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Interview: Laamar on finding his voice, his band's sound, and his next record

Laamar and bandmates perform at The Current
Laamar and bandmates perform at The CurrentThe Current

by Diane

April 02, 2024

Laamar has been a buzzed-about artist in the scene since performing at First Avenue this past January as part of the Best New Bands of 2023 showcase. And this Saturday, he will return with his band to their biggest stage yet, Palace Theater, to open for one of Minnesota’s most recognizable names in pop-rock music: Semisonic.

Just after recording an in-studio performance and interview at MPR, his soul-Americana, racial-justice song “Say My Name” hit no. 2 on The Current’s Chart Show.

Laamar (born Geoffrey Lamar Wilson) chatted with The Current about being raised by a musician father in North Minneapolis, to now taking on a similar role as a dad of two. Laamar also talked about finding confidence in singing, connecting with the local music scene and more. 

Interview edited for clarity and length.

Diane: You are a musician extraordinaire all around. You are a songwriter. You play saxophone, and produced music for a lot of podcasts here [for American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio].

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Terrible, Thanks For Asking — that was what got me through the doors here. Nora [McInerny] and the crew. And I did some work on In The Dark and Flyover with Cathy Wurzer. That was a short-lived show. Feel like I'm missing some other things, but every now and then.

Diane: And that's just kind of like composing music, basically? Or just like getting a feel, or?

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, like, trying to get a feel of the vibe. It's an interesting process, which I made up under no tutelage, but pulling words and feelings and associations and then trying to channel that into music. Certainly, a theme song, you know? Like, how do I reduce all of these ideas into 30 seconds of something compelling? Different than scoring a longer thing or putting thematic music behind podcast stuff, which is a little different for film, which I do sometimes too, but … It's kind of fun as a songwriter, you could probably relate, condensing your ideas, your four minute song ideas, into a 30-second idea. So 10 seconds of intro, 10 seconds of song, and then wrap it up. You're all done — you know? But a good palate cleanser.

Diane: A palate cleanser? That's a good way to put it.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Although I couldn't do it like every day. Some people do that as their job. I don't have that much focus.

Diane: Well, you're a well-rounded human there, Geoffrey. And I was trying to think, you know, preparing for this interview … you've been interviewed by a lot of folks lately because you're quite a buzzed-about artist in the town having released your Flowers EP. It's been a hit on The Current. 

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Thank you. 

Diane: "Home To My Baby" of course and then "Say My Name" have been getting played a bunch on (The Current), and you're opening for Semisonic soon.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, no big deal. Yup.

Diane: How's it feeling with all the buzz? You opened for Arlo Parks, a U.K. superstar. How is the feeling of being — of getting that buzz?

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, it still feels surreal. I think I have enough sort of — I don't know if it's maturity or sort of perspective now that I've — sort of my second go around in making music in public, in a somewhat known way, and having kids. I don't have a lot of time to think about how awesome it is, so even walking into stuff like this, I'm like, "Alright, done with work. Not parenting for the next few hours. Let's think about this."

But same — I got the opportunity opened for Dan Wilson a month ago … and it was two amazing nights; but it was like, stay up till midnight, go home, wake up at six o'clock, parent all day, and then get back into the zone of performing again. Similar with Arlo Parks, being busy enough to not have too much time to dwell on it, and wake up in the morning be like, "Okay, tonight's the night. Gotta get ready, got to do my exercises, drink my tea with honey." None of that. Just try to remember to have some clean clothes. Thinking ahead of what my outfit might be, and that I packed enough cables and my tuner to be ready — which is good! Otherwise I'd probably be too anxious. Because it's really cool, it's kind of surreal.

Diane: Today I was also geeking out about the group you had before, when you were in Brooklyn with your wife. Jus Post Bellum — Civil War-inspired and folk-music-inspired, really ethereal music.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, I was learning to play guitar and write songs and lead a band all at once during that time and … the sort of historically-centered writing helped me as a new songwriter in my mid-20s to not feel like I needed to write about myself, but have something that I cared to write about. I studied American Studies and African American history and literature in college, and so I kind of had a lot of that in my mind, and it helped as sort of a creative foil or something to sort of channel my writing into. But it was a fun and a special time doing that in New York, and then kind of hanging that up, taking some years off, and moving back here, starting a family … and suddenly being like, "Huh, I think I kind of miss being a singer-songwriter and performing in front of a band again, and maybe I should give it another go."

Diane: Well, then you moved back to Minneapolis during a traumatic time. With Philando Castile's — the shooting, his murder and that inspired you to write one of the songs you performed today, "Say My Name" … and a lot of the music you wrote on the Flowers EP is touching on the subject of racial injustice. Talk to me about that.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, the timing was such that I think … we had moved from Brooklyn, and were moving back here, and Eric Garner — which sort of, in a way kicked off the most current contemporary conversations around police violence. That happened and I was kinda like, "Oh, this is a thing in New York, and, like, Staten Island is not Minneapolis." And then moving back here and just starting to re-root in the community that I grew up in, with Philando Castile getting shot and killed and murdered, it had struck a nerve that I wasn't really expecting … and then, like I've said to people, before I wrote this song, and sat on the song and sort of sat on the concept, I wrote a few songs, but didn't really perform them immediately. But then things kept happening. I mean, as you know, it just kept snowballing, and I eventually just felt like — one, I feel like I have something to say, and I want to contribute to the moment in the way that feels authentic to me.

