North Dakota state of mind: Singer follows his heart and voice back home

GRAND FORKS, N.D.--Grand Forks native Tom Brosseau had to move about 1,900 miles to sunny San Diego before he started seeing his home state in a new light.

Grand Forks native, singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau. Speacial to The Forum
Grand Forks native, singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau. Speacial to The Forum
We are part of The Trust Project.

GRAND FORKS, N.D.-Grand Forks native Tom Brosseau had to move about 1,900 miles to sunny San Diego before he started seeing his home state in a new light.

For nearly the last two decades, the singer/guitarist has been living in the Golden State, but feeling his roots pulling him back to the Peace Garden State. The results have come out in his music, most strongly on his new album, "North Dakota Impressions."

"It's kind of funny how it came to be that way," the folksinger says. "I was always very proud to be where I'm from. A person has to go on a bit of a journey, and I was happy to do that."

He brings it all back home Saturday night when he plays the Muiderman Theater in Thompson, N.D.

"North Dakota Impressions" is the final installment of his North Dakota trilogy, which started with 2014's "Grass Punks" and was followed by 2015's "Perfect Abandon."


"North Dakota Impressions" is aptly titled. Armed with mostly just Brosseau's voice and acoustic guitar, the disc is spare and airy, comparable to the vast openness of the North Dakota landscape. He doesn't necessarily capture concrete imagery from the area as much as glimpse and hint at the scenery without ever setting down in the middle of it. His heartfelt tenor voice floats above the landscape.

"I was dreaming of home. The only thing I could do was write about it," he explains, adding that the North Dakota in his songs is somewhat "mythological."

After starting to write his North Dakota songs in San Diego, he moved up to Los Angeles about 15 years ago. The move paid off as Brosseau got gigs at the nightclub Largo and befriended the newgrass trio Nickel Creek. He and guitarist Sean Watkins in particular hit it off, and Watkins produced "Grass Punks" and "North Dakota Impressions" and just finished a mini-tour playing with Brosseau.

Watkins' wasn't the only notable ear Brosseau caught. Sean's sister Sara Watkins recorded with Brosseau, as did Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench, punk icon John Doe and three-time winning classical violinist Hilary Hahn. He even made a fan of actress Natalie Portman who used his song "Plaid Lined Jacket" in a compilation for the non-profit, FINCA.

And then there's his friendship with actor/musician John C. Reilly. The two started playing around and even recorded a single on Jack White's Third Man Records.

In 2012 Brosseau brought Reilly and some other friends-Willie Watson, Becky Stark, Sebastian Steinberg and Gregory Page-to the Red River Valley for a show in Grand Forks and at the Fargo Theatre.

"I just about fell off of my chair when I heard Tom's voice," Reilly said in 2012. "I'm a big fan of the Everly Brothers and close-harmony acts. I have a pretty high voice myself, and it's pretty hard to find someone - a man anyway - who can sing as high or higher than me. Honestly, I didn't think there was anyone out there who could sing like Tom does. It was a real revelation."

Reilly just played at Brosseau's record release party in L.A. late last month. With a list of friends like that, it might be surprising that Brosseau tabs two older women that aren't even musicians as some of his biggest inspirations.


"The sense of being local is so important to me, and that's kind of what I love about (Grand Forks Herald columnist) Marilyn Hagerty, who is a big inspiration to me. And (the late regional folk painter) Emily Lunde. Our local stories are so important to me," he says.

One of Hagerty's stories even led to the 2014 song "Stuck on a Roof Again."

"Plaid Lined Jacket" was from his 2007 release, "Grand Forks," which dealt with the 1997 flooding of the community. His effort got him noticed not only in his hometown-Mayor Mike Brown gave the singer the key to the city-but even in sunny Los Angeles.

"People have appreciated me giving them a sense of what this beautiful place is like, North Dakota," Brosseau says when asked how Los Angelenos or anyone anywhere reacts when they hear he's from North Dakota. "I think because I'm so enthusiastic and love it so much, I think other people do, too."

Brosseau was a 20-year-old University of North Dakota student living in the Warehouse Apartments before the flood, but like the rest of the city, became a round-the-clock flood-fighter during it.

"I'm still writing about it. I knew going through that experience, it would take a number of years to come back up to the surface in my mind. It just took a long time to process," he says. "Once I started to develop my North Dakota songwriting, it was something I didn't even realize I was writing about. It takes time to simplify what exactly you want to say about going through a natural disaster."

His music has also attracted filmmakers, and two videos have been made for songs from "North Dakota Impressions."

"You Can't Stop" was filmed by Angela Wood and Ben Guzman, while Amber Padgett and Alexandra Steele shot "On a Gravel Road." The two clips both feature the singer out in nature and also in a mobile camper.


"I guess that just might be where my music takes people some time," Brosseau says. "It felt pretty natural for me to be in a trailer. Maybe that's where I'll move next."

Maybe. But for now he's biding his time back in Grand Forks, thinking if he's ready to settle down on the prairie.

"Grand Forks is so important. North Dakota is so much a part of my identity. Grand Forks is wonderful, but I could live anywhere, so long as it's in North Dakota. I'm back in GF and it feels really good. Maybe I'll stay here or out by Emerado, 20 miles west of Grand Forks."

What to read next
Lynn and Jason Kotrba have a personal connection with Huntington's Disease and wanted to help with the potentially life-saving Huntington's Disease research.
The Stutsman County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident.
The Fargo-based company will make its first expansion into the Sioux Falls television market, which covers roughly half of South Dakota and parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.