Zoo Animal's Holly Hansen: I'm having more fun playing music than at any time in my life

Zoo Animal's Holly Hansen: I'm having more fun playing music than at any time in my life
Eric Elvendahl

We've had several years now to get to know Holly Newsom, the guiding force behind local minimalist rockers Zoo Animal. But as 2013 kicks into high gear, it seems as though we'll have some major reacquainting to do: For starters, the Cokato-reared songstress is once again going by her birth name, Holly Hansen. And it would seem that that's the just the tip of the iceberg for someone in the process of reinventing herself and her music.

Zoo Animal itself has a completely different look about it these days as well, having gone through a variety of lineup changes in the past year and a half since Tim Abramson and Thom Burton left the group. With a firm lineup finally in place, Hansen recently cut some demos in Minneapolis under the guidance of Alan Sparhawk. Based on the tightly wound melody of "Gravedigger" and the swirling rock 'n' roll of "Dark Dirt," the new material suggests a drastic change from the bleak, unflinching beauty of last year's Departure.

Gimme Noise spoke with Hansen over the phone this week to get details on the new material and lineup, both of which she plans to formally debut this Friday at Icehouse. Of course, not all the recent changes have been so glamorous: When she answers the phone, Hansen apologizes for being late. "I just upgraded my home insurance policy," she laughs.

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Gimme Noise: So this weekend you're debuting the new lineup and some new songs. Who all's in the band these days, and how did you land on them?

Hansen: Yep, we had this lineup in December, and I've been talking a lot about how I've been switching bandmates of late, but this lineup is pretty much solidified now. Justin Korhonen plays drums, and I've actually known him since 2006. Actually our moms go to the same church in the hometown. Noah Paster is playing bass; he was one of the first people to book Zoo Animal, that was at the 331. And then Matt Latterell is playing guitar. He's just an old friend, and I used to play drums for him.

It seemed like once you were writing without Tim and Thom, it freed you up a bit with your songwriting. How different is it now with these guys?

So far it's pretty much them learning other peoples' parts, but we're about to start doing some more writing together. I haven't really written with people since Tim and Thom and I'm really excited about it because of the music chemistry and friendships that have already happened. It's like when you get in a room full of people you've known for a while and everything is just easy, that's how it feels with them. I haven't really felt that for a while. Not that my other bandmates were bad or anything, I just think that musically this is what I've been trying to get to.

So they'll play a bigger role in the songwriting?

Matt and I are going to kind of co-write more than I've co-written with anyone before. I think he's going to bring some maturity to the song structures and music itself because I'm a little more into concepts than details, and Matt's more of a perfectionist. [Before] I've kind of thought of records as these stamps, like I'm just going to record this moment in time instead of this piece of art.

Kind of like these guys will help you finish your thoughts, in a way.

Yes, for sure. I also think I'm having more fun playing music than at any time in my life. And personally I'm in a better mental state than I've ever been in my life. So as much as the desperation was something I think people were drawn to about Zoo Animal, I think this new-found energy where it's not drawing from desperation, I think people are going to walk away from a Zoo Animal show in a lot better mood than they used to.

Is that a change that's happened since Departure, or since this lineup got together specifically?

It was a combination of my life changing and these people starting to play with me.... It's just a whole different world, and I've been relating to my own music differently. Everything feels new. And I have a different subject matter I want to talk about. My songs have often been about suffering, and then they were pretty cryptic because I didn't necessarily want to say straight up what that was about. And now because I don't feel like I'm having as much suffering, I feel like I can make a lot more articulate music.

Would you say that shift largely reflects personal changes, or maybe also a shift in how you think about the music?

Honestly, it has to do with becoming a better musician. I didn't know an instrument well enough. I could do things, and I could perform, but that's about it. I was a performer, an entertainer, but I wasn't working on my voice or working on guitar... I know for me, I can really like a band that's really interesting because they say something interesting or are weird. But the bands I go back to over and over again are bands that have really good musicians in them.

You also recently did a couple of songs with Grant Cutler for his Weird Visions project. Did you learn anything from that, or find some new inspiration?

I think it helped me realize I'm having a lot more fun. Grant and I are pretty close friends, and he's another person I can play with where it's really easy. The songwriting process, to me, is usually where the pain is -- like, "Okay, let's work this out." And with [Weird Visions], Grant had these tracks, I made up words, came and sang them, and had a good time.

Basically, you were able to enjoy the process without putting all the pressure on yourself.

Exactly. I've been doing a lot of side things like that, just guest vocals or whatever behind the scenes, and realizing that there's no reason to pressure on yourself like that. I used to live like that, but I think I'm just way less uptight. I just have a mindset where I'm freer to perform, and even just simply opening my eyes when I perform, you know what I mean? I can look at people now. I want to be with the fans, or the listeners; I don't want to seem like I'm separate.

The new songs you're writing are definitely more rock 'n' roll than before. It sounds like that might just because that's what you feel like playing now.

I realized that when I play live, I connect to a song a little more when it's rock 'n' roll. This lineup definitely fits that.... For a while I loved solo shows, where you could just hear a pin drop, and I could change the tempo and be super weird almost to the point where I could make everyone in the room uncomfortable. [And] before, I've always kind of disliked loud music, but I have more energy now, and I want to expend that energy.

Well, that certainly seems like a good thing.

When I wrote Departure, I was not [excited about life], I was not super interested. I was intrigued by life, but I wouldn't say I was excited about it. So now that I am, I want to write songs that when I play live, I won't have to go back to being lethargic in order to perform them.

Zoo Animal. With Sun Gods to Gamma Rays. $8, 21+, 10:30 p.m. Friday, April 12. Icehouse. Click here.

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