Diane: Absolutely.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Which is creative, and it gave me, again, focus on what I wanted to say and how I could say it. 

Diane: When I think about the difference between Jus Post Bellum and then the music that you're doing right now — it is still roots music, Americana music, but there's like a certain soulful element to it. And you sing so beautifully, and you have such a beautiful calming touch, and maybe that goes back your roots in psychotherapy and studying at NYU. I don't know if that has any sort of connection, but you have such a very calming, beautiful voice and then you also sing about heavy subjects, and I'm kind of curious how that —

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: (Laughs) I mean, it just sort of all developed naturally, in addition to being new to writing, playing guitar and songs, like I was not a singer. And it wasn't really until I started in the music therapy program at NYU and I had to learn guitar — a lot of guitar accompaniment, playing, and also singing, and I think I always felt like I could sing but never had the confidence to try... 

Diane: Interesting.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: 'Cause I played saxophone growing up and I was just a saxophone player. You got your instrument in your mouth and that's kind of that, you know? So it was really a confidence thing, and I'm certainly doing singing — that time was very fraught with insecurity, and I'm feeling much better now with this new project. Just comfortable with how I can sing, not feeling like I need to sing in a certain genre, certainly figuring out, "Am I really a folk singer?" I grew up with soul music and R&B music and not that much folk music but I'm really drawn to singing and writing in Americana and with the confidence of some people in my family, my partner and my mother in law and James who's sitting back in the studio and some other people …

Diane: Wendy Lewis shout out!

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yeah, shout out to Wendy Lewis, and my family just saying to me, like “It all sounds authentic.” Whereas I was very much judging myself. Like, "I don't know, is this how I'm meant to sing? Does this make sense? Sing “Say My Name” next to “My Kingdom”? A folk song and an R&B soul song?" But I'm kind of getting over that, and also, maybe I care less now. I'm not so worried about mashing genres together, and I also think that music listeners — especially younger ones — but people's ability to enjoy across genres has really changed and you don't have to fit just into Americana anymore.  I mean, playlists on Spotify, love it or hate it, are an indication. You can mash a bunch of stuff together now and people like it. So anyway, getting back to singing, yeah, it feels very liberating to be able to sing and play guitar and not be debilitatingly nervous like I used to be. So I think I sing a little bit better, but it wasn't intentional to juxtapose my naturally calm style of singing with very dark content. I don't write many cheery, happy songs, I guess by nature.

Diane: You do write potent lyrics and you have such a calming comforting voice that you can't help but listen and hear it and feel it with empathy. Tell me more about growing up in North Minneapolis and having a dad who was really involved in playing in bands and how that raised you to become a musician and a total music fan. 

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: I feel very appreciative of it now because, to me, it was just normal, and I think I'm providing my kids kind of that same perspective now. I lived in North Minneapolis until I was I think 12, and my dad, like many folks like me, had a day job and had a band that he ran and he played gigs at night and on the weekends and to me, that was normal. Dad goes to work in the day and Friday night he's got a gig, and we help them load up the drum stuff. And if it's during the day, we can go and see him play at like Peavey Plaza ... or when I was a tween or teenager, like, Famous Dave's. He played in an eight- or nine-piece soul band. 

Diane: Oh, in Uptown?

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Yup, yup. In Uptown Calhoun Square. And so, to me, that was normal. Load-in, loadout if I could. And once I got good enough at saxophone, I got to sit in with them … But that was just normal. I'd love to go to shows, hanging out...

Diane: Who were some of the artists he was covering? Or was he doing originals? 

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: It was like classic soul, so Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and all that stuff. Yeah, there's a four-piece horn section and keys, and my dad plays drums, and there's a bass player. So I was like, "Oh, yeah, just to have an eight-piece band that practices in your basement" … that's just normal." I think it's normal? I don't know. It's cool certainly because there's always instruments set up, so you can just go down and play and I think that certainly helps. There's not a barrier. The PA is always kind of ready and the drums are always there. I had a band in high school and then we practiced in the basement too ...

Diane: Just part of your blood, basically. I like to say I was raised by two karaoke singers. They weren't in bands, but they sang karaoke all the time. 

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: It is interesting, like, you're a singer, I didn't grow up with singing. My dad is also early in his journey of starting to sing a little bit in his band and finding his voice, and if anything, I really want to encourage my kids and other people. Singing is such a personal thing to your body and it can be so complicated with your self-confidence. That's been the hardest thing to get over. 

