Quiet Time

Embracing the inner mellow with Wendy Lewis of Redstart

Minneapolis can feel like the smallest big city in the world. Or the biggest small city. Either way, its Midwestern spirit keeps things tight, and the insular vibe trickles down to our art community: I mean, it's no secret that the local music scene is slightly incestuous. The inbreeding owes much to the fact that there are so many multifaceted performers in this area that everyone has to be in three or four bands just to feel like they're living up to their creative potential.

For instance, meet the Lewises: singer/songwriter Wendy, her trumpet- and flute-playing brother Greg, and Greg's upright-bassist son Michael. All exceptionally talented musicians. All local players with numerous projects. All in the same band. Throw drummer Matt Novachis and guitarist Jeremy "I play in the majority of Twin Cities bands" Ylvisaker into the mix, and you've got Redstart, a band more familial than an Appalachian barrow.

Musical chairs: Wendy Lewis (far right) and Redstart
Warwick Green
Musical chairs: Wendy Lewis (far right) and Redstart

Wendy Lewis has called Minneapolis home for several years, following a semi-rural upbringing in North Carolina. "My version of going to Europe was just getting on the city bus in Minneapolis and being able to go all over," she laughs, chatting about her past at a picnic table outside a Minneapolis coffee shop. As soon as the initial culture shock of being here wore off, Lewis discovered that the city was the perfect place for her to indulge the muse that her parents--musicians themselves--had instilled in her and her siblings. She fronted local bands Rhea Valentine and Mary Nail and worked with Happy Apple/Love-cars drummer Dave King and jazz pianist Bill Carrothers. In short, she quickly adopted la vie bohèmienne of a Minneapolis multitasker.

But it's her latest project, Redstart, that has inspired Lewis to create the kind of music she's always wanted to make.

"As I've gotten older, I just want things to be simple," she says. "I think you have to go through your showing-off stage. It feels to me this time like [the group is] about the songs."

It's a bit of a stretch to call her jazz-informed rock "simple"--what with its horn parts, keyboards, and rapidly evolving time signatures." But what Redstart demonstrate on their debut, One (Loaded Lick Records), is a knack for taking a complicated musical idea and making it sound completely accessible. The horns never dominate a song, nor does the upright bass. With Novachis's clean drums and Lewis's self-described novice guitar playing, the songs can almost pass for pop, if a very edgy brand of it. Redstart's impossibly heady yet simple sound also draws on Lewis's poetry, a factor that adds to the literary, free-jazz vibe. Lyrics like "I stayed in the kitchen/Baptized the dishes/'Cause we can't be saved/In the ordinary ways" (from "Runaways") showcase her talent for taking an ordinary event and turning it into a holy moment.

Lately, Lewis has been worshiping at the makeshift altar of her quiet Cannon Falls home, where she resides with her family. Though she describes her equal passion for urban and rural lifestyles as "totally schizo," it's the stillness of her surroundings that has recently informed her songwriting, and, ultimately, her pace of living.

"We live near the river at a dead end. I could basically walk the river forever and I'd never see anybody," she marvels. "It's been really amazing: If you're just paying attention, you'll see these things just trying to get your attention. And then you maybe slow down a little bit."

She pauses, and then continues, "I'm not in a hurry to crank out songs. You don't always have to be doing something. It's just patience, and it's very hard to do, so I practice that."

Lewis falls silent for a moment and she practices: The bird that has been waiting for some coffee-house crumbs hops a little closer. She considers Lewis and the people around her, and takes off just as a police siren starts screaming bloody murder from somewhere close by. Suddenly, the city's big again.

 
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