LIKE A FEW HUMANS before him, Tonality Star had his heart broken. That his sorrow has been so remarkably slow to fade has been a huge boon for music fans—and fans of music mysteries.
It's no secret that Star fronts the band PWRHAUS, a seven-piece soul outfit, though for the moment the band may be Portland's best-kept secret. They've played only a handful of shows since February, when they made their debut opening for drummer Neal Morgan. Like all the best soul bands, PWRHAUS is sexy, gritty, and passionate, with tight songwriting and a singer with style. That the style could best be described as hippie-bohemian doesn't matter, not once you hear his voice. Also, the horn section has two smoking saxophones.
But even before that first show, Star already had legions of fans, though none of them knew precisely whom they were fans of. His first album, To My: Long Lost Love, was the opposite of a vanity project. There is no name anywhere on the vinyl or packaging.
Star distributed the album locally, and went about his life, as much as any broken-hearted keyboard player can. Then came the day that he woke to an overflowing inbox. "I thought somebody had hacked my Bandcamp page," he says.
Nothing so sinister. Just that Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold had included the album "by an anonymous Portland musician" on his top-10 list for 2011. "Easily the new album I've listened to most," Pecknold wrote.
Soon after, Star released Down at the Roller Rink, equally anonymous, though even better and just as much about the titular lost love of the first album.
Taken together, they sound like Gene Ween at the bottom of the ocean covering the Antlers' tear-jerker Hospice. For a casual listen, they are lush and pretty, just bizarre enough to catch your attention, just poppy enough to hold it, and not particularly saddening—but certainly not classifiable as soul.
Save the close listens for a time when you feel like drenching yourself in somebody else's grievous isolation.
This might come as a shock, but Tonality Star isn't the name on his driver's license, though he'll answer to Tony. Star is a gently private aesthete, not a spotlight craver, and the renown spawned by Pecknold is directly responsible for PWRHAUS' existence.
"Suddenly I was selling that record all over the world," Star says. "There was a surge of excitement. And that's why PWRHAUS got together. We put something on and it stuck."
Though Star's first albums are textured collages of keys and voice, the songs translate fantastically well to soul. "Motown and '50s and '60s music has always been my favorite," he says. "I'm grateful for my bandmates. I couldn't make this music alone."
PWRHAUS has played a handful of shows, mostly covering the anonymous albums and songs from another breakup album, confusingly named *, released under Tonality Star. Currently, the band is recording a new album, which will be the fourth about the ending of this particular relationship.
"Everything I've been putting out, it's all about the same thing," he says. "I've not ever told her I've made them, I've never given them to her, and to this day, I don't know if she knows. But I think she knows. So her silence is my answer."