical level,” Sabrina explains. The result has lead her to compose a lot of the framework of the songs. Sean would then, in a kind of ‘shaman-mystical-way’, close his eyes and zone out, and create melodies.
They would then work together on the lyrics, oftentimes sitting down at a kitchen table and talking about what’s going on in their lives. These conversations would cause fodder for lyrics. Since they live in different cities, the experience has been unique. It’s pushed them to make a marathon of the times when they are together.
“I feel like on this album, while the lyrics are still classic Sean or Sabrina kinda humorous, tongue-in-check, satirical, there’s a lot of emotional vulnerabilities in these songs. I’m calling it therapy pop.” ~Sabrina Ellis
Sabrina shares that her song structures tend to be very simple and conducive to looping. The benefit of this structure allows the group to build complexity into the sound. They create very subtle key changes. The time signature changes are not conventional, which is very unusual for the synth-pop genre.
Deciding the style and sound evolves throughout production. When they’re writing, it’s usually about accessibility first. An acoustic guitar becomes the quickest tool to use in finding an idea. As Sabrina shares, “The acoustic guitar will make everything sound like Paul Simon or Tim McGraw, folk or country.” Deciding the style and sound evolves throughout production. Sean and Sabrina are both dancers, so it makes sense this all combined into a synth-pop, dance music.
“Little Dancer” is a song that seemed to foreshadow the Heart Bones collaboration. Sabrina wrote it between tours, while listening to Prince’s Dirty Mind album. A week after writing it Prince passed away. She took it to her current projects and it just didn’t fit. Sending a snippet of the demo through the phone to Sean, she asked if maybe Har Mar Superstar could make use of it. When they circled back for this project, it rose to the forefront once again and finally found its place.
“Come on tell me what you need. I could be the one to find it for you.
I talk like I’m the one with all the answers. Baby I could be your little dancer.”
Sabrina loved the idea of Sean singing it. His voice has such a pretty tone, and having it in that state feels like the right choice. The song itself is an expression of how Sabrina’s mind works. As she explains, “It’s almost if you were to watch a cartoon of my life that was 3 minutes 16 seconds long.” The song is a mix of playfulness, depression, and being introverted. The character wants to provide reprieve and comfort to someone else. In offering to be someone else’s escape, they are finding their own escape.
“I hear you like a woman tough. I hear you like a lady with a temper.
I could kick somebodies ass for you. I could follow you up to your room.”
“Little Dancer” is a fantasy of what a relationship could be where you just flat out say these kinda things. Instead of having to impress somebody or intellectually seduce them, you just come out and say that you’re tough.
This Time It’s Different
Sean starts the song, singing from the female perspective. The choice of this flip is interesting and gives us a glimpse into Heart Bones. Sabrina identifies as gender nonconforming and in working with Sean, learned of his comfort in the idea of gender fluidity. Sean was artistically inspired by getting to explore that and requested to sing the female part. For Sabrina, it built some immediate trust between the two. Heart Bones doesn’t want to get pigeonholed into being a heterosexual, male/female duet band. The group could be a band that was empathetic and expressive for a lot of people.
“I’m the kinda girl that wants to listen to what you say. If I’m going to stay, then I’ll never sway.
Don’t you ever tell me that my emotions get in the way.”
There was a worry when writing “This Time It’s Different” that it would sound too personal or specific to what one of them was going through. The core belief behind the song is that a relationship can be different. Different from the last one and how it changes and reforms itself over the years. Sabrina thinks that a lot of people who are in long term relationships go through the same struggle. They ask, “Is this worth pursuing, is this over, are we going to try again?”
“I’ll stop the pain. Mend what’s broken. So we start it again.
Over and over until we go insane. But this time it’s different.
This time it’s different.”
The characters are blunt about their feelings throughout the song. At the same time, they remain hopeful in making it work. Relationships are complicated and it is not easy to define what holds us together. Heart Bones provides a clear reminder of the challenges of being honest with each other.
Sabrina Ellis shares that the way they are working is a more classic way of how pop music has been recorded from the 90’s on. They go in, do their parts, talking about production, then pass it around to other producers. Their drummer and keyboard players are both producers and engineers, able to impart elements. Then Lazerbeak (Doomtree) adds his touches into the song, like beats or his trademark bird sounds, which Sabrina finds endearing when she hears it there in the songs.
This process has taught her that she can involve like-minded people and not have to be in the same room with them. Giving up a part of the process can net a larger return and keep the process going. She also loves the volume of the band. Being a synth-pop band, it’s quieter than much of the material of her other projects. It allows her to use her voice in a more nuanced way by finding softer dimensions. Sean also has influenced her with his efficient and smart way of working.
“Music in our culture is a really important way for people to connect in the human experience. We’re very closed off and lonely. The past years have seen everybody getting so busy into their smartphones and using them for a lot of their interpersonal connections. Yet music is still where people go to remind themselves that other people share their experience.” ~Sabrina Ellis
The album will be released in early 2020. The current tour gives fans the chance to disconnect from the smartphones and share in an experience together.