Artist Focus

The U2 Factor: Justice, Creativity, and an Integrated Faith

Above image from Grantland.com

1987… not a golden year for me personally when it comes to music. A year or two earlier, I had fallen in love with Jesus. In my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity, I really had no idea how to follow his lead and, in that moment, I implemented a few immediate changes, one of which was curtailing/eliminating cuss words from my personal lexicon. That lasted a few years. Another short-lived change was my determination to only listen to music I could purchase from my local Christian bookstore. By the time 1987 came around, my ears, mind, and heart were being filled with Petra, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, and the like… exclusively.

Sometime that year, one of my church friends tried to tell me U2 was a Christian band. Of course, if that were so, it would be okay for me to listen to them. But I doubted. To try to convince me, my friend made me a cassette copy of some of U2’s music. Side A was War and Side B was The Unforgettable Fire. That tape sat in my room for months before I ever listened to it. I just wasn’t convinced their lyrics would bring me closer to Jesus (and I couldn’t buy their music from the Christian bookstore), so I wouldn’t give them a chance.

During the summer of that year (I believe), on a road trip somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina, I happened to hear With Or Without You for the first time. Good thing that radio station didn’t have the same bias against U2 I had. I was intrigued by what I heard. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I’m sure it had to do with the desperate, passionate, emotional tone of the song. Sometime later, one of our local radio stations in Virginia played The Joshua True from beginning to end. When I listened to it, I was hooked.

I could write about the emotive or nostalgic connections I have with virtually every song on that album. I could also write much about how the lyrics challenged me and made me think. Where the Streets Have No Name made me think of a time when God’s shalom will reign. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For made me explore the shallowness of my faith. Bullet the Blue Sky not only made me move and got my heart pounding, but it led me to start thinking about social and political issues I’d never considered before. I could go on and on, but I won’t, at least not now.

Of course, once I was captivated by The Joshua Tree, I finally listened to that tape my friend made me. It wasn’t long before I was hearing about the revolution in Ireland, refugees, and other heavy subjects U2 covers in War. Eventually, The Unforgettable Fire would become one of my favorite albums of all time. As time went on, Boy, October, and Under a Blood Red Sky all joined the fray as well. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen were soon depicted on a poster on my wall. I was all in.

Those early albums impacted me deeply, in some ways I’m only beginning to see. However, the two most significant ways this music influenced me have to do with social justice and the nature of creative expression. Truly, without U2’s influence on me as a teenager and young man, I’m not sure I would care about music and justice like I do now. To a significant extent, God used U2’s music to mold me into the man I have become.

When it comes to issues of social justice… well, that’s kind of their thing. I think one would have to be completely unaware of U2 for that person to not recognize how deeply justice and activism runs in them. It is truly one of their defining characteristics. They call out the folly of war and the grief it brings. They cry out on behalf of the poor. They confront racism and bigotry. And for me, they challenged the gap between my experience of Christianity and efforts toward social justice.

You see, in my spiritual context, issues of war, race, and justice were divorced from faith. Choosing to become a Christian, evangelism (to an extent), and being baptized in the Holy Spirit were the virtual endgame of Christianity in my experience as a teenager. So, when I heard Bono, a professed Christian, sing about things like social injustice, I was provoked to consider how such things related to my faith.

Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, I was only a short drive from the Norfolk Naval Base. The people around me were almost always pro-military, to the point of not questioning the nature of war itself and whether or not Christians should be engaged in such things. U2 challenged me to think about this. And when I began making connections between their lyrics and what I read in the New Testament, I began asking some fairly uncomfortable questions of myself, my parents, and others. It made me question whether or not God was always on America’s side. It made me wonder if our military activities were, dare I say, sinful. I began to see contradiction in being pro-war or pro-military and Jesus’ call to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.

Being from Chesapeake also landed me only a few miles from Pat Robertson’s home-base at CBN in Virginia Beach. Some close to me considered Mr. Robertson a “prophet.” As I grew up, however, he became an emblem of the sick marriage between evangelical Christianity and the GOP. In my church, there wasn’t room for being a Democrat. I don’t even recall there being much room to question such things. U2’s lyrics and very persona led me to question these biases and challenge that sick marriage (I’m still praying for a divorce). And again, what they introduced to my mind and heart resonated with what I understood from the New Testament.

U2 didn’t teach me how to think… they opened my eyes to parts of the New Testament I’d neglected or simply didn’t know yet. I could no longer be satisfied with what I’d been spoon-fed regarding politics, race, economics, or any number of other social issues. Jesus was using U2 to take me deeper.

