Songwriters tend to reveal themselves early in life: Maybe they show a knack for picking out melodies on the piano. Perhaps they beg their parents for a guitar before their 10th birthday. Others spend long hours immersed in an older sibling's record collection, little hands on the radio's knobs. They foreshadow their own future.
None of this applies to Thomas Costello, who, at the age of 30, has just released his first record, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, with his band, The Human Eyes. Costello first picked up a guitar at age 20—which is, comparatively speaking, a bit like taking up ballet in graduate school or opting to become a lawyer after having two children. Costello attributes part of his slow start to his childhood in suburban Kernersville, N.C., which was by no means musically inspired.
"My dad listened to total crap," allows Costello on a dreary Tuesday afternoon at the Carrboro pub Milltown. "He never pushed it on me, but that's what I got: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton, The Doobie Brothers—not that I have anything against that. But he thought Crosby Stills and Nash were better once Young left."
From that impoverished childhood, Costello eventually developed a compulsive need to write songs. "That's one thing I just can't stop doing," he says. "My girlfriend can attest to my obsession. It took a long time before I realized it was better for our relationship if I could take off the headphones every once in awhile, put down a guitar. It's not something I do in a weekend warrior way. If I had my choice, [writing songs is] what I would do."
But he doesn't have the choice, at least not yet: Being a singer-songwriter is not something most people can devote themselves to exclusively. To pursue that goal and not make it your profession requires, if not lots of money, a realistic perspective and a hardline focus.
James Wallace owns Arbor Ridge Studios in Chapel Hill. He is a close friend and mentor to Costello and, these days, an occasional bandmate. For several years, Wallace has floated between bands as needed and made a string of sterling records in his studio. His emphasis on the process of music creation, as opposed to pursuing grand goals, inspires Costello.
"For the most part, hard work and consistency are the things that are gonna make you successful these days," Wallace says. "You have to just enjoy doing it every day, and the goals will come from the enjoyment."
Costello's evolution into the role of a songwriter has not been linear. In sixth grade, he'd seen the music video for "Live Forever" by Oasis, which drove him toward music. But it was live music a decade later—"a sea change moment," he calls it—that finally put him on the circuitous path toward The Human Eyes.
"When I was 20," he says, "I saw My Morning Jacket at the Cradle, by myself. I drove home thinking, 'This is amazing. What a feeling. I need to be onstage and make this music.'"
Costello didn't park his car, bound inside and write his first song; that would be too direct. Instead, he became proficient on guitar and bass, eventually playing in a series of ramshackle house party bands while holding down jobs at Schoolkids in Raleigh and then CD Alley in Carrboro, while sometimes handling promotional duties for Cat's Cradle. He inched toward becoming a musician in his own right, immersing himself in songs and songcraft, watching other bands closely and befriending other musicians.
In 2007, or the midpoint between when Costello first picked up the guitar and released his debut record, he wrote his first poem, "On the Banks of the Blue Ridge Parkway." Though the piece won Indy Week's poetry contest, it would be a mistake to call Costello a poet. To date, it's the only poem he's ever written, and there certainly aren't any verses on Guiding Eyes for the Blind as surprising as "You shaved the cats/ I made frozen lemonade," lines from his winning entry. Truth is, he just needed the money.
"My radiator exploded in my car. It literally cost $500 to fix. And I was like, this could work," he remembers. The contest's first prize awards $500, which paid Costello's automotive bill. "I was utterly shocked. See, I don't write poetry."
Costello finally made his way into what he calls his first "real band," Mount Weather—a loose conglomeration of members of local acts such as Whatever Brains and The Love Language, along with his brother Bryan on keyboards. (He was also an original member of the band that eventually morphed into Raleigh favorites Whatever Brains.) Still, he was never satisfied.
"I wanted to be other bands that I liked, instead of just being what I was capable of doing," he says. "A lot of that was experimenting and trying to learn how to write a song. I just wasn't confident in my ability to do that."
Bryan Costello, who is younger than his brother by three years, says it might be tempting to mistake Thomas' perfectionism for reluctance: "But the truth is, it's because he is fully committed to music that he's reluctant to show his work. I've seen my brother rewrite the same song nine times, and I've heard dozens that never made it to the stage, let alone a record."
It was as if Costello needed to learn the craft of songwriting so he could rip up the rulebook and finally be himself. That takes time, and there's no guarantee it pays off. He kept Mount Weather going, signed on as the bassist for hook-heavy indie rock band Embarrassing Fruits and paid attention to other bands. He admired two Chapel Hill acts in particular, Light Pines and Ryan Gustafson; they were more devoted, he thought, to their music than the buzz behind it.
"Making the songs happen, not even promoting themselves or anything, just doing, and taking themselves seriously, which is really hard for me to do," he says of their appeal. "I witnessed people taking themselves internally seriously, and then it helps me do the same."
The songs started coming, especially when members of those bands started signing on to play Costello's early tunes: "That's what gave me the confidence to believe that my songs were where they should be."
Bryan Costello acknowledges that watching his brother develop the requisite self-belief to release his music has been "infuriatingly slow," but he believes a real shift has occurred with Guiding Eyes. "It's why I got his song title 'Let Me In' tattooed on my arm—my first and only tattoo," he says.
