LASKA Is “In the Blossom of This”

Album Releases, Artist Focus

I was not an early adopter when it comes to the LASKA bandwagon. My homie Scott had mentioned the name of the band repeatedly over several weeks, maybe months, but for some reason, I just didn’t take the time to listen. Finally, they were scheduled to play at The Venue, just behind the main room at The Plus and the cover was only five bucks. So, I decided to see what all Scott’s hubbub was about. Turns out, it was a worthy hubbub.

I was captivated by what I heard that night. The combination of beautiful voices (angelic even, according to my man, Ben Shaw), excellent craftsmanship, and creativity were on full display that night. I became a LASKA fan over the course of that set, and the deal was sealed when they powerfully closed the show with their intense epic, The Haunting.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of seeing LASKA play several more times and they have never, ever disappointed. The Morton sisters and accompanying band members have something special. They are displaying that “something special” in their new record, in the blossom of this.

From the very beginning, as the opening track Paralysis kicks in, the listener is invited into that something… that incredible combination of raw talent, musicianship, creativity, and some innate element. While I struggle to define that innate something, I think it has to do with intimacy. There is something about this record which takes us deeper into the psyche, into the emotional world, of Bex, Hannah, and Mookie Morton. While this intimacy is shrouded in their own personal stories, there is something ultimately relatable for me as I listen…

…the angst of being hurt by someone, yet still wanting to be with them

…the cathartic nature of getting “all this shit out” (from Coffee Naps)

…the longing inherent in To Hold You

These emotional dynamics pervade in the blossom of this and are perfectly entangled in the wonderful talent, creativity, and craftsmanship that has typified LASKA from the time I first listened.

in the blossom of this ends with the same kind of intense feel as their first record, Ceiling Zero, which climaxed with the aforementioned The Haunting. The final track, Sunset Casual, seems to veer away from the relational struggle of the rest of the EP and wades into bigger, more cosmic waters. At first, it may seem to be a little disjointed from the relational angst, catharsis, and longing of the rest of the tracks. However, it seems to be the fitting end to a thread running throughout the EP. At some point, since relationships are so central to human existence, it would make sense for the Mortons to meander from the immediate and intimate to the meaning (or lack thereof) of life overall. Kinda feels like that’s what’s happening here.

From beginning to end, LASKA has created an emotive, intimate, and, from the sounds of it, brutally honest record, one that is well worth the time to listen and feel through. in the blossom of this will be available everywhere March 22nd.

Pagnia Xiong: From Tragedy and Conflict Comes Hope and Healing

Artist Focus

Sometimes, beauty arises in the midst of devastation. In the 1970s, many from the Hmong people group, originally living in Laos, began to immigrate to the United States, escaping a war-ravaged southeast Asia. Many of these folks suffered horrors very few of us can relate to. All of them were separated from virtually everything familiar, many times including their families. The story of how Hmong folks first came to the U.S. is beyond sad. And yet, in the middle of such tragedy, there was a new story beginning to develop.

The coming together of cultures can be stressful and it inevitably stirs conflict, conflict between representatives of two diverse cultures, as well as an inner conflict within the heart and mind of the immigrant coming to a brand new place, with a new language, and dramatically different cultural norms. Conflict is difficult, no way around it. However, as is the case with any conflict, the result can be truly beautiful. This dynamic is on full display in the music of Hmong American artist Pagnia Xiong, who was raised right here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Pagnia has quite a following, with over 20,000 followers on Facebook and a very engaged fan base here in the States and in Europe. However, there’s a pretty good chance that, unless you are a Hmong American living in the upper Midwest, you have no idea who she is. Neither did the person who is writing this post (in fact, the only reason I became aware of her was through a friend who happens to be her cousin).

How is it that I could be unaware of a locally rooted musician with such a following? I tend to stay aware of such things. I mean, yes, she writes and performs music in Hmong, but I’m into various cultural expressions, especially when it comes to music. I’ve listened to plenty of non-English speaking artists over the years. How did I miss this? How did I miss her? Pagnia sees a couple of reasons:

Professionally, I didn’t record music until I was studying at the University of WI-Madison. My debut album was released in St. Paul, MN, the city with the largest Hmong population. That also meant most of my performances were in the bigger cities, as my listeners were there. Personally though, I’m still a bit shy about performing for non-Hmong listeners. I graduated from North High School, but most of my former classmates, if they recognized me today, would not have ever guessed that I would become a professional singer. So, it’s not your fault!

Okay, so that makes sense, right? And the reason I wasn’t aware of Pagnia Xiong wasn’t nearly as nefarious as I was making it out to be (I had thoughts of racism, ethnocentricity, and the like). Truly, I didn’t know about her music for very practical reasons: she wasn’t here when she started recording and she is hesitant to perform in front of non-Hmong listeners. Totally makes sense.

So then I also wondered about why I don’t know of any other Hmong artists with local roots, with the notable exception of SloSlyLove, who has garnered quite a following himself and played at the second Eaux Claires festival in 2016. I asked Pagnia about this as well, and her answer was profoundly enlightening:

Truthfully, I don’t know any other Hmong musician who is actively creating and performing music in the Chippewa Valley (aside from SloSlyLove). The Hmong community in the Chippewa Valley is still small enough to the point that everyone knows everyone. Meaning that if a cousin knew of a Hmong music artist who was creating and performing locally, I would know exactly who s/he is as well. Word would get around quickly.

