Diving in Deep with Jonathan Sunde

Artist Focus, Music and Healing, Poignant Songs


I will never forget my introduction to The Daredevil Christopher Wright’s music. First off, I knew if I was going to be a well-rounded local music appreciator, I would need to know their stuff. So, I got a hold of The Nature of Things a few years ago. As I first listened, while sitting in my van in the Festival Foods parking lot, I knew I was diving into deep waters. And those waters were not only deep; they were unpredictable. Beautiful vocals and craftsmanship sealed the deal for me (and I still smile when I listen to the extended, super-long dramatic pause in Blood Brother, one of the great, unpredictable moments on the album).

I was, of course, bummed to learn that the band was going on a hiatus, but also excited to hear what one of their members, Jonathan Sunde was going to produce as he ventured out as a solo artist. I had a chance to hear him play during Adelyn Rose’s album release show for Ordinary Fantasy at Eau Claire’s House of Rock a couple of years ago, and I was mesmerized by the guy’s immense talent, story-telling, and, honestly, his between-song banter. I especially remember him describing the process of writing a particular song and he ended by saying, “Follow the muse. Follow the muse.” As I’ve engaged with his music more over the last couple of years, it is evident that he is still following the muse, because his writing and music are certainly inspired.

In 2014, he released his first solo record, Shapes that Kiss the Lips of God (I wrote about it here). It’s one of those records I can always go back to. I never get tired of it. And I never get tired of hearing him play songs from it. In fact, I had the privilege of seeing him perform recently at The Cabin at UW-Eau Claire and he played a bunch of those songs that night. The most memorable song of the night for me was his haunting, acoustic rendition of Blinding Flash of Light, an already soul-rending, sober meandering of faith, doubt, and what exists in between them. His quiet, somber approach to the song that night drew me in and broke my heart.

Again, Sunde swims in deep rivers lyrically and musically. I’ve long been curious about his inspiration and motivation for diving in so deep. I recently asked him about this and the theological and philosophical themes in his music, especially his mentions of Jesus and Christian ideas. Sunde replied,

Well, I am motivated and shaped by my attempt to follow Jesus. The big questions have always been present for me and a source of curiosity, frustration, excitement and peace. How people have explored those questions and the philosophical and spiritual conclusions that they have come to, fascinate me. In and overarching way and sometimes in a more pointed and specific way, my songs are an expression of my wrestling with these spiritual and philosophical questions. Over time and for a host of reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can trust in the explanation of the nature of things that Jesus presented. As such, when I’m speaking most intimately about trust and fear and doubt and love it comes from that perspective.

Sunde’s response was refreshing to me. The reason for this is simple, and it’s not motivated solely by my own efforts to follow Jesus. It’s because Sunde doesn’t write about God, theology, or deep philosophical issues from the standpoint of an unengaged bystander. For many of us, it is easy to investigate these issues and themes without letting them impact us personally. I don’t get that vibe from Sunde. It seems to me his wrestling with God, as it were, not only impacts his life, but informs it. For me, it is deeply meaningful when I listen to someone sing or talk about lofty subjects that are practically influencing how they live, act, think, and speak… and that’s the vibe I get from Sunde.

This honest, personal wrestling and his willingness to share openly about them is one of the reasons I’ve become such a fan over the years. It’s why I want to share his music with whoever will listen. It’s rare that you get such honesty, talent, craftsmanship, and humanity in one package, and that’s what I see in Sunde and his art.

Hence, I’m glad to hear he’ll get to play at the inaugural Daytrotter Downs in Davenport, Iowa on Saturday, February 20. This new festival is featuring some great artists, such as John Paul White, Lizzo, Shane Leonard/Kalispell, Liza Anne, and Sun Club. Sunde is pumped to be a part of this:

It feels great to take part in the inaugural Daytrotter Downs. I’ve had the privilege to get to know that community of folks really well over the last 10 years. My label, Cartouche Records, is from that community. I really believe in the honesty and example of people in out of the way places working really hard and making beautiful things that have an impact on the wider world. I believe that Daytrotter has done just that and so I’m stoked to participate in their continuing evolution.

And speaking of Shane Leonard, I’ve been personally pulling for more collaboration between Leonard and Sunde. They’ve toured together and Leonard contributed his talents to the recording of Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. So, of course, I was excited when the “J.E. Sunde Trio” debuted and toured in early 2016. The trio includes Sunde, Leonard, and Har-di-Har’s Andrew Thoreen. Sunde’s pretty excited about this new entity as well:

It’s been something that Shane Leonard and I have talked about since our collaboration on my first record. The thought was to explore that material and new songs in a more lean ensemble. It took some time to get schedules in order, and there is still more of that to sort out, but with the addition of Andrew Thoreen to the equation and an enormously encouraging first tour under our belts, we’re all excited to make this into something. So, yes, it definitely has a future. On top of performing, the ensemble will play a large role in the new record that I’m working on.

