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Tree Party: I let the stories fight for my attention

Tree Party: I let the stories fight for my attention
Photo by Matt Gorrie

Minneapolis band Tree Party dug up stories that map the history of this frozen state on their new album, Iced Over: Thawing Minnesota's Local Lore. While the lens of the songs were focused on the storytelling, the tunes take on a life of their own, rekindling long-lost memories and feelings. It's impressive what they can tell us about a place that we only think we know.

Before the band's album release at the Cedar Cultural Center on Sunday, Gimme Noise spoke with Joey Ford about what went into his year-long journey of recreating stories and how the band condensed it into a collection of songs.

Band Members: Andy Carroll, Travis Bolton, Jenna Wyse, Joey Ford

Gimme Noise: You have many themes in all of your albums. Why do you feel you are drawn to more cohesive subjects? Was it what you were interested in at that time in your life?

Joey Ford: Our first album was an intro to our musical development process. We usually all write and sing songs for the band, and our hot-iron branded album was our first project as a team putting out a collection of songs that were written from each of our perspectives.

Our second album came from our involvement in the creation of the 7-Shot Symphony, a theatre piece that focused on Western motifs. The first album had a flavor of the Western to begin with, and I suppose our band was chosen to write for the project based on earlier sounds we had -- we just got to cowboy it up a little bit more.

Iced Over, due to the nature of the grant funding, was a very specific piece concerning what the songs were about and how the songs could benefit the state. We have another album in the works that we were planning on releasing before Iced Over that is currently in hibernation; the idea of that bunch of songs is more based on how we started -- songs from our perspective without any required forms or content. This is when we write the best material, I think.
 

How did this project initially begin? Was making this concept album your intent when you applied for the grant?

The idea was born with the writing of the grant. A few years ago, our buddy Jack Klatt released an album called Mississippi Roll and received the same grant (Artist Initiative Grant) to fund that project. He encouraged me to try my hand at grant writing, so I came up with the idea of hitting two birds with one stone -- strengthen my narrative songwriting skills and promote untold stories of Minnesota to the folks that live here.

It sounded like a lot of work went into Iced Over. Why did you want to research all of these stories? How did you divide up the work?

There was a ton of work that went into the project -- maybe more than I expected. I welcomed the challenge of traveling all over the state to seek out corners that held histories that were unknown to me. I am originally from South Dakota and saw this opportunity to learn as much as I could about my new home state. I gained a deeper understanding about not only stories and legends of the state, but also about the geography and social differences of each region.

 

Did you come across any dead ends and had to scrap an idea altogether? Was there anything you discovered that you weren't prepared for? What was your favorite story you came across?

There were several stories that didn't make the cut, and a few research excursions that didn't turn up any material to work with.

On the first trip out I visited a town called Beaver, Minnesota. Technically it really isn't a town anymore, more of a buried ghost town. It was settled around the late 1800s and the methods of farming caused severe erosion on the hillsides which eventually covered the town in silt, sand and soil. There is a cemetery that I visited on the hilltop where you can still see some gravestones of the original founders of the town, and I ran into something pretty strange. At the entrance of the graveyard to the buried ghost town, I found a dead owl hanging upside-down seemingly guarding the area. It must have gotten its feet caught in a crack of a cedar tree a few days before and remained perfectly intact. I wasn't really prepared for that encounter, and I am still trying to work out what that encounter means to me.

My favorite story that I learned about might have to be Helmer Aakvik. The nice thing about this tale is that it was moreover about a single event that the man lived through, and there is documentation of him telling the story in his own words. I felt that this was the most direct and convenient way to get the information; I could not only get the most accurate account of the situation, but also use some of his speech pattern to influence the lyrics of the song.
 

You have a synopsis of each song and story. Are you doing anything special with these? Do you think they'll eventually end up in a book?

The story synopsis were written specifically for the album artwork. The disc comes in a package designed by a great artist, Matt Gorrie. Each story is printed over an image of the song's subject. I thought it would be rewarding to the listener to have a visual image of the person and information to get a better understanding of the individual. The songs give a good feel for the stories, but the idea is to spark an interest and encourage the listener to want to go out and learn more.

How did you go about translating the story into a song? What was the process?

After all of the research was compiled, I let the stories fight for my attention. The ones that I couldn't stop thinking about, and needing to know more about details were the ones that won in the end. I would look at the information that I had and highlight the best parts of the stories trying to hang on to any strong imagery that painted pictures in my head or made me feel closer to the world that the song was coming from. Then I would cut any of the fat off of the tunes that didn't seem to help further the telling of the story. That led to the usual experimentation with melodies that made me feel emotions related to what I was going for. I wanted to create an environment in the song that honored each situation as best I could.

I asked you your favorite story already, but what is your favorite song?

I might have to say that "Charlie" is my favorite song. The melody of that one kept coming back to my head during the year and I am glad that it found a home with this story. All of the other songs talk about what these people did in their lives, but "Charlie" speaks to what this person is doing after their death. This song was also different in the fact that I sang it from his perspective which still gives me goosebumps when sing it.

A year is a long time to work on a project. Why did you feel now was the time to release the album?

Although a year seems like a good deal of time to work on this piece, I could have gladly welcomed another six months -- at least. From Memorial Day to Labor Day (museum season) was when I gathered all of the information about the song subjects. September was the month of writing the songs, and October was the month of recording all of the songs. The thing was put together pretty swiftly when I look back on it, which kept us on our toes and willing to drive forward. The grant period was a year and having a concrete deadline was helpful in mapping out what needed to be done at what time. Also, it is always nice to allow yourself something to look forward to and work towards during the month of February -- it keeps you focused on your work and not the weather.

What can we expect to see at the album release show?

The show is going to be highlighting stories told through song. Jack Klatt and Ben Weaver are both fantastic musicians, artists, poets, and storytellers and I am so excited to see both of them in the same night. Tree Party is going to be playing the songs off of the album and bringing up special guest musicians from the Brass Messengers and a few others, to help with a couple of tunes. It is going to be a wonderful concert and you get to learn more about Minnesota at the same time.

Tree Party will release Iced Over: Thawing Minnesota's Local Lore at the Cedar Cultural Center on Sunday, February 9, 2014 with Jack Klatt and Ben Weaver.
AA, $10 adv, $12 door, 7 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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