The venues are high quality, cover won't break the bank, parking is often free, the local beer on tap is delicious and the people who show up are the best in town. But the real secret behind the music of Minneapolis and St. Paul is that they are simply hotbeds of creativity, with a plethora of bands writing, releasing, and performing new music like there's no tomorrow. These musicians are constantly reinventing themselves, collaborating with each other, supporting each other's work and making some of the best music on the market today. And if I don't keep up with the scene every week, I know I'm going to miss something good.
Not only has prolific producer Chris Bartels recently released another album under his moniker Elskavon, but his band Bora York is writing again and his electronic-forward experimental project Hi-Fi Cali has several new singles coming out this year. Our homegrown Caroline Smith released a new EP this month, Dessa's new album Chime dropped last month, Hot Date dropped new music and my all-time favorite duo Now, Now releases their next album Saved on May 18th.
But four of my favorite releases this spring come from musicians Lynn O'Brien, Andy Cook, Jennie Lawless and the new band Tacky Annie. I caught up with each of them to learn more about how they're doing and what's inspired their latest creations. Take a read and a listen below!
Lynn O'Brien: Superhero Singer-Songwriter
When did you first start playing music around the Twin Cities?
I moved to the Twin Cities from central Illinois in 2010, and I started performing here within my first week of moving! I performed solo, and collaborated with local artists/groups like Neal Swanger (singer/songwriter), Steven Hobert/Firefly Forest, Hummingbirds Trio, Jessica Cheadle (cellist), Ilya Begelman (singer/songwriter), Akiko Ostlund (tribal fusion belly dancer) and more.
Upon completion of a music therapy degree and internship, I became a board-certified music therapist in 2010 and pursued work in hospital settings. This field has helped me learn music across many eras and genres, and generally has solidified my belief in how versatile, universal and deeply needed music is. I've always been an empath, and approached music composition and performance as a vehicle for connection with others. Becoming a music therapist was a natural extension of my curiosity and passion to learn more about the science and psychology of how music affects us, physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually. Through work as a music therapist, I really learned how to trust my improvisatory instincts as a musician and healer, and to trust the music to work its magic - my job is to create space for people to really connect to it and then to get out of the way. :)
What do you most hope to share through your music with listeners of this new album?
I hope this album makes anyone (everyone!) who hears it reconnect with how truly powerful they are. We are always navigating transition, and our world is a complex place. We have so much power and so much responsibility to share our love with others, in our community and world - I hope this album helps people to remember their "enough-ness," to feel the fear and do it anyway, and to trust that when they shine, we all benefit.
Musically speaking, I am thrilled to showcase the phenomenal production of Matt Patrick, producer at The Library Recording Studio in Northeast, as well as the musical artistry of guitarist Ian Crawford, percussionist Jeff Schraw, cello/violin duo The OK Factor, and more local artists. :) Most of all, I'm excited to sing my freaking heart out and to improvise quite a bit on the album, because that's where my soul catches fire.
Andy Cook: Twin Cities Sweetheart
"'Swirl' is an exploration of life in our hyper-digital age, being stuck trying to give other people everything they want while also trying figure out who we really are in the first place," Andy says. "Sure it sounds bleak, but there’s a hint of optimism in there too."
“These songs might mean something totally different to listeners than they do to me - but they mean something, and that’s what matters most. I’m writing about experiences we live every day. There’s a kid inside of us and a mirror in front, and we need to ask them both questions if we’re going to figure out who we want to be.”
Jennie Lawless: Breakout Solo Artist
At what point did you realize you wanted to put out some new material under your own name? What was your goal in doing so?
A couple years ago I quit a full time job I really liked to pursue music with Warehouse Eyes. We were trying to make something happen for ourselves on a national scale and I needed to commit more time to the project. Writing music with a romantic partner is hard, but it is even harder to create a musical identity as two people. I just wasn't writing as much as I wanted to in Warehouse Eyes and felt like I'd never catch up to Chris - he had a lot more writing experience than I did going into the project. Ultimately I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my own identity as a songwriter.
Our plan for Warehouse Eyes didn’t exactly pan out, so I knew I needed to start from scratch with my own project, away from anyone else's direct influence. I set very low expectations for myself so the pressure would be off and I could focus on becoming a better songwriter. I drove down to New Orleans to write alone for a few weeks, which helped me get out of the rut I put myself in. When I got back, I had a new confidence. I played my first-ever entirely solo shows with a synth, drum machine, and vocal loops, eventually bringing on a drummer and bass player. The songs started getting better! Then, a couple songs were good enough to record! And so we did that.
There are so many layers to this. First and most literally, I come from a classical background where music competitions are an expectation. You show up to the judges with your one song or your set of songs, meet your piano player for the first time, and perform your songs with as much musicality, stage presence, and tonal quality as possible. Everything about it felt creepy to me. There was never a square on the judges' rubric for originality.
This idea of music as competition, having the best or most beautiful voice, is still so ingrained in me that it requires constant unlearning/undoing. Don't even get me started on how competitions like American Idol have infected the American psyche! When music can vary so greatly across the vast spectrum of style, how can anyone be the best? The music I'm writing isn't about sonic beauty, it is about the connection I'm making with myself and the people around me. I've never made anything that sounded more like me and I hope I can inspire other people to do the same. I'm writing for all the other shy young weirdos who think their voices don't matter - I can't wait to hear what they sound like.
