by Dan Fishback
Let’s Talk About Turtles
One of Alfie’s Dads
I honestly assumed that Andrew Phillip Tipton was retiring from music when he married his boyfriend and moved to New Jersey—a gesture so wildly out of step with my perception of him that I half-thought he’d gone mad.
Andrew was one of a handful of other queer songwriters in NYC’s antifolk scene in the 2000s, and the shows we played together gave me my first glimpses into an alternate queer universe that had always haunted my imagination—a world where our experiences were neutral, and where we could be celebrated for our individualities, not our proximity to a comfortable stereotype.
On bills with friends like Matt Katz, Maeve End, and Pablo Das, Andrew wasn’t special because he was gay; he was special because he was an utterly singular weirdo–a childlike pixie with the voice of a chain-smoking Floridian grandmother.
On early, lo-fi, folk-pop albums like I’m a Mess and Champion of Love, Andrew was equal parts ridiculous and demure. Those songs were full of bold proclamations and tiny, quiet moments of sublime wonder.
After he vanished into the suburbs, I eventually heard that Andrew was making music again, now under the to-me-disturbing stage name “Disney Hipster Andrew,” with an album called Let’s Move to Disney World—a collection of songs that literally advocated that. And of course it slapped. Even on an album-long advertisement for a corporate entertainment enterprise that needed no pro bono assistance, Andrew seemed physically incapable of making music that didn’t speak to some gnarly, tender sadness. He can sing, “In the Norway Pavillion at Epcot, there’s so much to do,” and still break my heart.
And so it’s no surprise that his first project since becoming a father—a children’s album called Let’s Talk About Turtles—is more beautiful than it needs to be, more layered than it needs to be, and full of adult meaning that elevates the record beyond its genre.
“Let’s talk about the letter A,” Andrew begins on the first track, which also bears the title of that opening lyric. It’s a typical enough start to an album for children, as he starts listing words that start with A, like a forgotten Sesame Street character with a vocal quality that suggests a rough past, maybe early years hustling with Oscar The Grouch. A theremin flutters loopily over a circus-like pattern on some marimba-adjacent synth setting.
The effect is goofy, disarming—children’s music! But then the chorus hits with a distant, distorted electric guitar, and the chanted lyrics, “Even the letter itself is a word. It’s a small word, but an important word,” and suddenly I’m feeling wistful and tender. Because, of course, the letter A doesn’t need a pep talk or a cheerleader. The letter A is not in any danger. But Andrew sings about the letter A like it’s been crying. Like it just skinned its knee, and Andrew is giving the scrape a gentle kiss, sitting with the letter patiently until it’s ready to play again. And now, before I know it, I’m the letter A, and I really appreciate being seen.
That nurturing energy connects each precious little song on this weirdly emotional, uplifting album. Whether Andrew is singing about animals, underwear or poop, his goal seems to be consistently therapeutic; he wants you to stop feeling shame.
“Everyone raise their right hands/ and repeat after me,” he commands at the start of the song “Da Da Dinosaur,” “I am a dinosaur, and I make mistakes sometimes/ I am a dinosaur, and I’m not perfect.” We hear small children reciting these words like the pledge of allegiance, and once again, I’m, as it were, a mess, because no one let me say anything like that when I was a child.
On the title track, once Andrew has invited the listener to talk about turtles, he immediately adds, “Their life is full of hurdles./ Born on the beach, and then they’re hatching,/ seagulls come at them crashing.” It’s hard for me to hear this without thinking about Andrew himself, who grew up in northern Florida, gay and weird in a world that accommodated neither. And when he sings, “Don’t forget about tortoises./ Their shells act as fortresses./ They’re slow-moving and slow-growing./ They get real old but it isn’t showing,” it’s hard not to think about Andrew himself getting older, moving to the suburbs, becoming a middle-aged dad but still looking like a gorgeous young lesbian.
On this album, Andrew lists his stage name as “One Of Alfie’s Dads,” and say what you will about the aesthetic merits of this nom de plume, it’s accurate. Andrew’s young son Alfie is all over these songs, both with his actual voice and as a character Andrew sings about. The album’s denouement, “Alfie The Great,” is a heart-wrenching love letter, invoking all the ways grown-ups have ruined the world, and listing the baby behaviors that suggest Alfie is up to the task of saving it. The string arrangements lift Andrew’s voice out of the simple guitar backdrop and into a landscape more sublime than anything he achieved on the records he made when he was writing music for adults.
The idea of gay men having children is extremely radical for conservative people, and extremely conservative for radical people. And so it’s fascinating, moving, and actually quite notable to behold an album that is entirely defined by gay fatherhood, but which still speaks to the experiences, inclinations, and aesthetics that would typically lead to a less conventional life. Andrew is inviting children to cast off shame, it seems, because he wants to cast off his own. He wants Alfie to unleash his roar, it seems, because adults once tried to stifle his own. And so each of these songs is as much about the traumatic past as it is about the hopeful future.
But while Andrew finds hope in his son, I still find that hope from Andrew himself. Because no matter where Andrew lives, no matter what he writes about, no matter how conventional or unconventional his interests become, his overwhelming uniqueness shines through whatever he creates.
When he released a music video for “Let’s Talk About the Letter A,” full of strange physical movement and surreal, Kubrick-esque visuals, I kept texting the link to friends, writing, “LOOK HOW SPECIFIC HE IS.” As the conservatism that shaped our past morphs into new modes of homogeneity, it’s specific-ness like Andrew’s that gets me through each day. And the more Andrew asks us to talk about turtles, the more I want to talk about that.
DAN FISHBACK (www.danfishback.com) writes plays and music, is the lead singer of the band Cheese On Bread, and was the founding director of the Helix Queer Performance Network. Sammy Tunis photo.
“ONE OF ALFIE’S DADS” is a multimedia performance artist, musician, stay-at-home father, and vegan soup cookbook author probably next year. He lives in Easton, Penn.