The other significant impact of U2’s music has to do with creative expression. When I stumbled onto The Joshua Tree, my thoughts about music, what was “good,” and what I should let enter my ears were so, so limited. I had the self-imposed limitations of listening only to contemporary Christian music, but I had a very influential family member who told me I shouldn’t listen to any songs that weren’t love songs (?!) and who thought John Denver was the standard by which all musicians should be measured. And then there are the influential folks in my life who taught me that if they didn’t like something, it wasn’t any good.

All in all, those factors led me to a very small pool of music to choose from, all of which resided at Heaven & Earth Bookstore at Greenbrier Mall. My categories for what I would listen to at that time were so limited… pop rock, some rap, hard rock… that was about it. And they had to be singing about God explicitly or I wasn’t giving them much of a chance. Not only were my categories limited, but my entire view of music and art were severely limited as well. U2 pushed those limits and eventually helped to shatter them.

U2 led me far away from the synthy pop of Michael W. Smith, the driving metal guitar of Bloodgood, and the glossy sound of Stryper (none of which were bad… I just needed to expand my horizons). I had never, personally, heard anything like them. They opened my mind to new sounds, new rhythms, new variables. They led me to listen to less predictable music. Chances are I would never have fallen in love with Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Adelyn Rose, JE Sunde, and so many others had it not been for this mental expansion. I would have never cared about attending Eaux Claires in 2016, much less be impacted as deeply by it as I was, had it not been for U2’s influence.

And then there are those lyrics. So, not only did U2 provoke me to think about social justice issues, but, dang it, I rarely heard them mention God or Jesus in their songs, aside from the closing moments of Sunday Bloody Sunday (As a related side note, I still vividly recall listening to King’s X’s then new self-titled album in 1992,doing my best discern whether or not they mentioned God or Jesus in their lyrics. Ugh.). The irony for me, however, was that I actually did hear Jesus in U2’s words. I heard Jesus tell me to love my enemies. I heard the apostle Paul’s words about how, in Jesus, all racial, social, and economic barriers between us are demolished. I heard Paul’s reminder that followers of Jesus are “citizens of heaven.” I heard Jesus’ definition of the kingdom of God… captives going free, the sick being healed, valleys being raised up and mountains being humbled… U2 taught me to go beneath the surface, to let myself be challenged by new ways of expressing important things, to weave my intellect and my emotions together, to go deeper. And I am the better for it.

I will be forever grateful for Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen. God has used those four guys to grow me and challenge me in profound ways. It is no overstatement for me to say that he used their music and what they are about to make me more like Jesus.

Photo by Colm Henry

 

 

 

 

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Artist Focus

Kat Meoz: Still Gritty Without the GRIT

Photo above by Angela So

Every once in a while, everyone needs to push the “Reset” button. Maybe things got a little stale… maybe the current course isn’t really working… maybe you’re feeling more a part of the crowd than you really are, or want to be. Recently, L.A.-based rocker Kat Meoz decided it was time for such a reset. She didn’t want to be lost in the crowd.

I first discovered Kat’s music before this “reset,” when she made music under the name GRIT. Admittedly, that’s a pretty commonly used word/name in the music world. However, it was a fitting name, because her music is FULL of grit. In fact, it’s pretty dang BA. Under her former moniker, Kat released an EP on Noisetrade some time ago, which included a couple of songs that would make their way onto TS10 weekly playlists (New Car and Look Away). There’s no way this music should be lost in the midst of multiple “grits”, so Kat recently decided to make a change.

Recently, I caught up with Kat to ask her about this change, as well as discuss other aspects of her musical journey.

 

Ed

You recently changed your “brand” from GRIT to Kat Meoz. Why did you make that change?

Kat

I made the change because “grit” was unsearchable, there are countless projects entitled “grit” or some variation of the word. I trademarked the name for the US but it could still be challenged, and I didn’t really want to spend money or energy on taking people to court over it once it became clear how many there actually were. After years of pushing the band name and even after getting some recognition… if you typed GRIT into itunes/Spotify/Soundcloud or wherever, I’d be the 45th person to come up and that just wasn’t cool. In early 2017 a Grit in France got written up in a French Rolling Stone blog at the same time that a Grit in Scotland was dominating Hype Machine. I wasn’t about to file for an international trademark so it was time. Countless conversations were had and I was admittedly over-thinking it, but by the time the decision was processed it felt right. I’ll always have grit and be tenacious; nothing’s changed there. If anything, going by my name has given me freedom as far as playing with different band members goes.

