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Throughout his decade-plus career, Chicagoan Mike Kinsella has often seemed like a man apart. With roots in the noise-damaged spectrum of the indie-rock community via time spent drumming with the likes of Joan of Arc, Kinsella's own music, recorded under the moniker Owen, mines far different musical terrain: hypnotically layered and shimmering balladry with hushed vocals at its core.
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A tendency toward dropping f-bombs and the occasional blast of ferocious lead guitar work steer Kinsella's one-man-band recordings away from staid singer-songwriter land, while an ear for swooning string arrangements and exquisite finger-picked acoustic guitar work make for an uneasy alliance between elegance and edginess. A smidge too raw for the NPR set, yet far too refined for the boisterous bar crowds he often winds up playing for while appended to loud rock 'n' roll bills, Kinsella occupies a musical niche of one. While it might not make for the most readily marketable music career, it does make for irrefutably compelling listening.
Prior to a special performance as part of City Pages' "Quiet, Please" series at the Varsity Theater, the 33-year-old Kinsella opened up about Owen's gradual evolution, the downsides of making music for a living, and why performing songs he wrote in his 20s feels like "looking at a high school yearbook on a stage."
City Pages: Owen started as a solo bedroom-recording project, and over the years you've gradually included more collaborators. Has it been hard learning to share some of that control over the creative process?
Mike Kinsella: Yeah, it's always awkward for me to ask other people to help out or contribute in any way to this thing that is super personal to me. Like, they have nothing vested in it, so why would they want to put any time and effort into doing it? The hardest thing was to ask some friends to spend their time learning my songs to play a few live shows. They're all awesome musicians who write beautiful stuff on their own, so I felt guilty taking any of their time away from their own projects. But hopefully, they like me and/or my music enough to enjoy it. And I suppose they liked getting paid, too.
CP: Ambivalence over life as a working musician is a thread that's run throughout your records. Why is this particular topic fertile songwriting terrain for you?
Kinsella: To be honest, there are a lot of aspects of being a "working musician" that I'm not too fond of. Writing—or I should say finishing—songs doesn't come easy for me. I often sit on ideas or parts for months or years, waiting for a line or arrangement idea to come to me and tie the song's loose strings together. It's quite frustrating. And as much as I enjoy traveling, touring tends to take its toll on me, especially now that I'm a little older and settled. I love meeting new people, but it bums me out to show up places and have people just want to talk about my music or music in general when it's really a pretty small part of my everyday life. I guess these frustrations and situations end up creeping into the songs.
CP: Your music is frequently self-critical when it comes to failed romantic relationships. Now that you're a married man and father, is it strange performing songs you wrote as a single guy?
Kinsella: It is a little strange. I can't necessarily relate to the sentiments expressed anymore but I can remember specific moments of inspiration, which is kind of cool. It's sort of like looking at a high school yearbook. On a stage. In front of people....
CP: Your performance here in Minneapolis is part of a special "Quiet, Please" series. Does the crowd's behavior alter the way you approach your performance?
Kinsella: Oftentimes it does. It definitely takes an extra beer or two to take the stage in front of a loud bar crowd that couldn't care less if I play or not, as opposed to a quiet room seemingly interested in what I have to play and say.
City Pages presents "Quiet, Please" featuring OWEN on SATURDAY, MARCH 13, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222