When making a name for yourself in the music business, it helps to have a backstory. And Will Toledo, who records as Car Seat Headrest, not only has a compelling one - he also has a backseat story.
That's where the singer and one-man band, now 23, would sit when, seeking privacy while still in high school in Leesburg, Va., he recorded vocals for albums he put out on the internet music store Bandcamp. Initially, the privacy-seeking songwriter called himself Nervous Young Man. Later, he settled on a moniker inspired by the feature of the family Subaru staring him in the face.
"It was a lonely time, I guess," Toledo quipped during an interview at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, in March. "Surrounded by inanimate objects."
On Friday, Teens of Denial (***1/2), Car Seat Headrest's second album on the respected indie label Matador, will be released digitally. This terrifically catchy, unfailingly intelligent album of new songs comes on the heels of last fall's label debut, Teens of Style, featuring rerecorded versions of expertly crafted Toledo tunes originally on the 11 - count 'em - previous Car Seat Headrest albums released since 2010.
The same day Teens of Denial comes out, Car Seat Headrest - also the name of Toledo's four-piece band - plays World Cafe Live as part of the NON-COMMvention, the sold-out WXPN-FM-hosted gathering of adult-alternative radio station programmers from around the country.
The three-day confab, which will be broadcast on 88.5 and streamed on the video service VuHaus, kicks off Wednesday. It features well-established acts such as Bonnie Raitt, the Zombies, and Kurt Vile, as well as up-and-comers Aubrie Sellers, Low Cut Connie, and Car Seat Headrest, who will return to town Sunday to headline Underground Arts. Tickets remain for that show.
Toledo's DIY ethos and his confidence in a variety of styles has drawn comparisons to Beck, and his slightly askew sensibility has been likened to Pavement (also a Matador band). The 1990s association is cemented by a lyric on Teens of Style's "Strangers": "Car Seat's nervous and the lights are bright / When I was a kid I fell in love with Michael Stipe."
The critical shorthand "is not limiting to me," Toledo says, because "I know what I'm capable of, and I know what I'm doing next." (He's not saying, though.) Besides, his aesthetic was formed "not so much by those bands as the bands that those bands listened to," he says. "The Beatles were huge in my life, and also the Beach Boys. I can remember asking for a Who album for Christmas when I was 5 years old."
Toledo says he "never really felt like I had a place growing up. Online was the first place I really started connecting to other people." Throughout high school and college - he studied English at the College of William and Mary - making music, he says, "wasn't so much about finding time, it was about finding a place to do it."
His output has been staggering. In 2010, he recorded and released four albums in four months, "just to see how quickly I could do it."
Toledo says he's never been driven by compulsion. "I think most artists want to be creating something, and I guess I was just more prolific than other people. That's misleading, though. A lot of musicians start off focusing on performance and doing live shows. I never had that. For a long time, Car Seat Headrest wasn't a live thing at all. The reason I had so many recordings is that was exclusively what I was focused on."
After adding in 2014 to the list of distinguished W&M graduates (Thomas Jefferson, Jon Stewart, and so on), Toledo moved to Seattle because "there's not much to do in Virginia if you're a musician, and I heard that in Seattle there is." Upon arrival, he was reading the first volume of James Kaplan's Frank Sinatra biography, The Voice, which inspired Teens of Denial's "Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)."
"I connected with his story because he was this very driven, ambitious young man who was willing to disconnect himself from the scene he had developed in order to go to the next level," Toledo says.
The planned version of Teens of Denial included "Just What I Needed / Not Just What I Needed," an ingenious twist on the Cars' "Just What I Needed" that included elements of the original song. Last week, Matador released a statement saying that though they "had negotiated for a license in good faith months ago," they had been informed "that the publisher involved was not authorized to complete the license" and that Cars front man Ric Ocasek "preferred that his work not be included in the song."
All physical copies of the album have been recalled and its release pushed back to summer. Toledo recorded a new version of the song - now called simply "Not What I Needed." In a statement his label released, he summed up the situation with a reasonable level of equanimity. "Life happens and sometimes in not ideal ways," he wrote, not sounding terribly bummed. "Most of my music only exists online anyway," he added. "So it makes sense that this album should start the same way."