Ed

Who are your musical/artistic inspirations?

Kat

I’ve always been inspired by songwriting in general, so I am a lover of all types of music. A hit song is a hit song to me no matter what the genre. From Radiohead to Raffy, if a song is undeniably catchy I will listen to it on repeat until I’ve dissected it. I (was) influenced initially at a young age by what my father listened to: Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Gloria Estefan, Harry Belafonte, Steve Lawrence, Tom Jones, The Bee Gees, The Beatles. Later in life he introduced me to The Rolling Stones and I have vivid memories of my mom singing along with all her heart to Jim Croce or Billy Joel on rides home from school. I watched Yellow Submarine and A Very Chipmunk Adventure a thousand times as a kid.  I didn’t love every single song in those movies, but I did love the anticipation of “oh here comes the part with the song I don’t like,”  watching the scene again and picking apart why that specific piece didn’t work for me. The songs I’ve put out are a mix of influences from blues, classic rock, grunge, alternative, punk and pop writers.  I’m probably the most inspired by John Lee Hooker, CCR, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis,  Johnny Cash, Yes, Metric, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Joan Jett, The Sex Pistols, The Strokes, Oasis, Jack White’s various projects, Neil Young, Radiohead, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Eddie Money, early Kings of Leon, early Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Sheryl Crow, The Young Rascals, The Stooges, John Denver, Don McLean, Cream, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.  I could keep going on that list, truly, but all those artists have at least one hit song that heavily influenced my songwriting and desire for quality recordings.

 

Ed

There is a fair portion of angst in your music. Where does that angst come from? Also, how important is it for you to express this angst musically?

Kat

I’ve been angsty since childhood, I’m super sensitive and a sponge for negative energy. I axe people out of my life the moment I feel I can’t trust or count on them, and the uncontrollable reflex to do that year after year is something that brings me a lot of pain and spins me into self doubt. I live life by the intuitive directions I receive, and though I question them endlessly, the butterfly effect of my losses and gains up to this point have led me down a path that ultimately I feel lucky to be living. In the past and sometimes still, looking forward without certainty is daunting. The intense feelings that accompany unfulfilled desires play the biggest role in my music. As far as how important it is to express myself, making loud music with a band is my medicine. Banging a guitar while screaming and losing myself in the moment for an audience is a prescription I am constantly looking to refill. I’d be lost if I didn’t have a musical outlet, every time something paralyzing in my life has happened it’s been music or a musical opportunity that coaxed me back on my feet. 

Photo by Erik Jensen

Ed

Do you have any tours planned that would take you away from L.A. any time soon? Upper Midwest?

Kat

I just added a second guitar player to the mix, and I’m happy because the new band I play with is open to touring which hasn’t been a real possibility until now. We will probably do a Texas run first but when we make it to the Upper Midwest, Tomme Suab will be the first to know. 

 

Of course, that last response made me smile. Come on up here, Ms. Meoz! However, her response to the “angst” question warmed my heart. I’m not a musician, but I have personally experienced the healing power of music. And, it was a privilege to hear a musician pull back the curtain on how music is her medication. There is power in music, artistry, and creativity.

You can check out Kat’s music in the following spaces:

Official Website

Spotify

Connect with Kat on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

 

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Artist Focus, Live Shows

Ben’s Back: Ben Shaw Gracing the Valley Once Again

I really didn’t know who Ben Shaw was. I came across his 2016 release, Feet to the Fire, last year and dug it from the very beginning. I thought to myself, “Who is this new guy in the Eau Claire music scene?!” As I listened more, I could tell this was no beginner, no young buck just starting to do this music thing. There is grit in his voice and experience in his lyrics.

Well, apparently, I missed it when Ben was helping shape Eau Claire music as a part of The Embellishment, among his other projects, to my chagrin. Thankfully, I’ve finally experienced Ben Shaw’s music for myself. I listened to Feet to the Fire quite a bit over the last year and was privileged to hear Ben play as a part of last year’s Sounds Like Summer event at Phoenix Park. That experience cemented my fandom.

This summer, Ben’s back for a more extended visit back home. I was able to catch up with him recently and gather some of his thoughts about his career and his tour in the upper Midwest.

Ed
What drives/inspires your songwriting?

Ben
As to inspiration, probably a bit of healthy narcissism in that when I look back, once a song is complete, it is almost always written about some sort of personal experience, spiritual longing, emotional catharsis, or a lovely muse whose attention I am seeking.

