I Love Duluth… and Its Musical Humans!

This year the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival committee asked me to curate the annual Homegrown Mix Tape, which made me super excited for two reasons. First of all, I am really proud of my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota (a beautiful little city situated right at the tip of Lake Superior) and its wonderful music community… Any chance I get to brag about the awesome music in Duluth is a chance I take! I was excited to create this playlist of music I love from my hometown, and leave my little mark on Homegrown history.


You see, every year thousands of Duluthians pause their normally-scheduled programming for a full week at the beginning of May to partake in Homegrown Music Festival… It not only marks the beginning of Spring (yes, Duluth is that cold), but it is a high point in the year for many. What started in 1999 with five acts has matured in its 20th year to an eight-day community-wide local music, arts and cultural extravaganza. Approximately 200 local bands participate each year. It’s like a mini SXSW in that venues all over town are used for the events BUT the coolest part is that all the artists are required to have a personal connection to Duluth. So the only national acts playing in Homegrown are ones that started in Duluth – they don’t fly in headliners.

The other reason I was excited to make this mixtape is that I am 100% obsessed with mixtapes. I pretty much majored in this during college (J/K, but I really did spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting my playlists). So I took this Homegrown Mixtape task seriously.  I tried to pick the songs that really, truly reflect all the reasons I love this music community. And then I had to order the songs correctly, which is nearly as important as the songs themselves! I tried hard to follow the rules, as laid out in High Fidelity:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch… oh, there are loads of rules.

— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (1995), pp. 88-89

So below is the product of my musical musings. This mixtape is like a 16-song ride through my brain – it won’t be for everyone, but it just might be for you!

FULL DISCLOSURE : Everyone on this list I consider to be friends, because the friendships I’ve made through music are some of the main reasons I love playing here… So I can’t really separate the two. If you want a SUPER wide view of the Duluth music scene, you should listen to all the previous mixtapes from Homegrown Festivals. Everyone’s got their own unique takes on the music of this town… That’s part of the beauty of this mixtape tradition. Or here’s an even better idea: GO TO HOMEGROWN! It’s so fun, you won’t regret it.

Also, please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive playlist! There is SO. MUCH. GOOD. MUSIC. IN. DULUTH. There were tons of songs by other artists that I wanted to include but ultimately I cut because I wanted the playlist to flow nicely and I didn’t want it to get too long. But definitely, do some digging online (or research in person at Homegrown this May!) and you’ll find a treasure trove of great music from Northern Minnesota… It’s a pretty amazing place! With that, here’s the playlist, and a few thoughts on the tracklist below:

