By Emily Eveland
By Sarah Stanley-Ayre
By CP Staff
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Andy Ulseth looks every bit the part of a wintertime Minnesotan. He has a short, stocky build and a full beard, with a sweater that peaks out from beneath his black plaid jacket. His shaggy brown hair is swept to the side but still sticks up messily in places, as though he's just been stirred from a nap and hastily gotten himself together in a half-sleep. He could just as easily be a hockey player as a musician, so it's not very surprising that his father was once a semi-pro player for the New York Rangers.
Ulseth's music, too, is perfectly at home in the harsh environs of a Midwestern winter, although for different reasons than the man himself. The songs on his debut album, Broken Bones, are gentle, breathy acoustic ballads with the sparest of arrangements and brittle harmonies that are as warm and inviting as a roaring fire in the fireplace.
"I made a declaration last year: I vowed to never sing about snow in another one of my songs because it just feels too easy to me," he laughs, placing his right hand on the table for emphasis. He's seated at a dimly lit table at Uncommon Grounds in Uptown on a particularly cold night. "But I think it's a winter record, or a fall record," he admits.
While Broken Bones is Ulseth's first release, he's already been playing locally in one capacity or another for about five years. Moving to the Cities from Orono to study creative writing at Hamline University, he worked for a while as a bartender at the 400 Bar, where he forged close friendships with a number of other young musicians, including Caroline Smith, with whom he shared a residency at the venue back a few years back.
"I just never felt comfortable enough to put out my own record until about a year back," Ulseth explains. "It was just like I'd do a lot of solo acoustic stuff and assemble a kind of part-time band for a gig or something like that, and mostly it was because I hadn't settled on a direction yet for how I wanted it to sound, so I never felt comfortable committing to any particular thing."
Finally, last spring Ulseth decided it was time to focus his efforts on cutting an album. But rather than recording the songs he'd grown accustomed to playing live, he decided draw on some fresher material.
"I'd been playing the same songs, kicking around the same songs over the course of those four years, and it was always part of the plan that when I do make a record it would be these songs," he says. "[But] ultimately when I started thinking about it, I just said, 'I'm kind of tired of those songs. I have this backload of songs; I'm going to put out a record of songs that nobody's ever really heard before.'"
Ulseth recorded the album in his apartment, laying down all the backing tracks and vocals himself with only two exceptions: His girlfriend Molly Manning, who also did the album artwork, contributed harmonies, while Taylor Deihl added bass to the equation—the latter of which was a last-minute decision.
"I let [the album] sit a while and I hadn't recorded any bass for it, I didn't plan to, and I came back to it eventually and listened to it and thought it was missing some kind of guts to it," he remembers. "So I asked Taylor if he wanted to play some bass and sent him some of the tracks and he wrote really great parts for them.... I was ignorant to the power of bass," he chuckles.
While the record has been lying in wait since last summer, mainly as a result of trying to peg down the right location for the release show, Ulseth has settled in with a stable backing band—including members of the Lost Shepherds, Minneapolis 1989, and Colder in Moscow—and found himself growing more and more comfortable with the full-band dynamic. Not surprisingly, he's already looking to take on more ambitious ideas to make full use of his band mates' input, beginning with the material he's working on for a follow-up to Broken Bones.
"This next album is more of a tightly woven concept revolving around growing up in Minnesota around the Mississippi River and the feeling that essentially from the Mississippi River you can access anywhere in the world, and it starts right here," he says. "There's not going to be a lot of historical stuff in there. It's based more on my experiences with the river and just how kind of massive it is."
Ulseth is a Minnesotan, then, through and through.
ANDY ULSETH plays a CD-release show with Wishbook and Adam Svec on FRIDAY, JANUARY 28, at the 331 CLUB; 612.331.1746