Five days before the national release of his new album, “The Polar Ends,” Eric Tollefson is giving The Bulletin a peek at his “to do” list for the day.
It includes finalizing tour posters, honing a social-media strategy, reaching out to 180 radio stations that have played the album (especially the 50 or so that have played it a lot), talking with partners about promotional assistance, reviewing proposed licensing agreements from VH1, MTV, Showtime and other TV channels, typing out the lyrics on “The Polar Ends” at the request of said channels, and, of course, chatting with the hometown newspaper.
Last, but not least: working with saxophonist Graham Jacobs on horn parts for Thursday's album-release show at McMenamins Old St. Francis School in Bend (see “If you go”).
“I'm just making sure everything is set for (release day),” Tollefson said.
It sounds like a lot. And it is. But so far, the 28-year-old Bend resident has insisted on carrying much of the load with regard to the business side of his music career.
“I kind of like knowing, I guess, how I'm presented,” Tollefson said, “and making sure it's done in a really honorable, respectful way, too.”
That's Eric Tollefson in a nutshell: Thoughtful. Emotionally driven. Aware of his place in this world and in tune with how he carries himself.
Confident but prone to bouts of insecurity about his music. And highly concerned with quality control.
Perhaps a story would capture him more vividly: One year and two weeks ago, Tollefson flew from Seattle to Dallas, the first leg of a trip that would take him to a fancy but remote recording studio outside Charlottesville, Va.
That studio, Haunted Hollow, belongs (at least in part) to the longtime pop-rock superstar Dave Matthews, who has made some of his biggest hits there. (Over the past few years, Tollefson has become friends with a member of Matthews' crew, who got the ball rolling by sending “Polar Ends” demos to Haunted Hollow personnel.)
On that flight, Tollefson began watching videos of the Dave Matthews Band recording at his destination.
Until his nerves overtook him.
“I got so nervous, I basically walked into the Dallas airport and threw up everywhere,” he said with a laugh. (He can laugh about it now.)
“I actually threw up. It was so bad,” Tollefson said. “I ended up passing out in the Dallas airport, looking homeless, and then woke up, caught my plane and went to the studio.”
Once at Haunted Hollow, Tollefson had to drop the scared-young-songwriter act and take charge of a session that lasted just six days.
It was no easy task, considering the talent on the album: pedal-steel guitarist Eric Heywood (who has played with Son Volt and Ray LaMontagne), guitarist Sam Kearney (Alberta Cross), bassist Jay Foote (Fiona Apple), drummer Brian Jones (Jason Mraz) and keyboardist Matty Metcalfe (Robert Randolph, Sugarland), plus Rubblebucket's horn section and locals Gabe Johnson, Franchot Tone, Kat Hilst and Sara Jackson-Holman.
“You've got to give 'em freedom, but also be the director in a way,” Tollefson said. “While (Tone and Haunted Hollow head honcho Rob Evans) produced this record, so did I. I was really (into) everything.
“Very rarely would I have to say, y'know, ‘This is it. This is what we're doing. We need to move on,'” he continued. “But saying that to these players that I just really, really respect was a thing all its own.”
Repeated spins of “The Polar Ends” prove Tollefson was an able captain. The album is eight tracks long, spanning the array of styles he does well: elegantly lovelorn folk (“Heart on a String”), vibrant acoustic pop (“Leo”) and bruising, defiant blues-rockers (“Whose Love”). The centerpiece is a devastating love song called “Before You Go” that sounds immersed in Heywood's unmistakably gorgeous work on the pedal steel.
As such, the album's title is not just a random lyric or a nod to Alaska, where Tollefson grew up. It's more personal than that.
“It's kind of all over the place, which is more or less like me,” he said. “There's all these emotions and feelings in it, so I felt like it was like the polar ends of who I am.
“There's heartache on it. There's love on it. There's anger. There's aggression,” Tollefson continued. “At the very end, there's something that's almost remorseful or accepting of one's fate.”
The eight songs on the album were written over the course of 2½ years between his 2009 album “The Sum of Parts” and that nauseating flight to Dallas, and they're rooted in Tollefson's experiences during that time. Which, he says, is essential.
“I like to think that anybody in art should experience heartache (and) love,” he said. “They should know how to color those emotions as opposed to just talking about them.”
By now, though, the emotions and experiences on “The Polar Ends” are quite small in Tollefson's rearview mirror. He's had the album in hand for the past six months, which he spent doing tasks similar to those on that aforementioned “to do” list: reaching out to public relations companies, managers, labels, and so on.
“I wrote ‘em really nice, respectful cover letters and just said, ‘I've got a lot to prove, and if you guys are ever interested in talking, I hope to show you how hard I can work,'” he said.
Now, Tollefson is a couple songs into writing his next album, a process that has refreshed him and helped him refocus on what's important. Setting expectations for “The Polar Ends” — and thinking of them as “life or death” — was “almost ruining it” for him, he said.
Last week, he had a better perspective: It's about the songs.
“I'm gonna take that approach from now on. It's like, I need to create songs that drive people crazy. That cures whatever's ailing them. They need it,” he said. “So while I'm happy with (the album) and how it sounds, I think the most exciting thing about it is, ‘What's next?'”
First up: A tour of the Northwest. Then, later this year, a move to Seattle, where a surge of similar artists, a top-notch backing band and more opportunities await.
“Can I win in Seattle? Can I create a show (with) the top players and that's national stage-worthy?” Tollefson said. “I think it's an important test: Can I go to a city and survive? And do it on my songs and all the while crafting a better show?”
In other words — my words, not his — it's time for a bigger pond.
“Yeah,” he said, “but this pond showed me I could do it. This pond gave me all of the everything that I ever needed to even try to do this. So I'm super grateful for my time here.”
How the big pond treats him remains to be seen. Not that it matters much.
“If the wheels fall off and people don't respond to anything I do, I'm still going to write songs every day,” Tollefson said. “There's just nothing in my life that makes me happier.”
What matters, truly, is Tollefson's attitude, his approach to music, and how he feels about his work.
“Be a student of music and the industry. Represent yourself the right way and work hard,” he said. “If you're going to approach something big, you've got to do something bigger than you.
“If this record was just me, I don't think it would come off the same,” he continued. “I wanted it to sound bigger than something I was capable of. And I think, at least, I achieved that.”