The first time I ever heard Caroline Smith, I found myself with a friend and a cup of jasmine tea on a Thursday night in a Northfield venue unknown to many. The Chapel is a cozy upstairs venue that hosts music and art events at 310 1/2 Division Street, run by Michael Morris. Longtime local music writer Jim Walsh calls the Chapel “arguably the best little listening room in Minnesota.”
In September, the Chapel hosted North by Northfield, bringing in local and Pacific Northwest bands for three full days of music. This past weekend, I sat down with Morris at Tandem Bagels to talk about his vision for the venue, his two record labels, and
keeping making Northfield weird.
Morris spent much of the last decade touring with his bands—including Dewi Sant, Valley Fair, and Wesley Church and the Fabulous Vanguards—splitting his time between the Twin Cities and Seattle before settling down in Northfield on a recommendation from bandmates. In Northfield, Morris found culture and a pervasive interest in art but a subtly divided community. Everyone knows that the Olaf/Carleton rivalry is mostly nonexistent, but a pseudo-competitive relationship is often stressed over a collaborative one. The older Northfield crowd has bohemian associations with the college music scene. Morris opened the Chapel in 2012 to “try to bring a segregated town together.”
Caroline Smith, the folk singer/songwriter turned indie R&B/soul rising star, has a long association with the Chapel. “Michael Morris has been my good buddy since way back in the 400 Bar glory days and, ever since the first time we played at the Chapel, I was so proud of him for making such an intimate and unique space that sounded amazing,” Smith wrote via e-mail. “I’d love to see more traffic from the city up there to see shows because I’m positive everyone would really appreciate the space. It’s pretty dope.”
Matt Marohl—college pastor at St. Olaf, avid goth fan, and pedal steel player for Twin Cities party band Accident Clearinghouse—sees the impact of the Chapel on the Northfield music scene as a space where young musicians can listen to music in a non-club setting, get to know the musicians, and perhaps grab a bite with them afterwards. Marohl, who also plays with Morris in the Rice County Roosters, recently saw Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos at the Chapel, an opportunity that would be impossible to find elsewhere.
Looking forward, Morris is looking to expand the notion of a traditional music venue and place more emphasis on the space itself. Partly inspired by a realization that the Chapel, located up a long flight of stairs, is not handicapped-accessible, and by the association that listeners make with a space and a certain genre of music, Morris is looking into alternative music spaces in Northfield. The Chapel will present shows at halls in the Eagles Club, the Northfield Arts Guild, the Key, and the First United Church of Christ. Many of these shows will feature bands on one of Morris’ record labels: Rice County Records and Plastic Horse Records. Morris also runs the Barn, an all-analog studio in Northfield where many of these bands record.
One of these events is at Northfield’s own Heartwork Yoga Studio, where Portland electronic folk band Musée Mécanique will be performing Thursday, October 30. Listeners will kick their shoes off and have an intimate experience with a band that regularly plays extensive European tours.
Comparing the Chapel’s goals in Northfield to the official slogan of Austin, Texas’s small businesses, Morris wants to “make Northfield weird. It should be weird…but it’s not.”
In our conversation, Morris continually stressed the importance of giving back to Northfield in a meaningful way. The Chapel is a “listening space,” not a “beer-first, music-second” venue frequented by trashed college kids. His goal is to “bring together parts of the community that were not sharing intimate, vulnerable, and meaningful human experience.”