Trading your hometown to move to a bigger city is often make-or-break time for a musician. Armed with his family and music, Jake Illika, lead singer of the Heavy Set, moved from Winona to Minneapolis at the end of 2013 to find a new musical voice.
Set to release their second album, Everybody's Got a Mountain, the quartet center the new record around Americana, weaving in traces of folk and rock. Written in narrative form, Mountain plays out like a series of dreamy vignettes or a scattering of half-memories. At the center of the pieces, Ilika's writing has a connection with the heart — speaking volumes — because this is an album full of heart, of love and hope.
Before their album-release show at Icehouse on Friday, Ilika shares the tales that went into the new record and the differences between Winona and the Twin Cities music scene.
Band members: Jake Ilika - vocals, guitar; Jim Trouten - electric, lap steel guitar, vocals; Jamie Groth - bass, vocals; Zac Barbieur - drums
City Pages: You recently moved up here from Winona. What is the difference in the music scene in the Twin Cities versus there?
Jake Ilika: Winona is a town of just under 30,000, and there are a handful of places that have live music, but only three or four venues that have a stage/sound system in the actual town; there are a few on the outskirts of either side of the city. If you go somewhere like Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis, there's 3 on a block.
Obviously in the bigger metro area you're going to have a lot more options for venues and shows. Multiple shows on the same night happen frequently in Winona, but it's nothing like here in Minneapolis or St. Paul where you'll have 5-10 (sometimes more) local heavy hitters playing against mid- and high-level touring acts, and on top of that Rolling Stones or Taylor Swift in town.
But Winona is a great community of music and art lovers, and they've really improved the overall scene over the last decade or so with the creation of Great River Shakespeare Festival, Frozen River Film Festival, and music festivals like Boats and Bluegrass and Mid West Music Fest. Ed's No Name Bar in Winona is the closest you'll come to a Minneapolis venue. It's one of the main attractions during Mid West Music Fest — all the bands want to play there, and it gives Winonans a chance to see great bands in a setting you couldn't up here.
Just imagine seeing Mark Mallman or the 4onthefloor at a place a little bigger than Palmer's. I love Winona and go back frequently to visit and perform, but chose to move up to Minneapolis and pursue music for the very reason that it is so big and diverse and loaded with opportunities. Choosing to be a full-time musician and staying in Winona, I just personally couldn't sustain that.
CP: How long ago did you start writing for this album, and what was the songwriting process like?
JI: Some of these songs have been in my personal repertoire for years, and some just came about in the last year or so. I write the songs, and sometimes test them out at my solo shows before knowing I want to add more to it. I'll have parts in mind for the rest of the band, but usually let them create what they want for their part. If it's too far from what I had in mind, we'll change it, but most of the time they get what I want, or make what I want even better.
As far as a writing process, a lot of times I write the music and lyrics completely separate, sometimes months apart from each other. Sometimes, it comes in more of a picture feel, then I'll write words or music and finish it. Other times it all comes together at once. It varies on this album, and working with Erik Koskinen has been amazing.
He did exactly what we wanted a producer to do for us: push the songs in a different direction than we had planned, making them better. He'd take a chunk of the song and say, "Why? Try this!" and we would and, more often than not, it worked great. He didn't re-write songs, but definitely helped arrange a few of them for the better and push us to make the best record we could.
Our friend Dylan Nau (Apollo Cobra, Nicholas David) mixed this and our last EP, and I asked him to put some keys on this one, so he added a whole depth to the record we hadn't had as a four-piece, and is now joining the band on the road when he can. He'll be at our Minneapolis, Winona and Duluth release shows, and after that, a lot more I hope.
CP: Your songs have a narrative to them. Where did you learn this style of writing?
JI: I'm not really sure. I've always written — lyrics, stories, whatever — from a first person narrative, I think. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Kerouac when I was in high school, and got addicted to the way they could explain what they wanted you to see but still leave enough room for your own imagination to fill in the blanks and personalize it. Hemingway could do that with short, laconic spurts, and Kerouac with a page or two long paragraph.