And then she provided some sorely needed historical context:

…the Hmong community is still a young and growing community. As war refugees, the first wave of Hmong families to arrive in Eau Claire occurred only 43 years ago. That means that the first generation of Hmong Americans are currently in their 20s and 30s and are likely the breadwinners of their family. That being said, I believe my parents’ generation raised their first-generation Hmong American children for one main goal: to survive. Imagine having at least 1-2 immediate family members no longer alive due to the war. Survival would be of the utmost importance. 

Being a music artist doesn’t translate to survival for my parents and their generation who fled their war-torn country. Music isn’t surviving; it’s thriving, and you can’t get there unless you believe you’ve survived. I believe that’s part of the reason why in a Hmong community as young and small as Eau Claire, hearing one or two local Hmong music artists actively creating and performing sounds about right to me.

It’s important to take a moment, pause, and think about these words. This story. The trauma experienced by the Hmong American community is immense. Their collective loss and grief is larger than I can personally understand. Who has time to create when you’re only objective, by necessity, is survival?

And herein lies the potential beauty of conflict. No, there was nothing beautiful about the horrific experiences of Hmong families in southeast Asia 40+ years ago. But there is certainly beauty in what is growing out of that tragic soil. The infusion of Hmong culture in the life of the Chippewa Valley and the Twin Cities has added vitality and richness to these communities. Even though the struggle of these resilient people to learn the balance between maintaining their cultural identity and navigating life in the American Midwest is very real, that struggle is creating something beautiful. And a great expression of that beauty is the music and influence of Pagnia Xiong.

Why is that the case? Well, it’s not just because she is talented. She is that, but there’s more. First of all, her music is not quite the music her parents listened to, and it represents the development of something new.

My parents’ choice of music (was) mainly Thai/Lao-influenced music recorded by Hmong singers. However, I was very drawn to the Hmong American contemporary artists at the time who weren’t singing my parents’ type of music. Cua Yaj and Zuag Vaj, both from California, were the very first Hmong American singers that I connected with as a young listener and singer. Their ballads were the songs of my singing competition days. I think that’s why my strength lies in vocal ballads.

And then there were other influences as well…

I grew up listening to I-94 and Z100 on the radio, mostly late at night. Sunday nights were my favorite, because my older sister would leave the radio on all night for Sunday Night Love Songs. Some of the reigning voices of that time were Selena, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. They were my private vocal teachers, and really inspired me to be the singer that I am today.

Pagnia and her music represent a wonderful fusion of cultures, the product of an ongoing synthesis between east and west. She sings in her family’s heart language, but she sings in her own heart’s style. She honors her connection to family, to the past, to her roots, all the while forging her own voice, embracing the now, and building new roots. It’s the combination of two cultures, two styles, coming together to make something new, the picture of someone embracing who she is and living it out fully.

I would imagine that the “sweet spot” for any artist is when they are able to do just that and have it resonate deeply with their listeners. There is something special, even holy I think, which occurs when someone’s creation speaks to someone else on a deep level. When it stirs them. When it changes the way they think, feel, or believe. Pagnia has forged this kind of connection between her music and her audience. She inspires her listeners, and this is not by chance.

I believe that when you’ve been through something – good or bad – that can help others, find a way to share it and teach it. Being a first-generation Hmong American female comes with a lot of challenges and expectations from elders and the community. In my latest album, “Plhis Suab,” I highlight some of the challenges I face because of my identity and it showcases my desire to inspire anyone who hears my music toward self-love and self-empowerment. I think we all have challenges, battles that we fight every day that most people don’t know about. So I hope that by sharing the good and the bad in my life, I’m able to help others heal and have hope at the same time.

So often, I don’t realize that there are young Hmong women around the world who listen to my music, follow me on social media, and are quietly observing who I am and what I’m doing. Especially after my second album with the song, “Txoj Phuam Txoom Suab,” a heartbreaking song about a Hmong female getting married and leaving her biological family, I don’t take what I mean to my listeners lightly. I do my best to share my most authentic self… I’m at point in my life where I’d rather be authentic to help someone than to be artificial and gain a ‘Like.’ So through my work, I genuinely hope the message of self-love and self-empowerment comes through and resonates with my listeners — that in this lifetime, they intentionally choose to be their truest and best selves. They deserve that. We deserve that.

I’ve only recently gotten to know Pagnia, and I still don’t know her well. But I’ve listened to her music and I’ve read her emails. I’ve seen what she posts on Facebook. And, I’ve been inspired by what I have experienced from her. My limited exposure to this dynamic person pales in comparison to how she impacts others, others who understand and can feel her lyrics at a heart level, who likely have experienced a similar family history, and who probably struggle with the same cultural synthesis Pagnia faces every day.

So, it’s a shame more non-Hmong-speaking folks don’t know who she is just yet. My sense is that Pagnia has much to offer the rest of us as well. We can all be challenged by her story, encouraged by her resilience, and inspired by her bold determination to live out who she truly is. And we can all embrace her message… that in the middle of unspeakable heartache, there is healing and hope.

Finding Balance with Alright Alright

Artist Focus

Over the last few years, it’s been my privilege to build relationships with a variety of talented musicians. These personal connections have afforded me the opportunity to see how passionate these folks are about their art. They have given me a glimpse of the struggle so many of them face as they share their creations, sometimes in a dingy bar full of drunk “listeners.” I’ve felt the tension, to a very small extent, that they feel when it comes to figuring out how to pursue this passion, this dream, while making ends meet and managing their personal realities and relationships.

