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How Collapsing Stars aligned to create understated, yet captivating, music

Collapsing Stars members Justin Wayne Nelson and Ally Strycharske
Collapsing Stars members Justin Wayne Nelson and Ally StrycharskeLiam James Doyle for MPR

by Lydia Moran

February 16, 2023

Justin Wayne Nelson isn’t famous — not yet, anyway.

After his Twin Cities-based band Collapsing Stars performed at South by Southwest in Texas in 2018, and NPR Music named them one of the top 100 acts, some people thought he might be. “Are you famous now?” Nelson’s friend had asked him one evening at a northeast Minneapolis bar.

The question echoes on Collapsing Stars’ second full-length album, Chapter, released in the fall of 2022. On the song “Fame,” Ally Strycharske’s cello interlaces with Nelson’s acoustic guitar. “Are you upper elite? / Are you famous now?” Nelson quavers softly over a steady cymbal. Like many of the songs on Chapter, “Fame” has a bittersweet flavor.

Not quite Americana and not quite folk, Collapsing Stars are anchored by Nelson’s guitar and Strycharske’s cello, which seem to sonically support one another without competing. Just as Strycharske’s expansive, gorgeous, and often cinematic playing is about to knock you over, Nelson introduces a melody, warming the cello’s raw power.

Stephen Thompson of NPR Music described Collapsing Stars’ music as containing an “undercurrent of reflection, doubt and even dread.” Last year, he spun a cut of Chapter on New Music Friday, right after highlighting superstars like Willow and Quavo & Takeoff.

That level of recognition was a shock to Nelson, who has operated independently of a label or publicist and recorded two albums in his Minneapolis basement.

Collapsing Stars, named for a Carl Sagan quote, evolved out of Nelson’s previous group Local Rhythm and some of that band’s bluegrass influence is apparent on the first Collapsing Stars album, 2012 (released in 2017). The record features Hillary James (Bathtub Cig, We Are the Willows) playing cello parts that Nelson composed on a mini keyboard. After recording, Nelson posted on Craigslist soliciting a cellist to play live shows.

“One person wanted 200 bucks a show; the other was Ally,” Nelson says in an interview with The Current.

Strycharske laughs, “My daughter just started kindergarten, so I got on Craigslist thinking, ‘I’ll find some wedding gigs and make money.’ Instead, I found Justin. It was a little weird to go from [being] a stay-at-home mom, making lunches, to playing South by Southwest.”

Initially, Nelson thought Strycharske would play a few shows, but she took the initiative to write original parts for the material “and now she’s indispensable,” Nelson says. (The rest of the performing lineup of Collapsing Stars has mainly included Adam Heaney on bass and Mike Langhoff on drums, as well as a handful of other local musicians.)

Guitarist sits on a couch while person stands next to a pinball machine
Collapsing Stars perform at Big Turn Music Festival in Red Wing, MN on February 17, 2023.
Liam James Doyle for MPR

Strycharske is classically trained, and once believed writing original music wasn’t a satisfactory creative outlet. “In college, [composition] is about theory,” she says. Working with Nelson became an unexpected creative renaissance because she didn’t realize that music could be so collaborative.

“It’s the most collaborative I’ve ever been and it doesn’t come naturally,” Nelson explains. “I’m used to ‘hermitting’ in my basement and writing alone — but I think the result [of not doing that] is hands down the best music I’ve ever made.”

Nelson grew up listening to acts like Nirvana and has performed and played guitar “compulsively” since childhood when his dad played in a rock band. He began to play acoustically around the time he was writing 2012. “Genre doesn’t matter as much to me as [making] stuff that’s beautiful, really pretty harmonies and melody lines, and folk seems conducive to that.”

Since 2012, listeners have thanked the band for helping them through sleepless nights and battles with depression. While Collapsing Stars’ music could be described as melancholic, it is also transportive — some tracks are textured with wind and rain sounds — and soothing. They joke about selling Collapsing Stars-branded St. John’s Wort at shows.