As to what drives my songwriting I would have to say the song drives me. It is an organic process, which begins with me noodling on the guitar or a piano. At some point I make a mistake that catches my ear or I discover a new lick that resonates internally. At that point the song dictates, usually a melody comes up first in my head, then I hear vowels in the melody, and lastly words that correspond with those vowels begin to form. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes 20 years. The one thing that is always certain is my heart knows when the song is complete.

 

Ed
Describe the relationship between your previous musical “life” and/or following in Eau Claire with your newer musical pursuits/following?

Ben
I haven’t noticed too much of a disconnect. My new stuff is a more mature, possibly mellower version of my old stuff – vocal/emotion-centered with multi-layered metaphorical lyrics but with fewer jamout sections. I definitely (became) a better songwriter once I discovered the art of using a bridge in songs (hahaha). There are fewer people singing along to the new stuff but that is more from lack of exposure. Fortunately, they can hear the old favorites when I reunite with The Embellishment at Grenfest this year. In all honesty, the Eau Claire music scene faithful have always been supportive of whatever I’ve done starting with solo gigs at the Cabin to my various bands: Lawnmower, Ala Balik, the Tree Huggers, and the Embellishment.

 

Ed
Do you have any new releases in the works?

Ben
I have over an album’s worth of songs written but am not sure if I will record them as an album or release single by single. It depends if the album is a cohesive statement. I’m not a fan of albums that are a non-flowing collection of singles. I have 1 track in the can and another in progress. I also have been collaborating on 3 separate projects with some excellent songwriters (Bonnie Piesse, Evan Brau, and Jeff Lipinski, respectively) that should release early next year.

 

Ed
Who are your most significant musical/artistic influences?

Ben
For recording production influences my tops are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grandaddy, and Bon Iver. Musically, I’d say the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Radiohead, and again, the Beatles. As far as songwriting goes, the list is numerous, but my tops are Procul Harum, Roger Waters, Dylan, Beethoven, Tom Waits, Handel, and most of the classic Outlaw Country writers (Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kris, and Hanks I & II).

 

Ed
What are you looking forward to the most this time around in Wisconsin?

Ben
A cup of coffee at Racy’s, sipping a “Slit Spritzer” in the barber chair at the Joynt, seeing my first Packers practice, and, most importantly, playing more shows in the EC area with my sidekicks Eric Thompson, Adam Nussbaum, and Paul Brandt, all of whom are phenomenal musicians and great people. Last year was a whirlwind of a week of rehearsals yet we only played 2 shows. We were just hitting our stride and having so much fun playing together. Everyone in the band, myself included, wanted to play more. So this year, I made sure to have more gigs for us. We will play 7 shows this year (4 in various Eau Claire locations, 1 in Menomonie, and two in the Twin Cities).

Ben Shaw and band are playing the following dates over the course of the next week or so here in the Valley:

Thursday, August 10, 8pm at The Mousetrap (21+; with The Rattlenecks)
Thursday, August 17, 6:30pm at Phoenix Park as a part of Volume One’s Sound Like Summer
Thursday, August 17, 10:00pm at The Firehouse (21+)
Saturday, August 19, 2pm as a part of Grenfest 2 (email for more information)

If you’re not familiar with Ben’s sound, take a listen…

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Getting Swampy With Jessie Smith

A couple of years ago, I came across an EP on NoiseTrade from an artist named Jessie Smith. Having been raised on sweet tea and hot, steamy summer days, the southern vibes of Smith’s sound were immediately appealing. I especially connected with the rawness and grit of her single, Secrets in the Hollow. I felt so engaged by the song that I included it on one of Tomme Suab’s weekly TS10  playlists.

Normally, when I share an artist’s music on the TS10, I start following them on social media. For what it’s worth, Smith is a “fun follow” on Twitter; funny, self-deprecating, and honest. Last summer, she tweeted about performing in Wisconsin. I replied back to her, telling her she really ought to get up to Eau Claire next time she’s in this neck of the woods. Thankfully, she’s planning to come up this way in August as she tours the upper midwest promoting her newly released album, Like the Sun.

Like the Sun is more of what drew me to Secrets in the Hollow (which is included on the record). As I mentioned above, having grown up in Dixie, I love the southern soul I hear throughout. That sound is what Smith would call “swampy.” I’ve been curious about that label and recently asked Smith about that as well as other aspects of her music and new release.

EH: Where does the “swampy” vibe come from? What drives that sound for you?

