J.E. Sunde on salvaging songs, keeping it simple, and re-learning how to play well with others

J.E. Sunde

J.E. Sunde Joshua Ford

J.E. Sunde dodges sidewalk puddles on his way to the Angry Catfish Bicycle & Coffee Bar in south Minneapolis on a late February afternoon.

Sporting a winter beard and a denim jacket, the singer-songwriter settles at a table with his coffee, remarking on how the shop’s elaborate brewing techniques can produce a simple quality drink. Sunde could almost be talking about his latest album, Now I Feel Adored. Much like the coffee he’s savoring, each song in the new collection appears simple on the surface, but is the result of an extensive process of revision that distilled each composition down to its essence.

Simplicity doesn’t come naturally to Sunde, who acknowledges a tendency to go big when arranging. “I’ve noticed this is my crutch,” he explains, with a soft demeanor that draws you in. “If I feel vulnerable, I’ll try and make it flashy or weird.”

But on the new album he wanted to follow the example of artists like Nina Simone and do more with less. He brought in drummer Shane Leonard of Kalispell and bassist Andrew Thoreen of Har-di-Har, and they recorded as a trio.

“It’s still nerve-wracking for me, to tone things down, but I’ve had this intention with each record to push it a little more,” Sunde says. “I’m learning to trust that the songs are enough as they are, even if the arrangement isn’t super flashy.”

Sunde is no stranger to working as part of a trio, of course. When we first heard from him, he was a third of the Eau Claire indie-folk group the Daredevil Christopher Wright. But after they disbanded, Sunde chose to record his first solo album on his own. After he released Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God in July 2014, he immediately got back to writing songs.

“I’ve had some of the most euphoric experiences with writing,” Sunde says. “It’s the most profound thing -- that experience where you're working on something and time disappears. There’s something energizing to me about creating. It’s this weird sense that you’re present to it, but it’s also happening outside of you. When I write, these things are revealing themselves to me. On one level, it’s this silly thing. When I’m onstage, I’m waiting a whole set for that one line. Why is it so exciting to say four words in a row? It’s mysterious.”

When Sunde entered Honeytone Studios in Neenah, Wisconsin, last April, he initially planned only to record the songs he’d written most recently. But he soon decided that some older songs, including a few from as far back as 2007, deserved further exploration.

One song that took a while to work out is the opening a cappella number, “I Will Smile When I Think of You,” which also features vocals from Monica Martin of the Wisconsin band PHOX. Sunde had been stewing over the song for a spell, adding it to his set while on tour with PHOX a couple of years ago, hoping to shake things into place. But it wasn't until he worked with Leonard and Thoreen that the tune take on the Appalachian lilt that makes it stand out on the album.

Before heading into the studio, Sunde tried to tame the negative editor in his head, listening only when it was constructive and stepping away when it wasn’t. The recording process was a kind of therapy for him, the studio a place to face down his demons. Recognizing his need to exert excessive control, he looked to his bandmates to loosen things up.

Sunde took Leonard and Thoreen on a few weekend tours, and it was on stage that they arrived at the aesthetic that would shape the album. The multiple performances allowed Sunde to weed out the clumsy words and smooth over any crinkles, so he, Leonard, and Thoreen were able to record the entire album at Honeytone in just a few days.

“Coming out of the Daredevil Christopher Wright, which was a very collaborative space, it was refreshing to do it all myself on my first solo album,” says Sunde. “I needed to make something on my own. There were no committees to sign off on decisions. With this album, perhaps I’m swinging back a little bit. You can’t live out there by yourself the whole time.”

J.E. Sunde
With: Tabah and Ayvah
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m. Sat., March 4
Tickets: 21+, $10 adv, $12 door, more info here