Local Current Blog

Jo Kellen to explore the big questions in ‘Serious Glee,’ one of this year’s Cedar Commissions

Jo Kellen's 'Serious Glee' in dress rehearsal. (Photo by Tessa Loeffler, courtesy Jo Kellen)

“To be honest with you, it always feels like dumb luck. I don’t know why people respond to it. I’ve seen strangers passionately embrace each other and lift my 6’5” body off of the ground just because I presented myself to them as confidently uncool. What the f***?”

So says Jo Kellen about figuring out the right song to sing in order to get people to feel vulnerable. Kellen is one of the artists selected for this year’s Cedar Commissions. Their piece, Serious Glee, grapples with the idea of vulnerability and the “strange and spontaneous moments of connections” that can come from them.

Serious Glee is everything Kellen has been trying to include in their work for years, and also completely different from anything they’ve done before. You might best know Kellen as a member of local bands such as the Florists, Products, Prathloons, and Fight, but Serious Glee is Kellen letting themselves be as Kellen as possible.  Nothing is off the table — they’ve jumped into this hyper-aware project no holds barred and are ready to explore the big questions.

“I want to cultivate a space for an audience to remember their personal autonomy in a culture which so often prescribes behaviors and aesthetics and values. For the show, I wanted to specifically center these ideas on my personal journey through identity,” explains Kellen. They go on to point out that identity struggles are things everybody grapples with; not only the who-am-Is but also the question of “What business do I have expressing anything?” In a way, these questions make Serious Glee a particular exploration of a universal experience.

The big difference that sets Serious Glee apart from any of Kellen’s past projects is that this current group includes a puppeteer and a projection designer. Where performance intervention is a common occurrence at Florists gigs, Serious Glee is stepping it up. “I was a theater artist long before I ever played music,” notes Kellen. “The potential in complementing, or disrupting, songs with text, dance, visual art — whatever medium — is hugely interesting and meaningful for me.”

Kellen has assembled a team of artists to help bring their little universe to life inside the Cedar. Leah Nelson (puppeteer), Hattie Ball (projection designer), and Tessa Loeffler (photographer/videographer) are all working on the visual aspects of the performance with real-time projections that will warp and distort the images to “develop a wacky psyched-out universe that takes the show happening in front of you and transforms it into something else,” says Kellen of the visuals. “It looks amazing.”

The music of Serious Glee spans genres from rock and industrial to folk and jazz. On the music production team Kellen has chosen Toby Ramaswamy (Straya, Eric Mayson, Dancebums) on drums, electronics, and vocals; and Hilary James (We Are The Willows, Fiji-13, INSIDE VOICE) on cello, bass, and vocals to round out their backing band. Kellen says Ramaswamy and James are “as wonderful as they come. Totally virtuosic at their instruments and so unbelievably eager to lift my compositions up and make ‘em soar. They are so empathetic, such skilled listeners, so patient: I chose them for the band because they’re much more talented than I am. I may have written the music, but their suggestions for arrangements and our working dynamic made these songs what they are.”

The Cedar Commissions is in its eighth year. It’s a flagship program, from the Cedar Cultural Center, for emerging Twin Cities artists. Funded by the Jerome Foundation, artists receive funding and mentoring to create new music. Past years have featured famed local names such as Dessa, Aby Wolf, Adam Levy, and Maria Isa when they were coming up in the local music scene.

“The Cedar Commissions are an amazing resource for musicians to give wild ideas a shot. I could never convince any old venue to just fund me for a one-night gig with all these moving parts,” Kellen says. “I’ve desperately wanted to create a multimedia concert for years now, and the Cedar seemed like the perfect place to do it. They value risk and experimentation. They’re not focused on what’s going to make them the largest profit. They’re supported by a community of audiences that want to be challenged and entertained and invigorated by daring art. It’s an invaluable venue in the Twin Cities.”

Kellen goes on to say how this opportunity gave them the push as an artist to really challenge themselves, offering them a space to grow and create the work they wanted to see rather than what they thought people would buy or recognize. “They’ve offered me an incredible gift: funding to think and create and try to share myself with you all in a way I’ve never been allowed to before. What better offering for a young artist still learning what it means to be themselves?”

The biggest theme Kellen aims for people to take away from Serious Glee is to let go a realize that identity is fluid and will shift over time. It’s a cathartic dive into trying to understand why you are who you are. Kellen says that “it’s a show about what I’m thinking about all the time. I made it for me and I made it for you and I want to try to shrink the world down to that room on Feb. 2. I have no idea what will happen.” Maybe that’s just what makes Serious Glee so exciting, the uncertainty inherent in letting yourself be vulnerable with a bunch of strangers.

This year’s Cedar Commissions include works from five other musicians. Night one of performances will feature Brianna Lane, Antoine Martinneau, and Tarek Abdelqader; and night two will feature Kashimana and Yigitcan Eryaman alongside Kellen’s piece. (Tickets for both nights are available from the Cedar.)

Brianna Lane’s Awareness Month is a collection of songs that explores what it’s like to live with a chronic illness that is not seen by others. Lane will be accompanied by cello, electric guitar, trumpet, keys, synth, and vocals as she shines a light on what a month living with more than one chronic illness is like.

Antoine Martinneau’s hip-hop-inspired On Labor and Love is a reflection on what it means to balance chronic mental illness, the fear of poverty, and finding a sustainable way to make a living. Using turntables, live instrumentation, and spoken rhymes, Martinneau will tell his roller coaster of a story.

Tarek Abdelqader fuses Palestinian folk music and free improvisation jazz to explore his cultural heritage in Authenticity and Identity. Abdelqader’s piece mixes styles for new, cross-genre compositions.

Kashimana tells about the trials and tribulations of pregnancy and early motherhood in her piece Phantom Cries. Vocally driven, but backed with bass and percussion, Kashimana uses her pedestal to address misconceptions of pregnancy and increase awareness of the maternal and infant mortality rates of women of color in the United States.

Yigitcan Eryaman’s work explores the seasons of Minnesota from the perspective of a Turkish man. Eryaman grapples with the changes and adjustments that come from moving to Minnesota from Turkey five years ago, but also with the smaller things that come along the way; the things that made him happy, or sad, or confused, and how the weather always seemed to play a role in all these feelings.