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INTERVIEW: The Sweet Colleens

Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

We’ve been great! Thanks for asking and thanks for having us.

Can you talk to us more about your song “Christopher”?

Definitely.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

Yes, kind of a series of events from my (Jeremy, who wrote the song) life. Below is the short answer and the long answer. Take your pick!

Short answer: During a dark time in my life in the early 2000s, I was inspired and encouraged by watching Christopher Reeves overcome his disabilities and live what appeared to me to be a rich, meaningful life, notwithstanding the incredible difficulties he faced. He’s been a personal hero of mine ever since, and the song is a tribute to him.

Long Answer: My life as a new father in the early 2000s was going along just swimmingly until one night I noticed numbness in parts of my body and started experiencing near-constant dizziness, along with other odd symptoms like loss of physical coordination and my hands shaking. Eventually the newly formed Colleens had to cancel shows and take a break because I could no longer play the fiddle or guitar. After a series of medical tests, the doctors told me I had multiple sclerosis. The news was a punch to the gut. I learned that MS could progress in various ways, but there was a decent chance that my loss of coordination could progress quickly and leave me wheelchair-bound for the rest of my life. The toughest thing about it was thinking of all the physical activities I’d miss out on with my toddler son as he grew up—throwing the football, bike rides, all that good father-son stuff.

It was a pretty dark time in my life, but the silver lining was learning about how others facing MS or other similarly daunting disabilities had learned to find joy and meaning in life notwithstanding their illness. My list of heroes included the late MN senator Paul Wellstone and a goalie for the Minnesota Wild (we love our hockey up her in MN!), Josh Harding, both of whom had MS and found ways to live very successful lives. However, the person whose story really inspired me during those years was Christopher Reeves. I loved his movies and larger-than-life Superman persona when I was a kid, and, like the rest of the world, was heartbroken when this seemingly invincible man was paralyzed from his horse-riding accident. At my lowest point, I came across a magazine article on Christopher Reeves, which detailed how he had managed, from his wheelchair, to teach his son to ride a bike. I thought, if he—in a much worse situation than I was—can make the best of it and still be great father, then surely I can do the same with my little boy. And I did.

The happy coda to this story is that my MS turned out to be a “only” a serious neurological virus that eventually went away, and my health (and musical abilities) slowly but surely returned to normal. I am a lucky man, and I’ve always been grateful for what “Christopher” showed me about life–how it is worth living and cherishing, even in the darkest of times. The song is a tribute to him.

Any plans to release a video for the track?

Yes, in fact. We have a great two-dimensional, animation-based, super-hero themed video in the can made for us by an outstanding Twin Cities illustrator and animator, Christopher Levin.  We plan to release the video in January.

The single comes off your new album 10 Mona Lisas – what’s the story behind the title?

It is a lyric from one of the songs on the record—an acoustic swing number called “Do You Got a Smile in There for Me?”—that goes, “Here is my thesis, 10 Mona Lisas could not light a room like my girl.”  We liked the unusualness of the title, the artistic connotations, and the association with her famous smile (we are generally a pretty happy bunch).

How was the recording and writing process?

And our writing process has been, and in this case was, that I would bring a basically complete guitar-and-vocals demo to the band, and then we’d all work together on fine-tuning and arranging it, making the song much better.

The recording process was really fun, although somewhat protracted. We all have “day” jobs—two full-time musicians, a lawyer, an engineer, and a graphic designer (I know, sounds like the start of a bad joke)–and some of us have families, so we were not able to sequester ourselves away for a few weeks in a studio. Instead, we practiced up the tunes until we knew them really well and then spent two back-to-back long weekends working with the awesome Joe Mabbott at The Hideaway Studio in Northeast Minneapolis. We recorded as much as we possibly could live, all recording together. Then we took those tracks and on mostly weeknights over the next 3 or 4 months added vocals and other one-off parts and mixed the tracks at the (very nice) home studio of our bass player, Dave Bade. We knew the process would be a bit piecemeal, but our hope was that by anchoring the tunes with that initial mostly-live recording process in the big beautiful rooms of The Hideaway, the record would still feel pretty “live’ and organic. To our ears, we succeeded, and we are very happy with how the record turned out.

What role does Minneapolis play in your music?

A significant one! When we first started playing in the early 2000s, Minneapolis and St. Paul had several flourishing  Irish bars that booked live bands. We could play 3 to 4 nights a week to great crowds without ever leaving town, which allowed us to really cut our chops as a band. Plus, the bars and their patrons welcomed our original music alongside the usual fare of jigs, reels, trad tunes, and covers of bands like the Pogues (whom we love, btw).  In addition, many of our songs reference the Twin Cities in one way or another—the title track to our 2010 Kids CD, The Monkey Dance, is built around a Saturday night bike ride to “downtown Minneapolis”—and there are plenty of northern themes in our lyrics—the magic and desolation of the snow and cold, that sort of thing. And we have been inspired by several of the great Minneapolis Americana bands like the Jayhawks, whose songwriting style and Americana vibe has influenced our Celtic/folk sound. There’s also something about living in flyover country that is good for the creative process, too, I think. Maybe helps (or forces) you to take a unique musical path.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Life, relationships, faith, hope, imagination and a love of story-telling.  I think “Walks in the Room” is perhaps my favorite lyric on the record. It captures many of these elements—a simple love song and story, moving from the euphoria of falling in love as a young couple, to a different kind of love navigating one partner’s memory loss as an old couple.  Our musical style borrows heavily from some of the folk traditions we grew up with and love, including Irish/Celtic music, Cajun, American folk, and bluegrass. Some of my early influences as a songwriter were Canadian artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers, and Gord Downie (I originally hail from the Great White North).

Any plans to hit the road?

We manage to get out of town once or twice a year, mainly to play festivals. But for the most part we stay close to home, playing venues here in the Midwest. (See, day jobs and families, above.)  No plans to travel this winter, but we have some things in the work for summer 2019.

What else is happening next in The Sweet Colleens’ world?

We have our 20th—gulp—anniversary coming up in 2020 and are hatching some big plans. Stay tuned!

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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