When Costello started recording, he turned to the multitalented Gustafson, who not only produced the record on a pro bono basis ("I paid him in beer and food," Costello admits) but also understood the songwriter's reluctance to take his music too seriously. Gustafson says that Costello has an exacting sense of what he wants to hear in his music and what he thinks is worthy of people's time. Part of that, they agree, is an inclination to avoid cliché.
"We didn't talk about what records we wanted anything to sound like, we didn't talk about bands we wanted to emulate," says Costello. "We just started recording songs and picking sounds we liked at the moment and letting that be the guide."
Nevertheless, Gustafson confesses to having a few general touchstones in mind for The Human Eyes—Mazzy Star, The Cure and Yo La Tengo among them. "There was some idea of direction," he says, "but there wasn't any reason to feel like it had to be a certain thing. We were able to just see what it could become if we took our time and were careful with it."
And take their time they did: Working mostly in Costello's home music room, using nothing more than his guitars, a few synths and a drum set, the pair spent about three months recording the album, part by painstaking part. "Too much time can be a bad thing," Gustafson admits, "but the way we were working, it was kind of our only option."
The result is unapologetically gentle music, a balance of new wave pop with traces of gauzy New Zealand indie and dreamy pastoral folk elements. Costello delivers the tunes in a clear, vulnerable tenor that neither whispers nor howls. Their sometimes-sunny approachability stands at odds with darker lyrical sentiments. Titles like "My Heart Is a Graveyard" and "Forever Sleep" signal a pronounced interest in mortality; the record's sheerest bliss-pop bit is called "Born to Die."
"This is gonna dumb it down," Costello says, "but it's [about] my atheism, basically. I view it as an uplifting song of factualness, of, 'It's cool; things are weird; it's really OK.' That's how I feel about my lack of religion."
Costello's tunes brim with echoes of pop melodies near and far, appropriate to the consciousness of a guy who's spent a lot of time in record stores. There's a pronounced New Order flavor on the stately opener, for example, and "Graveyard" seems to channel a touch of Prince's "When You Were Mine." Costello doesn't mind echoing other bands and songs; unlike his formerly dissatisfying efforts, though, he no longer feels like he must. Elsewhere, the ghost of a lick from The Replacements song "Can't Hardly Wait" surfaces.
"They're a huge touchstone for me. They're a great example of bands who unabashedly put their personality above genre choice, style choice," he says. "Their personalities are so strong that the sound is cohesive, which I admire in a band, cause I don't have the ability to make an overarching statement."
Another touchstone for Costello is Bill Callahan, the prolific tunesmith and tinkerer better known as Smog. His song "Faith-Void" is referenced in a slender, all-caps tattoo on Costello's inner right forearm. "I wish I could be the subtle, profound Bill Callahan songwriter, with strange leanings toward weird voicings and abstractions," he says, "but I just don't do that. I write pop music."
At last, self-proclamation.
Now that Guiding Eyes is finally out, Costello is more concerned with making the next record than pushing the current one. "I have more than another record worth of songs that I like. I think they're stronger as a whole. I just don't have any money for it," he says.
With his current collaborators busy with their own bands and projects, it's also unclear who will play on the next one, who will produce it and who will flesh out his live band. But as for gathering the wherewithal to make a new record, there is one avenue that Costello won't take: Kickstarter.
"I'm such a naysayer. It feels gross to me," he says. "I did my last one somehow; I'll figure out a way to do another one. It always seems a little weird, like cool kids asking the dorks for lunch money. Even though no one's truly the dork, and nobody's really the cool kid. It just feels like that."
This seems consistent with Wallace's appraisal of Costello, who took a decade to make a record because that's simply what felt right. When it was finished, Costello dubbed 100 copies of Guiding Eyes to cassette and uploaded the songs to Bandcamp for a cost of $5. That is, he doesn't want to force his records onto people.
"[His goal is to] do the thing as it truly is, not to pretend that it's somehow bigger. That's a false idea to say, 'I'm gonna put out my first album by myself, and it's gonna be on vinyl, and it's gonna be this and that,'" says Wallace. "No one knows who you are. It's a small release and it is what it is."
Again, Bryan Costello confirms that his brother's focus isn't on the professional aspect of being a musician. "Not once in my experience have I heard Thomas push a demo, talk up a show or awkwardly gesture to the merch table from the stage," he offers. "I'm guessing he never will. His focus has always been songwriting."
Right now, Costello's playing bass in Gustafson's new, as yet unnamed band, and Gustafson returns the favor by moonlighting with The Human Eyes. Costello continues to churn out songs that may or may not see the light of day. Nevertheless, he takes some satisfaction in beginning to amass a body of work that he, and those whom he respects, deems worthy.
"I feel in a good place now. If people grab at it and pull it into another level, then they do," he says. "If not, I am actually satisfied with making music that amuses me. Like painting for yourself something to hang on the wall."
If this sounds like an extremely modest goal, Gustafson chalks it up to Costello's inherently realistic nature: "He knows how many good bands there are out there, every day putting out really good material most likely no one's ever gonna hear. So you want people to hear it, but you also don't want to get caught up in the storm of worrying about that every day when you wake up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Accumulation: some."