Song Writing

Musikanto

by Maggie Grimason

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Mike Musikanto, who performs simply as Musikanto, hails from the north side of Chicago. From this quintessential and incommensurable, yet landlocked Midwestern city he has succeeded in crafting a diverse album built for travel, composing and revising many tracks from behind the wheel of his car on the drive between his hometown and Milwaukee, where the album was recorded.

Formerly part of a five-piece band called Sleeper Car, Mike's second solo effort is Sky of Dresses. It's where Musikanto explores the contours of personal relationships from the rollicking first single "Every Which Way" to the sorrowful harmonica laden "Ballad of Two Vultures" and the irrepressible title track. What the tracks share is a pervasive sentimentality and an endearing sense of magic in everyday interactions. Armed with only a guitar, harmonica and expressive vocals brimming with bluesy impressions, Musikanto has succeeded in striking in the listener a sense of appreciation of the sweet sadness of a love affair.
Maggie Grimmason (Songfacts): I read that Sky of Dresses was recorded in Milwaukee despite the fact that you make your home in Chicago. A few of the tracks here seem to be about the effects of geographical distance and travel- how did the long drive back and forth between the two influence the sound and creation of this album?

Musikanto: I think the strongest influence was the drive itself. I would spin the most recent mixes over and over before getting back to the studio to make edits. My car was my main listening source so the album in a sense was made for travel.

Songfacts: As a fellow midwesterner (hailing from a short train ride away in South Bend, Indiana) I was surprised to hear that you are from Chicago. Of course there are quintessentially Chicago elements here - like the blues - but how else has the city helped you to develop your folksy sound? Were there any unique challenges to developing this particular genre of music in Chicago?

Musikanto: I think that although Chicago is a large city, it's embodied with all types of midwesterners. Most of my closest friends are from Michigan and Indiana and I've always considered myself more of a midwesterner then a Chicagoan. Chicago is also a very unpretentious city and really embraces the diversity of music. If you want to find a group of metal shoe gaze polka players you will find it. I think the acceptance of the city has helped me the most in developing my sound.

Songfacts: Can you describe your early years as a musician in the Windy City? How and when did you start playing and what inspired your formative years?

Musikanto: My first performances were at an open mic at a Northwest side bar called the Abbey Pub. I was only 18 so I had a friend make me a fake id so I could get in. I think all of the amazing people I met there were a great influence on me. Nobody really played original music but everyone had so much heart and really taught me the love of performance. When I was 22 I found the closest thing to my generation's Cafe Wha, a bar called Lilly's in Lincoln Park. Here is where I met some of closest friends and some of the best songwriters in Chicago. It was like fate how we all met there.

Songfacts: How did the process of writing and recording Sky of Dresses differ from that of your first album? Were the objectives different this time around?

Musikanto: I would say that the objectives were almost the opposite. "Ghost Pain" was recorded at a large studio with a ton of amazing gear and great engineers. Time was limited and we approached everything with urgency. "Sky of Dresses" was recorded more casually and with less time pressure. We used the gear that the producer owned and made what we had work. We took our time to have fun and experiment with different sounds and ideas. We used instruments more for layers and soundscape and not so much for guitar or piano solos.

Songfacts: The lyrics in many of these tunes are fraught with tenderness, sadness, contemplation. Please tell us where the words come from.

Musikanto: Songwriting is like therapy for me and I like to convey as much personal truth as possible. I think of songs as confessions with melody.

Songfacts: Lines like "simple as the time of day can tear us apart" (from the title track) are so understated yet cutting - how would you describe your writing style?

Musikanto: I don't think that I have one consistent style that I use. I try to avoid formula or intention as much as possible in my writing. Some songs truly conceive themselves and require very little from me. Other songs need more nurturing and a lot of editing to get the right vibe. Ultimately though I'm looking to convey raw emotion with some decoration.  

Songfacts: Who are your literary influences, and what are some examples of where we can hear them in your songs?

Musikanto: On the verge of sounding unsophisticated I haven't been reading much lately.

Songfacts: As far as your voice and musical performance, who has influenced you?

Musikanto: I have never been interested in sounding like anyone else. I don't make an effort to manipulate my voice or anything, I just sing how I sing. When I listen to Sleeper Car records I can really hear myself trying to get a lot of twang in my voice. My first influences were Gillian Welch, Whiskeytown etc., so thats probably where a lot of that came from. Most of the tunes on Sky of Dresses have pretty dry vocals and I like it like that. There is nothing to hide behind that way.

Songfacts: Writers struggle to describe your musical style and have compared you to Ryan Adams and even Bob Dylan. How do you describe the music you make?

Musikanto: Although I appreciate being in the company of those two, I think they are easy comparisons. I truly enjoy all types of music and am influenced by so much in the world. I think if i tried to write a Pavement song people would still say it sounds like Bob Dylan or whoever. Must be the midwest nasal thing.

Songfacts: What are some of the tracks that stand out for you on Sky of Dresses, and why?

Musikanto: One goal in making this record was to have no filler songs. Most of the songs I had performed several times before recording so I knew they were built to last. All of the songs on Sky of Dresses still resonate with me and I love to listen to them equally. I do like playing "Every Which Way" a great deal though because there are little mysteries in it that I'm still figuring out.

Songfacts: I really enjoy the narrative and melody of "Sky of Dresses" - can you describe for us its significance, why you chose it as the title track and a bit about the story behind it?

Musikanto: The song is essentially an entire relationship reduced to 4 minutes. I was laying in my girlfriend's apartment and saw her dresses tacked to the wall. After that I knew I had my title and the song followed immediately after. I started thinking about how much all of these songs are about relationships. The term sky of dresses seemed all encompassing for the album title.

Songfacts: Do you think you will ever play within a group dynamic as you did in the band Sleeper Car? How does the creative process change when you work solo?

Musikanto: Right now I'm really focused on touring and being able to play as many dates as possible. Playing solo affords me the opportunity to do that. I do however, have an amazing Chicago band that plays my local shows with me. The group is mostly a mix of Sleeper Car members and producers of Sky of Dresses. I think I am a collaborator by nature and I enjoy other people's footprints on my songs.

Songfacts: Please describe your songwriting process.

Musikanto: no process, just acceptance.

This interview took place August 3, 2011
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Comments: 1

  • Bonnie from South BendVery interestig interview. i will look for his music. Thanks for writing.
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