Frankie Lee is about as Midwestern as they come. When we meet up for our interview in St. Paul’s historic Cathedral Hill neighborhood, he’s wrapped in a brightly colored plaid wool jacket, a knit cap pulled over his blonde hair and a winter beard covering half his boyish face. He speaks in the opposite of sound bites, unraveling wandering thoughts about his life and his music, and his approach to his art is both humble and reverent.
Lee is a lifelong musician—he estimates he wrote his first song when he was 17, and has composed hundreds since—and has supported songwriters like Molly Maher, Erik Koskinen, and Tim O’Reagan as a guitarist and bassist. This week, he’ll finally release his own collection of five alt-country songs on his excellent debut EP, Middle West.
As with many conversations happening this month, we started out contemplating the merits of the increasingly commercialized SXSW music festival and it quickly turned into a larger discussion of the state of the music industry, and what artists can do to make an imprint on a landscape that is getting more and more fickle.
“It’s like, well what do you do?” Lee wondered. “Because blogs can break a band without even playing a show. So what’s the incentive to get good and have a live show? And there is [an incentive], to a certain crowd, but 10 years of a commitment to an art form can be taken away from a lot of people because they can’t sustain it. It’s like a farmer or something. People coming in and tearing it out and putting up a mega church. It’s like, wait a minute — if you’re going to do this, at least put another farmer here. If a band’s going to get broken and be a buzz band, at least have them be able to play their instruments.”
I asked him how he approaches releasing his own music in such uncertain conditions, and he shrugged and smiled. “I’ve always had songs, I’ve always been writing and playing. I just love everything about it, and so the idea of putting something out on the business side of it comes way, way last,” he said. “But at the same time, expectations are kind of a scary thing. Knowing, going into all this, what it is—my thing is to just do it as direct and organic as possible. I’ll always be doing music, music’s a part of my life, and to make it a living — it just doesn’t have much to do with me, you know what I mean? Like if the Beatles were around now, it wouldn’t matter. People would see them on YouTube in the Cavern Club and be like, what are they doing? Goofy ties and suits without collars? You know? It would be over. There would be no mania. So in the face of that, I’m just always enjoying writing and learning and listening, because it’s always changing.”
That steadfast, unflinching method of creating art has landed Lee in the middle of a pool of like-minded, hard-working Midwestern musicians here in the Twin Cities. After spending time living in Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, Lee returned to the Cities in 2010 and started playing out with Molly Maher and Erik Koskinen at their weekly Aster Cafe residency, and soon after connected with drummer JT Bates, who encouraged him to finally release some of his songs. Together, Lee and Bates rounded up an impressive cast of musicians to record his debut: guitarists Jake Hanson, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Koskinen all contributed to the record, along with Michael Lewis on bass, Ryan Young on fiddle, Jeremy Hanson on drums and Haley Bonar on backing vocals.
The mixture of Lee’s songwriting and his collection of talented, versatile bandmates is mesmerizing. Amid all the hubbub about nu-folk and the eyeroll-inducing “Lumin-era,” Lee’s album stands out for its authenticity and timeless appeal. Middle West is not trendy music, and it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the marketable subcategories being bandied about the indie music scene these days. Instead, these songs are built to last, the product of years of writing, scrapping, re-writing, and whittling his ideas down to their finest points.
For Lee, that course of action came naturally. ”Here’s my house analogy: If you have a good foundation, you can build anything on it,” he explained. “And then when it’s built you can paint the walls different colors, and redecorate the rooms. But if you don’t have that foundation, that’s going to sink.”
He extended the analogy even further and applied it to the trend-chasing bands he has watched rise and fall over these past few years. “That happens more often than not, because these things get built so fast,” he said. “It’s like suburban sprawl, with music. And you see it and you’re like, ‘Oh my god that’s a great idea, I didn’t even think of that,’ and then all of a sudden there’s like 80 of them, and you’re like, which house was it? It’s the beige one! That’s not where I want to be, or working on any of those levels.”
“The Bon Iver dudes are the best example of that,” he continued. “That is a foundation, and it’s so solid and so real and so tangible. It comes from a real place and it actually exists. It’s not like contemporary art, like ‘if you don’t get my thought, man…’ It’s like, no, this is a thing, and we’re going to do this regardless of what’s going on in the world or what’s hip or how much money we make or how big our bands get, or anything. They’re still making records, and they’re still friends, and they’re still probably waking up and cracking a sh*tty beer at noon and eating cheese or something, you know? Those guys, it’s just the same. That’s the beauty of what’s happening now, is guys like that — you can actually carve out that niche. And I like that niche a lot.”
Frankie Lee plays an EP-release show tonight, Friday, March 22, at Icehouse with openers the Cactus Blossoms. 10:30 p.m., $10, 21+.