A short while ago, I stumbled upon the music of a duo called “Alright Alright” when I downloaded some of their music from Noisetrade. The Denver based band consists of husband and wife, Seth and China Kent. I reached out to them asking if they’d be interested in an interview, not really aware of much of their story. During our email interactions, China mentioned that Seth was just turning 40 years old. And when I started hearing more of their story, I gained a new appreciation for how complex and difficult it can be for musicians attempting to make a living, manage their household, raise kids, make their music, and still love each other at the end of the day. The Kents generously shared about their lives and their art, and through the process, also gained an admirer. Below is our conversation…


TS: How long have you been married? How many kids (ages)?

AA: We’ve been married 13 years and have two kids, Fender and Harper, 10 and 8, respectively.


TS: When did Alright Alright become a thing?

CHINA: We started playing together before we were married, and that was in 2004, but we didn’t actually start our band together until after we had our son, Fender, in 2006. Our first show was April 12, 2007. However, we are on what we call “Alright Alright 3.0” because we have started and quit a few times along the way. This version of the band started after the Spring of 2013, when I (endured) a few serious health issue. There is nothing like having a cancer scare to make you get serious about fulfilling your life goals… I realized that making and playing music was truly my calling, my vocation, and my passion. I’ll let Seth tell about how he got involved again, at my bequest…

SETH: Picking up where China left off there. I had worked for a few years as a tech/studio guy in music but had had a rough go of it and in the spring of 2010 (if I recall) lost my job suddenly. I was burnt out and bitter and after a family road trip I decided to just get a job and work and not think about music much. I (After a few years), I was looking for another direction professionally and my job (contract work) was coming to an end. China was about to go on a trip and right before she left she basically said, “I am going to do music. I know we have tried this before and I know you got hurt by the music industry, but I want to do it with you. So, think about it.” I thought about it and when she got back after a couple weeks I said, “Yeah, let’s do this.”


TS: Could you talk about the dynamics of being parents and being a band? How do you find balance?

SETH: The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither one simplifies the other at all. Our kids are good with people and are super flexible. They also generally love road trips. If this were not the case I know the past few years would have looked different. I think for us the hardest part is how to know when to do the “normal family” thing and when not to. I had to take our son out of baseball one year because we were going to go on tour and I knew it would overlap with the season. We have to think about school if we have tours during the school year. There are a lot of additional moving parts that would be vastly simplified if we just did our thing. But I also think we would not be nearly as happy doing this if the kids were not a part of it. They bring a lot of joy as well as gut checks to the process. They will ask us about lyrics, critique our performance and tell us if they think parts of our show lose people’s interest. All of this to say, the finding of balance is a constant adjustment, we don’t just relax into feeling like we have it covered.

CHINA:  Incorporating our kids into everything we do has been easy on some level, because we are a very close-knit family.  Two years ago, we put the whole experiment to the test and went on a three-week house show tour. At the end of the three weeks, Harper, our daughter (then 6) turned to me and said, “Mama, thank you for going on tour.” I felt like I had won the lottery. It was magical. However, this past summer was more difficult.  Kids have different needs as they grow, and the social need has begun to show itself. Fender was not keen on being on the road this past summer, and that was hard for all of us.  As a mom, you want your kids to be happy, and you want the best for them, and yet as an artist, I want this fledgling career to start to fly. It is a hard tension to carry. About a week into the tour, both kids began loving the things we were doing, and we successfully “flipped” them using several incentives (they get paid every time they help set up or tear down, and we try to see and do as many fun tourist activities as possible).

I will say that having children has had the opposite effect on me than most other musician parents that I know. Most people had a career before kids and the kids have inserted themselves into something that already existed. I was a collaborator and co-creator in several other artists’ projects before I had children, but I lacked the self-confidence and grit to take on and hold my own music career. Somehow in the birthing and raising of my children, I got to an internal place of quiet confidence and intuitive determination that has allowed me to take up and carry this music career in a way I never could before children. They have formed me and I do not resent them one bit for the added challenge of managing the family and music pieces of our lives, but am continually grateful for them and their influence on me and my music.

TS: What is your dream for Alright Alright?

CHINA:  I think my overarching dream for Alright Alright is to share love and goodness through our story set to music. We write a lot about ourselves, though at the time we’re writing we often do not realize it. I also have a dream to build a sort of community and a sense of belonging that is related to our music and our shows. I have a vision for an emotional atmosphere, a kind of unburdening and a sigh of relief for our listeners. I am also eager to collaborate in an inter-disciplinary way.  I would simply love to write for a dance company or the theater.  I love to experiment with new ways of performing and new ways of collaborating.

SETH: When I am really honest, I think I want to be known as a decent song writer. I am very proud of what we have been able to do with the band so far from a quality standpoint and want to push that further. We made some conscious decisions to release things we could feel proud of and that would sound to other people like we cared. That is often harder than people may think. It takes a level of humility too, to admit that we can’t always make something what it needs to be on our own. But I think I want our material to be known as something of quality with a story worth hearing.

As I have considered the Kents’ responses to my questions, I have found a deep resonance with them. After all, I’m a 46-year-old amateur writer with stories to tell. I think my stories are worth hearing as well and am continually trying to grow in the quality of my writing. All the while, I have my lovely wife at home with me, a beautiful 8-year-old pain in the rear kid, and a full-time job. No, I don’t aspire to make a career out of my blog, but there’s something about Alright Alright’s path that hits home for me. Trying to create something honest and meaningful while wrestling through the rigors of family life… And yet, they seem to do it with grace and humility, leaning into the tensions rather than letting those tensions rip them apart.

