For Minneapolis-based musician Laura Hugo, creating and performing songs about poignant personal moments of grief, loss, and confusion has led to profound personal healing. Although Hugo’s journey to find comfort onstage had emotional ups and downs, her confidence has grown and blossomed.
The 31-year-old singer/songwriter will amplify personal stories with her powerful voice as part of The Current’s Emerging Artists Showcase with the Oshkii Giizhik Singers in Duluth on Saturday, Dec. 3. Her storytelling through music gives listeners a relatable way to cope with their own brushes with grief and trauma.
Raised in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., located in the Navajo Nation, Hugo always had music on her mind. Her grandmother’s gospel group the Beaconaires heavily influenced Hugo’s desire to sing and explore instruments. But without a lot of access to an instructor, she taught herself how to play both guitar and piano by watching online tutorials and learning from her family.
After seeing her uncle’s band Red Earth gain popularity and tour around the Southwest, Hugo felt emboldened. “Most reservations see alcoholism, poverty, and dysfunction,” she says. “For a long time, it felt like my world was very small, and these ideas and dreams that one day I could be a successful musician [felt] a little bit impossible. To see [success] happening with somebody who I am related to, respect, and admire, was very inspiring. It made me realize that the world is really big.”
Hugo’s experiences with grief and loss started during childhood. Without easy access to therapeutic services, she began writing music to work through her thoughts. Over time, she realized listeners could relate to her music. “I eventually came to the conclusion that I'm going to write what I'm writing, and it's going to come out however it comes out,” she says. “It's going to be the most genuine delivery of this experience I'm trying to share with people.”
In 2010, she moved to Minnesota to attend McNally Smith College of Music. She sometimes sings about a “general confusion” about her place in the world growing up Native and being part white. “Not being ‘Native enough’ or ‘white enough’ in one place or another, and really confused about how I'm allowed to identify while looking for permission from other people,” she says. “When I first moved up [to Minnesota], I was too timid. I felt like I wasn't Native enough to pursue any involvement in the Native communities up here. [..] I felt kind of isolated in that way, since I couldn’t visit home very much [..] It’s getting better every day. I’m finding more connections and have had so many opportunities to see shows and meet Indigenous creators here.”
By 2013, Hugo was performing for open mic nights at Plums in St. Paul, and Moto-i in Minneapolis. Soon after, local musicians caught wind of Hugo’s resonating voice and engaging lyrics. In 2017, Hugo recorded the debut single “Not Even a Little Bit” at the Petting Zoo Recording Studio in Minneapolis.
In the past five years, the losses of her father and her former bandmate have framed much of her recent music. Although she channels much of her energy into creating songs that help heal her personal wounds, she also intentionally provides engaging themes in her music. “It's stuff [music] people can relate to,” she says. “Acknowledging the ugliness of life, but also preserving the hope that you carry through terrible situations.”
“Where We Go to Grieve,” a song Hugo wrote when she first moved to Minneapolis, embodies different forms of bereavement while encouraging listeners to find their own path to healing. For Hugo, healing is songwriting — but for someone else, it might manifest in a different way. “I thought about grief and about the things you can lose that equate to this gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching absent feeling, and longing and pining weight in your chest,” she says. “That can be the grief of losing somebody in a relationship, somebody who passed away, losing a friend, or distancing yourself from somebody. It's just such a universal experience.”
Because of the loss Hugo has experienced over the past five years, finishing the recording of an EP was placed on hold. But in the meantime, Hugo continues to write music and plans to finish recording her project soon.
Hugo currently resides in the northeast Minneapolis area, working full-time in the marketing area and performing music whenever she has an opportunity. She hopes by continuing to perform, she can eventually raise money to give directly back to Indigenous communities. “I want to be an advocate for Indigenous and BIPOC voices who aren't heard,” says Hugo. “The pandemic brought a lot of light to the actual conditions of a lot of reservations, particularly the Navajo reservation. People didn't realize this existed in 2022 and the conditions that people are subjected to.”
Although the harsh Minnesota winter weather can be tough for Southern-bred Hugo, she enjoys the Midwestern music landscape and the connections she has made here. “The community and scene here have restored my faith in humanity,” she says, “have shown [me] that life is beautiful, and all these cool things [music opportunities] are possible.”
The Current’s Emerging Artists Showcase, curated by David Huckfelt and Khayman Goodsky, is Saturday, Dec. 3, at Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth. The Oshkii Giizhik Singers, a group of women from the Fond Du Lac Indigenous community who hand drum and sing in traditional and contemporary Anishinaabe style, will also perform at the showcase.