  1. 60 Words for WaterJerree Small: This tune’s honest lyrics & catchy melody instantly captured my heart… I listened to this song on repeat for an entire afternoon the first time I heard it.  Plus I just love Jerree Small a lot and she’s an amazing songwriter. I thought it was a fun way to start off the album – it’s so well-crafted that it may just get stuck in your head!
  2. 1922 BluesCharlie Parr: I first realized Duluth had a special music thing going on during the packed midweek gigs Charlie Parr played at The Brewhouse circa 2006. This song was my favorite one of his at that time & the chance of me dancing to it is still 100%.
  3. Bulletproof VestIngeborg Von Agassiz: I’ve only become familiar with Ingeborg von Agassiz in the past year, and wow, she’s awesome! Her use of looping warms my geeky heart. I love this one especially… The organ plus the snaps and the drums are all so good! Number of times that my husband & I sang her lyrics, “Goin’ South, South for the winter” as we toured down in Florida this February: 1,000,000. In addition to the catchy chorus, I feel like there’s something quite truth-y going on in the verses. It’s a great song!
  4. Fool’s Gold Emily Haavik & the 35’s: I think Emily is a great songwriter and whenever our bands can play a show together I always seize the day. The storytelling in this tune is really vivid and interesting & the band’s arrangement is stellar. Plus her voice is lovely.
  5. Swamp CreatureSuperior Siren: The first time I heard this song I thought for sure I’d heard it before in a movie soundtrack!  Well, as far as I know it’s not in any sea monster movies (yet), but I will never forget it. I love Laura’s unique voice and articulation, and this pared-down arrangement showcases it very well. I’m also a fan of the imagery in this song.
  6. Secret OneAl Church & State: One of my favorite Al Church tunes is “The Clock” because it makes me grin from ear to ear, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t fit it in with these songs (see the Rules of the Mix Tape above). Plus I have long loved this throwback tune, so I decided to include this song as my Church pick. Al’s harmonies are awesome, and I think it’s one of his more vulnerable and heart-wrenching numbers.
  7. When I Go DeafLow: When I first met Alan Sparhawk all I’d heard was his Christmas album. Obviously I had to remedy that ASAP when we formed a band, so I started listening to LOW at work every day. This is the first song that got me in the feels as I sat at my desk at the Boys & Girls Club… Its poignant lyrics resonated with me because I’d just been diagnosed with likely progressive hearing loss (due to my disability affecting the tiny bones in my ears). Plus the use of dynamics to make the lyrical point in a sonic way gets me every time. Chances of me crying when they play this at a live show: 100%.
  8. HoBoCharlie Parr: I don’t know what Charlie was thinking about when he wrote this song, but to me it reads of always being on the road and losing touch with your home. Haha, maybe I’m projecting based on my own experiences, but isn’t that what music’s all about? Anyway, Charlie Parr is one of my very favorite artists because he can write upbeat, foot-stomping barn-burners and then turn around & hand you this – a plaintive, earnest tune that will break your heart. I had to include two songs by Charlie because both facets of his musical expression have shaped me deeply as a musician & Duluthian.
  9. If This Was LoveCoyote: The first time I heard this song at a live show, I lost it. I was pretty much man-sobbing at Sacred Heart and it took me a while to recover. As I’ve written about before, sexuality & disability is something I struggled with as a teenager & a young adult. There were a lot of guys who insisted we were “just friends” even though the chemistry between us was palpable. But in our society there’s a lot of fear around dating someone who is visibly disabled. So I grew up thinking I might ever only know love like this, in the form of longing. Well, I have no idea how Jerrree Small captured these sentiments so perfectly in this beautiful Coyote song, but this one is a tear-jerker for sure.
  10. My Dearest DearKyle Ollah: I simply can’t speak highly enough of Kyle Ollah. The way he revives old tunes just feels right, his arrangements are always beautiful and I adore his voice.  I am very glad there are people like him keeping old music from becoming irrelevant. This delicate arrangement of a traditional English folk song is just lovely.
  11. Destroyer – Dead Man Winter: Call me Emo, but I love upbeat songs about upsetting subjects. Divorce, depression, feelings of desperation all backed by a strong drum beat, organ and sweet guitar riffs… It’s like Summer of ’69 but a thousand times better! This is probably one of my favorite songs by Dave Simonett – but I do hope he got the help he needed so he doesn’t feel this crappy every day. Still, he sure wrote a great tune about it.
  12. GhostThe Fontanelles: During our wedding reception in 2013, I had Walt Dizzo DJ in between bands and he asked if I’d like any specific songs played and I said, “Yes! Please play ‘I’m a Boat’ by The Fontanelles!” Well, turns out I’d been singing it wrong for years, but ‘I’m a GHOST’ is one of my favorite songs by Dave Mehling. Something meditative in the repetition, perhaps? I actually can’t pinpoint why, but I love this one so very much.
  13. Point of DisgustLow: You can’t have LOW without Mimi Parker, so I really wanted to include a tune of theirs with her beautiful voice. It’s amazing how they crafted a song about the heavy concepts of losing your way, falling apart and redemption with such a delicate, simple arrangement… I suppose that’s one of the things that makes them great artists.
  14. GorgeousMary Bue: Mary Bue was one of the first artists I started following when I moved back to Duluth to finish college. Her stirring piano ballads, sensitive lyrics and strong feminine energy were refreshing in a music scene where these weren’t yet the norm. She was an unwitting role model for me all those years ago, even before I started performing. Plus the lyrics of this particular song, with its captivating chord changes & well-placed harmonies, rings true to me: “Your heart is a token / a treasure to be won.”
  15. Make Up My MindDan Dresser: I’ve been lucky to play with Dan Dresser on and off for a while… he’s got a lot of great songs so it was hard to just choose one for this tape. Ultimately I went with this number from his solo album because I love the use of the choir at the end. We’ve actually performed this one live at a few shows with Sing! A Women’s Chorus & the beauty of many voices mingling on this hopeful tune gives me goosebumps.
  16. Zenith CityWoodblind: I got to know Jason Wussow back in 2006 and have been listening to his music (and hanging around with his coffee shop crew) ever since. His most recent project, Woodblind, with upright bassist Veikko Lepisto is so much fun. This song is the one I always request at their live shows… I love the details he includes of his own touring adventures – and the truth of the refrain, “Everywhere I go, I always want to be / in my Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea.” Amen, Jason! Duluth is indeed the perfect home base.

Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.