While I enjoy the music I’ve heard from China and Seth, I find that I’ve enjoyed hearing about their journey just as much. Real people with real world issues trying to influence that real world with their art. It’s beautiful, really.

Exploring Gracie and Rachel’s Cathartic Synthesis

Artist Focus, Music and Healing
Above image from Gracie and Rachel’s Facebook Page

Synthesis: Combining two separate things to create a new thing

The above definition of synthesis is a loose paraphrase of the dictionary definition, but it captures the essence. It carries the idea of bringing together two different things toward the end of creating something new. Depending on the ingredients and the outcome, the synthesis process can create something good, meaningful, even healing.

All art is an expression of some kind of synthesis. The artist combines intangibles such as inspiration, imagination, and experience with skill and craftsmanship. They then leverage those things together in combination with their brush, their movement, their pen, their keys, their strings, their computer… and at the end of the process, there is something new.

In late 2017, I became aware of such an artistic synthesis in the music of New York-based duo of Gracie and Rachel. Early in the year, I was exposed to their Tiptoe EP and later, I indulged in their self-titled full-length album. In this album, in virtually every song, I hear this synthesis occurring and it is unique, special.

This synthesis facilitates a palpable tension throughout the record. It is inescapable…

Gracie and Rachel are a study in duality: light and dark, classical training with a pop sensibility, Californians in New York. Their music pits anxiety and tension against an almost serene self-assurance…(from their website)

On the surface, this duality rests in Gracie’s piano and Rachel’s violin, but it goes so much deeper. According to them, that intense, almost conflicted feel “comes from the world we live in as a duo in the bustle of New York, living together in our music every step of the way, working together in the same household, breathing the music we create. It’s full of tension, but it’s also full of release.”

Release… yes. That’s it. That word captures something of the end result of Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, there may be a better word. When I asked them which of their songs seemed to impact them the most, their response was telling:

The song “Go” is one that always feels like a meditation for us when we play it live. It sits on this rhythmic pattern that sort of propels us forward and yet keeps us grounded throughout. Lyrically, the song works as a note-to-self, to celebrate anxiety as opposed to suppressing it – if we can do this, we can find peace.

We can find peace… Again, a powerful thought. Peace. Shalom. True well-being. It’s the longing of every human heart, no matter what the mouth might say. Finding peace through embracing anxiety, even celebrating it, is a powerful thought in itself. There is something to be said for facing directly into pain, fear, anxiety, traumatic memories, and the like. It takes courage, but there is healing there.

Their duality or tension has been shaped by a variety of stimuli, not the least of which are their artistic influences. In their words…

Gracie’s greatest influences include the author Carlos Castañeda, for his questioning mind, the composer Erik Satie for his patient piano lines, and Agnes Obel for her thoughtful fusing of strings and keys, her effortless tension and release. Rachel’s are endless and so instead of listing a bunch, she’ll give it to a female choral composer of the 16th century, Hildegard von Bingen, for her unique treatment of counterpoint.

Tension and release… counterpoint… There is a theme here. These ideas speak to Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, what is the end product? Is it release? Is it healing?

Catharsis: purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art

The synthesis of their experience, their passion, their instruments, their creativity, all of it… it all comes together as a cathartic experience. It seems that way from the artists’ perspective. And it certainly feels cathartic from this listener’s perspective. There is a universal truth to the themes running through Gracie and Rachel. From their site…

The nine orchestral-pop songs on Gracie and Rachel tell a story that’s rooted in the truth —their truth — but retain an enigmatic air that makes them relatable to anyone who has ever found their heart racing with doubt and pushed forward regardless, or triumphed in subverting expectations imposed from without.

Struggle and tension is a universal experience. We have all experienced “racing doubt” and “subverting expressions.” We have all been hurt… abused… neglected…oppressed… suppressed in some way. We have all gone through emotional and relational strife. At times, more than we’d like to admit, we all need catharsis. We need to get it out. To purge. To purify. Gracie and Rachel captures this incredible dynamic in their record.

This dynamic duo is getting noticed. Bob Boilen included them in a couple of his 2017 “Best” lists, as well as hosting them for a Tiny Desk Concert. They have toured with San Fermin and are in the midst of touring with the indomitable Ani DiFranco. Big things are coming. It is the hope of this particular listener that, as their influence grows, more and more people will feel invited into the cathartic synthesis underlying every song emanating from Gracie and Rachel.


The U2 Factor: Justice, Creativity, and an Integrated Faith

Artist Focus
Above image from U2’s Facebook page

1987… not a golden year for me personally when it comes to music. A year or two earlier, I had fallen in love with Jesus. In my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity, I really had no idea how to follow his lead and, in that moment, I implemented a few immediate changes, one of which was curtailing/eliminating cuss words from my personal lexicon. That lasted a few years. Another short-lived change was my determination to only listen to music I could purchase from my local Christian bookstore. By the time 1987 came around, my ears, mind, and heart were being filled with Petra, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, and the like… exclusively.

Sometime that year, one of my church friends tried to tell me U2 was a Christian band. Of course, if that were so, it would be okay for me to listen to them. But I doubted. To try to convince me, my friend made me a cassette copy of some of U2’s music. Side A was War and Side B was The Unforgettable Fire. That tape sat in my room for months before I ever listened to it. I just wasn’t convinced their lyrics would bring me closer to Jesus (and I couldn’t buy their music from the Christian bookstore), so I wouldn’t give them a chance.

