Eric Tollefson wasn't your typical hippie college undergrad, even if he did sit in the grass at the University of Montana and play covers of The Doors. He was a business major, for one thing, with a clean-cut appearance in comparison to the more laidback style of his dorm mates at Jesse Hall.
"I didn't really fit in," he says. "I played guitar with lots of those guys in the Oval just sitting around, and I was kind of the odd one out. It was like, 'Wow, he's wearing nice clothes. What the hell?'"
The tall, red-headed singer-songwriter has taken some hairpin turns over the years that have quite unpredictably landed him where he is now: as a serious musician with regular shows at Bend, Ore.'s Domino Room, as well as two concerts at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles and, in recent months, opening gigs for national acts Jackie Greene and G. Love & Special Sauce.
"I never thought this would happen," he says. "It's not that I'm a big name or maybe ever will be. But I can't sleep because I'm so excited and I want to keep moving forward with this."
Growing up in Juneau, Alaska, Tollefson was drawn to the guitar at 8 years old. He played the Alaska Folk Festival two years in a row at ages 12 and 13, covering Tom Petty's "Last Dance for Mary Jane" and Oasis' "Wonderwall," among other popular songs. He stopped playing after that for a while but, at 18, he picked up the guitar again and started writing songs.
"I fell in love with writing music even more," he says. "A couple of months later, I moved to Missoula to go to college."
During his years at UM, Tollefson did pursue music in a serious manner. He recorded a couple of albums—he handed out burned copies of one to friends; the other album got scrapped because he didn't feel the songs were up to par. He took a few classes in UM's music department and even opened with a solo acoustic set a few times at the Top Hat for local band LP & the Federales. But when he graduated from UM with a double degree in marketing and management, he took what seemed to be the practical route of someone with a head for finance: At the age of 22 he bought a house in Bend, Ore., became a stockbroker for Smith, Barney and Citigroup, and relegated his music to the backburner as an evening hobby.
"I was almost dreaming of this music lifestyle," says Tollefson. "But then it was like, 'Okay, I've got to grow up. I'm out of school and I need to take life seriously.'"
What seemed like a practical decision, however, took a fateful turn. Not long after he got his house, the burst of the housing bubble hit the Bend market. Tollefson ended up short-selling his home for $140,000; he originally paid $285,000 for it. With his financial security shaken, Tollefson says he began to question some of the life decisions he'd made. The final straw came a few years later, in 2009, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Indonesia and killed more than 1,000 people.
"I remember looking at the headlines," he says, "how so many people just got wiped off the earth. Yet everything and everyone around me is talking about how it affects the markets and people's wealth. I had been thinking, 'Is my life really all about money?' When the [earthquake] hit, that was the day where I thought, 'This is disgusting. I can't do this anymore.'"
Tollefson quit his job and went full force into his music. He recently acquired a sponsorship from Breedlove Guitars and he recorded Sum of Parts not long after quitting his stockbroker job. It's a soulful solo album with songs like "Another Day's Blues," in which he sings cautionary lines like, "Slow down child/ stay a while/ you can't fall in love too soon. You make the wrong move the right time/ you're bound to lose." It's radio-friendly and easy-going, full of warm cellos, funky guitar thumps and smooth pop hooks. It's perfectly mainstream, but not necessarily in a bland way: It's the sort of high-caliber catchiness that would sound at home on a mix with accomplished artists like Ben Harper, G. Love & Special Sauce and Cat Stevens.
Talking with Tollefson you get the sense he is a perfectionist. For instance, he thinks Sum of Parts is a little flat. For his next album, he took work as a consultant for Wells Fargo in order to put all the resources he could into backup musicians. Another example: When a producer once told him, "You're songs are good, but they're not as good as Dave Matthews' songs," he took it as a challenge.
"It's like, 'No, they're not,'" he says. "So how do I make songs that stand up in the industry as contenders? That's been my main focus."
For his next album—he's currently recording—Tollefson says his producer brought in Jack Johnson's drummer and Prince's bassist to record a song called "Hypnotize," which Tollefson wrote back in 2001. While the prospect of recording with "name" artists was enticing, Tollefson wasn't happy with the song.
"I have all these amazing players, but the song doesn't represent what I'm trying to do," he says. "I want every single song to be a potential contender on a radio station. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good you can sing, how good you can play, it matters how good your songs are. To have that realization and build a record around that is really a great project."
Songs that will go on the album include musicians like Eric Heywood, who plays pedal steel for singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, as well as a cast of Grammy-award winning Atlanta session players. Most exciting, says Tollefson, is his new backup band, which sports the hyperbolic tag of The World's Greatest Lovers. It's a sign that despite his stockbroker background and a driving sense to make every song he writes a hit, he's still having fun.
"It's a terrible, terrible band name," says Tollefson, "but it was just funny. I came up with it as a joke, because I was thinking about what I wanted to be when I was younger and I thought of Don Juan DeMarco, the world's greatest lover."
Eric Tollefson and the World's Greatest Lovers play the Top Hat Sat., Nov. 13, at 10 PM. $5.