What was different about working as a solo artist? What do you continue to look forward to?
I think this is the first time I truly took ownership over a recording process, and it feels good. I got a little too comfortable shirking responsibilities in my former project. Until now, I didn't allow myself to recognize how much work went into the smallest details of the recording process.
While preparing to record, my bandmates and I created a special little world. We spent a lot of time in the months before recording to allow our sound to jell as a trio. As a warm-up practice, we would often improvise surrounding off-the-cuff vocal loops. I felt so connected to those guys as a band once we finally stepped in the studio to record.
We brought that gelatinous connection with us into the studio and extended the collaborative vibe, treating Brett Bullion as a fourth bandmate. Brett used a bunch of unusual recording methods (at the time, he was especially inspired by Tchad Blake): placing a guitar amp face-down into a trash can, feeding a microphone into a vacuum cleaner hose, and using Michael’s child’s size drum kit to record fills for "I Want to Believe." I felt comfortable giving Brett a lot of creative freedom. Cooper let his true colors shine, especially while stepping away from the bass. I got him to do my favorite ever ugly guitar solo on "I Want To Believe," and a melody he played on the Fender Rhodes became the catalyst for a reharmonization choice we made on "Chokecherry." Michael is one of my favorite drummers and his first instincts are usually the right ones. Everything we did in the studio had a playful edge to it and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Tacky Annie: Dancemaster Duo
How did you two meet? And when did you realize that making music together was a great idea?
Andrew: It was November 2015 and I was at a Friendsgiving party. While in a conversation about being around new people and how interesting everyone was, in walked a girl with purple hair. As I walked by I overheard her in a conversation and thought to myself, “Ooo, I know a bit about that.” I found a way to strike up what I thought was a successful, captivating and invigorating conversation about UV blue blocking phone screen protectors. Thrilling subject I know. I found out later that Rachelle had a different take and couldn’t wait to get out of it like a 5 year old in church.
Now this group is loaded with amazing musicians and it’s typical for the night to lead to everyone playing together. Amidst the jam things quieted for a moment and I headed downstairs. At the top of the stairs someone got my attention and I tuned to see that it was the purple haired girl. Thinking she needed to get by me I stepped aside but to my surprise she wanted to talk to me.
Now, I know what you're thinking: “Andrew, it worked! Your surface level knowledge of the negative effects of UV blue light on human eyes was the way to go!” But alas she liked my guitar playing. And I know what you’re thinking again, “Well, there’s a tired trope.” But I say to you NO! That does NOT exist past a certain age. In my experience while dating in your adulthood when ‘musician’ comes up on the list of traits people run for the hills. So it was then and still is now the most amazing and sweetest thing that music is what ultimately brought us together.
As for the second part of the question we didn’t get to truly making music together for years. If you couldn’t tell by now we are dating and you may say to me, “That’s a bad idea.” And I would tell you, “Yeah it probably is…” So Rachelle was writing a lot of her own music at the time and I started to help with arrangements and supported her live. It wasn’t until she got the call to write Renegade Energy did we truly collaborate. Enough people had good things to say about it and we felt the same so we decided to start making music as a duo.
Andrew: While we were trying to figure out whether or not to release our music under Rachelle’s name we started brainstorming group names. After falling flat we settled on Rachelle LaNae. It wasn’t long until that didn’t feel appropriate since this was turning into a largely collaborative effort. So we started to think of things that were near and dear to us as opposed to ‘cool’ band names. Something that was close to us for some time and was a big part of our relationship was swing dancing. I mean it was our first date! We had done lessons and taken it pretty seriously for about a year and a half so we started thinking of concepts related to it. We were almost called Shim Sham but Rachelle wasn’t having it. I pulled pretty hard for that one. I still think it’s a good name. But when Tacky Annie came up we thought, “That’s feels oddly right.” We rolled with it and that was that. And for those of you who don’t know what Tacky Annie is it’s a Solo Jazz move that’s a bit like a left/right two step with some attitude. Look it up!
What's the story behind the making of "Renegade Energy"?
Rachelle: I was approached by someone who runs a ballet program down in Phoenix who wanted me to write a song to choreograph to - specifically to be used as a promo video for his program. He wanted it to be something pop-y, but also incorporating my more folky singer-songwriter style. He also wanted it to be about dance, but for months I agonized over it because everything I came up with was too cheesy and overt. I used to dance and so I kept tapping into the feeling of dancing (I actually did a lot of dancing in my living room when I got stuck). I finally realized that I wanted the song to be more about the energy of being an artist; that thing that just takes you over and makes you feel alive, which can put you on top of the world at times, but also has a darker side to it. I also wanted people to be able to dance to it in many different styles, and not just be limited to ballet, so I kept visualizing that.
After writing and rewriting for months (which is way longer than it has taken me to write anything ever), I finally had a chord progression, melody, and lyrics I was really happy with. I asked Andrew if he could come up with a track for it, because I knew it needed to have a full-on production. In about a day he wrote and recorded a full track, which we then scratched and of course he immediately came up with one just as quickly that was perfect. It was empty and bass-heavy and just completely captured the feeling I had been thinking of. And that track was the start of Tacky Annie.
Special thanks to Lynn O'Brien, Andy Cook, Jennie Lawless, Rachelle LaNae and Andrew Frederick.