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Chris Koza Turns Up, Probes Deep on New Solo Album


Chris Koza | Cedar Cultural Center | Sunday, November 9
The most frequently played song on Chris Koza's iTunes might surprise you. One might expect the local singer-songwriter to have a Beatles addiction, or maybe crank something folksy from his native home of Portland on the regular. Maybe he's got a secret jones for classical, and Bob Dylan has to be a strong candidate, right? Maybe, but the real winner is a gem unto itself: "Such a Night," by Dr. John.

"I'm coming to appreciate groove-based songwriting a lot more," Koza says, over coffee and a lox bagel at Common Roots. "That's a song where it's the same thing the whole time through, but it's so patient."

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While the irresistible waltz of the song's piano has been a touchstone for Koza's attempts to marry groove and melody, his love for the song Dr. John chose for the Band's The Last Waltz goes deeper.

"The vocal, he's sincere but he's also throwing it away at the same time," Koza elaborates. "It's a song that doesn't take itself too seriously in its message and its treatment, but the musicianship involved is top notch. It's people that are being intentional about what they're doing without overthinking it."

That's an approach that Koza does his best to emulate. As the frontman of Rogue Valley, the songwriter has made a name with his ambitious four-album Seasons series, chronicling 46 songs' worth of swirling folk-pop and Americana. But even in that sea of incredible creative productivity, there were orphans that didn't match the rest of the band's output. They more or less stayed in the can until an acoustic tour opening for East Coast singer-songwriter Stephen Kellogg presented itself.

Suddenly, Koza found himself preparing to hit the road without a band for the first time in years. He reached deep into his songwriter's cellar to unearth some of those passed-over gems and worked them up to fit his new format. But it took a little more editing work than anticipated.

"It felt like there were these big spaces in the songs where some other element was supposed to help lift the energy," the songwriter says, the morning sunlight causing him to squint a little. "If it wasn't something that me and my guitar could carry through, then I needed to consider whether it should be in there."

Those pared-down compositions are the heart of In Real Time, Koza's third solo release. Though the songs may have humble origins, they've been rendered in lush detail this time around. Koza has rebuilt around the strong bones he found on the acoustic tour to realize what might be his most unapologetically poppy album to date.

His clear, tender vocals are right up front, and the backing band, headed by Semisonic and Wits bassist John Munson, put in a sublimely slick professional effort.

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Beginning in 2012, Koza met up with his team of studio gunslingers for a series of sessions at Zach Hollander's Pearl Studio in Northeast. Going old-school, like Dr. John's band might have, Koza and company recorded all of the basic tracks live to tape, with Munson and other members of the Wits band reading off of charts. While most Rogue Valley material is produced and mixed by Koza in-house, he brought in local pro Brett Bullion to polish things up.

"I wanted him to mix it as if it were a pop record," says Koza, of his instructions to Bullion. "Let the mix help tie all the material together instead of mixing the country song like a country song and a rock song like a rock song."

The result is an inviting yet cerebral album, full of the intimate moments that have always been Koza's signature, but shot with a widescreen lens.

The beautiful "Electric Tide" is painted with broad enough strokes to make the message easily identifiable, but the true power of the song lies in the details. It's in the setting in a café on the edge of town, it's in a character's pretty voice asking, "What took you so long?"

According to Koza, many of the songs had to undergo extensive rewrites before they were able to reach the level of sensory experience he was looking for.

"It just needed to be more personal. I needed to know what I was singing about, and try to find the poetry in that moment," he explains, downing the last dregs of his coffee. "You can't sing about the universe, you gotta sing about the grain of sand."

CHRIS KOZA plays an IN REAL TIME release show with Reina del Cid on Sunday, November 9, at Cedar Cultural Center; 612-338-2674

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