During the summer of that year (I believe), on a road trip somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina, I happened to hear With Or Without You for the first time. Good thing that radio station didn’t have the same bias against U2 I had. I was intrigued by what I heard. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I’m sure it had to do with the desperate, passionate, emotional tone of the song. Sometime later, one of our local radio stations in Virginia played The Joshua True from beginning to end. When I listened to it, I was hooked.

I could write about the emotive or nostalgic connections I have with virtually every song on that album. I could also write much about how the lyrics challenged me and made me think. Where the Streets Have No Name made me think of a time when God’s shalom will reign. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For made me explore the shallowness of my faith. Bullet the Blue Sky not only made me move and got my heart pounding, but it led me to start thinking about social and political issues I’d never considered before. I could go on and on, but I won’t, at least not now.

Of course, once I was captivated by The Joshua Tree, I finally listened to that tape my friend made me. It wasn’t long before I was hearing about the revolution in Ireland, refugees, and other heavy subjects U2 covers in War. Eventually, The Unforgettable Fire would become one of my favorite albums of all time. As time went on, Boy, October, and Under a Blood Red Sky all joined the fray as well. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen were soon depicted on a poster on my wall. I was all in.

Those early albums impacted me deeply, in some ways I’m only beginning to see. However, the two most significant ways this music influenced me have to do with social justice and the nature of creative expression. Truly, without U2’s influence on me as a teenager and young man, I’m not sure I would care about music and justice like I do now. To a significant extent, God used U2’s music to mold me into the man I have become.

When it comes to issues of social justice… well, that’s kind of their thing. I think one would have to be completely unaware of U2 for that person to not recognize how deeply justice and activism runs in them. It is truly one of their defining characteristics. They call out the folly of war and the grief it brings. They cry out on behalf of the poor. They confront racism and bigotry. And for me, they challenged the gap between my experience of Christianity and efforts toward social justice.

You see, in my spiritual context, issues of war, race, and justice were divorced from faith. Choosing to become a Christian, evangelism (to an extent), and being baptized in the Holy Spirit were the virtual endgame of Christianity in my experience as a teenager. So, when I heard Bono, a professed Christian, sing about things like social injustice, I was provoked to consider how such things related to my faith.

Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, I was only a short drive from the Norfolk Naval Base. The people around me were almost always pro-military, to the point of not questioning the nature of war itself and whether or not Christians should be engaged in such things. U2 challenged me to think about this. And when I began making connections between their lyrics and what I read in the New Testament, I began asking some fairly uncomfortable questions of myself, my parents, and others. It made me question whether or not God was always on America’s side. It made me wonder if our military activities were, dare I say, sinful. I began to see contradiction in being pro-war or pro-military and Jesus’ call to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.

Being from Chesapeake also landed me only a few miles from Pat Robertson’s home-base at CBN in Virginia Beach. Some close to me considered Mr. Robertson a “prophet.” As I grew up, however, he became an emblem of the sick marriage between evangelical Christianity and the GOP. In my church, there wasn’t room for being a Democrat. I don’t even recall there being much room to question such things. U2’s lyrics and very persona led me to question these biases and challenge that sick marriage (I’m still praying for a divorce). And again, what they introduced to my mind and heart resonated with what I understood from the New Testament.

U2 didn’t teach me how to think… they opened my eyes to parts of the New Testament I’d neglected or simply didn’t know yet. I could no longer be satisfied with what I’d been spoon-fed regarding politics, race, economics, or any number of other social issues. Jesus was using U2 to take me deeper.

The other significant impact of U2’s music has to do with creative expression. When I stumbled onto The Joshua Tree, my thoughts about music, what was “good,” and what I should let enter my ears were so, so limited. I had the self-imposed limitations of listening only to contemporary Christian music, but I had a very influential family member who told me I shouldn’t listen to any songs that weren’t love songs (?!) and who thought John Denver was the standard by which all musicians should be measured. And then there are the influential folks in my life who taught me that if they didn’t like something, it wasn’t any good.

All in all, those factors led me to a very small pool of music to choose from, all of which resided at Heaven & Earth Bookstore at Greenbrier Mall. My categories for what I would listen to at that time were so limited… pop rock, some rap, hard rock… that was about it. And they had to be singing about God explicitly or I wasn’t giving them much of a chance. Not only were my categories limited, but my entire view of music and art were severely limited as well. U2 pushed those limits and eventually helped to shatter them.

U2 led me far away from the synthy pop of Michael W. Smith, the driving metal guitar of Bloodgood, and the glossy sound of Stryper (none of which were bad… I just needed to expand my horizons). I had never, personally, heard anything like them. They opened my mind to new sounds, new rhythms, new variables. They led me to listen to less predictable music. Chances are I would never have fallen in love with Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Adelyn Rose, JE Sunde, and so many others had it not been for this mental expansion. I would have never cared about attending Eaux Claires in 2016, much less be impacted as deeply by it as I was, had it not been for U2’s influence.

And then there are those lyrics. So, not only did U2 provoke me to think about social justice issues, but, dang it, I rarely heard them mention God or Jesus in their songs, aside from the closing moments of Sunday Bloody Sunday (As a related side note, I still vividly recall listening to King’s X’s then new self-titled album in 1992,doing my best discern whether or not they mentioned God or Jesus in their lyrics. Ugh.). The irony for me, however, was that I actually did hear Jesus in U2’s words. I heard Jesus tell me to love my enemies. I heard the apostle Paul’s words about how, in Jesus, all racial, social, and economic barriers between us are demolished. I heard Paul’s reminder that followers of Jesus are “citizens of heaven.” I heard Jesus’ definition of the kingdom of God… captives going free, the sick being healed, valleys being raised up and mountains being humbled… U2 taught me to go beneath the surface, to let myself be challenged by new ways of expressing important things, to weave my intellect and my emotions together, to go deeper. And I am the better for it.

