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Penelope’s Thrill tunnels through a conceptual roots-rock debut

Poet, author, and former UW-Madison advisory director Timothy Walsh embraces a new musical chapter in his solo project.

Only a few minutes into Penelope’s Thrill’s Twilight On Tunnel Road, the Madison-based project gives listeners an exceedingly present sense of both place and purpose. While the music skews more towards dusty, roots-tinged southern rock, there’s the unmistakable glint of a Midwestern Americana lens, paralleling the April 2021 release’s dual commitment to the plaintive and the epic. While it’s certainly drawing on well-established sounds and stylistic approaches, Twilight On Tunnel Road boasts an intangible, indefinable quality that makes it more absorbing than the bulk of its contemporaries.

Former UW-Madison Cross-College Advising Service director Timothy Walsh, who originally developed Penelope’s Thrill alongside his son Andrew, drew inspiration for the record from a wealth of experience. In talking to Walsh earlier this month, I got the sense the poet and author knew that a momentous 2014 trip to Kazakhstan—which found Walsh collaborating with the avant-pop artist Mergen—ultimately shaped the record as much as what would become the ordinary, everyday mundanities of pandemic survival.

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With some true familial support and the time Walsh had after retiring from UW-Madison in 2018, Twilight On Tunnel Road came into focus. A concept record heavily inspired by the backroads of southern Wisconsin, Twilight On Tunnel Road tells the story of Lonnie and Chloe, two young kids who awkwardly stumble through a formative relationship, bonding over shared interests before ultimately taking divergent paths. The music tends to lean a little more BoDeans than Tom Petty. Walsh imbues this story with surprising moments, both in terms of narrative and instrumental selection, and establishing a thoughtful imprint into a genre that has thrived on traditionalism.

Throughout our interview, Walsh’s joy and genuine interest in various aspects and people was palpable. From discussing his early experiences with the East Coast music scene to his recent stint in Tent Show Troubadours, he showed an enthusiasm that also comes through in the record’s material. Eagerness doesn’t define Twilight On Tunnel Road, though, thanks to Walsh’s implementation of foreboding surrealism and grounded self-awareness. For every moment that threatens to be mawkishly optimistic or tip over into treacly sentimentality, there’s a sharp counterbalance, lending the record some necessary gravity.

On “Shelter For Your Soul,” which incorporates a six-violin arrangement, that gravity comes by way of Lonnie’s recognition of his own limitations, giving the song’s softness an edge. Similarly, when “Clockwork Clouds” hits one of its most memorable moments in a handclap-adorned rundown of classic Wisconsin hallmarks, the abundance of pep is weighed down by the song’s preceding illustration of borderline dissociation, again underlined by a rumination on personal shortcomings. Even at its brightest, 12-string-assisted moments, Twilight On Tunnel Road isn’t afraid to kick up some dirt.

Throughout our conversation about Twilight On Tunnel Road, Walsh expounded on his connection to making music, noting that he’s been drawn to it since feeling it, physically, while holding a guitar to his chest when he was 11. Walsh enlisted the help of Ben Jaeger and Wendy Lynn Staats of Madison band Sunspot, along with Mergen and Tent Show Troubadours’ Ben Lokuta, to contribute their talents to the record, making sure to note his gratitude. Blast House Studios’ Landon Arkens, who has recorded Walsh’s work previously, also supplied some pivotal guidance.

Twilight On Tunnel Road went through an arduous mixing process as Walsh navigated acclimating to Logic Pro software, taking a few songs through around 40 mixes before settling into final versions. All of the time Walsh has put in pays off across Twilight On Tunnel Road, leaving the multihyphenate with a worthy collection of work.

Tone Madison: While Penelope’s Thrill is making its debut through this album, you’ve played in a few projects in the past. Can you give me a timeline of what your bands’ releases and your collaborations have looked like so far?

Timothy Walsh: Growing up in New Jersey as a kid starting out, I was like 13 and then into my 20s [I] was getting progressively better [at music]. So I just grouped up with a bunch of neighborhood kids and we played, literally, garage stuff in New Jersey. We got serious enough that when I was in college in Boston we decided that we were going to try to make an attempt to get into the great Boston music scene at the time. So we moved up, practiced a lot, played a couple of little gigs, but it never really worked out because we all also had to get different jobs and work and we worked different shifts. So we spent a couple of years sort of doing that and it never really worked out. And that was the prelude to me coming up to Wisconsin.

