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What are the first words that pop into your head when you hear the phrase "folk music"? Jangly acoustic guitars? Yup, good. Warbling falsettos? Got it, sure. Searing, supersonic jazz/classical fusion flute solos? What's that? No? Not at all? WTF?
That's exactly the reaction Julie Johnson wants you to have.
I'm sitting slouched in a wonderfully tacky rocking chair in the studio of Julie Johnson & the No-Accounts in northeast Minneapolis's bunker-esque Thorp Building. Julie and her fellow No-Accounts (a.k.a. Doug Otto and Drew Druckery) are politely sitting across from me, dwarfed by the 30-foot-tall white brick walls that surround us. Oh, sure, they look the part of your typical folkies; Drew has the obligatory round-framed glasses, and both he and Doug both sport scraggly, unkempt beards. Julie's got the horn-rimmed glasses and the retiring, hyper-accommodating demeanor. But muck around a bit into the psyches of these accomplished local musicians (all of them graduated from Augsburg College with degrees in music and have performed extensively with a variety of local groups), and you dig up a serious restlessness, a curiosity that shames most other self-proclaimed "experimental" bands out there.
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The proof can be found on their debut album, The Banks of the Little Auplaine, which takes its name from an old north woods "shanty boy" (read: lumberjack) song, "The Little Auplaine." Almost all of the songs on the album are adaptations of indigenous Minnesota folks tunes from the late 1800s and early 1900s, including Iron Range mining songs, French Canadian voyageur songs, Scandinavian hymns, logging songs, and polkas. However, Johnson, who received a 2009 Subito Grant from the American Composers Forum to write the album, has refused to enslave herself to simply parroting the songs exactly as they were once performed. Rather, she has taken extensive artistic license and given them a new life that is not quite 19th-century, nor 21st. They are both and they are neither...and that is exactly what sucks you in.
"The arrangements I write are totally creating a new song. We're not doing it exactly how they were done in the least bit. We are creating a new world for these songs," Johnson claims.
Originally from Baudette, Minnesota, a town of 1,100 on the Canadian border that is known as the Walleye Capital of the World (and is the proud home of "Willie the Walleye"), Johnson explains that the inspiration for the album came not from her far north upbringing, but rather from the Delta blues of the deep South.
"We were playing this amazing, rich, soulful music that is indigenous to the South, but there are a lot of bands that do that. That's when we were like, 'Well, we are all from this region, let's just see if there's music from here that has that same kind of soulful feel to it and turn it into something new,'" she says.
And it is largely thanks to Johnson's flute that this new creature has been born. On her Facebook page, Johnson claims she brings her flute "to places where, she's been told, the flute doesn't belong." And on first listen, her flute does seem to stand out conspicuously among the expected guitars and mandolins. But rather than grating on you like some annoying, uninvited party guest, Johnson's flute acts more as a clever and whimsical social butterfly. It flits about, at times breathy and seductive, and at others spastic and poster-child ADHD—no more so than on "The Panther," one of two original pieces Johnson wrote for the album.
"What I think is so cool about this band is everybody is willing to try new things with their vocals and instruments, and we all improvise very easily and actively. There is so much room to go crazy with it," Johnson says. "It's genre-bending all over the place. There's so many different styles, it's going to appeal to a lot of different people."
"I just love the fact that we're all over the place," Druckery concurs. "It's really pushed me a lot in my playing. I've had to work my ass off."
The result of all this ass-kicking hard work is an enigma that is equally somber, soulful, and transcendent. Like all good folk music, The Banks of the Little Auplaine is unsettlingly intimate. It is as open and stark as a northern Minnesota winter, demanding of contemplation, and rewards you with a beauty so honest it hurts.
"I think there is something about this music that really, really speaks to people. There's that old soul kind of feeling to it," Johnson says. "Wherever we play this stuff, people really seem to gravitate to it."
JULIE JOHNSON & THE NO-ACCOUNTS play a CD-release show on WEDNESDAY, JULY 20, at the 331 CLUB; 612.331.1746