You might know him as Har Mar Superstar, Sean Na Na or Sean Tillman. Whatever the case, once you witness the Tillmann experience, you’re pretty much in love. A soul singer–songwriter with a hefty dollop of ’70s porn star swagger, Tillmann talks about finding confidence on stage, alter egos and why it’s still awesome to eat like a child (into your 30s and beyond).
How does a white guy (with an excellent mustache!) from southern Minnesota get into R&B and soul?
I always listened to that kind of music and knew I could sing that way. I think a lot of lyrics on the first album were more tongue in cheek… And then I got a little more serious, but I was still having fun and getting wild at live shows. I also kind of waited for my voice and myself to mature. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve had enough experience to actually sing the subject matter with the pain of actual soul music.
Costumes or alter egos can be transformative tools. What can you do as Har Mar Superstar that you probably couldn’t in your day-to-day life?
Har Mar used to be an alter ego. In 2000, I put out three albums and one EP. It was too much stuff, so I needed another name and it was fun to play a personality. I’d pretend Har Mar was my brother. I could get a magazine to pay me to interview myself and they wouldn’t even know. That was a fun experiment. But over the years, when you’re more associated with your music, you don’t have to rely on shtick. People know Sean Tillman is Har Mar Superstar, and I don’t act or speak any differently when I’m one or the other. Initially, I was faking it to make it. I was looking for confidence onstage, and eventually that translated into my real life. So I don’t really think about it anymore or need to hide behind an alter ego because it’s tiresome. We grew into the same guy.
I love the idea of dressing up and becoming someone else.
Yeah, well, you put on stage clothes and it’s a whole different thing. You’re in character. It makes you feel sort of invincible when you go out there. You’re like, “Whatever. I’m bringing it. I got dressed up for this. I am going to blow these peoples’ minds.”
People have nightmares about being naked (or near naked) in public. I’ve seen you strip down to your skivvies on stage numerous times, so clearly this isn’t your issue.
I’ve just always felt more comfortable in my underwear. When you’re in your jeans and you have to step into your car in a different way, I hate that. When you’re in your briefs, you can be like, “Whatever. I’m just going to roll over this bed and jump off a chair.” I don’t know, I’m just more agile. And I get really sweaty on stage too, so it’s a multipurpose thing. I’d just end up dancing around in my underwear. I don’t do that as much anymore, but I still typically end up shirtless ’cause I’m sweaty as hell.
What keeps you up at night?
They’re all health-based, like going on WebMD and diagnosing myself with, like, sickle-cell anemia when I just have a cut on my finger.
Sexy time clearly plays a big role in the HarMar Superstar experience. Most good dates start out with great food. What’s on the menu if you’re looking to impress a special lady?
I never cook, I always go out. When I go out with my girlfriend, we’ll eat jalapeño poppers and omelets and a hot dog, or go to the Commodore in Williamsburg and get an amazing chicken sandwich. We like to live life and just eat delicious things. But we eat as if we’re 13-year-olds who were sent out on the town with money from our parents.
I also love soup dumplings. Soup dumplings are the best food. They’re hard to find. I love M Shanghai and Shanghai Café in New York and Din Tai Fung near L.A. I never understood how they made soup dumplings until someone told me that the soup was made into ice cubes and they make the dumpling around it. My mind was blown.
What are you listening to these days?
The new Spoon album. It’s so good. I’ve been listening to a lot of Betty Davis and a lot of William Onyeabor. I have a new Father John Misty and I am very excited about that too. He just mastered it last week and we’ve been rockin’ it.
Advice for someone trying to launch a music career?
Touring is the most important thing for me, just getting out on the road and getting really good live. And make music that you can stand behind, forever. People will scrutinize it and ask questions about it for the rest of your life. Also, have a carefree attitude and do what feels right and put it out there.
I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at heyeleanorproject [at] gmail.com.
Writer Molly Mogren runs the blog Hey Eleanor in which she catalogs her year doing something she is afraid of every day..