We've all been through a bad breakup before, and putting it to music is nothing new. But Minneapolis singer-songwriter Luke Zimmerman has moved past that stage, and is exploring life after a breakup on his new album, Heyday for the Naysayers. In sound, Luke traces the lines of Bob Dylan, but grows from there. Heyday immerses the listener in the act of Zimmerman rummaging through his emotions and deconstructing his world, while realizing that change is, in essence, a good thing.
Gimme Noise caught up with Luke before his album release show at Icehouse on Saturday to chat about how his family's musical tastes influenced his sound and how he relates Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and Conor Oberst.
Gimme Noise: You say you are influenced by folk, jazz, rockabilly, etc. From whom did you get this love of music? Do you remember your earliest recollection of music?
Luke Zimmerman: My dad and my brothers introduced me to all kinds of things. Early on I remember listening to the Beatles but my dad would play lots of Jim Croce, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole, as well as classical music. My brother was a big fan of the Clash and the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and introduced me to a lot of that. For whatever reason, my first record was the J Geils Band, but the discovery of the music seems to me to be an organic thing.
At different stages in your life you have different experiences and the music seems to reflect that. When you go through a breakup or something like that, you might have a whole year of discovering breakup music that influences you from that time on. I tend to find one thing and grab on and delve into it. I was studying abroad in college and bought a Bossa Nova mix tape at Camden Town in London, and fell in love with Bossa Nova. I tried to track down as much as I could find about Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto and whoever else. It's a lot easier to get obsessed with things now with the internet. I found a Frank Sinatra-Antonio Carlos Jobim record years ago at a record store in Lawrence, Kansas, and thought it was one of the greatest things ever. But now you can see a youtube video of the two of them doing "Girl from Ipanema" on Sinatra's TV show he had in the '60s. It's pretty incredible.
These are all very different genres. How do you filter it down into what you make?
I guess I don't consciously think about filtering anything. I just try to write songs that would work no matter how you played them. Some songs that start out as one thing, like a slow folk song, end up being something like "All Gone Wrong" on the new record, which is a beat driven song with a "wah" guitar.
I'm more of a writer than anything else, so I try to make the lyrics interesting, something to listen to, which I suppose is more of a folk sensibility. I try not to repeat a standard 1-4-5 blues progression and stick to major and minor chords so that's where the jazz influence comes in. Mostly it's a bit of a collage of what I'm into at the time and what seems like would make a cohesive record. My last two records were more cohesive sonically and this one I was going for more of a varied sonic experience while keeping the lyrics consistent. But I just try to make something interesting with whatever has been put into my head.
Do you ever get any comparisons to Bob Dylan? How do you feel about that?
Sure I do. I think everyone who writes lyrics at this point probably gets compared to him by people who are interested in lyrics and know who he is. I get it more, surely. I think it's an easy story to sell by people who are writing about music. I've had people come up to me at shows and tell me how they think we compare. I'd rather people listen to the songs and try to get something out of them as standalone things, but I realize that's probably not that realistic. I'd hope that the songs are good enough to hold their own, but he's generally regarded as one of the best songwriters out there and I think any critic who is comparing anyone to him is putting the musician in a hard spot.
It happened to Springsteen, and Conor Oberst, etc. (not that I'm comparing myself to them, now, too) and it's like comparing a new painter to Picasso or Michaelangelo, someone established as an example of the medium. If you start out looking at a canvas knowing that everything you do will be compared to Van Gogh it's hard to even pick up a brush. People will compare, that's their prerogative. I think it's sometimes in lieu of doing real criticism on the songs -- which I'm not sure songs really need to be criticized in that way anyway. Music is personal. I hope people like the songs (or don't like the songs) based on the songs themselves and not on who it may sound like or what backstory there is.
"Little Girl" is an interesting track to me. Can you tell me the story behind/origins of the song?
I wrote the song a long time ago; I didn't have kids. I wanted to try to get at the idea of things changing and the inability to stop change and the fear of change. When all around is storming and you're looking for an umbrella -- and there's a helplessness. I always liked this 4-track recording my band did of the song, but it didn't make it onto our record, so this new record came along, and I thought it was a good ideological fit and changed a few of the lyrics. I think it works.
Any standout tracks to you?
I like them all. I think the recording of "Everything Is Happening" turned out well. There's a good build to it and I love Jake's solo in it. "I Will Believe You" and "The Road to Damascus" have good beats."Time Passing By" has sort of an unrelenting feel to it that I like. "Smile!" I think is a good recap of the record and has good performances, and "Ship Sinking Down" has some interesting lyrics. Everyone's got different sensibilities, though.
How did you meet Lance Conrad? How do you think he shaped the songs?
I've known Lance for a long time. Everybody seems to run into one another in Minneapolis. Lance was a friend of a friend, and I knew he could do a good job with the record. I really like his space.
He had a big hand in sonically shaping the songs in the recording process, giving the overall vibe to the record. We had discussed the vibe and he knew I was looking for something with some sonic surprises and he was instrumental in making that happen. As far as mixing, he put everything where it needed to be, and I think he took out what didn't need to be there.
How do you feel you've evolved since your last album, Shoebox?
Shoebox was an experiment in form and execution. I wanted to write a record that was basically one continuous story, told not through narration -- like a musical -- but through a series of songs. I chose to write about the destruction of a relationship; it was a love story. I recorded it all myself with help from friends who came out to record with me but I recorded it, produced it, mixed it. It took a few years to get it done, so by the end, I was burned out on love songs and sitting alone in a room staring at a computer, so I really wanted to sing about something else and work with other people to get it done relatively quickly. This one was recorded in three days and mostly live. It was fun to do it that way. I don't know if any of it is a forward evolution, but I just keep trying new things.
What can we expect to see at the album release show?
Hopefully something interesting.
Luke Zimmerman will play a release show for Heyday for the Naysayers on Saturday, September 27, with Fathom Lane.
21+, $8, 10 p.m.
Purchase tickets here.