Migrating long distances over the course of a career is nothing new for musicians from Minnesota. Musicians move away seeking the potential for larger audiences, greater acclaim, bigger paychecks, or simply new frontiers.
It’s rare, though, that people move anywhere without a backward glance, and that holds true for musicians. They don’t sever all ties when they leave Minnesota—friends, relatives, and history all stay behind, and changing locations changes the artists and the music they make.
According to Hilary Davis, who previously played in the Twin Cities group Bella Koshka and now lives in New York City, “you kind of have to move to the coast” if you want to move beyond a certain threshold of musical success.
“In New York an equally talented band can get so much further than they could in Minnesota,” she said.
Davis, who currently plays violin in the group Cold Blood Club, moved to New York city four years ago, after both Bella Koshka and her day job as a graphic designer ended.
Like Davis, Justin Ellenson, who grew up between Minnesota and North Dakota and now drums for Seattle group The Horde and the Harem, moved last October, intent upon furthering his music career.
“I’ve always been driven to the coast,” he said. “I was in talks with bands in Minneapolis, Portland, [and] L.A., but it was ultimately a band in Seattle that [pulled me in].”
Another Twin Cities group, The Lower 48, moved collectively to Portland soon after they finished high school.
Ben Braden, The Lower 48’s co-vocalist/guitarist/bassist, says moving helped the band focus.
“It feels like it allowed us to take the band more seriously,” Braden said. “It was like, ‘Let’s just go and we’ll have nothing else to do.’ It inspired us to work harder; we rehearse every day now.”
They have reason to rehearse every day: the Portland music scene, according to Braden, is a less forgiving than that of the Twin Cities. He says it took The Lower 48 two years to gain the kind of ground they’d achieved in seven or eight months of playing in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Davis had the same to say of New York’s music scene. “If you play a bad show,” she said, “you’re not going to play that club again.”
Moving can also affect the music being made, whether through a more competitive environment, or through a different set of geographical and cultural influences, or through other factors.
Possibly due in part to the way they threw themselves into living and working in an unfamiliar city, Braden observed that The Lower 48’s sound has toughened since they moved to Portland.
“We’ve written hundreds of songs in the last four years,” Braden said. “We became a rock-and-roll band when we moved out here.”
Although they’re proud of the success they’ve achieved since moving away, the musicians miss Minnesota’s tight-knit, supportive scene.
“I miss being able to go to a show and know I’ll have friends there,” said Davis. Still, she says she was pleased to discover that the Minnesota music community extends to New York; there are a number of musicians with Gopher State ties living in the Big Apple, and “when bands from Minnesota show up in New York, we all show up and support them.”
Midwesterners support their artists in material ways as well, says Braden. “People in the Midwest—whether it’s Minneapolis or Chicago, anywhere through Wisconsin—buy merch. It just flies off the shelf.”
Hanna Stevens, The Horde and the Harem’s keyboardist, grew up in Seattle but attended college in Minnesota, where she also played in the group Sunrise/Sunset. “There’s a sort of familial community element to Midwestern culture that’s really unique,” she says, “and I appreciate that even more now.”
Stevens feels that, although musicians are influenced by where they are geographically, listeners will ultimately make music their own no matter where it’s from.
“I think your experiences influence your music-making,” Stevens says. “And your experiences are really dictated by your location and lifestyle. [But] a lot of my experiences of songs or bands don’t really have anything to do with where they’re from. It’s more where I was when I was listening to them.”