By the time you read this, Kathleen Thornton will be biking to New Orleans. Thornton plays keyboards and banjo for Northern Howl, the young indie-folk collective who have just released their debut record, All That's Under the Night's Sky. Her will to pick up and go ("Because I needed something to do for the second half of the summer," she explains matter-of-factly) exemplifies the group's youthful exuberance and sense of adventure.
Northern Howl have been playing together for around two years in what violinist and drummer Elori Kramer calls an "amorphous organism." For the mix of childhood friends, acquaintances, and spontaneous match-ups—guitar player Willie Nordstrom took a leap joining the group after a past in metal bands—two years is a relative eon, especially considering that guitarist and singer Paul Erling and trumpet player Spencer Roth were the only members old enough to order a drink at their CD-release show on Sunday at the 7th St. Entry.
Also complicating things is the fact that, although all the band members hail from Minneapolis or the surrounding suburbs, they all live or have lived in different areas of the Midwest in the recent past or are moving around the country for college this fall. Despite this transitory nature, Nordstrom says, the group's dynamic is serendipitous: "Everyone likes to travel and do their own thing, but then everything comes together at the right moment."
One of the things that happened at the right moment was seeing local rockers the Wars of 1812 at the Stone Arch Festival of the Arts in 2008. After their set, Thornton off-handedly invited the Wars to come see a Northern Howl show. Kramer laughed about the Wars coming to their house party, saying that the band "stood extremely intimidatingly in the back like this [frowns and crosses her arms] the entire time and then did that for a few more shows, and then approached us and were really friendly people." It was a fortuitous find for the Wars: Drummer Bobby Maher had been discussing starting a record label with fellow Minneapolis musician and co-worker Ryan Potts (who records under the moniker Aquarelle), and keyboardist Kenyon Rosewall wanted to produce and rehearse a band without worrying about the business end of things.
So Maher and Potts founded Rest + Noise records, signed Northern Howl, and got Rosewall on board to produce. "Everything that can't be taught about music, these guys have. I just wanted to come in and tighten it up and give it some polish," Rosewall says. Night's Sky was recorded off and on from September 2008 through March 2009. Thornton had gone to Barcelona, Erling was at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and Roth was studying jazz at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but all the band members (including violinist Linnea Bullon and bassist Michael Fetterman) laid down their parts as they were able as Rosewall masterminded the mix.
The result is a record full of vocal harmonies and simple but elegantly layered strings and trumpets, with a stated indebtedness to Sufjan Stevens but also a shimmering '60s-pop feel. Thematically, Night's Sky takes place in the north woods, and Erling's nature-filled lyrics recall the wonder of children staring at the stars. Bookend tracks "Algorithm" and "The Bear" rise and fall with propulsive violin harmonies that take enough surprising turns and temporal shifts to keep the layers of simplicity engaging. There is also a sweet melancholy in the record, an awareness of growing older and changing that makes the songs as heartfelt as they are lovely, especially on "Sleeping Bags," when Erling declares plainly, "We made a sleeping fort, piling pillows high/Later you told me that you like some other guy/Cocoon in my sleeping bag but it was quilted with a lie." The delicate territory between youth and experience is a fertile one that is well harvested for the powerful songs of Night's Sky.
The homegrown feel of the record is accentuated by its unique packaging. Each CD comes in a hand-stitched cloth case, like its own little quilt patch. The members of Northern Howl were surprised that Rest + Noise took what they thought was a crazy idea and ran with it, but for Maher, the special run of 500 discs was all part of the mission to give new artists a springboard.
As he watches his young charges ably handling their set at their CD-release party, Maher notes that he "had a moment tonight where I said to Ryan, 'Seven months ago you mentioned to me that you wanted to start a record label, and a month later we were an LLC, and now here are the CDs on the table with a room full of people.'" As he speaks he shakes his head, a little wonderstruck but happy to have taken the risk and gone on the adventure with these promising young artists.