Diane: Yeah, tell me about juggling being a father, and then you also work a job, and then being a husband … I know that being a well-rounded person seems to be something that's important to you, rather than just being a full-time musician.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: Even if I had the acumen to be a full-time musician on some instrument … I don't think that lifestyle is for me. I just couldn't live in that space all the time. At least as a band leader, it's a lot to be constantly thinking about your own project. Like, are you gonna make money? Are you gonna be successful? Stringing gigs together, promoting them. I mean, I struggle enough with it as it is.

But being a parent has certainly helped temper the pressures of needing to stay relevant all the time. Even though I still feel that pressure, I just don't have time to think about posting all the time, or make sure I'm at shows or connecting with people. I mean again, James [Taylor] is back there, who's managing Lamaar and plays drums, and that really is helping keep the momentum that we kind of built last year. Organically, like, structure it and try to make the most of opportunities, because my focus has to be on being a dad — at least from the hours of 5 p.m. till 8:30 when the kids go to bed, and then again at like 5:30 the next morning. Being a parent just impacts, at least for me, my perspective on how cool it is to open for Semisonic at The Palace. But also how cool it is that my one-and-a-half-year-old is about to go to Montessori and can carry his own backpack. All cool things have equal weight.

Diane: (Laughs) The finer things in life really do — like, "Wow, this makes me happy, but also this..."

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: "Here's a picture of me at an Arlo Parks show! Here's a picture of Ronan taking his first steps, walking around!" It's all scrambled in my phone, you know? I don't think I'm the type of person to really get a big head, but it certainly keeps you humble that you have to be responsible to all these different things at once and value them equally … Wendy, I remember said to me years ago, or she's told Hannah, my wife, this many times. But when she had her kids – Hannah and her sister Katie – (Wendy) was also very busy in her music career. Making music, singing for people, and also creatively felt full of energy. I didn't intend to do that, but shortly after having Ezra, my now-four-year-old, I started playing saxophone again and then writing music again and then wanting to perform and (to do) next thing. I have a busy band, two kids, and a job, and I'm writing music all the time and playing way more shows than I really ought to be doing, at least in terms of life force. It just all happens at one time, you just gotta roll with it. I have been burning myself out a little bit and getting sick all the time this year. I'm finally putting two and two together, like, “Why have I been sick four times this year?” And it's like — “Oh, I sleep five hours a night and play shows and practice and work and kid stuff. And I'm not 25 anymore.”

Diane: I know, I get the pain. I'm like, yes, yeah that sounds so fun.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: I don't have anything else on that day, so I can do that. The zest for life is fun.

Diane: Yeah, I love that you've been collaborating with some really cool Minnesota musicians. We did a show with HALEY, and I know you've worked with Cactus Blossoms, and then Holly Hansen, and Nat Harvie … Tell me about the new stuff you’re working with. Tell me about your connection and relationship with the Minnesota music scene.

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson: So, I think part of what's really made it interesting and fun being in Minnesota – and it took a few years to get grounded and just settle in here again. And then COVID happened, of course, so then it was this weird disconnection. But I have felt with a little bit of effort going to see other people play and making connections and being brave enough to talk to musicians — to say, "Hey, I really liked your show!" or whatever. So I've found community in a way that I didn't expect, just by being friendly and outgoing in a way that was harder to do in New York.

And so the community's been super welcoming, and anytime I've reached out to someone or connected with Holly... A couple years ago, I was like, "I think I want to record. Could I come to the studio and try just recording solo?" And she was so accommodating and was in the booth just like, "Sounds great, you sound awesome, keep going!" You know, all these little things along the way, and that's also made me feel like, "Okay, I have a place here making music authentically" … And whenever you move to a new city, you can kind of just work more towards being your authentic self again.

So I'm working with Nat, who works with Holly out of Salon Studio, but I'm working with Nat on this [new full-length] record. They did the tracking and now they are working with me on sort of getting the rest of the stuff tracked and then we'll move into production. It's like a little bit of a departure from the EP in a positive way because I don't want to be too pigeonholed as only writing Americana-adjacent-soul-social-justice songs. But it's also scary, because you have the question of like, "All right, do people really like just this song or are people gonna step out on a limb with me with the new music?" But I'm super excited about it. It's in line with that, but just more broad. It's playing with sound a little bit more. I hope to bring in some other collaborators and just grow the sound experiment. I mean, music is so fun to make, of all genres, as you know. So, I don't want to limit the creativity just to appeal to people.

So I think there's going to be something for everyone on the record. But hopefully more than one song for each person. But yeah, a little soul, a little Americana-folky. There's gonna be some programmed drums even. My buddy Aki [Bermiss] who's in town quite a bit, was playing keys on it, so we just tracked keys on four or five songs …

I don't know, it's just really fun to be making music untethered, to being 25 and feeling like you need to be cool and out all the time and popular. Sometimes you want to be cool and other times you're like, "I'm a dad. I want to wear the squishiest shoes I can find and the pants with the highest ratio of spandex in them and I just want to eat pizza …”

Laamar opens for Semisonic at Palace Theatre on Saturday, April 6. Tickets

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