In the most simplified write up of Quinn Tsan, I would say she’s a talented, Chicago-based female folk rock singer. What you really want to know, though, is not who she is but why you should care.
Tsan tackles the heavy subjects of love and betrayal with brave transparency. Brave, by the way, is a word often thrown her way. She’s not afraid to become fully exposed by her music. Her songs speak in a manner so true to the basic human experience that it’s impossible not to be taken in by her strumming, her storytelling. This is why you should know Quinn Tsan, because she’s already singing your story.
I met Tsan at Café Mustache in Logan Square a few days ago to discuss her recently released EP, Good Winter. Check her out live Wednesday, January 28th at The Whistler where she’ll perform along with other select singers and songwriters.
QUINN TSAN: Good Winter is my first EP. I’ve been singing backup for the last 5-6 years. I actually moved to Chicago at the end of 2007 to sing backup for Joe Pug – a folk musician. My brother was the drummer for him then. From there I started working with different bands throughout the city.
KARI HERRERA: During that time, singing backup, you always knew you could carry a song on your own?
TSAN: Honestly, not really. My background’s in dance. I always thought that’s what I’d do professionally but I kind of fell out of love with it.
HERRERA: Really? “Out of love” with dance? You don’t hear that often from dancers.
TSAN: Yea. I honestly fell out of love with it. So, I thought singing backup would suffice. I felt fine as a backup singer. I got to apprentice with all of these skilled musicians, watch their process, and learn all of these different genres.
HERRERA: When did it stop being enough?
TSAN: I was okay with it until I started collaborating with a solo artist I met a few years ago. Our voices and her songwriting just stuck out to me. I sang with her and we had plans to travel, sing in France, and tour. Then, she abruptly decided to move to the Marshall Islands. I was devastated because I had quit other opportunities to make our tour my main focus. It was a frustrating time. On top of that I was going through some personal stuff… just personal garbage.
HERRERA: I think that’s in your album, the personal garbage.
TSAN: Yea. There’s a lot of personal garbage in that album. [Laughs] I bought a guitar because I was flustered. I first picked up a guitar seriously in February of 2012.
HERRERA: Are you serious? With no past training?
TSAN: I had no formal training. There’s a song on the record called “Good Winter”. That’s the title track. That song has one of the first guitar riffs I learned on my own. It’s a really simple part and I had been playing that part for like 8 months, just practicing, before I wrote a song to it.
HERRERA: So you purchased a guitar and committed to performing solo after your music partner moved.
TSAN: It wasn’t going to get better than what it was singing backup for her. That’s how I felt. So I got started writing my own songs. I wrote my first song and just kept it to myself. Eventually, I got tired of holding it and decided to play it during an open mic night at Lilly’s (Lincoln Park). I was terrified but the response was so positive!
HERRERA: Now, you have your own EP. Every song on Good Winter sounds like a love song to me.
TSAN: I think Good Winter is a pretty solid representation of two years of my life. Not the last two years but a chunk of time a few years ago. Sometimes, I’m not proud that all of my music is so autobiographical. But I don’t write in a journal, I wish I did. I’m not much of a social media user or record keeper. I feel like songwriting is my way of keeping record. I feel like music is about finding resolution with yourself. Especially when you can’t resolve things with other people.
HERRERA: Do you feel you expose too much of yourself?
TSAN: The first year I was playing I kept hearing, “you’re so brave”. That was a word I heard all the time, brave. I thought, is this really that personal? It was kind of scary. Now, in retrospect, I’d like to be capable of writing from a point of view outside of my personal experience.
HERRERA: But who does that? More importantly, who does that accurately? We’ve all heard songs that sound a little disingenuous when the artist doesn’t seem to come from the place he’s singing about.
TSAN: That’s true. I think it’s just a form of self-deprecation. After a while you’re like, do people really want to hear about my problems anymore? [laughs]
HERRERA: Yes, they do because they’re going through it, listening to you sing about it. [laughs] So is every song a love song on Good Winter?
TSAN: In a general sense, yes. Not always a romantic type of love, though. Sometimes I sing about platonic love. There’s a song about the solo artist that moved to the Virgin Islands. I’m so grateful to her for opening my world and exposing me to so many opportunities. I admired and respected her tremendously.
HERRERA: What’s your favorite song in all the world?
TSAN: My one favorite song? I can’t choose one but I can tell you what I listened to this morning. I listen to it many mornings. [Laughs] It’s by Mountain Man. The album is called Made the Harbor. The group is made of three women, playing really simple guitar, and they sing the most beautiful harmonies – kind of Appalachian, back country type of sound.
HERRERA: What’s your favorite song from Mountain Man?
TSAN: I love all of them! “Animal Tracks” is a great song. I really like “Dog Song”, “White Heron”. You will love these women as soon as you hear them. Feist actually picked them up to tour with her. I also can’t stop listening to “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” or “Lilac Wine” off of Jeff Buckley’s album Grace. My friends hate me for it. [Laughs] I’m one of the only ones with a car in my group of friends so they just have to deal.
HERRERA: Tell us about your band.
TSAN: It’s made of Michael Golas of Exit Ghost, Tim Young of Passerines, and Raul Cotaquispe, and he plays with so many people, Kelsey Wild, Gia Margaret, for example. Together, they are just amazing. The sound is incredible. So communicative, open, no weird boundaries or passive aggression. It’s just lovely.
HERRERA: What your plan for 2015?
TSAN: Play more and record the full LP.
HERRERA: Favorite Restaurant?
TSAN: Lula (2537 N. Kedzie Ave, Logan Square)
HERRERA: Favorite Bar?
TSAN: Two Way Lounge (2928 W. Fullerton Ave, Logan Square)
HERRERA: Favorite cocktail?
TSAN: A neat Maker’s Mark
HERRERA: Cubs or Sox?
TSAN: Sox. They’re just the better team.