“Where does this come from? We’re pretty happy people, right?” Nelson says, turning to Strycharske. “It might just be a catharsis, how we process.”

Both Nelson and Strycharske feel that creating the music that comes naturally to them means forsaking at least some aspects of commercial success.

“A [bluegrass] promoter wants people to be dancing and drinking beer, so we always joke that we don’t want to make people dance, we want to make people cry. We have to decide — are we going to play the game of the Spotify algorithm and the festival-goers who want to dance around, when despondent songs come so easily?” Strycharske says with a laugh.

The band has sat down with labels and management companies but walked away from those meetings feeling wary of being taken advantage of financially and misunderstood artistically. For now, everyone works a day job.

“[Music industry professionals have told us] ‘You should release a single to see if it’s something people want. And if they want that, release more of it.’ I understand that if your only goal is commercial success, but that’s not how I want to create art,” Nelson says.

The question of success has particular resonance for Nelson. The song “Fame” is partly about the experience of releasing music as an independent artist, shooting in the dark amid the thousands of tracks uploaded to streaming platforms every day. What captures short attention spans has better play in the algorithms and with labels, meaning popularity can seem random, and fame and talent have little to do with one another.

Two people sit spotlighted against a wood paneled wall on a checkered floor
Collapsing Stars perform at Big Turn Music Festival in Red Wing, MN on February 17, 2023.
Liam James Doyle for MPR

Nelson’s lyrics on Chapter carry a twinge of emo-style confessionalism mixed with some political anxiety. “Never Been in Love” captures an unsettling feeling of apathy at the end of a romantic relationship. The song “Chapter” is a kind of mournful ditty. It was originally titled “Dan Wilson’s Song” after one of Nelson’s musical heroes because of its pop flare. For the video, Nelson stitched together archival footage of fascist despots but later scrapped it after Strycharske and the rest of the band said it narrowed possible interpretations. For example, the lyrics “Obey the leadership / And kiss the whole world goodbye” could be heard many ways.

But most of the songs on Chapter are instrumental, although they feel no less storied than the lyrical tracks. If Chapter is a play, the instrumentals keep the story alive during intermission while the stage is prepared for the next scene.

“I’m good at coming up with melody lines that are vocal in quality,” Strycharske says. “[Nelson is] singing lead, I’m singing back up, and the cello is kind of the third voice.”

After South by Southwest in 2018, the band played across the country, hitting both coasts but concentrating on the folk-hungry markets in the Rocky Mountains. They were selected for the Austin-based festival again in 2020, and were playing there when the pandemic hit.

As venues began to re-open at the end of 2021, they embarked on a short tour out west, but half of those dates were canceled due to pandemic-related concerns. Instead of playing for an audience, the pair — who are outdoor enthusiasts — decided to record themselves amidst the majesty of the Grand Tetons and at Palisade Falls near Bozeman. The videos became a series called “Forest Folk Sessions” and quickly gained traction on social media.

“It offers a resting place in your scroll,” Strycharske explains. “There’s so much content that catches your attention for two seconds — songs become famous because they have one little part that’s great for reels. When I come across a video with beautiful scenery, I kind of stop and ask myself ‘What am I doing here? Why am I sitting on my phone?’”

Last summer, the band initiated a relationship with the Minnesota DNR and performed in Afton State Park. The intimate sets attracted a group of about 20 people who hiked to the location with Strycharske and Nelson.

“It is a nice equalizer — there’s no stage elevating us. It’s kind of like going on a hike with your friends,” Nelson says. This summer, they are thinking about bringing a group of “forest folk” to the North Shore and including additional acts. The band also plans to tour during the summer and fall, and to release an EP and more videos.

“I always tell my musician friends to identify early on what they want to do in music. Figure out what will make you happy, do that, and set aside fame and stardom because that’s kind of like winning the lottery,” Nelson says. “Make music you love, and hopefully it resonates with people; if not, that’s okay, too.”

Collapsing Stars will perform at Big Turn Music Festival in Red Wing on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m., Christ Episcopal Church.

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