Singer-songwriter Claudia Schmidt quits day job for music comeback

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Claudia Schmidt
After a music career spanning four decades, singer-songwriter Claudia Schmidt says she loves playing live more than ever. (MPR image/Euan Kerr)
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There was a time when Claudia Schmidt was ubiquitous. She was everywhere, on stage, on the radio, in people's music collections.

For years, singer-songwriter Schmidt was a pillar of Minnesota's folk music scene. She toured nationally, released more than a dozen albums, and appeared regularly on "A Prairie Home Companion." Then one day, it seemed as if she just dropped from sight.

She was the sultry-voiced multi-instumentalist with a hearty laugh, and endless supply of energy, whether she was playing a coffee house, or singing to a sold out Ordway.

And then she was gone.

A decade later, Schmidt is back and working harder than ever.

"I wanted to do some other things," she said. "Specialization is for the insects, you know. That is still my motto."

Schmidt had become obsessed with a small community in her native Michigan called Beaver Island. She moved there with her then-husband and opened a bed and breakfast. Later they added a restaurant.

Tuning
Claudia Schmidt tunes her guitar for a session at Minnesota Public Radio studio on July 25, 2012. (MPR image)

She had always seen performing music as service, and this was not that different.

"It was taking care of people one-by-one, or two-by-two, or 10-by-10, instead of an audience of 5,000 or whatever," she said.

Schmidt still played, but couldn't travel as far because of her business.

"I thought people would remember me. I thought I could step away for a while and then step back," she said. "I realized I really missed the music thing and wanted to be doing that more and I had the rude awakening that I sort of had to go to the back of the line."

Now she's back in Minnesota and finds that while there are lots of fans, she has to introduce herself to younger promoters.

"It was very depressing, to tell you the truth after all those years of work," she said, laughing.

On top of that, the music business has changed, requiring much more do-it-yourself enterprise for performers. So, Schmidt got down to it. She's gigging again, and she released not one, but two albums. "Bend in the River" is a collection of songs from her past CDs. Selecting the songs was a little emotional, she said, but reassuring in a way.

Guitar case
Claudia Schmidt is learning quickly about the new ways of the music business. She ordered these stickers with a snappy slogan, but also a QR code which links anyone who scans it to her website. (MPR image/Euan Kerr)

"It didn't feel chronological or dated to me," Schmidt said. "It felt like a CD I could have done, you know, last month."

The album includes tracks recorded with her friend Sally Rogers.

"There is a chemistry that we have always had, first of all in the blend of our voices, which are very different if you hear us apart from each other," Schmidt said. "But we have this wonderful way of blending together when we sing."

That is where the second new album, "Evidence of Happiness," comes in, which Schmidt and Rogers recorded and produced.

Schmidt is also working as the composer on playwright Laurie McLaughlin's musical, "Final Approach," which Schmidt said presents a different take on air pioneer Amelia Earhart.

"Most of the talk goes on about the crash, her end," Schmidt said. "This play is really about how Amelia the girl became Amelia the woman, and so to me this really humanizes her."

On Saturday night, Schmidt returns to her roots to play a special 20th anniversary celebration at the Gingko Coffee House in St. Paul, accompanied by her longtime collaborator guitar virtuoso Dean Magraw.

She's loving playing live more than ever, she said.

"And maybe that's just the gratitude of making it this far and going, 'Phew! I am glad I failed at getting my day job back,'" she laughed.

It's not clear what that day job was, but it's a failure gratifying to Claudia Schmidt's many fans

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    Claudia Schmidt and her guitar for a session at Minnesota Public Radio studio on July 25, 2012. (MPR image/Euan Kerr)