Local Current Blog

‘The future is bright’: Duluth music insider Emma Deaner on making north country magic

Emma Deaner performs with Superior Siren at the Duluth Dylan Festival. (Photo by William Hurst, courtesy the artist)

Bringing music to Glensheen is just one of the many dreams Emma Deaner is living. There are plenty of sparks giving light to Duluth’s thriving music scene, but at just about every turn, this northwoods native is found offering fresh ideas, making new connections, and keeping the beat as drummer with Superior Siren.

I profiled Deaner as one of the Growler’s 25 Trailblazers of 2017. Here’s a fuller transcript of our conversation.

Let’s start with your origin story. Where are you from?

I was born in Duluth. Then shortly afterward, moved up the North Shore where I grew up in the woods up until college, when I came back to Duluth. Before I even started classes at the University of Minnesota — Duluth, I found a local independent radio station: KUMD, Duluth Public Radio. That really clicked for me. I found my people and found the method in the music that really speaks to my soul. I knew that I wanted to get involved with the station so I continued to pursue my academics.

I was involved in the first-ever street team that they had to promote the college radio programming, and then my sophomore year I went off to England and I studied there for a year. I went to concerts and traveled Europe and beyond. I was totally inspired and got back to Duluth, then continued my work at the station as a DJ. As other opportunities opened up I explored them and worked my way up to be their community outreach director. I got offered the job right after I graduated from UMD.

Oddly enough, when I was working with the station I also worked with Mark Gehring of Periscope Management, and of course his new record label with Dave Simonett. He was with the Minnesota Beatle Project at the time, looking for a venue to put up one of the concerts in culmination with the album release. We thought of Duluth. Glensheen came up as an option. As a representative of the station, I ventured to Gleensheen for a viewing of the venue space to see if it could be a potential concert venue.

The funding didn’t work out — but oddly enough, years later, I end up putting on Concerts on the Pier, working with Mark. It was really cool to see how our dreams somehow came to fruition in a way that we would never have expected. It’s been a really serendipitous journey that I’ve been on ever since, and it’s always revolved around music.

After I’d been at the station for a while, I put on a music festival called North Fest, which featured ten bands on seven stages all in one day. It was on April Fool’s Day. It was a grant-based project, and it was at the University, so we had all these pop-up stations. The director of Glensheen happened to be there and really dug it; perhaps saw what could be done at the mansion as well.

When an opportunity presented itself here at the estate, I gladly went for it to make some of those dreams of hosting a concert here come true. Sure enough, I got the gig. I’ve been here for about a year and a half now. I’ve produced a number of concerts like Concerts on the Pier, which is our summer concert series in July that features Minnesota music on a pier that extends from a boathouse — one of the only ones of its kind still standing on Lake Superior. The stage is on the water of Lake Superior, and I think it’s the coolest outdoor venue in Minnesota. We’ve been getting record attendance every show. We get more and more people that come up for it and check it out. That’s been really exciting.

We just launched Glensheen Unplugged, which is an intimate house-show concert in the depths of the mansion in the amusement room where they used to host formal functions. They have some old Victrolas and other cool audio stuff down there. That’s where we host these really intimate acoustic shows, with the artist literally unplugged. It’s just a small group of people. That’s an exciting time to feature Minnesota songwriters. Up and coming, and some well-established ones as well, in an alternative space. That’s what we’re cooking up here at the mansion.

From that, with my involvement at the radio station and then at Glensheen, I was also invited to be a part of the Minnesota Music Coalition and serve on their communication committee to spread the good word up here in the north country. That’s been enjoyable. Soon, in January, they have invited me to be on their board of directors as well. I’m excited to help bridge the gap between the metro and the north shore to provide more resources for musicians. It’s been really exciting!

Through that work, I have been contacted by a mover-and-shaker here in Duluth. I’ll keep their name anonymous at this time, but I’m working with them on a project with something at the NorShor Theatre. It’s really an exciting time here in Duluth to have the NorShor reopen come February as a new venue in Duluth.

So, the first time you visited Glensheen was actually when you were out of college?

No, it was actually before. It was while I was in college. I’d never gone on a tour, and it was great. Music has always been my north star in so many ways. It’s bizarre to think that one day I’d be putting on a concert there…I just didn’t know how, or why. But it happened. I think it was five years ago. Dreams become a reality. I’ll always remember escorting Haley from the gardener’s cottage to the pier right before her set. Right before she went on her Impossible Dream Tour. We were walking down the path and she’s like, “I always dreamed of working here.” Me too! We actualized some of our childhood dreams. It was a very cool moment that we shared there.

When did you start playing and making your own music?

It started a long time ago. As a child I was brought up around music. My father was a drummer and he taught himself guitar. My mother was always playing music for me. It’s always been a part of who I am and my life. I started taking piano lessons when I was young. I was classically trained in piano and then entered school and picked up sticks and enjoyed that a little bit more. It grew from there.

I hung up the hat, I went to the radio waves rather than creating my own music in college. I became, rather than the creator, the consumer. I went into the music biz. I found that to be really enjoyable. A friend of mine had a gig at a barn. Classic Minnesota story. It was a film festival called the Free Range Film Festival. It was in this old barn in the woods outside of Duluth. She needed some help so I hung out with her at her practice space, which now happens to be a warehouse that I live right behind. I sat behind what would soon become my starter kit and I joined in, and the rest is history.

I heard Laura Sellner — the leading lady of Superior Siren — here in Duluth a few years ago. I told her that if she ever needed a drummer to let me know. Sure enough, she did, and a few months later I joined her for a debut at Homegrown Music Festival in 2015. We were a trio at the time. We kept working together.

