Tim Story heard it all the time.
Friends and acquaintances would tout the musical abilities of their cello-playing son or piano-playing daughter, implicitly suggesting that he might want to give them a listen.
An internationally respected avant garde composer who counts as his friends seminal European artists such as Dieter Moebius of Cluster and Klaus Schulze, the Maumee resident also happens to be a genuinely nice guy, warm, down-to-earth and easy to talk to.
Which means he’s far too polite to say “Are you kidding me?” when someone proposes a far-fetched collaboration. Story admits that he “somewhat selfishly” would entertain these ideas hoping he might find something that would color his work despite the inevitable disappointment.
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Then he met Andrea Mathews, and his open-mindedness and generosity paid off in an intriguing creative partnership that has produced two beautiful albums that marry torch singing with ambient music in a warm, sophisticated mix that straddles ambient, jazz, and pop styles.
In the late ’90s, her dad, Toledo car dealer Tim Mathews, told Story that his then high school age daughter was a fine singer. Story gave her an instrumental track to work on, and things blossomed from there.
“She was really young and did not have a bar band voice. She was not interested in rock music, so it was sort of like somebody whose youth and very natural singing style would fit in very well. She hadn’t developed a lot of bad habits.”
Working as Blue Tofu, the pair have just released “Our Room” their second album. It follows their self-titled 2001 disc that developed an unlikely cult following among audiophiles.
Absolute Sound magazine, which caters to people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on stereo systems, voted the first disc as one of the best over the past 40 years. Its cachet was developed in audio stores that used the disc to test speakers and other equipment.
The irony of a work that was recorded mostly in small studios becoming a benchmark for brilliant sound is not lost on Story.
“There was nothing further from our heads than that because I’m making this music half in the studio, half in my little home studio just hoping it sounds good enough to compete with regular albums,” he said.
Story, 56, has enjoyed a long, fruitful career that has produced a Grammy-nominated children’s album (his only work for children), 22 recordings, including “Glass Green” (1987) for the Windham Hill label, and a number of collaborations and soundtracks.
All this from an artist who is self-taught and grew up tinkering with sound recording devices and instrumentation in his bedroom. He was valedictorian of his Anthony Wayne High School class, but wasn’t especially social and never played in garage bands or followed a traditional musical path.
“Very few people, even my friends, knew I did this. I kept it compartmentalized,” he said. “I just had a small core group of friends in high school. I wasn’t unhappy, but I was definitely on the introverted side, which I think really came out in the music. It was never big, dramatic, showy music. It was all small form, kind of simple means and very personal in a way.”
His career gained traction in the 1980s when European journalists and German musicians such as Schulze, one of his musical heroes, discovered his self-produced works.
Over time he went from being a guy who labored in obscurity to developing a small but devoted following among people who enjoy ambient and electronic chamber music. Among his fans was Will Ackerman, who at the time owned the highly-influential Windham Hill label and who signed Story to a recording contract.
His recording process involves months of working on sounds, tinkering with arrangements and getting things just right. He laughed when he talked about how his wife Maggie and now college-age daughters Anna and Kara would comment on why he had been listening to the same three second snippet of music for hours.
The point is to make music that sounds spontaneous and organic, even if that requires heavy creative lifting.
“I feel like I’m not doing a service to anybody unless the music is really worth hearing above all this other stuff,” he said. “There’s a glut of it out there, so to me, if it’s not great, no one will hear about it and it’s just adding to the noise out there.”
E.J. Wells, a Toledo musician and the owner of Happyland Studios where Story occasionally works, counts himself as both a fan and friend. He was shocked when they met a few years ago and he learned that someone in the Toledo area was working with such electronic legends as Moebius and Schulze.
“I really like that Tim is just so damn humble regarding who he is and what he does,” Wells said, noting that Story introduced him to Moebius and brought him to his studio.
“He doesn’t think about himself and what he does in terms of, ‘Oh, I’m important,’ yet he’s one of the most serious musicians as far as a writer that I’ve ever come across. He’s very demanding on himself, he’s a perfectionist, he’s an isolationist and he won’t let anybody hear anything until it’s ready.”
Mathews said she felt “pressure” when she began working with Story, given that she was a Cardinal Stritch High School student at the time. He gave her an instrumental track to work on and she said she took the process “very seriously.”
The result was art that also produced a friendship.
“One thing about Tim Story is that he was so respectful to me as a teenager coming in and it was immediately comfortable,” she said. “We usually during every recording session have meals together. I’m always making my tea and coffee and we laugh together.”
For her part, Mathews, 34, a Latin and ballroom dance instructor in Sandusky and the mother of two children ages 9 and 12, also has a strong vision for how she wants the music to sound, which Story said he appreciates.
“When I do collaborations it’s because the other person brings a lot to the table. That’s very true in terms of Andrea. I really don’t think in terms of lyrics and that kind of structuring thing and I absolutely do not micromanage her at all.”
Mathews said she hopes that her lyrics and vocals connect with listeners in an intimate way and that they come from a personal place that isn’t calculated to reach a mass audience.
“My part of this music, when I was writing it and singing it, a lot of it came from such an emotional place,” Mathews said.
“I would see teardrops when I would write lyrics — the ink would be blurred because it would move me to cry. I would like people to really connect with that part of the music. There was no formula in writing this music to placate an audience.”
Both she and Story are sanguine about what happens next with “Our Room.” He is finishing a collaboration with Moebius and preparing to work on solo material. There are no plans to tour or perform.
But Mathews said she hope the album develops a following through word-of-mouth because she is proud of it. If that happens tomorrow or decade from now, it does not matter to her.
“One of the things about our music is that it’s not real dated or tied to a style or a fad. If it caught on two years from now... I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said.
“You just never know when things are recognized. Whenever something is written or painted or released, 10 years ago or yesterday, really good music or art work can be recognized at any time.”
To check out “Our Room” and the first Blue Tofu album go to www.bluetofu.com. To see a live performance by Story go to http://bit.ly/18J2hov.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.