We had a nice chat with the Minneapolis-based musician in the delightfully air-conditioned St. David’s church in Austin to learn what keeps him going.
How’s your SXSW going so far?
JMN: It’s chaos. We got here yesterday. It’s going well, it just is what it is. And there’s nothing really in the world you can do to prepare.
I’ve been to music festivals before, but…
JMN: This is a special breed.
This is your second SXSW.
JMN: We came down two years ago. We skipped last year because we were kind of at a weird point in album releases where it didn’t really make sense to come all the way down here.
After this, you’re touring for another two months. How do you prepare for that?
JMN: I don’t think you can. So far, I’m doing well. You just throw everything you own into a couple of bags and hope for the best.
Is there anything you do to prepare mentally?
JMN: I’ve actually never done a tour of this length, so I don’t think there’s anything I could’ve done to prepare me. I feel like you have to take the whole trip, and not actually think about any of it, other than just that specific day. Like, “What do I have to do today?” and “How long is it until I sleep?” And then when I wake up, I think about the next day.
What is your average day on tour like?
JMN: It depends. SXSW is such a brutal beast. It’s like 9 or 10am to 2 or 3am every single day, out in the hot sun. So I think once we finish with SXSW, we’ll get into a little bit more of a semi-regular routine, where we have a 3 or 4 hour drive each day and nothing too crazy. And then we’ll play one show each night. Usually, we have three or four days on, and then a day off, so it’s not insane.
Has anything stood out to you about your most recent tour?
JMN: Two stories come to mind immediately; we did a little warm-up run right before this tour in Chicago. We got on the road from Minneapolis and one hour into the drive, I was driving, and the guy in the passenger seat yells “Pheasant!”, and two seconds later this giant pheasant explodes on the windshield. A lot of times, you see birds coming towards your car, but they always pull up at the last second, but this one did not make it. And just, bird explosion.
In terms of crazy audience stuff we had someone, a really intoxicated man, during one of our shows, trying to get me to take a nude inflatable blow-up doll.
And do what with it?
JMN: I don’t know, but I did not take the acknowledgement. He was really just holding it loud and proud. Big fellow, intoxicated, nude blow-up doll.
Is there anything you miss when you’re away from home?
JMN: I just really like being in Minnesota; it feels like home.
What’s there that’s important to you?
JMN: It’s hard to explain, really. But when you’re from the midwest, you kind of know what it is. It’s just that feeling of “This is where I’m from, this is where the people that I love are.” There’s always that element of home.
You released an album this past September. Are there any tracks you look forward to playing live, or any that got an especially good response?
JMN: It’s really fun as you create songs, to see how people react to them. Especially in a live setting when people haven’t heard them before. I feel like you can get a good gauge of a song based on the immediate reaction of people who have never heard it. And what they decide in the first minute or two really says a lot about the craft of the song. It’s been fun to watch people react. I think one that I really enjoy playing is called “That’s What You Do”, it’s the second to last track on the record, and we usually close our shows with it because it’s pretty high energy. It’s fun to see people dancing and clapping along, and I feel like if you can relax…I feel like when I go to a show I’m so analytical about it, and if a band can make me relax enough to have a good time, I feel like that’s due to the craft of their songwriting and their playing and I feel like if I see people doing that at a show of mine, I feel really grateful.
Have you found any new bands at SXSW that you like?
JMN: Tonight is actually our first showcase that we’re playing, and I got to hear the soundcheck of the girl who’s playing now, Aoife O’Donovan, she’s fantastic. I’d never heard of her before, but I think she’s from Brooklyn. So it’s really at events like this, where you’re loading in your gear and then sitting for 5-6 hours, where you really get to hear new bands. Usually, if I’m seeing stuff around the festival I’m deliberately going there to see people I want to check out or am already familiar with. But it’s when I’m playing with bands on the same bill that I get to discover new stuff.
Are there any bands in Minnesota you think deserve more recognition?
JMN: You know, the girl that plays keyboards in my band, her name’s Kara Laudon, and she’s a very very gifted songwriter, and she graciously takes time to play with me and tour with me, but she’s also a very gifted artist in her own right. She’s got a lot to give to the world, and I hope to see her make a big impact in the future.
You funded one of your last albums on Kickstarter. Did you expect that to work out so well?
JMN: I didn’t put a ton of thought into it, other than I had seen some other people do it. I thought it was worth trying, and then it raised way more money than I thought in a very short amount of time. It was fun. I don’t know if I’d ever do it again, but it was just a fun experience. It’s a very immediate and tangible acknowledgment when people care about what you do.
You’ve been releasing albums since 2011, but I feel like you’ve kind of maybe stayed under the radar a little bit. Do you enjoy being sort of mysterious? Because you’ve done a lot, you’ve recorded a lot.
JMN: It was not necessarily a deliberate effort to stay off the grid, so much as it was I was a really young guy when I started doing this and had no idea how to do it. I loved recording and songwriting, but I had no vision or plan for the career portion. So it really wasn’t until these last couple of records where I really started to think outwards. Getting the craft in and of itself is so rewarding and so fun that that was the reward.
Is it weird to have a team of people that you work for and with?
JMN: It’s weird, songwriting is so personal. It feels bizarre to have people invested in a monetary or fiscal business sense. It’s weird when you start to have really technical elements to what you do, like when you have a budget meeting for writing songs.
Does that take the enjoyment out of it at all?
JMN: It doesn’t, actually. I find it kind of energizing to think about my craft as any other business. When I wake up in the morning, some people drive to a job and sell things, and when I wake up in the morning I write songs. But it’s like a job, even though a lot of people probably don’t consider it a job.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of your SXSW?
JMN: I’m excited for tonight, I think it’s going to be great. We’ve been here for almost two days and haven’t played yet, so I’m ready to play.
So what have you been doing?
JMN: We’re staying at a five or six bedroom Arabian horse ranch outside of Austin, so we’ve just been hanging out and cooking meals together, riding the train to the city.
Not riding horses?
JMN: Not riding horses, I don’t want to damage anything on a two-month tour. Just hanging out, walking around, seeing bands. I went to like five or six events today, so it’s a chance to network and encourage people around you. We have a bunch of Minneapolis friends around here, and I want to go and support them. It’s a good chance to participate in the bigger picture of music. SXSW is kind of a chance to participate in where music as a whole is going.
What about the rest of the year? You’re touring until April and then sleeping for a week?
JMN: We’re actually touring until the first week of May, so we’re three or four days into almost eight weeks on the road. I get home in May, I’ll be home a couple of weeks, and then I’m leaving for Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington state, which is going to be awesome. It’s Alabama Shakes, and Leon Bridges, and Sufjan Stevens, etc. I’m currently in the process of working with a European agent, so I might be doing some solo stuff there in the fall. I’d like to get back into the studio this fall, as well. I have almost a whole record ready to go again. It’ll be the fifth, which is starting to sound excessive.
Which venue has the best green room?
JMN: I thought Brooklyn Bowl was pretty sweet. The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis is pretty great; you can make your own tea and coffee, and there’s a record player and a selection of old vinyl. There’s nice couches and it’s not in a basement, which is nice.
Any last words before you go on tonight?
JMN: Pray for us on the road.