I originally came out here to do the grad program in English at UW-Madison. At that point I mainly put my guitars away. I played them a little bit when I got here but nothing seriously. Then it wasn’t until my son Andrew got older, and he got real interested in guitars, [that] I cracked out my old guitars. We started playing together. I started recording some early stuff with him, under the Penelope’s Thrill name. My very earliest things, just stuff we did at home. I still wasn’t that serious about doing it again, I was more focused on the writing I’d been doing. [During] 2014, I started becoming involved in this collaborative project for three years over in Kazakhstan.

I eventually met a musician/composer named Akmaral Zykayeva [who performs and records as Mergen]. She asked me to help her [with] her album. I worked with her on that for a couple of years. Doing that made me want to refocus on music. I got charged up again about music. When I retired in 2018, originally I was thinking I was going to spend my time writing. As it got closer, I really wanted to pursue music.

Tone Madison: Was there a specific moment from those sessions with Mergen that made you want to commit to making music more post-retirement, or was that decision more driven by a collection of moments?

Timothy Walsh: I think, really, it was a collection or accumulation of things that were shoving me in that direction. One of the first things, and this was early on, was when I was playing guitar with Andrew and he was like “You should really do some recording,” and I was like “Nah, I’m not going to get back into that,” and then without telling me, he just ordered a bunch of recording equipment on my credit card. I wasn’t that happy about it initially but then I was just like “Alright, let’s see what we can do with this,” and then when I went to Kazakhstan, I just happened to fall in with some people who were musicians.

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And they have an interesting, ancient music culture over there and they have an instrument called the dombra, which is one of the many ancestor instruments for the guitar, and I just got really interested in that, in the history of it, in the people, in the musicians. At the same time, because Andrew had ordered this recording equipment, I was doing some stuff and fiddling around. It wasn’t like a huge single instant, it was a conglomeration of things that kept continuing to push me back that way and it was, it was still working with Akmaral on her album that made me decide “Okay, I need to do an album, like a focused album of my own.” Not just a collection of songs that I’d done. I wanted to come at it differently.

Tone Madison: In Kazakhstan and at UW-Madison you were serving in a capacity that saw you do a large number of advisory tasks. Were there any traits you cultivated in your time working in those capacities that informed or recontextualized how you were approaching songwriting?

Timothy Walsh: Just the experience of going to a place like Kazakhstan and getting to know it was such an eye-opening experience that it kind of shook me out of a little shell, I think, and really opened me up to thinking about possibilities in a much larger way.

To get way more specific, though, about the album, working with Akmaral was really interesting because the process would be that she would write out a song and she’d map out some English lyrics but her English wasn’t that good, so it definitely needed to be re-written. But she’d give me a scratch track of the recording with the melody and most of the instruments sketched in but not the actual final mix or the final recording. So, in trying to rewrite the lyrics, I would have to adjust the lyrics so that the syllables and consonants and vowels would actually work with the melody, because not just anything is going to work with a melody that pre-exists, and I think that kind of carried over.

Tone Madison: You picked up a small handful of awards for poetry and had a collection of literary criticism published. When it comes to writing do you see any other distinct demarcation lines between poetry and writing lyrics?

Timothy Walsh: Definitely. Some people ask me that and one thing that some people are surprised at is that I never, ever start with lyrics for a song. Which, you might think I would or people that know that I write poetry kind of think that would be the natural thing to do: start with lyrics and then put it to a melody and try to think of how I could make it into a song. I’ve never done that.

For me, the essential thing is that songs always start with me noodling on a guitar. When I hit some type of progression I like, I’ll generally at some point just start singing nonsense syllables to try and find what would the melody or melodic line be with that chord progression. Often I’ll get to the point where the song is basically done but all I’ll have really is nonsensical syllables that I can sing the melody to and then there’s a stage at which I go, “Okay, I actually need some lyrics here,” and I just play it until it just kind of comes to me, a way into [the song], that I can switch into actual lyrics.