And, oh yeah, there’s a new record on the horizon. More good stuff coming from Mr. Sunde in the future.

I’m glad I had a chance to catch up with Sunde at the Cabin show and via email in recent days. Aside from being an incredible artist, he also happens to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of those folks you just want to root for. As for me, I think the art he’s created has already made him a winner, but I would certainly love for more people to connect with his music. His songs and his talent deserve to be heard.


Kalispell Helps Me Find Home

Artist Focus, Music and Healing, TS10


Eau Claire is home. That may sound like an insignificant little statement. But, for me, it means much.

I grew up in a different place with different people. During my childhood years, my family moved about ten times. We were almost always in the same city (Chesapeake, Virginia), but it seemed as though we were always restless. In such an atmosphere, it was hard to ever feel truly at home. Along with the constant movement, I was an isolated kid, up to so many things my folks never knew of. I was very much alone and seldom, if ever, felt the warmth and connection that home is about. My sense of home was really, really broken.

When I moved to Eau Claire in 2005, it didn’t take long for me to hate it. I’m serious. I literally hated Eau Claire. My false sense of home rejected what I experienced here. And then, I slowly began seeing the good things here. I began connecting with some people, especially through Valleybrook Church, that loved me, spoke truth to me, and helped me to start discovering the warmth, security, and safety of home.

Local music has played a large role in this healing process. In 2012, I heard Kalispell, Shane Leonard’s project, play at the Volume One Sounds Like Summer concert series at Phoenix Park. Leonard’s music was so rich, so emotive, so warm. At the time, I did some freelance writing for the Visit Eau Claire blog and I knew I needed to write something about Leonard and Kalispell. I met with Shane at Racy D’lene’s Coffee Lounge  on Water Street shortly after that concert to talk with him about his music and his story. It is not overstatement to say that the conversation we had that day altered my life’s course and was a deeper invitation to come “home.”

As I sat with Shane, I was overcome by his warmth and generous spirit. To be honest, I was a little star-struck at first. Yeah, maybe he wasn’t this nationally-recognized artist, but he was obviously immensely talented and he created art that deeply touched my soul. But, his unassuming way disarmed my sense of awe that day. In fact, he seemed far more interested in learning about me than talking about himself. As our time together at Racy’s went on, I felt more and more comfortable, more secure, more at home.

Around that same time, I bought his recently released “Westbound” album. It is a beautiful work of art. It is warm, honest, and inviting. Again, these are elements of a healthy sense of home. My wife also fell in love with the album, as did my then 3 year old son. We listened to it non-stop. It became the soundtrack of the Hudgins house in the second half of 2012. And, it was healing.

Sometime later, I drove to Mondovi from Eau Claire, passing through some serene and beautiful rural scenery. While I am not really a rural kind of guy, I so appreciate the beauty of the Chippewa Valley. It can be, if you let it, breathtaking. And, it is a central part of our community identity. So, I drove along, taking in the beauty of home, both visibly and audibly.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” became the background music for the restoration of home in my life. It spoke to me in its notes, melodies, instrumentation, movements, and lyrical content while I was growing deeper and deeper in relationships with people I could trust, and with the city in which I lived. I cannot separate Kalispell’s influence from the rest of this healing experience. It has been an integral part.

One of the major emphases of Tomme Suab is connecting the reader with the emotionality of music. To me, the reason this is so important is because I believe it can be healing. It can help you find the broken places in your heart, engage with deeply held feelings, express those feelings, and find healing and freedom you have never known. I say this as someone who has personally experienced this dynamic. Thanks in part to Shane Leonard and Kalispell, my heart has been healed and I now know what “home” feels like. And, I never want to leave it.

Kalispell’s “Westbound” is this week’s Gateway Record. Stream it in its entirety here.

Savannah Smith: Just a Girl and Her Uke

Artist Focus

I happened upon Savannah Smith’s music a few months ago after reading her profile on Volume One‘s website. I was immediately drawn in by her vocal style and the mix of emotive expression I heard. There are themes of romantic connection, the existence of God, how love affects us the same way as a bottle of liquor… The young lady has much to say and I appreciate the way she says it. Smith describes her style as “uketastic” on her Facebook page, which is about the only way I know to describe it as well. Her music does not fit neatly into any category, and she ranges from acoustic pop to country-influenced folk to alt folk.

I was privileged to hear this mix of emotion, themes, and styles live at The Cabin back  in February. Smith played a full set that night, just her and her ukulele. And while she and her uke were the only things producing sounds on that stage, they were enough to fill the room and show a glimpse of the talent that resides inside this artist.

