Every song on the sophomore release from Fayetteville solo artist Jude Brothers (who uses they/she pronouns) concerns the excruciating ending of a long-term, life-altering romantic and creative partnership, but it’s no typical breakup album. For starters, “render tender / blunder sunder” — out today via Gar Hole Records — is the kind of record that’ll make you question the efficacy of genre distinctions. Yes, Brothers writes songs that are musically spare, centering melody and autobiography, and yes, they sing upon a bed of acoustic instrumentation, but to call them merely a singer-songwriter feels insultingly reductive. Nothing about their sound has a coffeehouse ordinariness.
Folk is probably a better place to start in describing their music, in part because the tradition is so vast and multifaceted. “What I love about folk music is it’s not made up of people who are trained to sing one particular way,” Brothers told me. “The ideal way to sing folk music is as yourself.” That said, they don’t claim sole responsibility for the idiosyncratic singing style they’ve arrived at. When you take in the vocal flourishes and acrobatics, the way their voice runs away and then returns like a creature that can’t decide if it’s wild or domesticated, it’s clear that influences far beyond the United States have left a mark on them.
In the hour and a half that I spoke with them, they made references to the critical impact of Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Macedonian, Irish, Ugandan and Javanese music on their artistic development, much of which was introduced to them while they were a student at the now-defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design, an academically loose liberal arts school that they remember as something like an endless “summer camp” where everyone was a “fucking freak in the best way possible.” Though they stayed put in New Mexico for several more years, their time at SFUAD lingers like a “fever dream” that no one else quite understands except the people they shared it with.
Their choice of accompaniment — the tense, hammer-on flutters of a makeshift tenor guitar and the wandering plucks of a Celtic harp — is also partially the product of these cultural forces, though they claim that their draw to somewhat marginalized instruments has more to do with what’s natural to them than anything else. “I haven’t found a way to be as playful with guitar music as I can be with harp and tenor,” they said. “For whatever reason, they make me feel more free. They feel more like my instruments.”
Narratively speaking, “render tender / blunder sunder” is sequenced in more or less chronological order — beginning with the relationship in a state of emergency and ending with hard-won closure after an extremely painful and humane deconstruction — but every stage of the grieving process is rendered with such allegiance to even the most ephemeral moments of emotional honesty that no discrete chapters can be found. Contradictions abound and sharply opposing sentiments co-exist, bleeding into one another and complicating the truth. Six out of nine of the songs are longer than five minutes, providing ample room for all this messiness.
“doubt / doubt!,” the record’s first track with words, starts selflessly and pragmatically, with what seems like a moment of clear-eyed recognition between two people who are settling into the realities of an aging partnership: “I don’t have to be your first choice.” The one we end up with and our fantasy lover are two separate things, Brothers seems to be suggesting.
Quickly, however, the lyrics morph into toxic self-deprecation as Brothers trades their dignity for a crumb of attention: “Hell, I don’t need to be your third choice neither/I could even be your last choice/As long as I am the one you take.” A couple of lines later, they tell us that they want to “crawl far away from all this ugly that resides in me,” planting the seed that perhaps they’re the cause of the fracturing, not their partner. But then, the stanza ends with the most vexed line of them all: “you say doubt breeds doubt breeds doubt,” a phrase they repeat over and over again until we’re not sure if it’s being said as a poetic aphorism of encouragement or to sneakily gaslight them into thinking that anyone who asks questions is the problem. Who’s the real culprit here? It’s hard to tell. Brothers doesn’t seem interested in pointing fingers, another reason this album so nimbly transcends cliches about heartbreak.
The record’s closer, “last song / upper gallinas!,” finds Brothers in a much more contemplative place, recounting a dream they had about running into their ex-partner many years down the line: “I dreamt of your golden haired baby boy/Your glistening hazels were a’blazing with joy/On the porch of the house that you’d built on the plains/With your beautiful wife and her hair all in braids.” The song is generous and compassionate, the harp chords swirling into one another, but their message eschews simplicity. Though Brothers wishes their former lover and the family he’s found well, they don’t bury their own pain in exchange like a former version of themself might have done. “I sing for that old man, you see/Not for the young buck that he used to be,” they clarify. By focusing on a hypothetical version of him rather than redeeming his past, they remain in control of the story.
While listening to this wondrous record — a searing document that comes off as both spontaneous and carefully crafted — I wondered about how it came to be. To say that “render tender / blunder sunder” was recorded in just two days is the truth, but that misses all of the intentional work that came before, the two overdub-thick versions of the album that Brothers trashed because neither sat right. “I had been trying all these ways to get in the way of and cover up my voice or cover up the words or hide it in some way or obscure it from view and make it a little more vague,” they said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t think this music wants to be vague, I think it wants to be really direct.’”
When they were offered a house-sitting gig on 80 acres in rural New Mexico, they realized that they’d finally located the proper environment in which to capture this set of songs. They’d relocated to their hometown of Fayetteville by this point, but the state where they’d had their heart broken pulled them back in. In the days before James Lutz — a friend and audio engineer — joined them with recording gear, Brothers readied themself by living in solitude and practicing their songs on the roof. “I didn’t wear clothes for five days in a row,” they said. “I ate nothing but pomegranates. I walked around in the juniper mesa world and laid on rocks, just alone.”
Lutz set up microphones in the guest house where Brothers was staying, merely a room with a desk, fireplace, bed and a collection of half-broken instruments. “I sat a chair down on the floor and left the door open for the birds and the crickets and just played,” they said. By comparison to their first record, which was tracked in a cavernous, echoey secular worship space, “render tender / blunder sunder” is intimate and dry, almost entirely lacking in reverb, which reflects the content, the loneliness and self-reliance they’ve been fearlessly adjusting to. “I was working with more symbolism and fairytale imagery on the last album, and this one is just an honest, long look at myself,” they said. “It’s scary to do something like that, but it’s also really freeing because what else is there? I don’t have any fucking secrets.”