Rich Mattson & the Northstars channel Iron Range on new LP


Rich Mattson & the Northstars | Turf Club | Saturday, June 6

Using music as his conduit, Rich Mattson aims to give you an honest glimpse of his life with every album he puts out. Perhaps that's why his songs center on the grittiness of the world.

"Making albums has become a part of my nature. Whenever we have something new happening, we've got to make an album," says the frontman of Rich Mattson and the Northstars. "We have to get our sound represented -- you never know what kind of changes are gonna happen."

Backstage after their Art-A-Whirl set on a recent balmy Saturday afternoon, the band -- which consists of Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling on vocals and guitar, Eli Bissonett on violin, Russell Bergum on upright bass, and Curtis Mattson on percussion -- gather around a table to collect their thoughts and eagerly expound on their self-titled debut album, which will be celebrated with a release party Saturday at the Turf Club.

Mattson, 48, has enjoyed a prolific career, dating back to the late '80s when he made his way down from the Iron Range to Minneapolis because of his love of the Replacements. The Twin Cities were his home for two decades, but the Iron Range called, so he moved to tiny Sparta, Minnesota, in 2005 to open his recording studio, Sparta Sound.

For Mattson, his work with the Northstars isn't a compulsory phase in a long musical career; he views the project as the next chapter in his life. The band is only a year old, and in that time they created an album that captures country music better than anything coming out of Nashville. It's a timeless-sounding Americana record that connects with the soul and condenses life on the Iron Range into 12 songs.

The opening tune, "This Town (Ghost Town)," paints the bleakness of living in a town built on borrowed time. When the leases for the homes built on mine property in Sparta were signed 99 years ago, the tenants never looked ahead to 2015. That's when the leases expire, forcing most of the location's remaining residents to vacate their homes.

"We live on the edge of town that doesn't have to move," Mattson shares. "But everybody to the west of us is moving out and tearing their houses down. It's amazing to watch; in a strange, profound way; how people are being uprooted. Down the hill from us, there's this house they've been tearing apart for over a month. Every other day they're having bonfires and burning pieces of the house."

"The album was inspired by what was going on in our neighborhood," Gemberling adds. "When we first started writing, we were collecting songs. As it came more into focus, we realized they all had a similar theme. This was everyday life for us."

Mattson, who bears a resemblance to Neil Young, complements his wife and bandmate Gemberling in sound and in life. The two feed off each other as they speak, and the same is true when they're onstage. With their harmonies, they're reminiscent of Johnny Cash and June Carter-Cash, yet Germaine has a sleeker voice than June's. In between those harmonies, Bissonett fills in the spaces that live underneath and above their vocals. 

Mattson's nephew, Curtis, was brought into the fold when Mattson needed someone who was able to dig into his hefty catalog. Mattson was familiar with Russell's talents on the bass, as the two musicians have been playing together since high school. Recording was tricky because Russell currently lives in Rochester, Minnesota, but through the power of the internet, the album's parts were passed back and forth to complete the record.

On this new project with the Northstars, Mattson revels in his new skin as would an otter taking to water for the first time.

"Country was the last thing I wanted to play when I was growing up," he says. "I always felt it was too easy to play; it was what my parents listened to. Eventually it comes around. When I'm recording, mostly what I listen to is silence and melodies. I'll wind up singing a song in my head, then try to capture it as soon as I can. There's so many little pieces of songs on my phone. Other times, it's just me and Germaine sitting around a campfire with a guitar."

Gemberling concludes, "I feel this music is the next chapter in our lives. I see so many bands doing reunion shows, but there's something beautiful about moving on. It's a blossoming from everything you did before."

Rich Mattson and the Northstars will release their self-titled album at the Turf Club on Saturday, June 6, with Sounds del Mar, Rank Strangers, and Matt Latterell Band.
21+, $6, 8 p.m. Purchase tickets here.

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