Southwire champion gospel-folk

"We were pretty content with staying in Duluth and chasing our own dragons, artistically"
Richard Narum

About six years ago, Duluth folk singer Jerree Small opened up her house to some late-night jam sessions, and began what would become the gospel-folk quartet Southwire.

Small had recently returned to the area after a musical stint in the Northeast, and wanted to branch out artistically. Sean "Mic Trout" Elmquist of experimental hip-hop group Crew Jones was also looking to collaborate with other Duluth-area musicians, so he and bandmate Ben "Burly Burlesque" Larson set up in her living room across the border in Superior, Wisconsin, to work on new, more improvisational ideas. Now, with the release of Southwire's self-titled debut, they're finally ready to share these creations with the world outside of northern Minnesota.

"When I moved back to Duluth, I was mostly doing solo folk songwriter stuff on guitar, but I became a huge fan of Crew Jones," recalls Small. "Ben is a powerful, captivating showman, and I especially loved when he would dip into half-sung riffs in their songs. And Sean's sense of musical composition and production is incredible."

Due to their other musical commitments, Southwire remained a novelty side project until recently. They used to come together for three or four shows a year, usually including Homegrown, Duluth's annual spring music festival, but over the past year they decided to fully commit to the project and make a record.

"We've been taking music really seriously for all of our adult lives, but we were pretty content with staying in Duluth and chasing our own dragons, artistically," says Elmquist, who serves as Southwire's drummer and producer. "So now, for us, it's like, 'Let's give this is a shot. Let's finish a record, let's leave town and play some shows.'"

Aptly, Elmquist relays this information to City Pages from Kansas City as he, Small, Larson, and bassist Matt Mobley make a return trip to Duluth from Austin, Texas — with a stand-up bass strapped to the roof of their car, no less. Though they performed only a single, albeit satisfying, South by Southwest showcase held by their Duluth-based label Chaperone Records, making the trek down the length of I-35 was proof to themselves that this new musical venture is a serious one.

"We've been developing most of these songs since we started," says Elmquist. "Probably half of these songs date back to when we first started playing together, and the form that they are in now is the culmination of developing them over the course of five or six years."

Recorded this past year, the eight hymn-like folk spirituals on Southwire's self-titled debut come alive via Small's plaintive and soulful vocals, a mix of lyrical spoken word and booming singing from Larson, and the timeworn instruments used to compose the songs. "The piano you hear on the recording is a retired barroom upright I got free from a monk in Duluth [allegedly from Molly's Bar in Superior]," Small says. "I think its sour, creaking sound helped to expand my writing style and probably the style of the band too."

Elmquist eventually took the skeletal recordings to a studio he built in downtown Duluth with equipment borrowed from Low's Alan Sparhawk, who often assists his fellow artists in the city, and the album gradually took its lush current shape from there. Elmquist's subtle but steady drumming, Larson's blues-influenced guitar work, and Small's lilting piano strains all blend elegantly into haunting melodies that sound like they have been carried on the winds of the past.

Throughout, the lyrics explore universal and vulnerable topics like loss ("Bell"), family ("Brother"), and regret ("Nothing Like"), with Larson and Small's vocals reaching a stark, percipient quality. Southwire opens with the searching elegance of the boldly titled "God," an empowering number that lays the album's uplifting groundwork. Within, Larson extols self-reflection in order to achieve goals: "Men project the best of themselves into the sky/Where it cannot be much brought to bear."

"It's interesting to say the word 'God' in a song, in earnest, and see the way people respond to that," Elmquist reflects. "I really like that. It was refreshing to hear Jerree say 'God' in a song without any kind of irony or secular implications. I was instantly drawn to that, even if I'm not an overtly religious person."

After their first Minneapolis gig a few months ago, Southwire return to celebrate their album release at Icehouse on Friday. It's part of a plan to reach the masses with this enthralling music one small step at a time.

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