Sun Brother // Feature Friday
Written by: Kayla Lee
Sun Brother, the brainchild of singer/songwriter Billy Toulson, has been a solo project for the better part of a decade. Following Toulson’s recent move from Delaware to Music City, Sun Brother has found community in the close knit music scene that Nashville has to offer. This resulted in Toulson joining forces with bassist David Estes, keyboardist Bobby Steinfeld, drummer Andrew Rahm, and backing vocalist Grace Bates. Sun Brother falls loosely within the indie folk genre, with key tracks spanning beyond the grasp of genre’s confines and sitting comfortably in the outfield.
Sun Brother’s latest album, Meta Fascination, is in no rush. Mellow and thoughtful, the album takes its time. With witty lyricism sprinkled throughout the seven tracks, the album waxes and wanes between an eloquent exploration of a coming of age story and a reflection on the seasons of life that pass by in the blink of an eye.
Turning over life experiences carefully and gently placing them in the spotlight, Toulson sheds light on themes of uncertainly, major life changes, and apprehension of moving forward. There’s an overall sense of peace — it’s okay to experience these emotions, and once they pass, leave them in the past and welcome what the future has to offer.
Still very much a project owned by Toulson, each artist brings something interesting and new to the table to immerse the listener in a cohesive experience. While a soft delivery makes for easy reception, that’s not to say that the topics tackled within these seven tracks are easy.
“Below Smoke” and “Slow Motion” are two stand out tracks that help drive the album home. The former features layered instrumentals that allow the listener to fully fall into the song, and the latter comes to you in the vein of My Morning Jacket. Throughout the album, Grace Bates (of the band Gracie & The Valley) provides backing vocals that bolster Toulson’s gentle delivery.
Continue reading below to check out an interview with Billy Toulson where we talk about making Sun Brother a full band project, Toulson’s move to Nashville, and more!
Q: How did Sun Brother come together and find the balance between being a singer/songwriter project to a full band?
A: Sun Brother was a completely solo endeavor of mine from 2008 to 2017. Although some of my previous EP’s built the instrumentation up and featured bass, midi drums and keys, the last few years I really tried to hone in on writing songs that completely sat on their own footing with just guitar and vocals. I feel like this put the band in a great position when the other members started coming together because nothing was needed in order to make the song. Everything added was extra spice to the pie.
I wish I could take more credit for how cohesive Sun Brother ended up sounding in a full band setting but honestly everyone that came in (Bobby Steinfeld - keys, David Estes - bass, Grace Bates - harmonies, Andrew Rahm - drums) was so good at what they did that they knew exactly what the song needed. All of them have such an amazing ear and are so incredibly skilled at what they do that I don’t think I ever had to lead them into what to play. I’m very fortunate that everyone in the band is generous musically because any one of them has the skills to overshadow the core of the song. Instead, they graciously let the guitar and main vocal lead the narrative.
Q: What sparked your move from Wilmington to Nashville, and how has the experience been?
A: My move to Nashville was entirely based on needing to do something with my music. The opportunity to grow in Delaware wasn’t there, although I used those years between graduating college and moving to perform as much as possible and to sharpen my skills. But there was a cap on what could be accomplished. In Nashville I saw more opportunity than I did with New York. A huge part of that being that the cost of living in New York would have constrained me in the long run and not allowed me to save money to put into recording this album. The other advantage I saw in Nashville was a music scene centered around the craftsmanship of songwriting and not any of the extra flair that sometimes becomes attached to music in a city as large as New York.
The experience has been like a dream. There were so many struggles along the way that felt insurmountable at the time. But looking back at my short 22 months here as a whole, so much has gone in my favor that I have an enormous amount of gratitude for this city and the people I’ve met. From these songs coming together, to meeting my girlfriend Grace who was the first additional member of Sun Brother, to the guys in the band who have put so much into this project without asking for anything in return. I can’t imagine getting to this point in a better way.
Q: What’s your favorite local venue here in Music City?
A: I’ll put the Ryman aside for this question because it’s kind of a hacky answer for a local although it is by far the most magical venue I’ve ever experienced music in. East Nashville has so many great venues from The Cobra to The East Room that it’s hard to say. My favorite place to catch some casual music right now is probably the 5 Spot. They get a drum sound in there that, to me, I have not heard beat by any other smaller-sized venue. Hopefully Sun Brother will have a chance to play there in early 2019. *wink wink*
Q: When writing Meta Fascination, what was the first song to come together and do you feel that that track shaped the rest of the album?
A: “Two Lies” is the oldest song on the album and it’s the only song that was written before my move to Nashville. I wasn’t sure if it would make the track list since it never made the transition with the full band, but I felt that including it was important because the message is cohesive with the rest of the songs. The meaning of the song, to me, boils down to the line in the bridge:
“I know the world is hectic and there’s nothing that prevents it and you’re all on your own
But the truth can be eclectic so don’t waste your time to protect it, it’s all on its own.”
Run-on sentence aside, the point I was trying to get across is that the truth of what we believe our role in the world to be is much more pliable than we often allow it in our heads. The lyrical content of “Meta Fascination” is largely about my move to Nashville and the hurdles that existed in that transition. Although this song doesn’t fall into that linear story, it does hold the articulation of the idea that led to me to really believe I could move and pursue music seriously. So in a sense, what that song encapsulates is what sparked the rest of the album because it led to this crazy journey.
Q: If someone is listening to your music for the first time at the album release show, what’s one thing that you’d like for them to know about the album?
A: I would like someone listening to us for the first time to know that everything we put into our music is genuine and honest from all of our perspectives. Nothing here is contrived to fit a certain sound or idea that is superficial. It was all created with the intention of putting something useful into the world and a lot of love went into it. From the writing, to the forming of the band, to the recording process (have to shout out the amazing engineer JD Tiner here). Every step was about creating something together that not only sounded good, but was made for the right reasons. Whether it’s someone’s preferred style or not, I hope that intention shines through.