Corey Palmer stretches out, explores his grief at Icehouse residency

Corey Palmer

Corey Palmer Joanna Palmer

Sorrow doesn’t follow rules, so why should a song about it have to? Minnesota musician Corey Palmer certainly snubbed the 3:30 standard when he created Heartache, a 24-minute jam released earlier this year about “being sad and getting better.”

“My grandma had passed away recently. I was in a bit of a dark place. I was bummed out,” he explains. “I started plunking away at my Rhodes piano and the next thing I knew, I had 12 minutes and it just kind of kept going. I thought, ‘It’s kind of cool that it’s a marathon here.’ It changes up enough to keep it interesting, but it’s covering the same topic. At that point, I was like, ‘I’m just going to let this thing end itself, hopefully organically, and I’ll put it out as one song and just hope that anybody wants to take the time to listen to it.’”

Palmer is experiencing a resurgence of this kind of creativity. The founder of bedroom project Daykit and electropop outfit These Modern Socks took a hiatus from music around 2011 after both of those bands dissolved. He and his wife moved from St. Paul to the Brainerd Lakes area, where they both grew up, to raise their children in the rural, slower-paced environment. He became a workaholic, occupying himself with building a small business of audio/video home automation and high-end electronics.

But in 2014, a near-fatal car crash brought Palmer’s priorities back into focus. A driver T-boned him while making a turn from oncoming traffic and flipped Palmer’s car. He walked away with minor physical injuries but says he was “definitely traumatized” from the experience. “Once the dust kind of settled a few weeks later, I remember thinking, ‘I work too much and I’m not enjoying what I do every day,’” he says. “I wanted to refocus on being an awesome dad and getting back into music. I haven’t turned back since.”

During his free time in the evenings, he played piano and worked on old, unfinished songs. By default, his third turn at music-making became a solo project. “It was easiest to keep hammering away at it because I was kind of isolated up there,” he says.

As the songs took shape, a more mature sound emerged. “I wondered what my purpose was and all those kinds of dark questions that, if you think about them too much, you can get in a bummed out rut. That’s where I was at for quite a while. I wasn’t knowingly trying to write about that, but that’s just what I kept coming back to,” he says.

“Lyrically, I got a little more somber and serious in some ways, but it was more or less that I value my life a lot more now. I’m not trying to be weird with concepts or lyrics anymore like I had been guilty of in the past. Sonically, I am alone in my studio and am able to tinker away and experiment with noises. You’re not under the gun of a studio clock. It was more leisurely.”

In 2015, Palmer made his solo debut with the Love Trade EP, but he didn’t perform it live. Soon he heard from fans who wanted to see him get back onstage. For his second EP, This Could Be About Anyone, in 2016, he did a release show as a seven-member band. Though he continues to record solo, having band members at live shows puts a fresh spin on his tunes. “It’s really cool to hear how everybody interprets it. Each set, each show is unique because of that,” he says.

Heartache was born of a combination of grief, depression, and seasonal affective disorder. “It’s definitely been more of a long-term struggle,” Palmer says of this cocktail of grim emotions. “It’s just that this time, I was writing music as it was happening so it was little more of a direct process instead of trying to flash back to depression. I was currently in it.”

Depression is tricky like that. Just enough, and it acts as creative fuel; too much, and it’s debilitating. “I don’t want it to sound like I sat down and was just fiendishly working on music, ‘cause that’s the last thing you want to do when you’re down like that,” he says. “In the times where I was energized, my attitude was still in the dumps but I at least had energy to sit on a drum set and play a groove. It was a little bit of a perfect storm – in the worst way possible. You do kind of cull from that melancholy. It’s a good place, artistically, to write from. You just hope it doesn’t last very long or that you don’t get too far down to where it gets scary.”

Another source of sadness was Prince’s death, which occurred while Palmer was working on Heartache. Palmer had been a fan since his youth, when his brother brought home tapes of the Purple One. “It was always kind of in the background,” he says of Prince’s music. “As I grew up, I really started to appreciate more the musical side of it, not just the songs and the shock value. I appreciated him more as a master composer of all these styles of music. Inevitably, it rubbed off on me.”

Heartache, despite its somber beginnings, has a definite Prince-like funk that bookends the epic song. “Hopefully it was a proper tip of the cap,” Palmer says. “Hopefully I’m not completely ripping him off. If I am, there aren’t many better people to be ripping off.”

Palmer is currently in the middle of a residence at Icehouse, an experience he describes as “half preparation and half seat-of-the-pants.” In addition to playing his solo material with a full band, he’s reimagining These Modern Socks and Daykit songs onstage. “We knew what we were up against and didn’t want to show up and do the exact same thing each show.” The band members’ diverse musical backgrounds facilitate reinvention from week to week. For Palmer’s final show of the residency on Sept. 8, he says, “We’re really going to try to stretch out and play for a couple of hours and dig deep into the repertoire, hopefully surprise some people.”

Corey Palmer
Where: Icehouse
When: 10 p.m. Wed. Aug. 30; 11 p.m. Fri. Sept. 8
Tickets: $7; more info here