NY Daily News - February 1st, 2008
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Each year, musicians sprout like mushrooms throughout the subway system. But, in 2002, one geeky twentysomething got a lot of attention, singing in a slender tenor and playing guitar next to a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, "I Want to Propose to My Girlfriend But I Can't Afford a Ring."
That geek was Willem Hartong, who later became leader of Brooklyn's Breaking Laces, the Weezer-meets-Violent Femmes folk-rock trio that, in 2007, beat out 4,000 bands to cop first prize in that year's Starbucks Music Competition.
As Hartong explains of his early days: "I wanted to try busking - the trial by fire for a musician. It was amazing. Older people put their hands on my shoulder, lotsa moms hugged me, married guys told me I didn't need a ring, and single girls wanted to give me their phone numbers."
Tomorrow at Rockwood Music Hall, to an audience sprinkled with music-biz honchos, Breaking Laces will perform Hartong's offbeat tales of life and love, like the quirkily tender "Astronomy Is My Life but I Love You," the grunge-powered tongue-in-cheek "God in Training," about a basement rocker's dreams of fame, and even a raucous jab at the collapsing music conglomerates, "What You Can't Take Away."
Following a U.K. tour, this show marks the next step on the band's do-it-yourself odyssey.
"Thanks to the Starbucks competition," Hartong notes, "big-name producers take our phone calls."
Tong, as Hartong is called, was born to a Dutch immigrant father and American mother in Greenwich, Conn. "It's a dangerous place," he quips. "The soccer moms wheeling those vans take no prisoners." Once he beat Timmy Spencer for a fourth-grade choir prize, he says archly, "it was clear I had talent, which is what led me into music."
He took some lessons and started writing songs. In high school, his first band, In the Attic, sold 10,000 CDs. Tong was hooked. So while he earned his B.A. in Latin and Greek at Colgate University, he kept up on contemporary beats.
"I still read ancient poets for fun," he says. "I don't mean to sound esoteric. It's just that the sense of meter and rhythm and language is obviously something I love. I try to use it in my way, with a mild punk attitude."
After graduation, Tong lived briefly in Boston and worked on music projects. Seven years ago he moved to Brooklyn and formed Breaking Laces. In 2003 they cut "Sohcahtoa" in an apartment studio.
After intense touring, in 2005 they recorded "Lemonade," then "Astronomy." Released by Tong's small label, these tracks built the band a modest cult.
Then came the Starbucks prize.
Hartong says, "Because we won, we're going to play at the Kauai Music Festival, and we got two days of recording in a great Boston studio and free PR. Maybe most important, it's made making those phone calls easier. The whole process was really good for us. We had to compete - and we had to win. That showed us something about ourselves and our music."