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‘The songs were overtaken by the times’: Artists reflect on staying creative in an anxious year

by Andrea Swensson

December 19, 2017

Listen to the year-end episode of The Local Show, which included reflections from over a dozen Minnesota artists.

As 2017 hurtles toward its dramatic series finale, it’s difficult to find the words to describe what felt like a very, very long year. There is a temptation to start listing all the devastating news headlines that vibrated us awake each morning, but there were far too many, and the simple task of listing them feels like too much. If there is one thing this year was, it was too much: an unrelenting string of jarring developments to process, and a political mood that felt — to use the parlance of these overstimulated times — extra.

“We’ve reached a weird, quiet agreement that the most potent force in our politics is, for the moment, a stew of unease, fear, rage, grief, helplessness and humiliation,” Nitsuh Abebe wrote in the New York Times this past April, which feels like it was about 15 years ago. Regardless of our individual political leanings and levels of social awareness, this was a year where the country felt united, if nothing else, in our seasickness, unsure of where our ship is headed next.

Like so many in the creative world, I spent a lot of time reflecting not just on whether I was doing good work but what it meant. And it turns out I was far from alone. Most of the artists I spoke with this year expressed a similar yearning to figure out their place in the mess and find a way to contribute something that could make a dent in the din, whether it was a song or a Facebook post, a mixtape or a safe space for people to gather and dance.

As 2017 wound down, I found myself wondering: what was it like to be an artist this year, and did it change the way people approach their work?

“I find myself asking if what I’m doing matters,” says jeremy messersmith, who delayed the release of his next album on Glassnote Records to share 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele: A Micro-Folk Record for the 21st Century and Beyond and sing with small gatherings of people in parks instead of touring rock clubs.

“There’s a saying that ‘An artist without a movement is soon forgotten,’” he continues. “And it makes me want to make art that is more inclusive and more thoughtful. Is this something that can change somebody’s life from the inside out, and something that moves us together as a society? That’s something I think of a lot now, and maybe something I didn’t think about as much before this last year.”

It’s a common refrain among artists: does this matter? And if it doesn’t, what could I do instead? J.S. Ondara, the artist previously known as Jay Smart, said that he also cast aside an entire album of material that he was preparing to release at the beginning of this year, opting instead to write an entire new album with a more political tone.

“By the time I was supposed to put out these songs, the songs were already overtaken by the times,” Ondara says. “It felt as though there's more important things to sing about than just wolves and whimsical lovers.”


Dessa, who reached a career milestone this year with her grand collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra, felt a similar pull in the weeks leading up to her April shows.

“I will say that 2017 has prompted some really big questions and some soul searching that I don’t have really neat sound bite answers to yet,” she says. “But as I was preparing for the orchestra show – this was a gig that I had been planning for a really long time. It was a love story, it had a lot of science in it, it had some really carefully crafted kind of performative monologues and like two months before it was time to perform I thought, ‘Do I have any kind of license to tell this story right now, given what’s happening politically? I don’t know that the thing that we need right now is a personal story of heartbreak. I think we might need something bigger than that.’”

Dessa ultimately dazzled audiences with her stories and songs, and she’s wondering now if there’s an untapped power in soliciting the same kind of deeply personal stories from people with other backgrounds and perspectives. “I do think there is a call to answer, and that maybe I have the responsibility to answer, about helping to make a culture that is at least palatable. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that. I don’t know how yet, but I’d like to participate in sharing stories and listening to stories that are different from my own, even if they’re highly personal.”

In a year of power structures being challenged and authority figures being held accountable for their actions in unprecedented ways, many artists expressed a desire to continue leveling the playing field, raising up unheard voices and finding new ways to work collaboratively.

“One thing that’s come to me the past couple years is finding ways to live in anarchy,” says Channy Leaneagh of Polica and Roma di Luna. “How just the act of collaborating with people and making music in communion with others and not just for your own name to be lifted, but to kind of lose yourself in the community of others — it feeds me more than just making a song by myself.”

In the past year Leaneagh has collaborated with Spank Rock (who recently relocated to Minneapolis) and the German orchestral group s t a r g a z e, whose forthcoming album with Polica includes the 10-minute meditation “How is This Happening?,” written the day after the 2016 election.

“I have so much to say politically but it can be so awkward and clunky to say in a song,” she reflects. “It doesn’t necessarily serve the soul. But even the process of making music can be anti-establishment, anti-hierarchy, anti-patriarchy, anti-white supremacy. All of these things get dismantled by the way we work with each other.”


Minnesota already has a long tradition of producing politically fueled and pointed work, especially in our hip-hop scene — lyrics that address racial inequality, police brutality, economic disparities can be traced back for decades. For artists who have already established themselves as activists and released entire catalogs of political material, 2017 has been spent reflecting how to retool their work for new listeners who are frazzled by the mood of the times and suddenly more receptive to their messages.

“It’s actually challenged me to go more on the lighter side and try and put the pill in the pudding rather than try and force feed someone medicine,” says Greg Grease, who released a new solo album this year, Down So Long, in addition to continuing his work with the Afrofuturist group ZULUZULUU. “Everything is so stressful right now and everything is so tense. I don’t think I need to add to that now. So I was really trying to have more of a softer approach.”

“How I look at it, is it just shows that you have to be more mindful of what’s going on,” says Dwynell Roland, who found himself performing in front of exponentially bigger audiences this year. “You have to really think, ‘Should I tweet this? Should I say this?’ You never know how something affects other people.”

