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Frankie Lee returns to his gentrifying hometown and remembers Jessica Lange on 'Stillwater'

Erik Nelson

Erik Nelson

Frankie Lee is an old-fashioned guy. The 36-year-old Minnesotan believes in family, community, and keeping Main Streets historic. So when he contemplated where to record the follow-up to 2015’s American Dreamer, the suggestion of his hometown of Stillwater stuck—and became the title of the new album.

To record Stillwater’s somber folk tracks, Lee and his crew hunkered down in the home where his single mom raised him, his twin sister, and his older brother. The songs are stripped-down and weathered, broken-in and world-weary. They harken back to an earlier time.

“I’m more of a country-type of person,” Lee says. “Like how people stay in the city and then the go to the country on the weekends? I’m the opposite.”

The first single off the album, “Downtown Lights,” was inspired by an unexpected source: actress Jessica Lange, who was born in Cloquet and moved to Stillwater with actor Sam Shepard in 1995. Lee worked at the co-op and saw Lange come in occasionally. “She was one of those people who was so stunningly beautiful, but present,” he says. “That always left an impression on me. It wasn’t like a sexual thing. It wasn’t like a little boy crush. It was more like, there’s a real woman. There’s a real energy that comes from her. A real power. Almost like nature has.”

In 2008, Lange told the New York Daily News that she left Stillwater because it became “yuppified.” At some point, Lee stumbled upon that statement and, shortly thereafter, he had a dream that he walked down the deserted Main Street with Lange. In the dream, she said, “It breaks my heart. It just breaks my heart.”

It breaks Lee’s heart, too, to see the once-quaint place where everyone knew each other turned into a tourist trap populated by clothing boutiques, gift shops, and fast-food joints. Working-class families can no longer afford to call it home. Instead, a new population, one that wants to live in “extremely clean and cold, almost lifeless” condos with an in-house yoga studio, has infiltrated the riverside town. “Here they are on these beautiful Main Streets with tons of history around them and they just come in and knock it all down,” Lee says of the developers.

Lee has spoken with the city council, the mayor, and the historical society about his concerns. “I think it’s really important to not just complain about it but be involved in where you come from and the little things you can change,” he says. “I still love the town and I’m still invested in it.”

Stillwater inspired another song on the album when, a couple of days before recording started, Lee ran into a concrete and construction worker he used to work for in high school, The man had been something of father figure to him. (Lee’s father died in a motorcycle accident when he was 12.) “He was just a man about everything. He just did the work and he didn’t complain. He lived a certain way. And he woke up every morning and did it again,” Lee says.

They hadn’t seen one another in 20 years, and time had not been kind to the man. Chemicals had eaten all the pigment from his hands, and physical labor had battered his body. He was drunk. It was a jarring shift from how Lee remembered him. The short car ride they shared made Lee think about people who just want to get by, whose hard work goes unrewarded and who get forgotten. “It’s somewhat tragic but it’s also very real,” Lee says. That experience informed the song “(I Don’t Want to Know) John.”

Despite the heavy sentiments on the album, Lee considers his music reflective, not mournful. “It’s not sad nor happy or somber or upbeat. It’s kind of like a dream state. It kind of floats,” he says. If Stillwater sounds solemn, that wasn’t his intention. “I’m really much more joyful than that,” he says.

But musically, Lee prefers subtlety. He doesn’t want his lyrics to tell listeners what to think, or to say something just because it’s catchy. Instrumentally, he avoids beating the listener over the head with electric guitar or drum beats. He’s more interested in music that speaks to an honest day’s work, the beauty of the natural world, and the complexities of love. “You write from your own experience and kind of the smaller you get, the more universal it seems,” he says.

And he does have hard-won experience. The college dropout has supplemented his music career with manual labor, from building cabinets in Texas to working on a hog farm in Afton. He has no permanent address. Of his transient lifestyle, he says with a laugh, “I wouldn’t recommend it.” He’s content to sit in a friend’s backyard and converse about cooking, kids, and neighbors.

“The simplicity of domesticity really appeals to me, mainly because I don’t have it,” he says. “Everything is so corrupt right now, it seems. You have to go back to nature. You have to go back to the family. That’s what I’m trying to do, honestly, because I went out into the world, like everybody else, and thought I could change it. Unless you want to sell your soul or go work for someone who’s willing to [sell it] for you, it’s very difficult.”

Lee’s outlook on the future of music is equally bleak—or optimistic, depending on your perspective. He predicts streaming and corporate-run music festivals will be the death of his craft in the next 10 to 15 years, “which I’m grateful for because we’ll go back to barn parties and singing around kitchen tables and we’ll listen to children and not just give them screens and buy them tickets to Taylor Swift,” he says.

For Lee, music was never about making money anyway. Though he’s been playing music since he was a teenager, he didn’t record anything until age 30. His music-making motivation isn’t happiness, either. “I would never pursue something for happiness. Absolutely not. It just doesn’t interest me,” he says. Instead, it’s about connection. “I don’t think I’d leave my house or go anywhere if I didn’t play music,” he says. “Music’s just a way for me to connect to more people. If I could knit, I would do that.”

Frankie Lee
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 8 p.m. Fri. June 28
Tickets: All ages; $20; more info here