Let’s start near the end, which is actually the beginning.
Roughly 35 minutes into "Hot Dish," the glittering synth bomb of a debut album from Heart Bones, you hit an epic cover of "Hungry Eyes." It’s been an emotional ride. In a series of swooning earworms you’ve flirted with the perils of an "Open Relationship," licked your wounds from an "Unforgivable" ghosting and bolstered your aching heart with a promise: "This Time It’s Different." Suddenly it’s 1987 and you have an inappropriate crush on an older man with a chiseled physique, well-feathered hair and fancy footwork.
Only it’s actually 2020 and so maybe you’re wishing Jennifer Grey’s Baby was just one or two years older. Or maybe you’re wondering how you never noticed the subversive eroticism of those three-way dances that sandwich Baby between her male and female dance instructors.
Maybe you’re just marveling at the way the recreation of this simmering slow jam has unlocked your inner John Hughes romantic and now you want to run through the rain to make an ill-advised declaration of love. Or lace up your skates for a spin with your sweetheart. Or something. The point is this glitzy piece of pop nostalgia has you in your feelings and that’s exactly where Sabrina Ellis and Sean Tillman want you.
"Basically, all of the great duets that I know are from the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack," Tillman, the artist also known as Har Mar Superstar, said over the phone in February shortly before the album dropped.
Tillman and Ellis discovered the harmonious mesh of their voices and spirits in 2016 when Ellis’ band Sweet Spirit supported Har Mar on a tour. Because of their responsibilities to other bands, it took a good year before bombastic on stage cameos led to an actual collaboration. When they began writing songs together they spent a lot of time with the soundtrack, "to just think about duets," Ellis said.
One night, during a kitchen table writing session, Tillman had a crazy idea: "Why don't we just tour the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack?"
They laughed it off at first, but quickly realized the concept had (well-toned) legs.
"I don't know anybody, like, in my age group that isn't super into those songs in some form or another," Tillman said. "So yeah, like our first tour, we had like five of our own songs and then then this entire wealth of the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack and we're like selling out shows and having a great time."
The experience informed their writing and "those kind of vibes rub off on the record," Tillman said.
Duets naturally lend themselves to songs about relationships, and the album certainly looks at love from a variety of angles, but Ellis, who describes their music as "therapy pop," said songs on the album also chronicle "changes and epiphanies" and the "forward motion of our lives over the past two years while working together."
"We're not afraid to be raw and kind of like bare all while still keeping it in the context of like, a fun pop song," Tillman said.
Album opener "This Time It’s Different" is a dizzying gender bender of a love jam that’s really about self-discovery. It echoes a personal journey for Ellis, who came out as gender non-binary and asked to be referred to by they/them pronouns in a series of poignant Instagram posts in late December.
"I’ve always known I’m queer, as in, I’ve always known my sexual orientation includes all genders, all possibilities. I was never very vocal about this, because I figured this was obvious," Ellis wrote.
They went on to write achingly about finally making an "adult amount of money" for the first time in 2018 and spending it "desperately and pointedly in an attempt to achieve a feminine beauty standard."
"Misguidedly, I thought the reason I hadn’t been more successful in my career was due to my unconventional looks. I thought I’d buy my way to pretty, to feminine, and be more accepted, and my music would gain mainstream popularity," they wrote.
At a New Year’s Eve performance of the solo project Sabrina Ellis’ Velvet Nudes, Ellis auctioned eight "high femme, high quality" costume pieces to benefit Out Youth, a local nonprofit that supports youth of all sexual orientations.
Accepting "gender fluidity and not trying to tame it" has been transformative for Ellis.
"When I look at myself in the mirror, I don't hate anything about myself," they said. "There's nothing that I just, you know, want to change or wish was different and I remember struggling with that feeling throughout most of my life until recently."
The incubation period for Heart Bones was also a time of personal growth for Tillman, who recently got engaged. "I've found, you know, some sort of peace with like, not drinking and actually enjoying my therapy," he said. "I think we just are both learning how to be healthier with our emotions and it kind of feels weirdly good to bring that to the music table."
As live performers, both Tillman and Ellis bring an over the top presence to the stage. With awkward exuberance they emerge as unlikely sex symbols. They hope this, in and of itself, is an inspiration. Tillman, "the guy on stage with the gut" who’s unabashedly "feeling himself," wants that energy "to kind of translate from stage into you with maybe your date, giving each other the confidence that you are sexy no matter what, as long as you feel like it and project that," he said.
With charm, charisma and ridiculous flair, Tillman and Ellis exude feel-good vibes that are hard to resist.
"We just go for it 100% knowing that the awkwardness kind of brings people together and makes people feel better about themselves," Tillman said.
Which brings us back to therapy pop.
"Hot Dish" is a sizzling platter of post modern disco jams made richer with emotional vulnerability. While enticing your hips, the duo also invites you to slay your naysayers and inner demons with hooky jams like "This Time It’s Different" and "Don’t Read the Comments."
It’s therapy pop because "it's been therapeutic for both of us," Ellis said. "And then on the other level, it's also therapy pop, hopefully, for people who will listen to it and empathize with it.
"Hopefully the empathy that people feel with our music is helpful to those people."