Taj Raj get inspired by Minnesota winter for Night Speech

Taj Raj | Icehouse | Saturday, June 13

When your musical compass changes directions, it's hard to turn back. With their new album Night Speech, Taj Raj take what they built on their 2013 EP, Fine Hearts Alive, and fine-tune it, creating a fresh sound that reaches into your soul and demands you feel something -- anything.

In their St. Paul practice space, the five members -- Ben Burwell on vocals and guitar, Jake Pavek on backup vocals and piano, Chris O'Hal on guitar, Mark Kartarik on backup vocals and bass, and Jake Wallenius on drums -- sit around a couch, reminiscing about drunken tales of arm wrestling and stealing horses. Eventually, they open up about the new album, which will see a release party Saturday at Icehouse.

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A natural storyteller, Burwell meticulously describes the genesis of Night Speech. As the nights grew longer and the wind turned colder in October 2013, the band hunkered down to write in what was then Burwell and Pavek's south Minneapolis home. Late one January night in 2014, in the midst of re-reading Lord of the Rings, Burwell went outside to experience what biting cold felt like when temperatures hit historic lows -- a cold that hadn't been felt since before his grandparents were born. 

"I bundled up and went out," Burwell says. "Even though it was the heart of the city, it was dead quiet, so I sat and just listened and experienced what it meant to actually hurt to be outside." He then went back inside to read and came across a passage about night speech where Frodo hallucinates in the dark. "When I was out there listening to the cold in the dark, I had a point of connection," he continues. "I put it in my notebook, not knowing if it was going to be a song title or a lyric, but it was brought up again when we were kicking around names for the album."

Night Speech was born out of much more than a band wanting to write catchy melodies or craft charming songs; Taj Raj wanted to transport listeners to a profound new world. While Burwell was the primary songwriter on their two previous EPs, the new record is a true collaborative affair that integrates three-part harmonies from Burwell, Pavek, and Kartarik. 

Recorded and mixed by Dustin Kiel, the songs collectively tell a much more cohesive story than anything they had done in the past. "One thing I didn't want to do was subject people to stories of my life," Burwell states. "What if I took my own experiences and used that as a jumping off point? We could widen the stories via mythology and broaden the ideas -- then everyone can have room to make their mark."

The five friends integrated "Taj Raj Saturdays" for three months last summer, where they would begin making music at noon and not finish until 8 or 9 p.m.; a strict no-drinking rule was in place during working hours. Once the individual songs were brought to the table, each member would augment their parts to create the whole.

A few tracks came from Pavek, who specializes in classical piano. Pavek wrote a song called "Stairs" for his own solo album, released earlier this year. In the space between sleep and consciousness, Burwell heard Pavek playing the opening chords of "Stairs" one morning and immediately knew it had to be on the new album. Elements of that tune are revisited on Taj Raj's "Dreams of Flight Part I," a haunting and delicate piano-heavy track that's carefully constructed around Burwell's vocals, fragile to the point of heartbreak

The band's first single, "Alder Tree," was another contribution from Pavek. "I started writing that song five years ago," Pavek says. "I was having a lot of family issues. I never finished it; I just didn't have the motivation to do it, so I passed it onto Ben to do with it what he wanted with the exception of keeping one line: 'Won't you wait for your daughter and your son.'" 

Resplendent and majestic, "Alder Tree" includes strings from Leah Ottman and Hilary James of We Are the Willows, and exists in boundaries defined by its own ambition. Folding in O'Hal's intricate guitar parts, it's beautiful and complicated, like life itself.

As for the future, Taj Raj hopes to foster devoted fans that connect to their art in personal, deep ways. "I used to want to write to a broader audience," Burwell says. "Now I write for anyone who has the spirit for a journey. That is going to alienate a lot of people, but if you invest in that idea, you're writing to a different audience." Wallenius adds, "It's not the fear of who we're losing, but the people we gain that will care in what we're doing."

Taj Raj will release Night Speech at Icehouse on Saturday, June 13, 2015 with We Are the Willows.
21+, $8 adv, $10 door, 10:30 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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