In a year when more people than ever seem ready to confront an array of previously unspeakable differences and injustices, musicians are embracing the opportunity to invite more people to interact with their work, even when it includes challenging messages.

“As terrible as a lot of things are, it’s really good for me as an artist because then I’ve always been the outspoken political kind of person anyway,” says the genre-melding R&B, soul, hip-hop and gospel artist PaviElle. “Not everyone understood what I was talking about before and not everyone wanted to understand, but now we don’t really have a choice. You have to see it. The writing is all over the wall and it’s all over the tweets.”

“We have to have some honest conversations with each other about the spaces that we actually take up,” adds Toki Wright, who just joined the staff of the Current and is programming a new hip-hop show set to launch in 2018. “Because there’s still spaces that I can’t go and there’s still clubs in Minneapolis that won’t let me in wearing what I’m wearing now and let someone else with a lighter skin tone in with the same outfit. This is 2017, liberal Minnesota. So we have a lot of stuff we need to deal with. That’s why it’s a beautiful thing for me, on a personal level, to come to the Current and to bring a new identity and some new ideas. I’m an artist first and I came into this as an artist, but my role in media is to open the door for other people that aren’t being heard.”

Some of these conversations have come with a very real cost. While talking about Black Lives Matter at a show in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, this year, Chastity Brown says she was confronted by a white supremacist in the audience who physically threatened her after her performance. “It was because of that encounter I wrote a new song that I would have never written had I not had that very just heightened experience of fear and of bravery simultaneously existing in my body at the same time," she shares. "I don’t know where this song will go. I have a very strong feeling it will be one of the hard focuses on my next album, even if it doesn’t make it on the record.”

“Part of the other reaction that is going on is to fervently live,” she adds. “I mean, there’s just something horrible every day. So it’s also been a new act for me to be more present in the moment and really, really live despite all that bull crap.”


As artists across the board take on more responsibility in their communities and in their work, there seems to be a unanimous desire to create additional space for more voices in the scene and elevated people and work from marginalized communities. More women are speaking up and more men are listening — look no further than the rebrandings of HALEY and jeremy messersmith for a visual representation of this attunement — and artists with larger platforms are questioning their responsibilities and the way their voices are being heard, perhaps for the first time.

“I think this year we’ve had to sort of rethink what we’re doing on a more fundamental level,” says Jake Luppen of Hippo Campus. “I had a conversation with my girlfriend, probably two or three months ago, about young women’s relationship with music, and how important and fundamental that is to young, growing women. And it was a responsibility I hadn’t ever thought about on that level. Because up until this point, music critics have given us, if anything, flack for our fanbase being predominantly young women. It’s been a year of re-thinking that. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact it’s awesome, that these girls can come out and have a great time and have this music mean that much to them... I think young women are at the cutting edge of what’s cool in music, because the relationship that they have with that is like nothing else. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s amazing responsibility to have, to be a part of that.”

“This last year has really not only created space for, but women and femmes have really stepped forward and really asserted their place, asserted spaces and made their own spaces,” adds Toki Wright, listing examples like the all-femme Klituation and Wonder Women nights at First Avenue. “And it’s forced men to analyze how we show up at places and how we take up space. It’s not something that you can argue against because men have been dominating and taking up space for such a long time. As much as I like to think that I’m someone who likes to create balance, I’ve been in plenty of shows throughout my career where it’s all men and women are only there to be audience and so that’s something that has to change and it may take drastic measures in order for that to happen.”

With the fallout from sexual harassment and assault sweeping through the entertainment industry, Channy Leaneagh says it’s a sign that things are shifting in meaningful ways — but she stresses that it’s important to keep an intersectional perspective. “Sexual harassment and rape culture needs to be dismantled, and hopefully more women will stand up. But then also don’t forget about racism and white supremacy — that happens so often in history, where black people will be raising their voices and then women will be like, us too! And so often women issues get solved and racism isn’t being dealt with.”


All of which sounds like a daunting responsibility for any one person to take on — but one other resounding truth that is shared between artists of all backgrounds and disciplines is that 2017 was a catalyst, and that despite the ominous mood and soul-crushing news feeds, creative workers are feeling more energized than ever.

“I mean when you ask the question, ‘What was it like to be an artist in 2017?’ I guess my general answer would be like it’s kind of awesome, because we’re presented with this opportunity to suit up and defend ourselves and to just be unapologetic,” says Meghan Kreidler of Kiss the Tiger, one of the Star Tribune’s Are You Local? finalists this year. “All that stuff is scary, and not everybody is ready to speak up about certain things. But I think as an artist, we have a really great opportunity to translate all of that into a very abstract thing that maybe empowers people or maybe makes people feel like they’re not so alone.”

“I think it’s just more important than ever to fight the good fight,” adds Stephanie Jo Murck of Sass, Tony Peachka, and new punk supergroup Scrunchies. “I wish I could start a revolution, but I don’t know how — except to write songs that connect people.”

“It’s been a year of change and a year of truth being brought to light, and it’s not always easy, it’s not always something that you want to deal with — but in facing it head on that’s the only way we’re going to get through it,” says PaviElle. “We have to go through it to get through it. And love on yourself as much as possible, because we can’t do any of the work in any kind of way without our cups being full.”

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