Will Toledo is home for the holidays. Not at the Kirkland, Washington, apartment he shares with a college friend, but his parents' Leesburg, Virginia, house. This is the place where the wheels began turning. As a teen, he'd sit in his room or his parents' car and compose and record, even before he took the moniker Car Seat Headrest.
He'd then dump these unencumbered songs on Bandcamp by the handful. Internet music scourers soon flocked to him. Then Matador Records came courting, and last year's Teens of Style drew critical attention and slots on numerous 2015 Best Of lists.
In a new era of music distribution and YouTube sensations, Toledo's story of discovery isn't so shocking, but he's still letting it all sink in. His youth (he's 23) isn't lost on him.
"Overall, I'm happy. My goal is to be able to do this for a living," he says via phone. "To make art that I want and to have it be remembered and appreciated, and the attention is a means to an end for that. I try to remember that."
Internet commentators aren't always the easiest to deal with, and back in 2013 he was feeling burned out. Toledo says some fans from his high school and college years focused merely on his looks, while others tore his music to pieces. But the prevailing message was that people liked the fuzzed-out, emotional experimental tunes. Many felt lyrics like "I want to break something important / I want to kick my dad in the shins" from 2011's "Something Soon" spoke directly to them. Without any help from the usual music industry sources, his songs received thousands of hits and downloads.
After graduating from the College of William & Mary, he needed a change. When a friend offered up a place to stay, Toledo moved about as far away as possible and still be in the country, winding up in the Seattle area.
"I'm from a place in Virginia where you'd have to leave; there's not a whole bunch of music happening there," Toledo says.
His Pacific Northwest time has been productive. He got signed, found three bandmates, and made a new record, Teens of Denial, which will see the light of day in a couple months. Best of all, some of the new Twin Peaks episodes were filmed right across from his new apartment.
Now in this new year, the band is headed out on the road again, through the U.S. and Europe, stopping in Spokane next week — a place Toledo has only driven through. He says touring gives his ever-firing brain structure and purpose. Music is not only a poetic outlet; it's a serious, adult job.
"We're not real partiers. I'm kind of frail," admits Toledo, who is currently fighting a cold. "The crazy rock 'n' roll life, it doesn't in the long term produce good music. And I think now there are a lot more artists that recognize that. I want to preserve this, and still be productive when I'm 30."
Teens of Style, the album Car Seat Headrest is touring behind, is a finely recorded version of previously released songs (Toledo had a whopping 11 self-released albums under his belt). There's plenty of new material waiting in the wings, but Toledo wanted to start here.
"I've had a tendency to go back to things I've had before," Toledo says. "I wanted to shine a spotlight on the songs that people liked, but I think not enough people had heard yet."
Nothing scares Toledo more than having to finish a song. He often quibbles over whether a tune is perfect enough. "I won't finish a song until the last minute," he says. His writing process has changed over the years to reflect that; now it's more about problem solving. These days, he's challenging himself to hone in on pop songs rather than meandering, compositional noise. Through his lyrics, he wants to go deeper than most pop — he minored in religious studies, after all — and he isn't afraid to revel in the deepest caverns of his mind. Not just in 2016, but the years to come, Toledo wants to make important music.
"My music is a serious attempt at making a real artistic work," he says. "I've studied a lot of music, poetry and literature. I'd like to have a shot of entering that canon. I hope that my music can function on that level." ♦
Car Seat Headrest with Mirror Mirror and Jan Francisco • Mon, Jan. 11, at 8 pm • $10 • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174