Multi-instrumentalist Paul Fonfara — who cut his teeth playing with indie heavyweights DeVotchKa while living in his native Colorado — has made a literal and musical home in Minneapolis.
Early this year, Fonfara took on the task of scoring out songs for his new album, Seven Secrets of Snow, based on a Russian proverb. The album is rooted in music he wrote for a BBC documentary based on the Russian clown Slava, but took on new life as a creative statement about Minnesota winters.
Last year, Fonfara was toured the U.K. as the opening act for Jim White, who has recorded for David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. While in London, he met with the filmmakers behind the 2003 BBC cult-classic documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The filmmakers asked him to score their newest project, which follows the Russian clown Slava as he performs in Rio and Paris, eventually making a trek through a Siberian winter.
The film ran into snags, but due to his talent and fortune, Fonfara was awarded the Minnesota Artist’s Initiative grant to develop the music he had already began for the film. He recorded the pieces he had written and commissioned filmmakers, including Chris Delisle, Crist Dahl, and Mark Brown, to make accompanying films about Minnesota winters.
"The majority that I wrote was centered around a piano and was much more atmospheric since I was writing for these long-winded Siberian winterscapes," Fonfara shares over drinks at Bryant-Lake Bowl on a snowy winter evening. "That wasn't going to fit with the documentary, so I applied for the grant and based the music around Minnesota."
Like a plate spinner with too many tasks at hand, Paul plays in many bands around town: Brass Messengers, Corpse Reviver, the Painted Saints, and his solo projects. On Seven Secrets, Fonfara took all of his musical experiences and funneled them into the eight quasi-orchestral tracks that describe the feeling of winter, with choruses that burst into life with vigor and purity.
The pieces were geared toward a chamber orchestra that he worked with, and the initiatives for the grant included short films based around the music.
"The films were supposed to be about winter," says Fonfara, who made Minnesota his home six years ago. "But we didn't get a winter last year, so the filmmakers, which included ended up being more experimenting more than usual. There's one film where we took apart and cut napkins to make them look like snowflakes and put them in scanners between sheets of glass and animated them. We stretched things."
Fonfara didn't have to stretch too far when collecting a cast of musician friends to help with the project. Looking to his bandmates in the Painted Saints and the Brass Messengers (Andy McCormick, Karen Majewicz, Chis Hepola, Eric Struve, Christa Schnieder, and Philip Potyondy), he gathered a crew to flesh-out the soundtrack.
"With [the song] 'Large Hearted Moose' it changes time signatures many times in the piece," Fonfara explains with an air of intellectual precision. "And it's super mathy, but I tried not to make it sound that way. It came out well. The end is this long drawn-out thing, but it doesn't sound strange. I tried to make it accessible, and that's a challenge."
As if the music and the films that accompany each song weren't ambitious enough, Fonfara commissioned artist Whitney Streeter to create original artwork to mirror each song. Streeter's artwork collects the essence of the project, reinterpreting the beauty and the pain of Minnesota winters.
While the grant provided for many of the costs to make Seven Secrets, some things were left uncovered financially, so Fonfara launched a Kickstarter fundraiser.
"There was a heyday back on the '90s where you could be a successful touring artist, but the industry is so saturated now," he says. "If people don't like your music within a minute, they're gone. I love performing, but I find the kind of music I make doesn't really have a niche — which is a hard sell. I would love to compose and tour, but it's a difficult world. I care, and I don't care what people think, but I've backed myself into a wall, because this is what I want to do for a living. There will always be a tradeoff doing what you want to do and what is sustainable."
Album-release show for Seven Secrets of Snow
With: Jim White and the Brass Messengers
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 5.