I will be forever grateful for Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen. God has used those four guys to grow me and challenge me in profound ways. It is no overstatement for me to say that he used their music and what they are about to make me more like Jesus.

Kat Meoz: Still Gritty Without the GRIT

Artist Focus
Photo above by Angela So

Every once in a while, everyone needs to push the “Reset” button. Maybe things got a little stale… maybe the current course isn’t really working… maybe you’re feeling more a part of the crowd than you really are, or want to be. Recently, L.A.-based rocker Kat Meoz decided it was time for such a reset. She didn’t want to be lost in the crowd.

I first discovered Kat’s music before this “reset,” when she made music under the name GRIT. Admittedly, that’s a pretty commonly used word/name in the music world. However, it was a fitting name, because her music is FULL of grit. In fact, it’s pretty dang BA. Under her former moniker, Kat released an EP on Noisetrade some time ago, which included a couple of songs that would make their way onto TS10 weekly playlists (New Car and Look Away). There’s no way this music should be lost in the midst of multiple “grits”, so Kat recently decided to make a change.

Recently, I caught up with Kat to ask her about this change, as well as discuss other aspects of her musical journey.



You recently changed your “brand” from GRIT to Kat Meoz. Why did you make that change?


I made the change because “grit” was unsearchable, there are countless projects entitled “grit” or some variation of the word. I trademarked the name for the US but it could still be challenged, and I didn’t really want to spend money or energy on taking people to court over it once it became clear how many there actually were. After years of pushing the band name and even after getting some recognition… if you typed GRIT into itunes/Spotify/Soundcloud or wherever, I’d be the 45th person to come up and that just wasn’t cool. In early 2017 a Grit in France got written up in a French Rolling Stone blog at the same time that a Grit in Scotland was dominating Hype Machine. I wasn’t about to file for an international trademark so it was time. Countless conversations were had and I was admittedly over-thinking it, but by the time the decision was processed it felt right. I’ll always have grit and be tenacious; nothing’s changed there. If anything, going by my name has given me freedom as far as playing with different band members goes.


Who are your musical/artistic inspirations?


I’ve always been inspired by songwriting in general, so I am a lover of all types of music. A hit song is a hit song to me no matter what the genre. From Radiohead to Raffy, if a song is undeniably catchy I will listen to it on repeat until I’ve dissected it. I (was) influenced initially at a young age by what my father listened to: Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Gloria Estefan, Harry Belafonte, Steve Lawrence, Tom Jones, The Bee Gees, The Beatles. Later in life he introduced me to The Rolling Stones and I have vivid memories of my mom singing along with all her heart to Jim Croce or Billy Joel on rides home from school. I watched Yellow Submarine and A Very Chipmunk Adventure a thousand times as a kid.  I didn’t love every single song in those movies, but I did love the anticipation of “oh here comes the part with the song I don’t like,”  watching the scene again and picking apart why that specific piece didn’t work for me. The songs I’ve put out are a mix of influences from blues, classic rock, grunge, alternative, punk and pop writers.  I’m probably the most inspired by John Lee Hooker, CCR, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis,  Johnny Cash, Yes, Metric, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Joan Jett, The Sex Pistols, The Strokes, Oasis, Jack White’s various projects, Neil Young, Radiohead, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Eddie Money, early Kings of Leon, early Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Sheryl Crow, The Young Rascals, The Stooges, John Denver, Don McLean, Cream, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.  I could keep going on that list, truly, but all those artists have at least one hit song that heavily influenced my songwriting and desire for quality recordings.



There is a fair portion of angst in your music. Where does that angst come from? Also, how important is it for you to express this angst musically?


I’ve been angsty since childhood, I’m super sensitive and a sponge for negative energy. I axe people out of my life the moment I feel I can’t trust or count on them, and the uncontrollable reflex to do that year after year is something that brings me a lot of pain and spins me into self doubt. I live life by the intuitive directions I receive, and though I question them endlessly, the butterfly effect of my losses and gains up to this point have led me down a path that ultimately I feel lucky to be living. In the past and sometimes still, looking forward without certainty is daunting. The intense feelings that accompany unfulfilled desires play the biggest role in my music. As far as how important it is to express myself, making loud music with a band is my medicine. Banging a guitar while screaming and losing myself in the moment for an audience is a prescription I am constantly looking to refill. I’d be lost if I didn’t have a musical outlet, every time something paralyzing in my life has happened it’s been music or a musical opportunity that coaxed me back on my feet. 

Photo by Erik Jensen


Do you have any tours planned that would take you away from L.A. any time soon? Upper Midwest?


I just added a second guitar player to the mix, and I’m happy because the new band I play with is open to touring which hasn’t been a real possibility until now. We will probably do a Texas run first but when we make it to the Upper Midwest, Tomme Suab will be the first to know. 


Of course, that last response made me smile. Come on up here, Ms. Meoz! However, her response to the “angst” question warmed my heart. I’m not a musician, but I have personally experienced the healing power of music. And, it was a privilege to hear a musician pull back the curtain on how music is her medication. There is power in music, artistry, and creativity.

