Free Cell begins in isolation. Lina Tullgren’s guitar picks a delicate, slow-moving melody out of silence. Sweeping strings and brass echo out to some far-away horizon. In this moment, on the title track of Tullgren’s second album, they sound like the only person left in the universe.
Many of Free Cell‘s songs were initially written between tours while Tullgren (who uses gender neutral pronouns) was living in their parents’ house in New England — sans car, alone most of the day, and sleeping in their little sister’s trundle bed. As the album materialized, Tullgren’s world took focus as they made their way from New England to Queens to be closer to their musical community.
Tullgren’s sophomore effort provides listeners with a portrait of Lina alone, discovering a new method of writing and a new way of thinking about composition. This stands in stark contrast to their debut album Won, a portrait of close companionship and collaboration between Tullgren and their best friend Ty Ueda.
The biggest development in the path to Free Cell was something unthinkable: shortly before recording, Ueda was injured in a car crash and Tullgren was unexpectedly put in the position of self-producing their own album.
Mainly recorded and produced at Brooklyn’s Figure 8 Studios, with Ueda later assisting on final tracking at his Mount Misery studio upon recovery, Free Cell is masterfully confident. Throughout Free Cell, Tullgren looks back on their memories from the position of an analyst, often cool and cynical but always with an undercurrent of humor and deep feeling. In their poetry Lina Tullgren writes anthems for the alienated, for those alone on busses, at parties, at their parents’ house, for those who cannot help but feel lonely even if they are surrounded by others. Free Cell invites us to sit and listen, to reflect, but with no guarantee of any of those things being easy.
It started in Europe.
I was in a budget hotel near Schiphol Airport with my bandmates, Jesse and Peter. We had just toured in the EU and UK for three weeks and were flying home at dawn. The tour had been great for a lot of reasons, but also a complete and total grind. Jesse and Peter did all the driving, I tour managed and we faced this exciting unknown with all its delicious bread and architecture. Touring in Europe is emotionally and financially rewarding, but also deeply lonely at times. When you tour in the US, you can rely on seeing your friends that you only see every six months in Athens, Ohio or Des Moines, Iowa, or whatever other weird town you develop a fondness for; the landscape is familiar, you have a sense of grounding. In Europe, you’re driving fast and processing new languages and information all the time, which is exhausting in a way that doesn’t manifest until you’re alone in a hotel room watching the film adaptation of Into the Wild with Danish subtitles and crying like an idiot, and you’re not crying at how horrible that movie is, you’re just an empty shell. You also drink a lot and eat way too much cheese, which never helps emotional stability.
Anyway, one of the ways we all coped with this was by playing solitaire on our phones. If someone wasn’t driving, they were probably sitting in the backseat of the van playing solitaire. It’s a very calming activity — I’m sure you’ve played it at least once.
Back to the airport hotel room: We’re all talking about solitaire and I ask them what else is out there in terms of single player mobile card games. They ask me if I’ve ever played FreeCell. I say no and they teach me the rules: the cards are dealt into eight piles with four “cells” and four “foundations” above. The object of the game is to build up the cards on foundations from ace to king by following suit. It is nearly identical to typical solitaire but differs in its lack of dealing, all the cards are already laid out on the board for you. I become addicted within moments.
FreeCell also differs from normal solitaire in its inability to reach a stalemate. One thing that often frustrated me with solitaire was the moment where you realized the game was over, but had not been won because you just simply could not access the cards you needed in order to win. In FreeCell, all the cards are on the table and the strategy lies in organization. You can always win the game, even if it takes hours and even if you have to start over multiple times. I found it would satisfy my control freak tendencies resulting in moments of sweet reprieve. When I was playing FreeCell, I wasn’t thinking about anything besides the task at hand. It was meditation.
Upon returning home from Europe, I moved to New York City from Maine but only settled for a month before I had to go on tour again. This tour was a solo tour with close friend and polyglot Wendy Eisenberg. I had released a record only five months prior, but it was a “rock” record and I didn’t like how its songs sounded without a full band. I had never toured solo before, so I wrote a bunch of new songs in preparation, some of which would become songs on forthcoming album Free Cell. I went into the tour with nerves, but found the performances to be both challenging and validating. I taught Wendy about FreeCell, and soon enough, I found myself driving down the highway talking to them, and they were all but deaf to my words as they sat immersed in their own version of FreeCell utopia.
Months later I would go into the studio to record those songs and emerge with an unnamed record. I am notoriously bad at naming things. After making said record in one of the fastest ways possible — it was recorded, mixed, and mastered within three months — I showed it to my friend Sam Weinberg, a free jazz saxophonist and one of my favorite people, who astutely suggested I name the record Free Cell. It made perfect sense. I wrote these songs during a lot of “in between” moments — in between tours, apartments, relationships — in writing them I felt myself creating order and control out of environments that were chaotic or unknown. It was as though Free Cell the album was my way of capturing the feelings I had when playing FreeCell the game.
Anxious types know that the way to get through the day is by developing coping mechanisms. we all have our systems, and for a solid year, FreeCell was an integral part of mine. It was always there if I was out somewhere and felt uncomfortable, it was there when I was bored in the car, when I was in my room processing emotions, when I was sitting outside the gig in Indiana or Wisconsin or New York and feeling tired, antisocial. At times it felt like a crutch, but mostly it was a companion — and please, for the love of god, make fun of me relentlessly for this love letter to FreeCell next time you see me out in the world. Here’s a poem.
I open my phone and take in the board
I look for what I need and nothing else
Maybe I am on the train
Listening to J-pop: Perfume or Capsule
Maybe it is the morning
I am rubbing my eyes
A lover has just left for work
Probably I’m alone in my room
Attempting to compartmentalize
Everything at once
The buzz in my head is loud
I click on the small blue icon and begin
I get an email, I swipe it away
Somebody steps on my foot by accident, I don’t mind
I locate the aces and put them in their place
The buzz becomes a low hum
For a few minutes a world that feels
Out of control
Slides into order
(Photo Credit: Laura Bartczak)