The first time I met Thomas Bartlett, we shared a bottle of Yoko Ono’s champagne in a hotel room in Oslo, Norway. As first-meeting scenarios go, it’s a pretty good one—and actually quite fitting, considering his line of work. Among New York City’s most sought-after musicians, Bartlett often finds himself in pricey hotel rooms in foreign countries at the behest of whichever musical icon he happens to be working with. Back in 2006, he was playing in Ono’s band at the Oya Festival and I was still a newbie music journalist. Some six years later, he remains a respected accompanist for a large coterie of musicians, but these days that is but one of his many fashionable hats. Also sought-after as a producer, a recording artist (he releases his own music under the moniker of Doveman), and a curator of New York’s still-vibrant downtown scene, he clearly has a knack for bringing people together.
In many ways Bartlett’s is a very classic New York story. Having moved to the city from Vermont for college, he soon found himself living in the moment, much to the detriment of his studies. “I did a year of high school and then dropped out to make music, then I did a year of college and did it again,” he recalls. “It became clear pretty quickly that the one important constant in my life was making music.”
After asking, in 2001, to become a member of the collective of downtown musicians called Chocolate Genius—“I just told them I wanted to play for them, and for some reason they let me”—Bartlett soon found himself making a living playing backup for the likes of David Byrne and Rufus Wainwright. Eventually he spent months at a time on the road, with acts including Antony and the Johnsons and the National (both of which now credit him as a producer on their most recent albums). It was friendships with these types of up-and-coming artists that would make for some of his most dynamic and long-lasting partnerships.
“I met Thomas during the twelve seconds when he attended Columbia,” says one such comrade, classical composer Nico Muhly. “He was the only student I knew with a house, and, like, a living room and a piano. I realized quickly that he was—despite the private nature of his own music—an inherently social musician. Thomas and I swiftly developed a good way of working not only with each other but as a team available to work with others.”
Bartlett’s affinity for his fellow musicians—a quality that has continued to lead him to produce albums by talented friends, including Trixie Whitley, Hannah Cohen, and Julia Stone—seems to have reached a logical apex with the creation of the Burgundy Stain Sessions, a series of salon-like classical performances at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge. The recurring event routinely draws Bartlett’s loyal friends to play shows that are largely fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affairs. The Sessions are both a beautiful sampling of wondrous performers and evidence of Bartlett’s keen ear and powerful sway. According to Whitley, whose debut album will be released this fall, the success of the Burgundy Sessions is a byproduct of their creator’s nature and talents alike.
“Thomas has an easygoing character, but he also has very precise instincts—musically, socially, and artistically,” she says. “The Burgundy Stain Sessions represent the state of culture today. At a time when individualism is being consistently fed with an overload of options and information, creative people can only witness the fruits of collectivism when actually coming together and embracing it.”
Despite his success, Bartlett remains humble about his experience, attributing it to being immersed in the always dynamic and constantly evolving musical culture in the city. “For me, making music together is a vital part of almost all of my close friendships,” he says. “Putting on these shows is kind of like recreating this utopian version of NYC that I imagine in my mind. People love to romanticize the past, but I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing right now. This is such an exciting and truly beautiful time.”