Thomas Abban is hard not to notice.
The 21-year-old’s intricate guitar work and idiosyncratic songwriting are what placed him atop this year’s poll. But Abban’s visual style, distinctive without being ostentatious, has certainly added to his mystique.
When Abban meets me in the Wayzata studio space where he recorded his 2017 debut, A Sheik’s Legacy, he wears a roomy white sweater and a single gold leaf earring. His hair is a curly nimbus and, as always, a black star is markered around his right eye. His British upbringing has left him with a hint of an accent. A seasonal cold has left him with a bit of a cough. He’s brought a white mask decorated with electrical tape, the one he wears in the video for his song “Blackwater.” “I’ve always liked masks,” he says.
He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t explain. He sits crosslegged, answers my questions quietly and politely and simply, neither evasive nor effusive.
We’re in the home of Jon Herchert, who engineered Abban’s album, has championed him at every turn, and sits in for much of our talk, as does his pup Beatrice. The studio is so cozy a space it’s easy to forget you’re in a refurbished garage—it’s more like the rec room of a teen musician’s dreams, decked out with all sorts of instruments yet strewn with old furniture to loaf on in less inspired moments. Like A Sheik’s Legacy itself, the studio feels private, a place to dream apart from the world outside.
It’s a golden fall afternoon, the kind of day when Abban inhabited this studio last year, and would take walks around the quiet neighborhood for relaxation and inspiration. He recorded his album almost entirely on his own, with the exception of cello, horns, and flute, for which he wrote the arrangements. Though he’s since formed a band to perform with live, Abban is still more an instructor than a collaborator when it comes to playing with others. “It works best that way,” he says.
Abban’s family relocated from Wales to Minnesota when he was 12, and by the time he turned 14, he was playing his own material at a St. Paul Dunn Brothers. Musically omnivorous, Abban filtered classical and jazz as well as blues and rock into his playing. “Transferring all those styles to one instrument, to the guitar, helps you process your influences,” he says. “If you mix enough things together, you begin to hear your own style.”
And the key to developing his individuality as a performer was songwriting. “I realized early on, I can only write in my style,” Abban says. “Even when I tried to write something else, my voice was coming through.” Lyrically, that voice is fantastical and otherworldly, adorned with the occasional archaism. (Abban cites the prophetic poetry and ornate biblical engravings of the great 19th-century Romantic William Blake among his influences.)
Abban was solo when I caught him last month at the Aster Cafe, the small riverfront space crammed with both rapt converts and curious onlookers, but his sound was as big as a full band’s. He riffed like Jimmy Page on an acoustic filtered through multiple effects, accompanying himself with a resonant thwock on the guitar body, and his playing was even more fluid when he switched to electric. Live, as on his recordings, Abban sings in a still, placid falsetto that doesn’t yearn or moan, even when he covers Howlin’ Wolf.
Onstage and offstage, Abban radiates a calm, self-contained presence that doesn’t register as reticence. He just isn’t one for small talk. Immediately after his Aster performance, he vanished from the room. “It seems like the most logical thing for me to do,” he says. And in that willingness to disappear lies an essential element of Abban’s appeal, the way he commands attention without seeming to need it, and hides nothing while revealing just enough to compel us to want to know more.