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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

From New Philadelphia to Kent and beyond: Talons’ crafts quiet post-folk soundscapes

Mike Tolan holds his guitar as he records songs for his project Talons'
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Musician Mike Tolan has been making music for his somber, experimental folk project Talons' for more than a decade. Tolan was an active member of Kent's music scene and has evolved into a home-recording artist, gaining a loyal following over the years.

Northeast Ohio musician Mike Tolan has been quietly releasing his post-folk songs as Talons’ for over a decade. His songs mix somber indie-folk melodies with esoteric lyrics and experimental instrumentation.

Tolan grew up in rural New Philadelphia, where outlets for musical expression were limited. However, Tolan credits a small but passionate group of music enthusiasts and mentors who introduced him to independent music as influential in him pursuing songwriting.

Dover Library’s impressive music collection and the open mic nights at the Open Mouth were also crucial in Mike's early musical endeavors.

“That's where I sang in front of people for the first time,” he said.

Moving to Kent was a turning point for Tolan. He became a fixture in the city’s music scene in the late ‘90s, joining the widely popular instrumental band The Six Parts Seven.

Tolan said the thriving Kent music scene centered around a record label called Donut Friends, which was run by Jamie Stillman, a prolific musician and the founder of EarthQuaker Devices. Tolan began playing out and building connections in the scene with Kent bands like Party of Helicopters, Harriet the Spy and Dink.

He started writing his own music as Talons’ as an offshoot of his work with The Six Parts Seven. The songs are notably quieter, more somber and introspective.

“These are kind of like folk songs, but I'm not a huge fan of like, traditional folk music,” Tolan said.

Tolan gained attention from VICE in 2018, and nearly a decade later he is still releasing vast amounts of music.

Mike Tolan and Sommar Tolan perform at Transformer Station
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Mike Tolan, Sommer Tolan and Jacob Trombetta (far left) perform Talons' songs at Transformer Station as part of Ideastream's Third Thursday performance series with the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Incorporating found sounds and creating a unique musical space

From his 2016 release “First Songs” to 2022’s “At Light/Dark,” Talons’ experimental songs weave in electronic noise, eclectic instruments and sound recorded in various settings.

“Like a lot of the recording that I've done has been with a microphone that picks up everything and trying to get the sound of the room that you're in, the sound of whatever's going on outside,” Tolan said. “And to me, it just helps, like, make it feel more real.”

Tolan leaned heavily into his songwriting during the pandemic, releasing three albums in two years.

“You know, with Covid, I felt like a very strong and understandable urge for everybody to ignore that is happening and forget that it happened as soon as possible,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to write some songs about that era, because it’s very important and consequential to basically the rest of our lives.”

“I've been really lucky in this project in that there's been a lot of people that have supported it the whole time I've done it.”
Mike Tolan

His lyrics range from painful, vulnerable reflections of heartbreak to funny observations and self-deprecation.

“‘F Everything’ is one of the Talons’ songs that people think of when they think of this project. And it is different because it was like real painful for me to play at first, and now it's just kind of like a song that I like,” he said.

Tolan has maintained a faithful audience throughout his career despite keeping a low profile, rarely promoting his music or performing live.

“A lot of the people that I make music with and have been like in community with, like, we don't really like the commercial aspect of music. We do it for other reasons. And so, a lot of my music, you know, basically all of it, I've just always kind of given away,” he said.

Tolan has collaborated with musicians over the years, including pedal steel player Jacob Trombetta and Tolan’s wife, Sommer, on keyboards and vocals.

Sommer Tolan said music serves as an important ritual in their Chagrin Falls home.

“Even if he's dead tired, it's almost like meditation,” she said. “How people are like, ‘I have to go to the gym,’ he’s like, ‘I have to play music to feel right at the end of the day.’”

Making music for fun and for friends

Tolan said as he’s gotten older and become a father, he hasn’t been as engaged in the local music scene as he once was dipping his toes in the musical waters as a 20-something in Kent.

He said he’s always been appreciative of the local music community, particularly those artists playing house shows and performing along the DIY circuit.

Mike Tolan holds his guitar inside his home music recording studio.
Mike Tolan

While Tolan doesn’t perform on stages as much as he used to, he said writing and recording music is a stress reliever, and he’s always working on something new.

“I love home recording. It's one of the ‘funnest’ activities to me,” he said. “I like working on projects. I like sharing them with my friends.”

Along with writing songs as Talons’, Tolan has been playing in a band with Trombetta and The Six Parts Seven drummer Jay Karpinsky called Greening. The instrumental project has been slow going but a debut release is forthcoming.

“I'm not a good self-promoter. I like working, like pretty small with everything, so I'm always grateful if anything pops up,” he said. “I've been really lucky in this project in that there's been a lot of people that have supported it the whole time I've done it.”

The interview with Mike Tolan and a live performance by Talons’ were part of Ideastream Public Media and the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Third Thursday music series held at the Transformer Station. Join the next live event July 18 with WCLV’s Bill O’Connell and the classically trained Opus 216.

A musical performance takes place in a dark room with colored lighting and an audience
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Talons' talks with Shuffle host Amanda Rabinowitz on June 20 at Transformer Station.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.