JS: I grew up in the hot, marsh-y, traditional south. Music in that neck of the woods was bendy, dirty, soulful, and used acoustic instruments. It was all about coming together and playing together. Though my immediate family was not musical, all the influences outside of them were there. In college, I tried on many different “styles” of music, but this swampy, messy, soulful thing was always what clicked with me the most. It also fit with my personality. I love the messy, darker life stuff, and I write from that place a good bit. And swampy-sounding music allows me to be the messy-deep chick I am on the inside. 

Image from Jessie Smith’s website

EH: What are your lyrics based on? What inspires them?

JS: I don’t write songs one particular way. The one thread that stays the same, though, is vulnerability. I figured if I’m going to write something, it better at least be real. I am always trying to understand the meaning of things. “Sitting Pretty” is my attempt to understand the culture of money and the pressures around it. My song, “Here With You” is about marriage and what I am trying to understand about love. I also have written songs about my struggles with depression, and “In The Morning” and “Lighting Up The World” shows this. I basically lay myself bare for my songs.

EH: What song on the record is the most meaningful to you?

JS: SUCH a hard one to answer! It’s a tie between two. “Been In The Storm” because it was one of the first songs I had written in my beloved “swampy” style, and it really solidified the theme of my music career. And “Take A Chance On Me” because that one was the first song I wrote that kind of wrote itself, and I still get chills singing it.

EH: How has the album been received thus far?

JS: It is doing well! I had some great album reviews on No Depression and a few other music blogs, and that was a great surprise. My favorite thing has been hearing from people who appreciate my rawness – it’s scary putting yourself out there on a stage, but there’s just no other way to do it, in my opinion, and to see it being well received makes me have hope in the world again, ha.

EH: Do you have any specifics yet on your potential visit to Eau Claire?

JS: I am currently looking to book shows in Eau Claire and surrounding areas for the first week of August. I am already booked to play for Band On The Sand on Crater Island in Brownsville, MN, August 4th and 5th.

You can catch some of her swampy vibe by checking out Like the Sun for yourself. You can stream or buy it by clicking the appropriate links on Smith’s homepage. And, if you’re in Wisconsin or Minnesota, plan to see Smith play live at the event in Brownsville (close to LaCrosse) or in Eau Claire.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

The Ambivalence and Hope in J.E. Sunde’s Now I Feel Adored

Here’s my problem: I have a tendency to gush on and on about how much I appreciate J.E. Sunde’s music. Over the past five years, I’ve written several pieces about Sunde and his various projects. There’s a reason for that: the man is immensely gifted and he honors his musical gifts by continually honing his craft. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a genuinely nice guy.

So, as I’ve considered what I’d like to say about Sunde’s new record, Now I Feel Adored, I’m trying not to simply gush more. Unfortunately, there will be gushing, because Sunde has created yet another gorgeous album. Some reviewers have described this new album as “lush,” and I have to agree. It is indeed lush both musically and lyrically. Sunde’s creativity and unpredictability are on full display, to be sure. However, I have also been taken by the emotional and philosophical lushness of Now I Feel Adored. It seems consistently flirt with ambivalence. There is an underlying sadness to much of what I hear and yet there is a prevailing hope threading throughout.

It is fitting the album begins with nothing but Sunde’s voice (joined later by PHOX’s Monica Martin) in I Will Smile When I Think of You. The man can sing. There’s never been a question about his technical vocal abilities. But, the beauty of his vocals go deeper than precision. There is something in his tone which evokes both warmth and provocation, a pretty incredible mixture. Somehow, through the voice he has been given, he is able to both comfort and unsettle the listener simultaneously at times. Even in this song, his vocals carry a sadness with them, even as the song expresses something of the joy of connected relationship. Again, there is that theme of ambivalence.

Immediately after I Will Smile When I Think of You comes Prism. For me, this song is the sadness anthem for the album. It is an acknowledgment of the brokenness all around us. Something is dreadfully wrong. Sunde expresses a standing expectation for progress, a progress which seems to be too slow, if not at a standstill. The chorus details Sunde’s disappointment and borderline frustration: “I thought we’d be further along…” While Prism is likely the most explicit expression of sorrow on Now I Feel Adored, the theme of underlying sadness, a sadness precipitated by the brokenness of society and strained relationships, is pervasive.

In the end, however, sadness does not get the last word. Even though there are many reasons to feel grief, there is also hope. In Called By Our Names, Sunde speaks of an impending “rising above”. The lyrics describe a connected hope, encapsulated in the lyric after which the entire album is named: “Now I feel adored.” Later, in the closing song of the album, Wedding Ring, Sunde describes a time in which “our sadness will drop off like scales.” He is referring to that “rising above,” a moment in which things are made right and there will be no more tears. That is the hope Sunde expresses in the middle of the grief, disappointment, and strife.

