It’s been just two years since a pair of veteran musical-masterminds crossed paths and converged their schemes to direct the evolution of music. On one end was the lively and marvelous Austin-native Sabrina Ellis, lead singer of the electric rock group Sweet Spirit and the punk band A Giant Dog. On the other end was Sean Tillmann, the energized contemporary R&B singer and beloved Minnesotan, prestigiously known as Har Mar Superstar.
The pair crafted Heart Bones, the sweet synth-pop group capable of providing a tasteful forecast into the future of electronica alongside the nostalgic sounds built by ‘80s rock legends. While maintaining their individual personas outside of the duo, Sabrina and Sean have spent their time together refining the answer to the question: “What is Heart Bones?”
Their answer came in February of this year when Heart Bones released their debut record, “Hot Dish.” With 11 songs spanning 36 minutes, Sean and Sabrina beautifully explore a number of directions on the project, from jolly dance-inducing tunes to somber emotional duets. From start to finish, the genre-bending “Hot Dish” is the flawless rookie demonstration of what Heart Bones looks to deliver in the future.
Recently, I had the chance to virtually link up with the architects behind Heart Bones and their marvelous record. After a conversation with these lovely individuals, I bring to you the wonderful story of Sean and Sabrina’s history with music, the building of Heart Bones, their “Hot Dish” project, and the impact of COVID-19 on musicians.
Andrew: First of all, congratulations on celebrating two years of Heart Bones. That’s so exciting! Could you talk about how you two met and decided to form the band?
*Answers may be edited for clarity.
Sabrina: We met in 2016, and we were somewhat aware of each other. Sean saw A Giant Dog show and came backstage afterward and was saying that A Giant Dog, my punk band, needed to go on tour with Har Mar [Superstar]. I thought it would be really fun, but a poor fit, and I had another band, Sweet Spirit, that I thought would be a great fit. He pretty much just kind of agreed to that, and then listened to them afterward.
Sean: Yeah! I mean, I was just such a fan of Sabrina’s stage show and the whole band vibe that I knew that whatever they would be involved in would be something I would be super into… We ended up going on a tour together. Everybody became really good friends in both bands, and Sabrina just started jumping up with us on stage. Our voices sounded so good together, and it was so fun to perform together that we decided we should try to write some songs.
Andrew: On that same note, when you [Sean] were first listening to A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit and thinking about how to combine Har Mar Superstar with that, would you have foreseen the sound of Heart Bones to turn out the way it did?
Sean: I had no idea what it would sound like, but I feel like anytime I’ve collaborated with anyone musically, it’s been kind of ‘vibe first’ and then figure out what it sounds like later… I don’t even know what my own next record will sound like, so it’s one of those things that I worry about afterward.
Andrew: I watched a few clips of you guys performing together and, as you said, I really notice you guys feeding off the energy of each other and putting that ‘vibe first.’ When you perform together, what’s on your mind?
Sabrina: It’s like an endurance test. For me, I’ve never really been an athletic person until my adulthood when I started being athletic on-stage. It’s strange to go from being this uncoordinated, kind of clumsy kid who couldn’t make it in any Texas sports to being somebody who in my 30s is sweating my ass off in a full cardio feat for over an hour every night.
Sean: We each have different approaches and superpowers that we’re trying to keep up with. It’s always fun to go toe-to-toe with someone or have someone upping the ante while trying to provide something that’s unified together.
Andrew: Sabrina, on the topic of endurance, you had A Giant Dog’s album come out in November, “Hot Dish” come out in February, and now you have the Sweet Spirit album that is going to be released at the end of May. How do you keep up with three albums in six months?
Sabrina: I can hardly even speak to it right now because it’s very different. I’ve never put out a record during a pandemic, and this is definitely a time of pause when it was scheduled to be a time of perpetual busy … It’s been a very weird feeling of shock and [the] perspective of realizing that all the things you stress about and try your best to plan can really be out of your control… It kind of looks like months of just alternating between works… It’s crazy to be that busy and to jet-set between these little microcosms that I have, and then it’s even crazier to have it suddenly all pause.
Andrew: I was really sorry to hear that you had to postpone the tour because of COVID-19. What are you most looking forward to during the first Heart Bones tour?
Sean: It’s hard to even imagine at this point because we’re a month into the quarantine… I just miss my friends. I miss the camaraderie of hanging out with everybody in the band and seeing Sabrina. Being in the same room and creating something with someone, I’ve always taken that for granted.
Andrew: To look backward instead of forward, because there’s just so much uncertainty, how have the last two years gone for Heart Bones? How was the process of making “Hot Dish?”
Sean: I thought it was amazing. We kind of met up in bursts and would write two or three songs. We started with just acoustic guitars and the two of us around a table going “Woah, what is a Heart Bones’ song?” We were just figuring it out and touring a lot, especially for two people that live in different cities and don’t even have a full record yet.
Andrew: The name of the album “Hot Dish” just screams Minnesota. Could you talk about how you named the new record?
Sean: Do you want to talk about this [Sabrina]? I would like to hear the non-Minnesotan description of why we picked “Hot Dish.”
Sabrina: It’s Minnesota’s cute word for casserole… It’s a fun tradition and a fun part of American culture that’s really unique and personal, so I loved it when Sean suggested “Hot Dish” as an album title… Also, it sounds kind of sexy. If you don’t know it’s a casserole, “Hot Dish” sounds like you’re a 1950s photographer and you want a polite way of being like “I’m taking nudes today.”
Andrew: I really like the songs “Little Dancer,” “Don’t Read the Comments,” and “Hungry Eyes.” Those are probably my highlights, but I would love to hear what you feel are your favorite songs off the project.
Sean: That’s really interesting that you picked “Little Dancer” and “Don’t Read The Comments.” Those are the two that Sabrina and I wrote separately and brought to the table for each other to sing… Honestly, my favorites change everyday and every show — it just depends on the mood. “Beg for It” is one of the best ones, I think, on the record, but sometimes I’m just in a mood to be dumb, and “I Like Your Way” is fun and makes you want to dance.
Sabrina: If I was a random listener just listening through, I’d probably be attracted to “Hungry Eyes” because it’s familiar. I’m looking forward to reworking “This Time It’s Different.” My mom helped come up with some Spanish-version lyrics, so Sean and I need to learn how to sing it and sound natural … It’s hard to sing, but I think once we do that, it will become my favorite of our songs because it will resonate with my culture and my need to still connect with my Mexican-American heritage. It makes Latinx people feel seen to hear crossover music, so I’m super excited to do that.