John Umland drops his armor, stands bare with Songs for Grown Ups

Following a hiatus, the Tin Armor singer and songwriter is back with a fresh sense of perspective and ‘Actual Wisdom,’ the first in a series of revealing new tunes.
John Umland
John UmlandCourtesy the musician

After Tin Armor played its last concert, at Flyover Fest in 2019, singer and songwriter John Umland stepped back from making public-facing music – a retreat that continued through the early years of the pandemic. 

“During quarantine time, I spent a lot of time playing guitar and writing music, but with no intention of releasing any of it,” Umland said in late November via Zoom. “I was just doing it because [music] is my go-to way of coping. … And there was just so much happening, particularly in the summer of 2020.”

In the years he played with Tin Armor, Umland said, he generally wrote first with the audience in mind – an approach he abandoned during the pandemic, believing the songs he was writing in those months would exist for him alone. As a result, the tracks that began to emerge were generally more straightforward and universally more vulnerable, Umland unpacking everything from the 2019 death of his father to the racial reckoning that emerged in the wake of Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd, which led the musician to interrogate his own sense of privilege. 

“For most of my young adult life, I really got into the habit of thinking primarily about the listener when I was writing songs,” Umland said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I wanted to do here at all. This was very much like, what is it I’m feeling? What do I want to say? And a lot of the songs came directly from therapy and thinking about the things I talked about with my therapist. And these feelings would bubble up and I would use this toolset I’d developed within songwriting to sort of get my thoughts together. And that was much more the priority than thinking about some folks listening to it at the other end.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until six months ago, at the urging of his spouse, that Umland even began to consider releasing the songs – a decision that eventually led him to connect with friend and fellow musician Andy Cook, who along with the likes of Ryan Eilbeck and Zac Little helped Umland flesh out those raw home demos. Now Umland plans to release a new song and companion video from these sessions every four to six weeks under the name Songs for Grown Ups, beginning today (Friday, Dec. 1) with the track “Actual Wisdom.” (Umland has also set up a Patreon, which will give monthly subscribers access to bonus songs and videos.)

“Actual Wisdom” in many ways sets the tone for the releases to follow, particularly as Umland sings of a desire to find his place in the world, and how that search had been delayed by the years he spent “trying to hide away through inebriation.” 

“Reflecting back on my life thus far, it’s a lot easier to ‘woo, party’ your way through feelings of uncertainty about who you are and your place in the world and what you want to do with your time here,” he said. “I think I have habitually sort of avoided a lot of internal reflection about who I am. And that time – particularly the quarantine time – forced so much reflection. I was face to face with a lot more of myself and a lot more of these questions that I have historically been able to say, ‘Fuck it. I don’t care,’ and then ignore.”

Some of these forced reflections found the musician turning outward, lingering on the inherent privilege he possesses within American society as a straight, white, cis male. “In that positionality, there’s a lot of social awareness that I lacked,” said Umland, who was raised in the suburbs, graduated college and then moved through a series of progressively better paying jobs. “I was on a track that was sort of largely promised, or at least it was like, this is what you do.”

Other reflections were more personal, rooted in his father’s 2019 death to cancer, the circumstances of which led Umland to confront his long-held notions related to faith.

Umland said that he sees a lot of his father in himself, and that both his dad and mom were and are supportive, loving parents – attending myriad Tin Armor concerts and buoying him in his life decisions in the best ways they could. But where his father was devoutly religious, Umland is not. The musician described himself as an atheist and said he long envisioned that he and his father would one day have a long heart to heart about religion in which the two would be able to lay their beliefs bare and ideally come to a better understanding of one another.

“But when he was dying of cancer, it was wild, because in a complete shock to me, I didn’t want him to lose his faith,” Umland said. “His faith was obviously giving him a tremendous peace that I wanted him to have. And it just rocked my world, because in my head that faith wasn’t a good thing, because it’s not what I believe, and I do have problems with those beliefs. At the same time, I was so grateful he had this thing to give him hope in moments of despair. And again, it goes back to this realization of how much I don’t know. And it was humbling. That’s what it was. And I think some of the piss and vinegar that fueled me as a younger, punk-rock version of myself sort of leaked out a little bit in that moment.”

This personal mellowing has been accompanied by a shift in musical interests, with Umland drawn toward more plainspoken, lyric-driven artists – a leaning that helped shape the tracks he recorded in Songs for Grown Ups. “They’re almost sing-songy, in some ways, like, ‘Here are some things I think about the world,’ almost like a kid’s circle song, where we sing about what we’re going to be when we grow up,” Umland said, and laughed.

“Actual Wisdom,” walks this more stripped-down line, centered on acoustic guitar and Umland’s keening voice, his words shot through with the wisdom gleaned from recent challenging years, including the understanding that no one can make it through this world alone. “That’s why a diversity of voices is so goddamned important,” sings Umland, joined in delivering the line by Natural Sway’s Eilbeck. “Cause we each don’t know what we don’t know.”

Umland said even now he continues to struggle with the idea of sharing these vulnerabilities with listeners, describing the process of leaking songs out over a period of months as a “security blanket,” of sorts, allowing him additional time to come to terms with the intimacy of the material and the reality that he’s cracking himself open for the audience in a way that he’s never really done in his music.

“Some of the songs, they were coming from a place of unhappiness, and, in general, I’m in a better place now than when I was writing most of these,” Umland said. “In that sense, being able to look back on them is a bit different and maybe easier. But it also makes you feel more vulnerable, in a way. I’ve been talking to my mom a lot, because she hasn’t heard most of the songs. And I keep telling her, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m fine. You don’t need to worry.’ Because these songs don’t really sound like they were written by somebody who is living their best life.”

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