Before I mention more about the actual performance, let me say that I truly enjoyed Smith’s presence on stage. She was unassuming and freely shared her sense of humor and fun stories from the road. She talked about Tom Petty’s influence and how creepy he seems to her. She talked about sleeping in her car while touring and some unknown creatures that she discovered while traveling in Kansas. Again, she was entertaining even when not playing her songs.

Then, there were the songs. She played a mix of original songs and covers. One of the covers was Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” With apologies to fans of “The Boss,” I enjoyed her version of the song much more than the original. Her original songs included the recently released single, “Lost As They Come” (more on this song below). If this single is any indication of what we can expect from Smith going forward, I can’t wait to hear more.

I loved what I heard from Smith that night at The Cabin, and it left me wanting to hear more. She has several songs uploaded on Reverbnation and Soundcloud, and I recently took the opportunity to listen. I’m so glad I did. I’m glad that I was able to take a more intimate listen to “Lost As They Come.” What an intense song… The lyrics paint the picture of a discussion between Smith and someone else about the existence of God. It is an intense song, with deep, brooding undertones serving as its foundation both lyrically and musically. I also seriously enjoyed her ditty about the effects of love on an individual, “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin.” It’s a short tune that tells us that love (or a bottle of gin) can “turn a genius into an ass,” and that, though they are both colorless, they can make us see rainbows. I love the clever lyrics and profoundly true comparisons between those two intoxicating entities. Another great song on her Soundcloud page is “Ventriloquism,” which sounds like a defiant anthem. The combination of her ukulele, some bass, and some harmonica provides a raw country/folk/Americana sound that matches the emotional intensity of her vocals and lyrical content.

The common themes in all of these songs and her live performance at the Cabin are two simple things: her ukulele and her vocals. I am, admittedly, no connoisseur of ukulele performances. However, there is a simplicity in the uke that lends itself well to Smith’s songwriting and vocal style. Regarding her vocals, upon first listen, you may think that you’ve heard other vocalists that sound like her. To an extent, that may be true, but there is a clarity and crispness to her vocals that make her unique, in my opinion. When her vocals and uke come together, there is lovely simplicity and an underlying “cuteness” (for lack of a better word), no matter the intensity of the tune or lyrical content. This simplicity and cuteness draws the listener in quickly and it eases the listener into whatever emotional expression is to come. This dynamic is one of the main reasons to be excited about Savannah Smith’s music.

Walking Out on We Are the Willows

Artist Focus, Live Shows, Poignant Songs


We Are the Willows

A little more than a week ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a We Are the Willows show at The Cabin. I had been looking forward to it for some time. I love the band and I love the venue. I was not disappointed in any way with what I experienced… even though I left the concert before it was over (more on that in a moment). I expected to enjoy the band’s unique instrumentation, excellent musicianship, and Peter Miller’s soaring vocals. I certainly got all that, but I got two surprises as well. Those two surprises made the night for me.

The first surprise came right at the beginning of the show. LOTT (WATW’s violinist/backing vocalist, Leah Ottman), opened the show with a set of her original work. It was just her voice, her violin, and some recorded instrumentation, yet her performance filled the room. It was intense, emotive, creative… all the elements I crave in music. She is a gifted songwriter, vocalist, and violinist. I got chills several times during her set. I want to hear more.


The second surprise came toward the end of We Are the Willows’ set. They were excellent, just as they were when I saw them in November of last year. But, I was a little more clued in this time around. As I mentioned in my previous post about the band, their new album is focused on the content of over 300 letters sent by Miller’s grandfather to his grandmother when he was in the military, serving overseas. Knowing that going into this show, I was able to listen more attentively, and hear some of the love and deep intimacy in the songs as they played them. I was captivated.

In between a couple of songs, Miller shared a story about spending some time with his grandfather, who was suffering from dementia. There was a lamppost just outside the window of the room where they met, which his grandfather consistently thought was a tree, and he would talk about how awkward the tree was and that it needed to be “analyzed.” One day, as they were looking out the window, discussing that tree, Miller’s grandmother walked between them and the window and caught the grandfather’s attention. He then turned to Miller and said (after 66 years of marriage and while suffering from dementia): “I’d like to analyze that!” That story still strikes me. It’s funny, of course, but it speaks to something deeper. There was a deep, intimate connection between Miller’s grandparents. That connection was evident in the songs sang that night and in this story, as well as other anecdotes Miller shared.

As the evening grew late, and the band’s set continued, I found myself longing to be with my wife. This was so to the point that I actually left before the concert was over, for the sole purpose of going home to be with her. Now, I have an extraordinary wife, and it is my privilege to spend my days with her. But, there was an additional dynamic in play that night. Miller’s words and music had affected me deeply. They drew me back home to my wife.

So, to Miller and the rest of the band, I personally apologize for leaving early. At the same time, I want to thank you for such personal and intimate songs. And, thank you for playing them with the passion and musicianship they warrant.