From what I can surmise, this hope is not based on a “blind faith”. Sunde’s hope is not based on some pie-in-the-sky dream in which, all of the sudden, things will just get better. What I hear in Now I Feel Adored is a relational, connected hope. It is based on trusting that there is someone who will in fact makes things right and has both the ability and desire to strip our sadness away. Such trust is only meaningful in the context of real relationship. And that’s what I mean by “connected hope”. To my untrained ears, this connected hope is the backbone of Now I Feel Adored.

Lush, again, is a great description of Sunde’s latest. It is textured and layered in every conceivable way: vocally, musically, emotionally, and lyrically. It is not ear candy… no, it is seven-course meal for the ears, mind, and heart.

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Artist Focus

2016 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year: Justin Vernon

I know, I know. This feels like it could have been impacted at least slightly by the artist’s hometown. Yes, I live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Justin Vernon resides in the area. But I swear, this recognition has only been indirectly influenced by that reality.

The truth is, like many of us Chippewa Valley denizens (let alone people around the globe), I have been aware of Vernon’s various music projects for years. And, I have appreciated his earlier Bon Iver work, as well as his work with Shouting Matches, Gayngs, Volcano Choir, and others. He is clearly talented and committed to his art and his craft. None of that changed in 2016.

What changed for me this year, regarding Justin Vernon, has everything to do with my own personal experience of Vernon’s genius. That experience began at the second annual Eaux Claires. I won’t recount too much of what that weekend was like for me, as I shared it some time ago in my post, The Eaux Claires Impact: Connection and Belonging. But, without trying to sensationalize anything, it was in some ways a life-changing experience for me. And Vernon’s imprint, obviously, was all over those two days.

Certainly, my initial Eaux Claires experience in and of itself was enough to make me a bona fide fan. But it was Bon Iver’s 2016 release, 22, A Million, that cemented the deal. That record, of course, was also ingrained into Eaux Claires. Vernon debuted the entire album live during the first night of the festival. That was my first time hearing Vernon/Bon Iver play live, and it was absolutely incredible. The new music was mesmerizing, and I felt like I was a part of something important that night.

22, A Million is an amazing record. Again, I wrote about that a while back as well, in my post, Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million. Just like the Eaux Claires experience and the Bon Iver live show, this album has captivated me in ways I would have never expected. Because of all these factors, as well as Vernon’s inarguable influence on the cultural path of the Chippewa Valley and western Wisconsin, Justin Vernon is this year’s Tomme Suab Artist of the Year.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million

There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.

Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.

Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.

There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.

Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.

I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.

 

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Latifah Phillips’ Moda Spira: An Emotional Journey

 

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From Moda Spira’s Facebook page

I first became aware of Latifah Phillips a few years ago when I began listening to her project, The Autumn Film. I fell in love with that music. It was heart-on-the-sleeve, emotive stuff. The lyrical content, which spoke of deep issues like experiencing abuse, hiding from the world, and overall brokenness, was matched beautifully by emotive, driving, and building melodies. One of the essential pieces of what drew me into The Autumn Film was Phillips’ voice. Her tone and style consistently seemed to capture and authenticate the emotionality in those songs. My fandom was solidified in 2012 when she collaborated with Derek Webb on the SOLA-MI project’s Nexus record, a concept album in which Phillips’ voice represents a machine that has been brought to life with AI. Again, she was able to sing and project the character in such a way that you can sense this being’s struggle to process what’s happening and to respond, even emotionally, to all the new stimuli. So, yeah, I love Latifah Phillips’ voice.

Therefore, I have highly anticipated her new solo project, Moda Spira, and recently released self-titled album. And it has not disappointed me in the least.  I expected a melancholic, emotional record and that’s what she has made. But, let me be clear: Moda Spira is not The Autumn Film or SOLA-MI. And it’s definitely not Page CXVI (her hymns-based project). This is something new, even though it distinctively sounds like Phillips.

There is a deeper level of soulfulness in this record. That’s not to say her previous work has been devoid of soul… not at all. But there is a different soulful quality to this music that’s difficult to qualify. Certainly, the song What You Need is a great example of this. It is easily the most overt example in its deep emotional pull as the lyrics offer aid to someone in desperate need. But this “soul” is not limited to that song. No, I feel it throughout the record. It is a part of the connective tissue that binds the record together. The songwriting, melodies, and instrumentation all carry that soul, but the dominant soul-conveyer is once again Phillips’ vocals. In my opinion, they are more captivating and emotionally evocative in this project than any I’ve heard before.

