Home Male Boxx: Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka

Male Boxx: Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka

After a fourth studio album, Brian Roberts, lead singer of indie Americana act Ha Ha Tonka, has some lessons to share with the world: Stay true to yourself and your music, embrace the artists from your childhood and you’re never too rock ’n’ roll to play a game of golf with your dad.

Lessons, released on Bloodshot Records September 24, not-so-subtly grapples with some pretty big issues, such as the passing of time, which was inspired by an interview with the late Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak on NPR program “Fresh Air.” “It’s the most hopeful and saddest interview I’ve heard in my life,” Roberts says. “He’s at the end of his life and knew he was dying and was talking about how much he still loved and appreciated life.”

Lyrics like “I’m beginning to believe that I’ve got more past now than future left in front of me / I wish that we could rewrite our lives,” could tempt listeners to slip into a temporary state of depression, but Ha Ha Tonka (also featuring Lennon Bone, Brett Anderson and Luke Long) juxtaposes these yearning lyrics with peppy tunes that mask the soul-crushing theme of mortality—until you do a quick search on lyrics.com.

“I think we’ve always tried to incorporate things that are happening in our life—people, places and things where we’re from,” Roberts says. “And sometimes that can just be darker.”

These darker lyrics won’t weigh on the listener, however, just as they don’t seem to weigh on Roberts’ attitude. He still managed to find time to play golf with his brother and dad on the day that Ha Ha Tonka’s album release tour kicked off near his hometown in Missouri (his strategy involved serenading his relatives with Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” as a distraction technique), and he claims that the recording process for Lessons was a “rolling party.” (The quartet recorded the album in Omaha, Nebraska at ARC, with producers Dan Molad of Lucius and The Ryantist.)

At least the band is having a blast, even if they haven’t quite hit the big time just yet. But Roberts avows that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway. “l’d rather toil in obscurity than have celebrity,” he claims. “Wait, that is false.”

So who are the female musicians that have inspired Roberts—besides Del Rey, his secret weapon in golf? Roberts has not forgotten his childhood influences, as he tells us in this additional Q&A.

Who are some of your favorite female musicians of all time?

As far as vocals go—this might be a bit cliché—but Stevie Nicks. She can make you cry. There’s something about the tenor of her voice; it’s tragic. I’m a child of the ’90s so anything from Lilith Fair, too. That Alanis Morissette record, Jagged Little Pill, we found it the other day in the van. It’s super good. It’s still really, really good. And I still secretly love Sarah McLachlan. I’ve had a good couple of cries over [the album] Surfacing.”

How have they inspired you?

Female artists get too boxed off. They’re either pop stars or the Joni Mitchell singer-songwriter. I love it when the crossover occurs. No Doubt Gwen Stefani—I don’t like her solo stuff, but No Doubt is so good. And The Cranberries…. I’m totally revealing myself as a kid from the ’90s.”

Are there any female musicians on your radar now that people should check out?

One I really really like is Anaïs Mitchell. She has a song called “1984”—it’s just wicked good. Such a cool name, such a cool artist. I saw her at a house party six years ago in Springfield [Missouri] and now she’s playing theaters. She’s got an amazing voice; it’s really cool. We are on tour with a phenomenal artist, Samantha Crain. She’s an incredible songwriter. She’s 4’8’’, but her voice is so massive. She has the loudest, most beautiful voice. You’d never guess it because she’s a diminutive, small person.”

If you could collaborate with any female musician—living or dead—who would it be and why?

I’m going to say Stevie Nicks. I want to reform Fleetwood Mac to Fleetwood Punk. That’s my collaboration. I think she would be into it. She still has the budget.”

What advice would you give an aspiring female musician, say from Missouri, at the beginning of her career?

Are you sure you want to be a musician? That would be the first question. My best advice would be to never pay to play; that’s the number one thing. So many baby bands get taken advantage of [by] talent scouts. Never do that. Stay true to yourself, make music that you want to make and don’t worry about falling into classifications.

Most importantly: have fun. It’s the entertainment industry; no one should be wearing a frown. That’s terrible advice.”