You can check out Kat’s music in the following spaces:

Official Website


Connect with Kat on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


Ben’s Back: Ben Shaw Gracing the Valley Once Again

Artist Focus, Live Shows

I really didn’t know who Ben Shaw was. I came across his 2016 release, Feet to the Fire, last year and dug it from the very beginning. I thought to myself, “Who is this new guy in the Eau Claire music scene?!” As I listened more, I could tell this was no beginner, no young buck just starting to do this music thing. There is grit in his voice and experience in his lyrics.

Well, apparently, I missed it when Ben was helping shape Eau Claire music as a part of The Embellishment, among his other projects, to my chagrin. Thankfully, I’ve finally experienced Ben Shaw’s music for myself. I listened to Feet to the Fire quite a bit over the last year and was privileged to hear Ben play as a part of last year’s Sounds Like Summer event at Phoenix Park. That experience cemented my fandom.

This summer, Ben’s back for a more extended visit back home. I was able to catch up with him recently and gather some of his thoughts about his career and his tour in the upper Midwest.

What drives/inspires your songwriting?

As to inspiration, probably a bit of healthy narcissism in that when I look back, once a song is complete, it is almost always written about some sort of personal experience, spiritual longing, emotional catharsis, or a lovely muse whose attention I am seeking.

As to what drives my songwriting I would have to say the song drives me. It is an organic process, which begins with me noodling on the guitar or a piano. At some point I make a mistake that catches my ear or I discover a new lick that resonates internally. At that point the song dictates, usually a melody comes up first in my head, then I hear vowels in the melody, and lastly words that correspond with those vowels begin to form. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes 20 years. The one thing that is always certain is my heart knows when the song is complete.


Describe the relationship between your previous musical “life” and/or following in Eau Claire with your newer musical pursuits/following?

I haven’t noticed too much of a disconnect. My new stuff is a more mature, possibly mellower version of my old stuff – vocal/emotion-centered with multi-layered metaphorical lyrics but with fewer jamout sections. I definitely (became) a better songwriter once I discovered the art of using a bridge in songs (hahaha). There are fewer people singing along to the new stuff but that is more from lack of exposure. Fortunately, they can hear the old favorites when I reunite with The Embellishment at Grenfest this year. In all honesty, the Eau Claire music scene faithful have always been supportive of whatever I’ve done starting with solo gigs at the Cabin to my various bands: Lawnmower, Ala Balik, the Tree Huggers, and the Embellishment.


Do you have any new releases in the works?

I have over an album’s worth of songs written but am not sure if I will record them as an album or release single by single. It depends if the album is a cohesive statement. I’m not a fan of albums that are a non-flowing collection of singles. I have 1 track in the can and another in progress. I also have been collaborating on 3 separate projects with some excellent songwriters (Bonnie Piesse, Evan Brau, and Jeff Lipinski, respectively) that should release early next year.


Who are your most significant musical/artistic influences?

For recording production influences my tops are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grandaddy, and Bon Iver. Musically, I’d say the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Radiohead, and again, the Beatles. As far as songwriting goes, the list is numerous, but my tops are Procul Harum, Roger Waters, Dylan, Beethoven, Tom Waits, Handel, and most of the classic Outlaw Country writers (Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kris, and Hanks I & II).


What are you looking forward to the most this time around in Wisconsin?

A cup of coffee at Racy’s, sipping a “Slit Spritzer” in the barber chair at the Joynt, seeing my first Packers practice, and, most importantly, playing more shows in the EC area with my sidekicks Eric Thompson, Adam Nussbaum, and Paul Brandt, all of whom are phenomenal musicians and great people. Last year was a whirlwind of a week of rehearsals yet we only played 2 shows. We were just hitting our stride and having so much fun playing together. Everyone in the band, myself included, wanted to play more. So this year, I made sure to have more gigs for us. We will play 7 shows this year (4 in various Eau Claire locations, 1 in Menomonie, and two in the Twin Cities).

Ben Shaw and band are playing the following dates over the course of the next week or so here in the Valley:

Thursday, August 10, 8pm at The Mousetrap (21+; with The Rattlenecks)
Thursday, August 17, 6:30pm at Phoenix Park as a part of Volume One’s Sound Like Summer
Thursday, August 17, 10:00pm at The Firehouse (21+)
Saturday, August 19, 2pm as a part of Grenfest 2 (email for more information)

If you’re not familiar with Ben’s sound, take a listen…

Getting Swampy With Jessie Smith

Album Releases, Artist Focus

A couple of years ago, I came across an EP on NoiseTrade from an artist named Jessie Smith. Having been raised on sweet tea and hot, steamy summer days, the southern vibes of Smith’s sound were immediately appealing. I especially connected with the rawness and grit of her single, Secrets in the Hollow. I felt so engaged by the song that I included it on one of Tomme Suab’s weekly TS10  playlists.

Normally, when I share an artist’s music on the TS10, I start following them on social media. For what it’s worth, Smith is a “fun follow” on Twitter; funny, self-deprecating, and honest. Last summer, she tweeted about performing in Wisconsin. I replied back to her, telling her she really ought to get up to Eau Claire next time she’s in this neck of the woods. Thankfully, she’s planning to come up this way in August as she tours the upper midwest promoting her newly released album, Like the Sun.

Like the Sun is more of what drew me to Secrets in the Hollow (which is included on the record). As I mentioned above, having grown up in Dixie, I love the southern soul I hear throughout. That sound is what Smith would call “swampy.” I’ve been curious about that label and recently asked Smith about that as well as other aspects of her music and new release.

EH: Where does the “swampy” vibe come from? What drives that sound for you?