Combined with this strain of soul is an ethereal feel to the album. At various times, the songs have an otherworldly dynamic. I don’t understand the technical aspects of music well enough to speak to how Phillips makes that happen, but I think it has to do with instrumentation (beautiful use of synthesizer/keyboard) and mixing. At times, certain instruments are muted or sound like they are a little further back in the background of a song. This dynamic adds a depth to the record and certainly plays an elemental role in that ethereal feel.

One thing I hear on this record which fits with Phillips’ patterns in her previous music is her penchant for songs to build slowly into a crescendo. She is, in my opinion, a master of meaningful repetition. And that repetition will build gradually, adding different instruments or other elements with each repetition. Eventually, it all leads to a satisfying climax. I hear some of that on this record as well, and I still love it. It never gets old for me. Whenever I listen to one of Phillips’ songs containing that specific dynamic/movement, and I let myself engage with it, it takes me somewhere emotionally, usually somewhere I need to go.

Moda Spira is a beautiful record. It holds onto the elements of Phillips’ previous work while establishing new ground. This record has been a long time in the works for this gifted artist, and the time has been well invested. It is an emotional journey worth taking.

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Artist Focus, Music and Healing, Poignant Songs

Diving in Deep with Jonathan Sunde

 

I will never forget my introduction to The Daredevil Christopher Wright’s music. First off, I knew if I was going to be a well-rounded local music appreciator, I would need to know their stuff. So, I got a hold of The Nature of Things a few years ago. As I first listened, while sitting in my van in the Festival Foods parking lot, I knew I was diving into deep waters. And those waters were not only deep; they were unpredictable. Beautiful vocals and craftsmanship sealed the deal for me (and I still smile when I listen to the extended, super-long dramatic pause in Blood Brother, one of the great, unpredictable moments on the album).

I was, of course, bummed to learn that the band was going on a hiatus, but also excited to hear what one of their members, Jonathan Sunde was going to produce as he ventured out as a solo artist. I had a chance to hear him play during Adelyn Rose’s album release show for Ordinary Fantasy at Eau Claire’s House of Rock a couple of years ago, and I was mesmerized by the guy’s immense talent, story-telling, and, honestly, his between-song banter. I especially remember him describing the process of writing a particular song and he ended by saying, “Follow the muse. Follow the muse.” As I’ve engaged with his music more over the last couple of years, it is evident that he is still following the muse, because his writing and music are certainly inspired.

In 2014, he released his first solo record, Shapes that Kiss the Lips of God (I wrote about it here). It’s one of those records I can always go back to. I never get tired of it. And I never get tired of hearing him play songs from it. In fact, I had the privilege of seeing him perform recently at The Cabin at UW-Eau Claire and he played a bunch of those songs that night. The most memorable song of the night for me was his haunting, acoustic rendition of Blinding Flash of Light, an already soul-rending, sober meandering of faith, doubt, and what exists in between them. His quiet, somber approach to the song that night drew me in and broke my heart.

Again, Sunde swims in deep rivers lyrically and musically. I’ve long been curious about his inspiration and motivation for diving in so deep. I recently asked him about this and the theological and philosophical themes in his music, especially his mentions of Jesus and Christian ideas. Sunde replied,

Well, I am motivated and shaped by my attempt to follow Jesus. The big questions have always been present for me and a source of curiosity, frustration, excitement and peace. How people have explored those questions and the philosophical and spiritual conclusions that they have come to, fascinate me. In and overarching way and sometimes in a more pointed and specific way, my songs are an expression of my wrestling with these spiritual and philosophical questions. Over time and for a host of reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can trust in the explanation of the nature of things that Jesus presented. As such, when I’m speaking most intimately about trust and fear and doubt and love it comes from that perspective.

Sunde’s response was refreshing to me. The reason for this is simple, and it’s not motivated solely by my own efforts to follow Jesus. It’s because Sunde doesn’t write about God, theology, or deep philosophical issues from the standpoint of an unengaged bystander. For many of us, it is easy to investigate these issues and themes without letting them impact us personally. I don’t get that vibe from Sunde. It seems to me his wrestling with God, as it were, not only impacts his life, but informs it. For me, it is deeply meaningful when I listen to someone sing or talk about lofty subjects that are practically influencing how they live, act, think, and speak… and that’s the vibe I get from Sunde.

This honest, personal wrestling and his willingness to share openly about them is one of the reasons I’ve become such a fan over the years. It’s why I want to share his music with whoever will listen. It’s rare that you get such honesty, talent, craftsmanship, and humanity in one package, and that’s what I see in Sunde and his art.

