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For most artists, putting out one record in a year is a feat; to release four albums may seem like an exercise in lunacy. For Chris Koza and his band Rogue Valley, their "season project"—writing, recording, and self-releasing four full-length albums inspired by the seasons within a single calendar year—has been as much about the artistic challenge of the accelerated creative process as it has been about a telling a compelling story.
It began in April 2010, with the spring release of Crater Lake, then summer's The Bookseller's House, and most recently the fall album, Geese in the Flyway. The fourth and final installment will be the winter album False Floors, with a CD-release show at the Varsity Theater this Friday. The show will be a project in itself—an extravaganza featuring a troupe of modern dancers from St. Olaf with choreography by Bobby Maher, along with some high production elements that will recall Rogue Valley's first CD-release show for Crater Lake at the Fitzgerald Theater last year. Koza will have a slew of other celebrated musicians sharing the bill as openers, including Chastity Brown, Adam Svec, and the Pines.
For Koza and the rest of Rogue Valley—longtime collaborators Peter Sieve on guitar and vocals, Luke Anderson on drums, Linnea Mohn on bass and vocals, and Joey Kantor on keyboard—the show will mean seeing the venture of a lifetime come full circle.
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But Koza isn't really thinking about what it will mean to see this completed. The exhaustion that should accompany a plan of this scale doesn't seem to have hit him yet, and as I talk to him about his music, Koza speaks at once like a musical technician and a painter. In some ways, he is both.
"For this project, there were a bunch of themes that I wanted to cover, and I broke the whole thing down with song chapters and titles. I would think about what was missing from the story or from the album, and go from there," Koza explains. If he was concerned about anything, it was that people would think he was writing music carelessly, simply for the sake of meeting his deadline; for the listener, it's clear that what Koza has accomplished in such a brief amount of time is nothing short of extraordinary. Even as Koza's creativity has been in overdrive, the quality of his music has not been sacrificed—if anything, Koza has improved upon the sound with every album.
"Every one of those impulses that I think is honest has come from an organic place. Some of the subject matter is fictional, but I was in a certain physical place and thought about it," Koza reflects, speaking of songs like Flyway's "Centralia, PA." (Indeed, even Rogue Valley's namesake is taken from a region in southwest Oregon.) "Certain places are so rich, and sometimes when you look at a memory, it becomes richer and more vibrant," he continues, and I can see him returning to those places in his head. "This is very personal work. It came from my experiences, but I don't feel like it's specific only to me."
It helps that Koza is not so much autobiographical as he is a poet. False Floors is at once both vividly desolate and brilliantly hopeful, with icy, stripped-down tracks like "Hunters and Trappers," with a strong metallic guitar line, and the expansive, rosy "Onward and Over."
"This new album is dark and sparse in some spots and uplifting in other ways," explained Koza, "because it is the end of a life, but also the beginning. It's the end of the season, but so much of winter is getting excited for winter to be over."
It would be hard to remain unmoved by the plot of False Floors. As I sat in with Koza and cellist Ben Rosenbush as they recorded the layered, symphonic "Dangerous Diamonds"—a song, according to Koza, about "getting lost in the small things"—the heartbreak of it was palpable. Koza lives inside his own head, and it doesn't seem like such a bad place to be.
Thematically, False Floors shares imagery with the previous Rogue Valley albums. The intelligent folk-pop Koza crafts recalls the lyrical prowess and intricate arrangements of Joni Mitchell—that is, until Koza's smooth, pitch-perfect tenor is introduced to the song, and Mohn's expressive mezzo-soprano gives it the dusky, prairie-esque sort of loneliness that is characteristically Rogue Valley.
Koza is a restless thinker, and when asked about post-release plans, he told me he would like to "flesh out the story" with videos.
"I'm really looking forward to just seeing where it is and letting people know about it," he says, smiling, still humble. "I feel like to a certain degree the job now is to invite people to come and listen, and maybe find something to like."