Tone Madison: Twilight On Tunnel Road is a record that sounds distinctly Upper Midwest. Was that an organic manifestation or something that was premeditated?

Timothy Walsh: I would say more just organic. In terms of the album, from the beginning I was focused on getting the guitar tones I wanted, which would work with the different songs. I have a pretty idiosyncratic style I think and I was just focused on trying to get that. And, it is a more retro sound a lot of the time, which I guess could sound Midwest, I’m not really sure. The other thing about the album which is interesting and does kind of tie into the whole Midwest thing, [was that] when I started with the idea I was going to do this album, which would’ve been around fall 2019, I had no conception that it would have anything to do with Tunnel Road [near Belleville] or be a concept album.

It wasn’t really until the pandemic kicked in that everything kind of gelled and it was just accidental. It was because my 88-year-old mother lives down in Monroe, and I would have to drive down there to bring her groceries and supplies because of the lockdown. Coming back, I’d always come back on the back roads. I really liked the stretch from Monticello up to Belleville on the back roads there, which I’d always take. The scenery, the farms, the whole countryside, just started getting into the songs in an almost weird way.

The actual songs just seemed to come to me from that area. They’d be small things, like going past one farm, sort of in the middle of nowhere, in this beautiful countryside. I remember one time there was this young girl, maybe 11 years old, who was in a farmyard with a bunch of goats and she had her hair dyed purple and she was doing handstands and singing out loud. That was like Chloe to me. It was probably around several months [into that routine] that I thought “Okay, all the songs are going to be about this.”

Tone Madison: So the drives back and forth worked as the impetus or springboard for the story. In developing the narrative, were there any other external factors that helped you shape it or was that something you’d sit down, think about, and intensively plot out until you had an embedded structure?

Timothy Walsh: It was almost an eerie feeling, I’d have to say, at times, where I’d be working on a particular song and it was almost a feeling of like these ghostly people from [the rural Southern Wisconsin] area infiltrating my song. It was kind of like an odd feeling, actually. It felt like… it was hard to explain. But that kind of repeated itself because over the months. Over the weeks, I’d always be at a stage where I had a song going and maybe I kind of had the proto-syllables, nonsense syllables, and I’d go explore different areas of that whole region there on my bike or walking or in the car or all those things together and I’d just see something that would jog me into focusing on a particular thing.

As the Lonnie and Chloe thing became more palpable to me, they became real characters. I started, in my head, forming their backstory, which then became a foundation for when I was going to write a song, what I could focus on. So I did, sort of in my head, form their backstory before the album was done. I kind of knew that in the last song, “Letter To Chloe,” or in the song where she leaves [“Wind and Whispers”], I knew she was going to leave early on. But the songs that came out weren’t actually written at that point.

Tone Madison: There’s a reliably straightforward narrative across the record but it ends on a note of highly realistic ambiguity. Do you find endings in general to be more satisfying when they avoid tidier resolutions?

Timothy Walsh: I think the answer is yes. I would say, in general, I think it’s true and in this regard I think it’s true. You know, I had actually thought I was going to do one more song to make it end that might have provided a little more resolution to things, and then I just axed it. It was more of an active decision to leave things unresolved and not have some sort of neat, pat happy ending to it but sort of keep things complicated and, you know, the way things really are I suppose. I didn’t at any moment go, “I’m going to conceptually make this end in an ambiguous way,” it was sort of a natural process for the story. I did have an impulse to—at one point I even sketched out a whole song for it—and I thought, “Okay, this is going to be the last song that resolves things in a more satisfying way.” And I think it’s a good song but I thought “Nah, I don’t wanna do that,” and I axed it.

Tone Madison: For what it’s worth, I think that’s also usually the right decision. I like the ending as is, with a few things left open to allow in an emphasis on lingering longing and various other emotional intangibles that carried an impact that might’ve been jeopardized a bit had you followed that impulse.

Timothy Walsh: It’s good to hear that, I did kind of wrestle with that right up to the end, over whether or not to put that song in there but ultimately thought, “No, that doesn’t go.”

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