Soon enough, our good friend Charlie Parr invited us to play a residency at the Turf Club in January of 2016. We just knew that it was going to be a really great opportunity. The joint was packed. It was sold out, a cold night in St. Paul. Ryan O’Rourke, who is no longer with the Turf Club, dug our sound. He kept us in mind for future opportunities and so just a few weeks later he invited us to join DeVotchKa on the main stage at First Avenue. I used to play them on the radio waves in college. To be invited to open for them was a dream come true. To be on the stage that Prince built was also a very magical moment.

That really jumpstarted our career, so to speak. We realized it was something that we needed to pursue and work on. We were in the midst of bringing in a bassist at the time, and she really is the glue that keeps us together. We’re so thankful for her. Nyssa Krause is on bass, and she [hails] from Eau Claire. She grew up with Justin Vernon and her dad is a big player in the local community there.

We received a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council to record our record in Sacred Heart Recording Studio with producer Tom Fabjance. He’s working with Hippo Campus right now, he’s doing their tour sound as a front-of-house guy. He’s also toured for the Jayhawks, Smashing Pumpkins, he’s been at Lollapolooza, he’s toured with Trampled by Turtles extensively, Low, and a few other Duluthian friends. He’s a really great guy. He was behind the helm and he mixed it and then sent it off to Huntley Miller to master it. Huntley has worked on Haley’s latest project, Dave Simonett’s Dead Man Winter album, Bon Iver, the Sylvan Esso project that is Grammy-nominated. So he has a great ear.

We’re due to launch the album in the new year on Jan. 12 with our album release show on Jan. 13 at Sacred Heart with Charlie Parr and a really great up-and-coming trio called Tender Ness. They’re like a bossa nova band with a French twist, very elegant. On Feb. 24, we’ll have an album release at Icehouse with a few other Duluthian friends called Coyote, which is a nice three-piece folk band.

Are there any other musical moments during your time at Glensheen that stand out?

Probably a year ago now, a cold day in the fall, I walked over to the ticket house to meet dear Dave Simonett. I think it was the first time that we talked to one another. I think we knew of each other. It’s kind of this Duluth thing where you know of people, but you don’t really know them. We met in the ticket house and we went for a stroll with some members of his crew. I took them on a brief tour of the mansion and they took a few promo shots for his upcoming record Furnace. They ended up choosing some nice shots with Lake Superior in the background, which was great. I’ll always remember strolling around with him, talking about Festival Palomino.

We took a pit stop in the darkroom. It’s located on the third floor. In one of the boy’s rooms there’s this really cool darkroom. That was where one of the shots was taken. It was a great time to stroll around casually and showcase Minnesota craftsmanship and capture that within the darkroom. I wonder what the Congdons would think of that: having a rock star in your darkroom. It was great. There are so many moments like that. They really are reaffirming of why you do what you do.

Do you think that the success of music at Glensheen has been part of a new energy around the Duluth music scene?

I think that the estate itself has always represented current Duluth culture, whatever that may be. Or, it’s been [at the] cutting edge of creating that. We have an event here called the Duluth Winter Village, and it features a variety of local artisans and craftspeople that are current creators in our community. We have about 40 vendors that are here. It’s modeled after a European Christmas market. Totally enchanting. It’s cool because it features current Duluth culture, today.

When Glensheen was built, that’s also what it was as well, but it was infused with all their worldly collections and travels. It was always meant to be the people’s palace, and it’s been given back to the community to inspire people to see what else is out there. It’s really cool to be able to showcase Minnesota music at Minnesota’s mansion. The space features so many cool areas that you normally would never think to have a show or to showcase or bring attention to…like our old pier that’s falling into the lake. It’s pretty dilapidated. But when you put a band on it and bring a bunch of people around it, it’s actually a really cool way to reclaim old space. For us, it’s a great way to feature current Duluth culture.

What’s happening in our city? Not only with the music industry, medical industry, the biking and brews…there are so many different microcosms in Duluth. It’s really cool to have a venue to showcase that. I think with the music culture in general in Duluth, it’s always been there. It’s always been this underground culture that not a lot of people knew about or even still know about. I think now more than ever, people have discovered it. They’ve realized how eclectic it is, like the people that live here.

Tell me more about your involvement with the Minnesota Music Coalition and what some of your dreams are — both in that organization and more broadly for musical culture in Duluth and the north country.

I think in general, what I’ve realized as a musician myself here in Duluth is how supportive we are. It’s a really great community where people are looking out for one another. They want to support each other and learn from one another in order to strengthen one another to build each other up. I don’t think that it’s competitive, I think that it’s collaborative. With that said, I really see this as a great opportunity to bring the sense of community within the Duluth music scene to that larger spectrum. To the Twin Cities and vice versa. Then we can really strengthen our state.

Also, as a working musician, I believe that for artists in general, Minnesota is a great state to live in. We have so many perks. The fact that our album was almost fully funded by the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council is amazing. We’re so thankful for that. Without support from your community, you can’t pull off some of these dreams and unimaginable expeditions that you go on with these projects. What I envision or hope is that more people within rural or smaller communities, from Duluth to the North Shore to the Iron Range, take the risk of leaving their hometown and exploring what Minnesota has to offer and beyond.

That’s the only way that you’re going to learn more about yourself, your community, and how you create is if you get out of your comfort zone and out of the place that you grew up in and that’s familiar. Go out into the unknown and go on an exploration. I think that having the resources available to be able to do that is great and will ultimately continue to inspire a creative community. The future is bright.

Interview transcribed by Hanna Bubser