Winona native Jake Ilika.
Photo by Jon Swanson.
Photo by Majestic Photography.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Sometimes the best things aren’t planned. Since he launched a series of singer-songwriter performances in Winona last November, Jake Ilika had a template for the shows. The Winona native would open up with some of his own tunes, and then a lineup of starring acts would take a turn singing their own songs solo. But that changed this August, when Minneapolis songster Lydia Liza insisted that she, Ilika, and musician Matt Latterell spend the entire night playing together, all three of them figuring out what to add to each other’s songs.
“Lydia was pretty adamant — ‘Let’s just do it,’” Ilika recalled. “We’d all do a song or two of our own, and some of us would sing some harmonies on that or totally improvise. Then we played a second set where we just totally jammed on covers,” he explained. “No run through or anything — it was just throw-caution-to-the-wind, and it was super fun.”
Since then, Ilika has made impromptu collaborations part of the format for the Songwriter Showcase series, in addition to its original draw: evening shows that start before early risers’ bedtimes and focus less on rocking out and more on artists’ lyricism and musical creativity. After some of his sets, Ilika said, “I got feedback that they can actually hear what I’m saying. [People say,] ‘Man, I’ve been listening to that song for five years, and this is the first time I actually heard it.’”
The once-a-month series has featured lots of Midwestern musicians who perform more raucous music with full bands, and the lineup for tomorrow’s one-year anniversary show is no different. Gabriel Douglas tours with the appropriately named 4onthefloor — a four-piece band that pounds four kick drums to the beat of driving rock songs — but his solo material is more laid back and wide ranging, including a series of kids’ albums.
Ilika has been a fan of Minnesota jam band The Big Wu for a long time, and tomorrow he’ll get to play a show with frontman Chris Castino. “It’s crazy to see him live versus playing with the band. It’s a monumental shift,” Ilika said. In an email, Castino expressed some satisfaction that his songwriting for The Big Wu has stood up to the test of time. “People still enjoy hearing these songs, some of which are 20 years old. It’s a great feeling to know that the songs I’ve written have held up over time, as has the band itself,” he wrote. “However, I will say that writing for The Big Wu is a lot more work. The guys in the band will, subtly or not so subtly, pass on songs that I’ve written if they don’t hear it as a Big Wu song,” Castino continued. “Sometimes that can sting because it might be a song that I really like and am proud of. So I’ve learned over the years that when it comes to writing for The Big Wu, I’ll cater to our strengths and partialities.” There is good and bad with that, but in any case, Castino has a lot of songs in him that do not fit the band. In the spring, he is releasing his first solo record.
In one song from his solo work, Castino’s playing channels Simon and Garfunkel, and he takes on a classic touring musician’s theme: the hard life on the road. “Pictures and letters from you / never did serve but to make me feel blue,” he sings on the track “Leore.”
Teri Quinn, a clawhammer banjo player from Kansas City, will also play tomorrow. According to Ilika, she has never been to Minnesota before, and like Castino and Douglas, she plays pretty different music when she’s with a band, whether playing clarinet to indie rock grooves or getting spooky with her “nightmaracana” duo, Abandoned Bells. Her solo work draws on real, old-time folk music. On the narrative song “Forever Hold Your Peace,” Quinn walks listeners through the tale of a friend’s unhealthy relationship and ends each verse with a variation of “If I had known then what I know now / I would have fought harder” or “I would have spoken up.”
“I listened to her music for five seconds, and I thought, ‘Yep, I want to work with her,’” Ilika said, adding, “I write stuff and think I’m really proud of it and it’s really going to connect with people, and then I listen to other folks and every song breaks your heart.”
Tomorrow’s show marks the Songwriter Showcase’s one-year anniversary, and Ilika hopes to keep it going. “The goal was to really give a different listening experience than what’s normal on the weekends … It’s really nice to go into that bar and sit down and have candles lit, people sitting down and drinking wine and paying attention. I know people are paying attention when they’re rocking out to 4onthefloor, but it’s a different kind of listening experience,” he said.
The 21-plus show starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 30, at Ed’s (No Name) Bar, at 252 East Third Street, in Winona. Admission is $5 at the door or two-for-one for college students with a student I.D.