Hence, I’m glad to hear he’ll get to play at the inaugural Daytrotter Downs in Davenport, Iowa on Saturday, February 20. This new festival is featuring some great artists, such as John Paul White, Lizzo, Shane Leonard/Kalispell, Liza Anne, and Sun Club. Sunde is pumped to be a part of this:

It feels great to take part in the inaugural Daytrotter Downs. I’ve had the privilege to get to know that community of folks really well over the last 10 years. My label, Cartouche Records, is from that community. I really believe in the honesty and example of people in out of the way places working really hard and making beautiful things that have an impact on the wider world. I believe that Daytrotter has done just that and so I’m stoked to participate in their continuing evolution.

And speaking of Shane Leonard, I’ve been personally pulling for more collaboration between Leonard and Sunde. They’ve toured together and Leonard contributed his talents to the recording of Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. So, of course, I was excited when the “J.E. Sunde Trio” debuted and toured in early 2016. The trio includes Sunde, Leonard, and Har-di-Har’s Andrew Thoreen. Sunde’s pretty excited about this new entity as well:

It’s been something that Shane Leonard and I have talked about since our collaboration on my first record. The thought was to explore that material and new songs in a more lean ensemble. It took some time to get schedules in order, and there is still more of that to sort out, but with the addition of Andrew Thoreen to the equation and an enormously encouraging first tour under our belts, we’re all excited to make this into something. So, yes, it definitely has a future. On top of performing, the ensemble will play a large role in the new record that I’m working on.

And, oh yeah, there’s a new record on the horizon. More good stuff coming from Mr. Sunde in the future.

I’m glad I had a chance to catch up with Sunde at the Cabin show and via email in recent days. Aside from being an incredible artist, he also happens to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of those folks you just want to root for. As for me, I think the art he’s created has already made him a winner, but I would certainly love for more people to connect with his music. His songs and his talent deserve to be heard.

 

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Artist Focus, TS10

Project 86: 20 Years of Push, Challenge, and Raw

I have this friend named Josh. I’ve known Josh since 1995. When we first met, I was an addicted, self-absorbed jerk. Some folks who knew me then may not have seen me that way, but I know the junk that lived inside me back then. It was ugly. One of the manifestations of that ugly stuff was how I was strongly opinionated about what was good and what was not. I was the measuring stick. What I liked was good and what I didn’t like was bad. There is no better example of this personal dynamic than in my musical tastes. Basically, the way it worked was that other folks, like Josh, would talk about music they were into and I would immediately dismiss whatever they had to say about that music.

In those first few years I knew Josh, he was drawn to groups like Creed, Project 86, P.O.D., and Every Day Life. Of course, I assumed he had little taste and didn’t know what he was talking about. Thankfully, that didn’t last. In 2003 or so (yes, eight years after meeting Josh), I finally started paying some attention to some of those bands, one of which was Project 86. I was enrolling in one of the music clubs (like BMG or Columbia House) and Drawing Black Lines by P86 was one of the options for the introductory offer and I took the risk. SO glad I did.

I loved the raw authenticity I heard in the album. Project 86 made it’s break in the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) world, but they sang about things that weren’t often fodder for CCM songs. References to suicide attempts and inward contempt were not normal for that milieu. Aside from the subject matter, I was immediately drawn to the intensity of their sound. I was a fan. And for me, their music pulled me in more and more as the next few albums came out. Truthless Heroes, Songs to Burn Bridges By, and …And the Rest Will Follow were all tremendous. …And the Rest Will Follow is one of my favorite albums of all time, period. These guys had lots to say about art, the music “industry,” God, the church, abuse, and various other controversial and/or provocative issues and they said it loudly and intensely.

I’ve never cared as much for their follow up to …And the Rest Will Follow, entitled Rival Factions. There are definitely highlights on the album, but I was honestly spoiled by its predecessor. However, I’ve always loved the song featured on this week’s TS10, The Forces of Radio Have Dropped a Viper in the Rhythm Section. It is so raucous and out of control. I think that’s the appeal for me, especially on an album that feels much more under control otherwise.

If you have followed Tomme Suab for a while and listen to the TS10 on a semi-regular basis, you may have notices there have been a few Project 86 songs featured. Don’t expect that to change. This is a band that has been screaming change and inviting listeners into deep introspection with an emotive and raucous style for two decades now and more of us ought to give them a listen. So, listen to them on the TS10, and if you’re interested in hearing more, click the links in this post or check out their site: www.project86.com.

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