Local Current Blog

Salted almonds and new fans: Behind the scenes as Chris Koza tours with Ingrid Michaelson

Chris Koza (center) on stage with Ingrid Michaelson in Madison. Photos by Ben Bartenstein for MPR.

On November 5, Chris Koza woke up in Niagara Falls with a sore throat. Koza couldn’t imagine worse timing than the morning of his first show on Ingrid Michaelson’s Lights Out: Stripped Tour.

“I can’t talk at all,” he whispered. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

But with the help of a cold kit that includes organic ginger and throat coat teas, cough drops, ibuprofen, chloraseptic, and a PSI (personal steam inhaler) that he straps over his face, Koza overcame his ailment.

“I didn’t want to get there and have a ‘I can’t do anything. Sorry guys,’” Koza told me before his November 7 show in Madison, Wisconsin. “If I can’t do the first show, why don’t they just get someone else? So I gotta make it good, I gotta be professional, I gotta show up on time.”

Koza’s set includes more Twin Cities flavor as he’s joined by guitarist DJ House of the Farewell Circuit. Together, the duo pack an entertaining acoustic punch. In Madison, they received a big cheer upon announcing they were from Minneapolis, and while one audience member shouted, “You’re not Ingrid” at the beginning of the show, the crowd would remember them by the night’s end.

It all started with a tweet last spring. Michaelson shared some of the lyrics from “The Wolves and the Ravens,” the song by Koza’s band Rogue Valley that’s on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack. (Rogue Valley will be playing at Icehouse on New Year’s Eve.)

Koza says that he didn’t use Twitter much at the time, but his manager got in touch with hers. Michaelson was booked to perform in Minneapolis in July, so she passed along her phone number and told Koza to reach out to her then.

On the day of Michaelson’s Minneapolis visit, she and Koza exchanged messages, but as they attempted to arrange a meeting, Koza’s phone died. “I had to use a friend’s phone to text her, but then instead of texting her, I was texting her friend,” Koza said with a laugh.

They eventually met up at Eli’s on Hennepin along with Michael Franti and a few of Michaelson’s bandmates. At the end of the night, Michaelson mentioned a potential opening-slot opportunity later in the year. “I got really excited,” Koza said. “But for a couple months after that, I didn’t really know what was going to happen.”

In the summer, he got the call and accepted. With the release of his new solo album In Real Time, Koza thought the tour would provide a chance to emphasize his new work. “I feel like I can express myself a bit differently,” he said. (Hear Koza perform songs from the album in a recent visit to the Current’s studios.)

While Michaelson drives through the night on their tour bus, Koza and House sleep at cheap hotels and drive by day. They try to get their exercise when they can, but Koza acknowledged that some hotel workout centers seem to neglect their equipment. “Sometimes they look more like a torture device than fitness equipment,” he said.

Almonds remain one of the duo’s few constants on the road. Koza requests three ounces of lightly salted almonds on his hospitality rider, along with beverages, a vegetable tray, and turkey sandwiches. While the quantity of nuts varies, it’s always there. “My favorite was the guy in Niagara. He’s like, ‘You know they don’t sell three ounces of almonds, they only come in six ounces and 12 ounces,’” House said. “He was a little flustered.”

“I’m surprised how comforting it is,” Koza said.

Before the show in Madison, Koza chatted with Michaelson’s keyboardist Saul Simon MacWilliams. They laughed about their previous experiences in Madison. MacWilliams recalled getting stranded in Madison during New Years once because of bad weather. “It’s a fabulous little city,” he said. “Not just a college town.”

On stage, Koza and House not only open the show, but perform alongside Michaelson and her tourmates for several songs. Midway through Michaelson’s set, Koza returned to the stage for “You and I.”

At one point, Michaelson threw a paper airplane into the crowd, and before singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she jokingly blinded audience members with the reflection off her ukulele. “It feels like it’s in her living room,” Koza said. “There’s so many fans with that same energy, which makes it feel like a family thing.”

In the grand finale “Afterlife,” Koza and House joined Michaelson’s band and 22 adoring fans on stage. Michaelson passed off the mic to several fans on stage, while college girls belted the song’s upper chorus alongside past-retirement age men, many of whom left their seats to storm to the front of the concert hall. Mid-song, a fan whispered in Koza’s ear: “I liked your set and bought your CD.”

“I felt like the show went well,” Koza said. “I want to continue creating opportunities for myself. I want to play any show that seems meaningful.”

Benjamin Bartenstein is a student at Macalester College.