You could say I'm influenced by that, but I don't think I'm ever really trying to write a certain way. Honestly, it's there or it's not, and I write it down. If I struggle with a lyrical idea or force it more than it just falling onto the paper, I usually discard it or keep it someplace where I can come back to it if I remember to, and rework it.
CP: What's the significance of the title Everybody's Got a Mountain?
JI: The last few years have been really up and down for me and people close to me. For me, quitting my job and moving my family to pursue music full-time was a scary risk filled with uncertainty, and it came with many ups and down — and still does — especially at the start in 2013. But recognizing struggles of mine helped me better see everyone else going through something, big or small, and started referring to it has their mountain in my mind.
The band and I started discussing picking the album title, and liked the idea of naming the album a line of lyrics, like Dawes' Nothing Is Wrong, instead of a title-track or something completely random. And I think the title is something everyone can relate to, because everyone has their own struggle or battle they have to go through.
CP: Can you tell me about the song "Eagles on the Ice"? How did you come to writing that song?
JI: First off, I love bald eagles — let's just get that out of the way — but the song is loosely based on a guy I knew in Winona who would work up in Alaska for weeks at a time and come back home for a few weeks, then head right back. His job kind of inspired the idea of being away from home, returning in the winter.
Anyone that knows Winona and has made the drive on Highway 61 in winter is familiar with the image of bald eagles on the ice near the open water around Reid's Landing outside of Wabasha, where the Chippewa and Mississippi rivers meet, and I pictured the narrator of the song seeing that when he nears home, and that being the visual that reminds him of home and being near it when he is far away.
When I was living in Winona, I worked as a driver, delivering water in a big truck on routes up and down Highway 61 multiple times a month, so the lyrics came to me as I worked. I'd always have sheets of paper with lyrics scribbled all over them, and "Eagles On the Ice" came together pretty quickly.
The idea of coming home is one close to me and probably every musician that hits the road often. It's my "Homeward Bound" in a way. Having Jillian Rae guest on this song and bring it to life was a real treat. I like to think of her violin as the eagles flying around. Also, did I mention I love bald eagles?
CP: Any other songs that are you feel are special on this album?
JI: Our first single, "River" is really special to me and the band. It started as a visual, then a poem, and finally the music came. Once I had the progression, and the lyrics, I brought it to the studio and we all added the final touches. I asked our drummer, Zac Barbieur, to play something sporadic and improvised and brought up Dave King [The Bad Plus, Happy Apple, etc.] as a reference. He listened to my example of The Bad Plus' take on Aphex Twin's "Flim" from the We Are The Vistas record, and he said, "Oh. OK!" and laid down the drums in one track.
Erik Koskinen laid down a really defining riff on resonator guitar, and also had this great idea to track Zac playing a pattern on the toms which he then recorded to tape and played back at half-speed. It's really mixed in there, but you can hear it if you listen for it. Lastly, working with Siri Undlin [Undlin & Wolfe] was something I wanted to do since first meeting her and hearing her sing. She has such a cool and smooth voice, and really brought the lyrics and vocal melody to life.
CP: What are you excited to share at the album release show?
JI: Physically, sharing the stage with Matt Latterell. I've enjoyed his work with Zoo Animal and Lucy Michelle & The Velvet Lapels, and once he started pushing Phase & Field, I was completely hooked. His songwriting and delivery blows my mind, and I'm pretty excited to make sounds in the same room on the same night with him and his band.
I'm also really excited to get almost all the guest musicians on the stage for the songs they were part of. Koskinen won't be able to make it, but Dylan, Jillian, Siri, and Max "Maxaphone" Felsheim will all be there to help celebrate. Some of these songs we haven't played live before now, so debuting them will be a nice treat for us and hopefully those in attendance.
The Heavy Set Album Release Show for Everybody's Got a Mountain
With: Matt Latterell
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri., November 13
Tickets: $8, click here for more info.