JS: I grew up in the hot, marsh-y, traditional south. Music in that neck of the woods was bendy, dirty, soulful, and used acoustic instruments. It was all about coming together and playing together. Though my immediate family was not musical, all the influences outside of them were there. In college, I tried on many different “styles” of music, but this swampy, messy, soulful thing was always what clicked with me the most. It also fit with my personality. I love the messy, darker life stuff, and I write from that place a good bit. And swampy-sounding music allows me to be the messy-deep chick I am on the inside. 

Image from Jessie Smith’s website

EH: What are your lyrics based on? What inspires them?

JS: I don’t write songs one particular way. The one thread that stays the same, though, is vulnerability. I figured if I’m going to write something, it better at least be real. I am always trying to understand the meaning of things. “Sitting Pretty” is my attempt to understand the culture of money and the pressures around it. My song, “Here With You” is about marriage and what I am trying to understand about love. I also have written songs about my struggles with depression, and “In The Morning” and “Lighting Up The World” shows this. I basically lay myself bare for my songs.

EH: What song on the record is the most meaningful to you?

JS: SUCH a hard one to answer! It’s a tie between two. “Been In The Storm” because it was one of the first songs I had written in my beloved “swampy” style, and it really solidified the theme of my music career. And “Take A Chance On Me” because that one was the first song I wrote that kind of wrote itself, and I still get chills singing it.

EH: How has the album been received thus far?

JS: It is doing well! I had some great album reviews on No Depression and a few other music blogs, and that was a great surprise. My favorite thing has been hearing from people who appreciate my rawness – it’s scary putting yourself out there on a stage, but there’s just no other way to do it, in my opinion, and to see it being well received makes me have hope in the world again, ha.

EH: Do you have any specifics yet on your potential visit to Eau Claire?

JS: I am currently looking to book shows in Eau Claire and surrounding areas for the first week of August. I am already booked to play for Band On The Sand on Crater Island in Brownsville, MN, August 4th and 5th.

You can catch some of her swampy vibe by checking out Like the Sun for yourself. You can stream or buy it by clicking the appropriate links on Smith’s homepage. And, if you’re in Wisconsin or Minnesota, plan to see Smith play live at the event in Brownsville (close to LaCrosse) or in Eau Claire.

The Ambivalence and Hope in J.E. Sunde’s Now I Feel Adored

Album Releases, Artist Focus

Here’s my problem: I have a tendency to gush on and on about how much I appreciate J.E. Sunde’s music. Over the past five years, I’ve written several pieces about Sunde and his various projects. There’s a reason for that: the man is immensely gifted and he honors his musical gifts by continually honing his craft. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a genuinely nice guy.

So, as I’ve considered what I’d like to say about Sunde’s new record, Now I Feel Adored, I’m trying not to simply gush more. Unfortunately, there will be gushing, because Sunde has created yet another gorgeous album. Some reviewers have described this new album as “lush,” and I have to agree. It is indeed lush both musically and lyrically. Sunde’s creativity and unpredictability are on full display, to be sure. However, I have also been taken by the emotional and philosophical lushness of Now I Feel Adored. It seems consistently flirt with ambivalence. There is an underlying sadness to much of what I hear and yet there is a prevailing hope threading throughout.

It is fitting the album begins with nothing but Sunde’s voice (joined later by PHOX’s Monica Martin) in I Will Smile When I Think of You. The man can sing. There’s never been a question about his technical vocal abilities. But, the beauty of his vocals go deeper than precision. There is something in his tone which evokes both warmth and provocation, a pretty incredible mixture. Somehow, through the voice he has been given, he is able to both comfort and unsettle the listener simultaneously at times. Even in this song, his vocals carry a sadness with them, even as the song expresses something of the joy of connected relationship. Again, there is that theme of ambivalence.

Immediately after I Will Smile When I Think of You comes Prism. For me, this song is the sadness anthem for the album. It is an acknowledgment of the brokenness all around us. Something is dreadfully wrong. Sunde expresses a standing expectation for progress, a progress which seems to be too slow, if not at a standstill. The chorus details Sunde’s disappointment and borderline frustration: “I thought we’d be further along…” While Prism is likely the most explicit expression of sorrow on Now I Feel Adored, the theme of underlying sadness, a sadness precipitated by the brokenness of society and strained relationships, is pervasive.

In the end, however, sadness does not get the last word. Even though there are many reasons to feel grief, there is also hope. In Called By Our Names, Sunde speaks of an impending “rising above”. The lyrics describe a connected hope, encapsulated in the lyric after which the entire album is named: “Now I feel adored.” Later, in the closing song of the album, Wedding Ring, Sunde describes a time in which “our sadness will drop off like scales.” He is referring to that “rising above,” a moment in which things are made right and there will be no more tears. That is the hope Sunde expresses in the middle of the grief, disappointment, and strife.

From what I can surmise, this hope is not based on a “blind faith”. Sunde’s hope is not based on some pie-in-the-sky dream in which, all of the sudden, things will just get better. What I hear in Now I Feel Adored is a relational, connected hope. It is based on trusting that there is someone who will in fact makes things right and has both the ability and desire to strip our sadness away. Such trust is only meaningful in the context of real relationship. And that’s what I mean by “connected hope”. To my untrained ears, this connected hope is the backbone of Now I Feel Adored.

Lush, again, is a great description of Sunde’s latest. It is textured and layered in every conceivable way: vocally, musically, emotionally, and lyrically. It is not ear candy… no, it is seven-course meal for the ears, mind, and heart.