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Artist of the Month: Lookbook

by Jay Gabler

January 02, 2014

Bob Dylan has been described as “hiding in plain sight,” and the same could be said about Lookbook, the Minneapolis duo who never failed to fascinate during their brief existence as a group and who have become only more fascinating in the three years since they split ways. Maggie Morrison and Grant Cutler have remained two of the most active musicians on the local scene, but the legend of Lookbook lingers.

Cutler and Morrison met in Minnesota, the place between their respective native states of South Dakota and Wisconsin. Cutler was a rock musician (you might—or, more likely, might not—have seen him in the band Tomhanks) who was just coming into his own as a producer, and Morrison was a vocalist who was best-known for fronting the Ryan Olson project Digitata.

When Digitata shared a bill with Cutler’s band Passions, Morrison and Cutler began to explore projects on which they might collaborate. Eventually, the two ended up making music as a duo; Lookbook’s ominously titled debut EP I Fear You, My Darkness was released in 2008.

Though the moody I Fear You was an imperfect calling card, Lookbook’s live show was electric; their fan base began to snowball. Named one of First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2008, their corresponding appearance on the Mainroom stage marked an emergence into widespread recognition. The 2009 release of their sterling full-length, Wild at Heart, solidified the duo’s status as local darlings who seemed destined to break big.

“Are they dating?” was the question everyone asked about Lookbook. (Well, almost everyone—”Are they brother and sister?” was another occasional query.) Onstage, often enveloped in fog, vocalist Morrison and instrumentalist Cutler would seem wrapped in their separate worlds as their surging songs unreeled. Then they’d seem to notice each other, their eyes locking as Morrison marched across the stage toward Cutler, only to suddenly stop and turn away.

The duo’s answer to the dating question was generally something along the lines of, “We have a complicated friendship.” Unless you were on the long list of admirers trying to woo either of the performers, though, the answer to the dating question didn’t really matter. Lookbook’s onstage chemistry was what mattered: when they were playing, you couldn't look away.

However compelling their stage presence, Lookbook’s best claim to fame—and their lasting legacy—was their music. Often pegged as retro, Lookbook’s sound was also well ahead of the curve in its reimagining of classic synth-pop for the MacBook era. The Lookbook years in Minneapolis were also the years when Olson was marshaling the forces that would become GAYNGS (a supergroup that included contributions from both Lookbook members), and the years when Olson’s new Marijuana Deathsquads were pushing improvisation and electronic experimentation to extremes. In Lookbook, Morrison’s vocals were sometimes electronically processed and would sometimes disintegrate into shrieks and percussive yelps, but the band’s sound was always defined by accessible, often danceable songs.

Then, suddenly, the party ended. Fresh from a triumphant First Ave headlining show and a City Pages cover story (written by Andrea Swensson, now at the Current), and with a much-anticipated new album in the works, in September 2010 Lookbook pulled the plug—canceling future shows, putting the album on ice, and each turning to separate projects. 2009’s True to Form EP was the final Lookbook release. Why? “It’s a sticky situation,” Morrison said, and left it at that.

Cutler’s first post-Lookbook splash was a band-fronting gig under the name Grant Cutler and the Gorgeous Lords. Anchored by Cutler’s emotive baritone, the Lords won their own big following, being named one of First Ave’s Best New Bands of 2010. Since then, Cutler has worked as a producer and performer with a wide range of artists—from Jeremy Messersmith to Holly Newsom to Jon Davis to Aby Wolf, whose Cutler-produced Wolf Lords album sparked a surge in popularity for the singer-songwriter formerly best known for backing Dessa.

Morrison, meanwhile, collaborated with Mark McGee in H.U.N.X. and Votel, both semi-improvisational electronic projects in the spirit of Marijuana Deathsquads—with whom she’s also performed. With Ben Clark and Cecil Otter, she’s also performed and recorded under the name LaLiberte; Morrison is now beginning to play shows under, simply, her own name.

If you saw Lookbook live, you’ll never forget them. If you’re discovering them through their recorded output, you have a fascinating journey ahead of you as you listen to their brief but indelible catalog—and through it, to the rapidly-expanding body of work that lies beyond Lookbook for these two essential local artists.

















Previous Artists of the Month:

January 2013: Dan Wilson

February 2013: Low

March 2013: 12 Rods

April 2013: The Jayhawks

May 2013: The Hopefuls

June 2013: The Hang Ups

July 2013: The Soviettes

August 2013: The Suburbs

September 2013: The Replacements

October 2013: Charlie Parr

November 2013: Information Society

December 2013: Sounds of Blackness

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.