Q&A: Slow Dakota


Photos by Isabel Damberg.

When did you first get into music? Was there anything that sparked this interest?

I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, and I’m grateful for that. Everyone in my family loves music – my mom was a French Horn player, my aunt trained in flute, my dad used to sell guitars, and my grandpa was an opera lover. I grew up taking piano lessons with my sister; she quit piano, I kept going with it, but she got all the singing genes. All in all, we were very lucky; growing up in the suburbs of Indiana, my parents still cultured the shit out of us, with Björk, African music, prog rock, Bach, the Veggie Tales Christmas album (a classic)…

How did you come up with your name?

During a rather stressful, unhappy year in college, I started fantasizing about leaving my entire life behind and moving to rural North Dakota to live alone, bag groceries, and lead a sort of monastic, solitary life. In the end (spoiler alert), I did not follow through with that.

How would you describe your sound in one word to someone who's never listened to you before?


Your music style seems to very different than that seen in popular culture. Do you view this as a challenge at all?

To be honest, most of the time it is crushingly discouraging. When people (or even close friends) find out that I write music, I’m often hesitant to talk about it; I have it in my mind that only 0.0025 % of the population would connect with my music. I automatically expect people to be baffled by it. If I’m with friends, and someone pulls it up on Spotify, I get visibly anxious and uncomfortable (Am I doing a good job selling it?). But in my heart of hearts, I think it’s really, really, really good music. In my heart of hearts, I’m deeply proud of it, and I think in 25 or 50 years, it will catch on with a strong handful of people who see the world as I do.

So you're from Indiana! Do you think this and your background has influenced your sound at all?

In many ways, “The Ascension of Slow Dakota” is a love letter to the Midwest – the cornfields at dusk, the everyday kindness, the sincerity, the values, the idiosyncrasies of the farmers – the more rural you go, the more you exit the modern world, and kind of return to a land outside of time; trends don’t really exist, and if you squint, you can see Amish boys riding horses on the backroads, going to get an ice cream cone before the store closes. I plan to move back one day. 

 Speaking of influences, are there any musicians that you really look up to?

So, so many! Joanna Newsom and Regina Spektor are lyrical masters. In fact, “The Ascension” gets its name from Regina’s little ballad, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”… For versatility of style, there’s Peter Gabriel and Arthur Russell. I was lucky enough to go to school with Robin Pecknold; he’s as thoughtful and wise as you’d expect, and more humble than you can imagine. I’ve been on a recent Rage Against the Machine kick (I’m only 25 years late); Tom Morello and Zach de la Rocha were scholars in ratty shirts. Jeff Mangum’s lyrics (in Neutral Milk Hotel) are quite sacred to me. I dedicated a song to the Greek synth composer, Vangelis, on the new album; he writes the most bombastic, cinematic textures – without a drop of irony. Lana del Rey and Rick Ross are masters of persona; both have many selves, and both are way smarter than we think. Weyes Blood put out a great album this year, and Sufjan remains the pride of the Midwest. 

Do you have a songwriting process at all?

I’m interested in bleeding together poetry and music. Which is ironic, because my songwriting process separates them completely. For each song, I first develop a melody, usually at the piano. Then I step away and fill in the melody with lyrics. The melody is often intuitive, but filling in the lyrics can take a much longer time. Thus forms the skeleton of each song – the last step is adding instruments. Work in a fever dream until 4 am, convinced you’ve just written your magnum opus. Wake up the next day, listen to it with fresh ears, and realize probably not. Repeat.

Any upcoming projects you can tell us about? 

Over the summer, I bought some watercolors and illustrated each of the 19 songs on the new album. I’ve compiled them into a book – alongside the lyrics – and I’ve looked into publishing them as a small chapbook, or at least a companion to the CD’s. In the meantime, I’ve been working with the filmmaker, Brad Bores, who keeps churning out amazing lyric videos for the spoken word tracks.